Anti-missionaries cry foul as Messianic Jews aid Ukraine refugees, Bibles in hand

Jews for Jesus, other groups, step into war relief, saying religious message is ‘part of the package,’ but opponents call outreach ‘sinister’ exploitation of vulnerable people

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Passengers wait at the platform inside Lviv railway station in western Ukraine, February 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue, File)
Passengers wait at the platform inside Lviv railway station in western Ukraine, February 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue, File)

Jews for Jesus and other Messianic groups are helping Ukrainian refugees in Europe and in Israel, and are combining religious outreach with their relief efforts, drawing fire from anti-missionary activists.

The Messianic groups see their religious message as beneficial to those in distress, and say they offer it unconditionally, apart from essential aid, while critics say the groups are exploiting vulnerable people in a compromised situation.

“We give people food and medicine and Bibles and gas for their cars to get them moving. We see the Bible as just as practical as all these other things,” said Susan Perlman, one of the founders of Jews for Jesus.

Rabbi Tovia Singer, the head of the counter-missionary organization Outreach Judaism, said Messianic groups were “weaponizing humanitarian aid in order to share the gospel.”

Messianic Judaism is a movement that combines Jewish tradition and practice with the belief that Jesus Christ is the coming messiah. It is considered outside the fold by all mainstream Jewish denominations, who say the ideology directly contradicts many of the religion’s principal tenets. Some Messianic Jews want the movement to be accepted as a sect of Judaism, and view it as such. They often have ties to explicitly Christian organizations.

Jews for Jesus is often synonymous with Messianic Judaism, but it is one of many organizations in the movement.

Perlman said Jews for Jesus has 19 full-time missionaries and several congregations in Ukraine. Jews for Jesus missionaries from the US arrived in Ukraine in the 1980s to train local staff, so the missionaries there now are native-born Ukrainians. They have been scattered by the war, with some at home and others displaced by violence.

Refugees wait in line at a special application point at the National Stadium in Warsaw, Poland, March 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Jews for Jesus also has staff in Poland, Moldova, Hungary and Germany who are working with Ukrainian refugees. Its relief effort includes Ukrainian and Russian speakers, including some from Israel and the US. The organization set up a temporary center in Poland and its team in Berlin has helped 30 refugees find housing, Perlman said.

In one instance, Jews for Jesus staff met a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor in Kyiv. She told them her son was in Israel, so they called him, and arranged to get the elderly woman across the border into Poland and through bureaucratic processing for a move to Israel, Perlman said. Neither the son nor the mother were part of the Messianic movement.

“We’re just transporting people, whoever needs help, we’re driving them, whether it’s from Kyiv or Odesa or wherever, to a place of safety. We do have some [people] obviously through our own network, but we’re also helping strangers,” Perlman said. Most of the people they are dealing with are either Jewish or “believers,” she said.

The group’s religious message is “part of the package,” Perlman said. The group is scrambling to acquire more Russian-language Bibles for distribution.

Ukrainian refugees waiting at the Central railway station in Warsaw, Poland, March 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

“We can’t help but pray for people, share the gospel with them. People are coming to know the Lord. It’s not in place of caring for their immediate physical needs, but it is a part of who we are,” she said. “It’s not, ‘You have to read this Bible in order to get help from us,’ but we think that the Bible is a great source of help and encouragement and hope in times like these.”

The group’s Odesa branch leader said a missionary “prayed together with a Jewish man, a retired 99-year-old colonel, who wanted to embrace Jesus as his Messiah.”

Chosen People Ministries, a Messianic group based in New York, is helping care for around 230 people at a Christian camp outside Warsaw. Many are Jews, but not all, said Chosen People’s president, Mitch Glaser.

“We literally want to follow the model that Jesus set in the gospels, where he cared for people who were needy,” Glaser said.

Chosen People Ministries dates back to 1894 when it was established by a Jewish convert in New York as the American Board of Missions to the Jews, and Jews for Jesus branched off from the board in the 1970s.

Illustrative: A missionary group’s office in New York City. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Chosen People’s staff provides essentials including food and clothing, and runs programs for the roughly 100 children at the Poland site. The staff holds prayer services, organizes Bible studies and takes people out for activities like McDonald’s and bowling, said Glaser, who was raised Jewish in New York.

People get to the camp by reaching out to its organizers, mostly finding out about it through word of mouth. Then, if there’s room, staffers drive to the border area to pick them up.

Chosen People is also working with refugees in Germany, where it has a staff of 15 to 20 people.

The refugees are a mix between non-Jewish people, Jews and Messianic Jews.

Glaser said there were many Messianic Jews already in Ukraine, and that his group helped set up congregations in Kyiv, Kharkov, Mariupol and Lviv. Some of the congregations were 40 years old, and the Kiev Jewish Messianic Congregation was one of the world’s largest, Glaser said, estimating that there were around 5,000 Messianic Jews in Ukraine before the war. The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations estimates there are over 70 Messianic Jewish Congregations in Ukraine.

Above: A recent service at the Kiev Jewish Messianic Congregation.

Chosen People is helping to care for around 300 displaced people in Lviv, in western Ukraine, mostly people connected to Messianic congregations in the country’s war-torn east.

