ToI investigates'If it doesn't look kosher, they don't even open it'

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

Missionary group is revamping New Testament in Yiddish for the first time in 80 years, part of a broader outreach effort aimed at the most insular Jewish communities in the US

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

A copy of the New Testament in Yiddish at the New York Public Library. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
A copy of the New Testament in Yiddish at the New York Public Library. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

As some Christian missionary groups in the United States train their sights on ultra-Orthodox Jews, one has sent out Yiddish-language Bibles including the New Testament to Jewish communities in New York in an effort to convince them to convert to Christianity. The return address on the posted Bibles belonged to a local synagogue.

Opponents of the missionary work called it deceptive and invasive, while the man who holds the rights to the Yiddish translation of New Testament said he was not directly involved but deemed the effort sincere and well-intentioned.

The use of Yiddish Bibles for outreach appeared to be a revival of a tactic the movement had abandoned decades ago. The New Testament was translated into Yiddish in the 1940s to proselytize Jews.

Beyneynu, a nonprofit in Israel that tracks missionary activity in Jewish communities, first reported the Yiddish Bibles last month.

The organization said it had received reports of the Bibles arriving at homes in Monsey and Spring Valley, two heavily Jewish towns in Rockland County, north of New York City.

A rabbi in the area confirmed that his congregants had received the Bibles in the mail, but said he could not provide further information.

Beyneynu’s Shannon Nuszen said the Bibles were marked with the return address of a local synagogue, apparently to disguise the books as a package from the synagogue to trick people into opening them.

“They’re so used to getting missionary material, if it doesn’t look kosher, they don’t even open it,” Nuszen said. “It just goes straight in the garbage. But this one in particular looked like the [synagogue] was sending out a free [book].”

She said it was unclear how many had been sent out, but that copies had been spread “all over the community.”

Her organization has identified covert missionaries inside Jewish communities in the past. Sometimes undercover missionaries get to know an area, or get access to a synagogue’s directory, and the area gets “bombarded” with missionary materials, she said.

She doesn’t suspect any covert missionaries in the recent case, though. The targeted towns have a high concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews — especially near synagogues, since driving is prohibited on Shabbat and holidays, and congregants must live within walking distance.

“In a place like Monsey, you can send them out everywhere and you’ll get them to Jews,” she said. “They can just target everything around there.”

The Bibles had phone numbers that Beyneynu said traced back to activists linked to Jews for Jesus, a Messianic Jewish organization. There was also the address of a website with the New Testament in Yiddish and Hebrew.

Susan Perlman, one of the founders of Jews for Jesus, said the group was unaware of the Yiddish outreach effort in New York. She said she understood the reaction of anti-missionary groups, but that there was no cause for alarm.

“I can’t help but think that most well-read Jewish people would not be alarmed about the words of Jesus which are found in the New Testament,” Perlman said. “Those who are unfamiliar with Jesus would be pleasantly surprised that he brought a message of love and healing.”

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

Who’s your savior?

Messianic Judaism is a movement that combines Jewish tradition and practice with the belief that Jesus Christ is the coming messiah. It is virtually unanimously considered outside the fold by all Jewish streams, 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.

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

Messianic Jews often refer to Jesus by the Hebrew name “Yeshua” and use Christian holy books, including the New Testament, that have been translated into Hebrew. They often have ties to explicitly Christian organizations.

In New York, the movement goes back to at least the 19th century. A Jewish convert to Christianity founded the Messianic organization Chosen People Ministries in Brooklyn in 1894, which later helped produce and publish the Yiddish Bible.

Barry Rubin, a Messianic Jew, is the owner of the aforementioned Yiddish New Testament translation, the only known one in existence. He estimated there are around 1,000 Messianic Jewish congregations and small groups in the United States, including about 250 full-fledged congregations.

He leads a congregation in Maryland and views Messianic Judaism as another branch of Judaism, but acknowledges how controversial the movement is. Raised in a Jewish household, he joined the Messianic movement in the 1970s.

“We use Jewish terminology because it helps our people feel more comfortable and helps non-Jews learn about Jewish ways,” said Rubin, who is not affiliated with Jews for Jesus.

“If you came to our congregation you would think that you were in a synagogue, probably a Reform or Conservative synagogue, and that’s done only because we’re expressing who we are in a Jewish way,” he said. “We’re not trying to trick somebody to believe that we’re really Jews and secretly we’re not Jews anymore. That’s kind of absurd. My DNA is 100 percent Jewish.”

The movement is growing quickly in Israel, Nuszen 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.

Illustrative: A Christian outreach display in New York City. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The Messianic vision

Rabbi Tovia Singer, the head of the counter-missionary organization Outreach Judaism, said most attempts to convert Jews to Christianity are by “fundamental Evangelical Christians who are Protestants and always Christian Zionists.” The Catholic Church and other groups, including Unitarians and Episcopalians, are not involved.

These Evangelicals believe Jesus cannot complete his second coming unless Jews are converted to Christianity, based on a passage in Matthew chapter 23 of the New Testament, Singer said.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,'” the passage says.

The conversion movement was jump-started when Israel took over Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War.

“When Jerusalem was liberated, the church recognized that Jesus’s second coming was imminent,” said Singer, who lives in Israel. “These Christians firmly believe that the Jews are holding up the show.”

Illustrative: Evangelical Christians from various countries wave flags as they march to show their support for Israel in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Evangelical Americans are staunch supporters of Israel, which welcomes the stream’s political and financial backing but opposes proselytizing. Jews generally see attempts to convert them to Christianity as deeply offensive.

Singer charged Jews for Jesus with engaging in “consumer fraud” by using Jewish symbols and traditions to attract Jews who would resist a straightforward conversion effort.

