As Sukkot arrived in Flatbush Wednesday, the many ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood were completing their temporary dwellings and preparing to welcome their physical –- and metaphysical — guests, in the best festival tradition.
But during the week-long holiday, another guest was set to appear in the neighborhood: A multi-million dollar Messianic Jewish center will open its doors to target members of the religious community.
The Chosen People Ministries has been putting the final touches on a new seminary in the heart of this highly Jewish section of Brooklyn. The price tag for the building, the former Yablokoff Kingsway Memorial Chapel at 1978 Coney Island Avenue, was $2.1 million, and some additional $900,000 has been spent on renovating it.
The prominent missionary organization, which describes itself as “Messianic Jewish,” has long operated in what might initially seem to be hostile environments. Encouraging Jews to accept the Gospel, the organization has opened summer camps in Israel and a guest house targeting young Israeli backpackers in South America. According to anti-missionary activists, members of the ministry sometimes even don traditional Jewish garb like yarmulkes and ritual fringes before going out on recruiting missions.
Neighborhood anti-missionary activists have called in nationally prominent experts to figure out how to confront the Chosen People Ministries’ flagship Brooklyn Messianic Center and the Charles Feinberg Center for Messianic Jewish Studies in their neighborhood.
Ruth Guggenheim, the director of the Baltimore-based Jews for Judaism, warns that many members of the religious community are overconfident in their ability to withstand missionary efforts.
‘They will make inroads because they are offering free services to the community and unconditional love’
“They will make inroads because they are offering free services to the community and unconditional love,” Guggenheim said. “They’ve been ramping up for this for over 20 years, waiting until they have a strong enough group of people with enough knowledge about the Orthodox community. They will come in with men in white shirts and tzitzis and the women will be dressed modestly, and they know it will be a challenge and that they are up to the challenge.”
Some community members have worked over the past three years to try to stymie efforts to open the center by trying to use city ordinance violations as a roadblock to the center’s opening. Now, activists have no remaining legal recourse.
The organization is no stranger to Brooklyn. In 1894, its forebear, the American Board of Missions to the Jews, was founded in Brooklyn in the midst of the largest wave of Jewish immigration ever experienced in the United States.
For years, members of the small hassidic synagogue Kahal Ohev Tzedek have prayed next to a smaller center Chosen People Ministries in the same neighborhood. That building, which has signs clearly identifying it as a Messianic Jewish center, targets the less-religious elderly Russian-born Jews who also live in the area.
‘There are hundreds of missionaries everywhere’
“Missionaries are nothing new. Every year they get a bit more intense, and this year they have gotten way more intense. There are hundreds of missionaries everywhere,” says Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, director of the Russian American Jewish Experience organization which also operates in the neighborhood.
“What’s more alarming is that they are beginning to make inroads. For most people, missionaries weren’t such a problem because they were antagonistic to them, but now there are more and more young people getting involved,” said Tokarsky.
Tokarsky is in the camp of those who believe that the threat to the ultra-Orthodox community is minimal – at least compared to the community in which he works. “In reality, missionaries are not much of a threat to people with Jewish education,” he explained. “But Russian Jews are largely completely devoid of Jewish identity, they are susceptible to the missionaries and in the long term the missionaries will win. The nuanced answer is that when it comes to Russian Jews, the Christians who care way more and are investing way more will succeed.”
Chosen People Ministries – like the better-known Jews for Jesus – is one of a number of groups that argue that it is possible to both be a practicing Jew and believe in the divinity of Jesus. Critics say that it is more accurate to describe such groups as “Hebrew Christians” because they believe that Jesus is not simply a rabbi, but also part of the Godhead.
A majority of the organization’s leadership were born Jews, and their synagogues tend to resemble those of mainstream Judaism. Adherents frequently use the Hebrew term “rabbeinu” (our teacher) to refer to Jesus. But while the organization has engaged in social media and more traditional “shoe-leather” evangelizing campaigns targeting secular and non-Orthodox Jews, the Brooklyn center aims at recruiting the ultra-Orthodox discontented.
‘With great thanks to God, we can report that there are indeed some believers in Jesus among the Satmar community’
The jump, the organization argues, from ultra-Orthodoxy to Hebrew Christianity is not as great as it might seem.
“The Lord is already working in the two largest Hassidic communities in Brooklyn: the Chabad-Lubavich and Satmar communities,” the organization wrote earlier this year in an undated post on its website.
In the post, it claimed that “with great thanks to God, we can report that there are indeed some believers in Jesus among the Satmar community, although most of them continue to live in the community as ‘underground’ believers.”
Chabad members, it argues, are already primed for evangelizing due to the belief among some adherents that the deceased Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the messiah.
“Their willingness to understand Isaiah 53 as referring to an individual Messiah opens the door to speak about how Jesus is the fulfillment of that prophecy,” it noted. “Indeed, Jesus already rose from the dead two thousand years ago, while Schneerson remains in his grave to this day. Over the last several years, many of our staff members have shared Isaiah 53 with Chabad Jewish people, and have had some very fruitful discussions.”
Chosen People Ministries expressed hope that the new complex will allow it to “have an even stronger ministry presence in the heart of Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn.”
‘Imagine with us that one day we could fill the sanctuary of the new Brooklyn Messianic Center with new and growing believers in Yeshua from the Hassidic community!’
“Imagine with us that one day we could fill the sanctuary of the new Brooklyn Messianic Center with new and growing believers in Yeshua from the Hassidic community! We believe that our Lord is mighty and can do all things, and we know that He has sovereign plans for our presence in that neighborhood,” the organization declared on its website. “The sooner we finish, the sooner we can use the facility for ministry to reach even the ‘unreachable’ of the Hassidic Jewish community.”
Guggenheim believes that the organization will first attempt to draw out discontented members of the ultra-Orthodox community, particularly members of families in crisis. The older generation, she says, “were more resilient.” Now, Guggenheim emphasizes, divorce rates and substance abuse make people more likely to embrace people – even those outside of the community – offering the missionaries’ brand of acceptance and love.
The crisis, she warns, may also be spiritual.
“There are many young people in the community who are not well prepared – they can recite pages of Talmud, but cannot speak about their personal connection to God.” In contrast, ministry recruiters can talk to potential converts about divine love and offer a close personal relationship with their Creator.
Chosen People Ministries, Guggenheim argues, is not so much “selling theology and ideology – they’re selling love.” Much of the local community, she says, is in denial that such organizations can be a threat to educated Jews.
Chosen People Ministries will officially dedicate the new building during Sukkot, amid days of festivities. It is planning – and has already engaged in – outreach efforts such as Jewish film festivals and an art show “to help draw the local community to the Center.”
The building will house facilities for substance-abuse counseling, teaching English as a second language, a library for Messianic research and a 150-seat sanctuary.
Dr. Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries, wrote an open letter to contributors earlier this summer in which he announced that in addition to dedicating the new building, the organization would budget $300,000 for a “Back to Brooklyn Campaign” to reinforce the multi-million dollar center.
The organization has a sizable war chest; in 2012 alone, it received $12,288,670 in donations. Of that, some $8.5 million was spent on programs, including the organization’s sizable evangelizing effort.
Guggenheim notes that despite the massive budget being leveraged, anti-missionary energies should be directed internally – and some of the proposed solutions have little to no price tag attached.
“What is missing in the Orthodox community that perhaps the Hebrew Christians are trying to offer is a very close personal relationship with their mentor, a non-judgmental community with perceived unconditional acceptance,” she says. “In response, what the Orthodox community needs is to reassess our constant need to judge people and to assess their religious practice.”