The group is raising funds for the relief effort, and said that if the war ends quickly, “whatever we do not use from this fund will help our ministries among aging Holocaust survivors in Israel.”

The group does not view its activities as converting people, because it considers itself a branch of Judaism, and said its other activities, such as missionary trips, serve as a valuable bridge between the Christian world and Judaism, while evangelical support for Israel is in decline.

Shannon Nuszen, head of Beyneynu, a nonprofit in Israel that tracks missionary activity in Jewish communities, said the outreach efforts were “disrespectful, offensive and sinister.”

“They are targeting vulnerable people who are looking for food and shelter to rob them of their faith,” she said. Activities like distributing Bibles are “disrespectful, it’s crossing the line, it’s offensive. It’s not the way that a true friend would act.”

People trying to flee Ukraine wait for trains inside Lviv railway station in Lviv, western Ukraine, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

“They have their hands in any place where there are vulnerable Jews, whether it’s refugees, kids on college campuses, kids on summer vacation,” she said. Some Jews in the former Soviet Union are less knowledgeable about Judaism because it was suppressed by Soviet authorities, making them more vulnerable and a common target for missionaries, she said.

Singer called the outreach to refugees “abhorrent.”

“This is not like somebody’s synagogue decided to donate humanitarian aid to Ukrainian refugees in need, regardless of their faith, where no questions are asked,” Singer said. “They see people in a vulnerable position and exploit them.”

Glaser, of Chosen People, said the group’s overriding concern is aiding refugees, not changing people’s beliefs.

“We’re believers in Jesus and Jesus did stuff like that. He fed people, he healed people, he took care of people. Some people want to talk about Jesus, and some people don’t want to talk about Jesus,” he said.

Related: Seeking converts, Christian missionaries pitch Yiddish Bibles to NY ultra-Orthodox

He said there was a possibility of swaying people’s religious outlook in the future, but “that’s not the motivation.”

“We realize that down the road some people will say ‘Hey, you really helped us, what motivates you, what’s different about you?’ and then we’d love to have those conversations, but we don’t do it in order to get something down the road. that would not be our definition of love,” he said.

He said the group is “always trying to look out for the well-being of our fellow Jewish people, but we would never turn away a non-Jew in the midst of a crisis like this.”

A child walks in front of a damaged school in the city of Zhytomyr, northern Ukraine, on March 23, 2022. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

Other Messianic and missionary groups have also stepped into Ukraine relief efforts.

The Messianic Jewish Alliance of America said it has helped refugees in Europe, immigrants on their way to Israel, and raised donations for war relief.

The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations said it had distributed over $46,000 in Ukraine relief, including to Messianic congregations in cities under fire in Ukraine.

Chosen People and some other Christian groups, such as the Aliyah Return Center, are helping take in Ukrainian refugees in Israel.

Chosen People’s Israel staff said on its website, “We decided to start a hospitality ministry for those coming from Ukraine, with a warm, safe place to stay. We will hold meetings to pray together and study the Bible. Of course, we will also be a resource for new immigrants to find answers to practical questions and adapt to the country.”

Not all arrivals in Israel from Ukraine are Jewish — Israel is accepting some non-Jewish refugees, and people who are not Jewish could qualify for Israel immigration under the Law of Return if one of their grandparents is Jewish.

The Messianic movement is growing quickly in Israel, Nuszen has said. She estimated there were around 30,000 Messianic Jews in Israel, up from around 15,000 in 2015, based on reporting from Messianic organizations and congregations.

People gather in a basement used as a bomb shelter during an air raid in Lviv, western Ukraine, March 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Nuszen said she does not believe the Messianic groups are fabricating claims about rescue work in and around Ukraine, and said she is not opposed to relief efforts, but that evangelizing does not need to go along with it.

“As Jews, we can say that we appreciate the humanitarian support, the financial support when they stand together with us against antisemitism and things like that,” she said. “But I think as a Jewish community, we have to draw the line when it comes to proselytizing, and that that in itself is an antisemitic act.”

The Messianic groups are mainly funded by donations from Christians and compete with each other for funding, so they advertise their efforts to attract attention, Nuszen said.

Singer said they were exploiting the refugee crisis, and “it’s not some secret or conspiracy theory. They tell you that in all of their fundraising with the Ukrainian refugees, many of whom are Jewish people who have never heard the gospel yet. That’s what’s appalling.”

Critics accuse the groups of using deceptive tactics, while the missionaries say they work openly.

Singer characterizes both Jews for Jesus and Chosen People Ministries as “Baptist missions to the Jews.”

“This is consumer fraud. They’re not saying, ‘Hi, I’m here on behalf of a Baptist church to share the gospel.’ They don’t dress like Christians. They wear kippot, they wear Jewish stars, they tell them that you’re not becoming a Christian but becoming a Messianic Jew,” he said.

“They take churches and dress them up to look like synagogues. This is part of what makes it so revolting and so abhorrent,” he said, “and that’s why they are universally condemned by all denominations of the Jewish faith.”

He said that, for Jewish communities, “Jewish education has to be the antidote to these nefarious groups.”

According to the UN, about 10 million Ukrainians — a quarter of its population — have fled their homes and are now displaced in the country or among the 3.6 million refugees. The US said 12 million need aid and 5.6 million children are unable to go to school.

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