“It is true that it’s an open market of ideas. We’re not in North Korea,” he said. “But there is a difference between these missionary groups and other ideological groups.”

“Not having a cross on their Bibles, using the Yiddish language to convey a Christian message, misappropriating Jewish symbols and icons in order to lure Jews; herein lies the deception and it’s for this reason that across the board these missionaries in particular are condemned by Jewish denominations of all types,” he said of Jews for Jesus.

“Jews for Jesus is a Baptist mission to the Jews. They’re Baptist, but they’ll never tell you that,” he said.

Perlman, the Jews for Jesus co-founder, disputed the characterizations of her organization.

“There are a multitude of inaccuracies and outright falsehoods leveled at us by Singer and Nuszen, but the real issue is, ‘What do Jewish people have to lose by being exposed to the teaching of one of the greatest Jewish figures in history?'” she said.

The Gospel of Mark in Yiddish. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

An explosive issue

Christian missionaries sometimes succeed in converting Jewish people, and often target vulnerable groups, such as the young and elderly, Singer and Nuszen said.

Both said the missionaries believe in the conversion efforts, even when they’re doing things that are abhorrent to much of the Jewish community, such as targeting elderly Jews for conversion.

“I don’t know of any ideological group that believes that ‘we’re wrong in what we’re doing.’ That’s true about any group, whether it’s groups that we applaud or groups that we abhor. Everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing,” Singer said.

Nuszen said she had heard reports of Jews for Jesus missionaries going into nursing homes to find lonely Jewish residents, including Holocaust survivors, in what she termed “deathbed evangelism.” Singer said Yiddish New Testaments were placed in a nursing home in Monsey years ago.

“They believe they’re doing them a tremendous charity. In their eyes they’re not doing evil. To Jewish people it’s evil, but to them, they believe they’re saving their life. And [when they proselytize to people just] before death, it’s like they want to save them so that they go to heaven,” she said.

There are special efforts made to “reach” Jews in the most religious communities, she said.

“They’ve gotten into the Reform and Conservative [movements] and those are reached and whoever rejects Jesus, rejects Jesus, and that’s their choice. But there are people in insulated communities that have never had the chance to hear the gospel, so the more insular they are the more of a priority it is to reach them, and they need the chance to accept or reject,” she said.

Illustrative: A group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish children cross the street in Monsey, New York, December 30, 2019. (Seth Wenig/AP)

The Global Gates evangelical missions organization, for example, specifically targets ultra-Orthodox Jews for conversion efforts. The organization has a “priority matrix” of “unreached people groups” in North America that it believes should be targeted in Christian outreach. The unreached groups are essentially communities of over 5,000 people that are insulated from Christianity.

Satmar Hasidic Jews, who mainly live in New York City and its environs, are at the top of the list, with a “priority score” of 99. On the list of 331 priority groups. the top 12 communities are all Jewish.

The group’s website has an infographic depicting “The most unreached Jewish people in North America.”

“Jewish peoples are the most significantly unreached people groups in North America,” the site says. “They lack a gospel witness in their communities, so the need for cross-cultural workers to provide an effective bridge from Judaism to Jesus is great.”

Global Gates organizes short- and long-term missions and internships for missionary work.

Do you have missions experience? Has God given you a passion for making disciples of Jesus Christ among Bukharan Jews…

Posted by Global Gates on Friday, January 28, 2022

Satmar Jews’ lifestyle deliberately insulates them from outside influence, including from other Jews. The use of Yiddish as a daily language is part of that policy and outlook.

Rubin, the Messianic Jewish leader who was not involved in the missionary attempts, believes the conversion issue is so explosive because of the long history of persecution of Jews by Christians.

“Go back to the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Nazis, the KKK. There’s been many other antisemitic groups who have said they follow Jesus and yet they persecuted his relatives, so it’s a very sensitive issue,” he said.

For many Jews, alongside the dark imprint of historical calamity, runs the fear of dissolution by assimilation. Rubin said he doesn’t view joining Messianic Judaism as assimilation, because he views the movement as another branch of Judaism.

“The fear of assimilation — I get that, but nobody is going to be assimilated in a Messianic Jewish congregation,” he said. “Messianic Jews practice all the holidays, they keep Shabbat, they keep kosher, they love Israel. We’re good Jews.”

The title page of the Henry Einspruch Yiddish translation of the New Testament. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

What the good book says

Rubin grew up in a Jewish household that shunned Christianity. His parents associated the religion with the depravities of the Nazis, he said.

In 1972 he attended a Rosh Hashanah service hosted by a Messianic group in Washington, DC, and “began to do some investigating on my own,” he said. He found evidence supporting Jesus as the messiah in the Old Testament and joined the movement the following year.

Around that time, he went to a Passover Seder hosted by Henry and Marie Einspruch.

Henry Einspruch, a Jew originally from Poland, was a Yiddish scholar who converted to Christianity and became a missionary. He translated the New Testament to Yiddish to evangelize other Jews in the US and published it in 1941. Marie was the typesetter and they married the same year. It is the only known Yiddish translation of the holy book.

Rubin became close to the couple, and in 1988, after Henry Einspruch had died, Marie offered Rubin their publishing company, now called Messianic Jewish Publishers & Resources, including the rights to the Yiddish translation.

When Rubin took over, there were not many copies of the Yiddish translation left and he decided to focus on the company’s other titles.

“I realized that Yiddish had become a language that most of our people were not familiar with anymore so I did not reprint it,” he said. The company’s current catalog includes titles like “The Complete Jewish Study Bible,” and Messianic commentaries on holy texts.

Illustrative: A Christian bookstore in New York City. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The Yiddish translation was last printed by the company in the mid-1980s, he said.

He said the group that distributed the book in Monsey came to him for rights to the Yiddish translation.

“In Rockland County, there are many Jewish people there. An unofficial group got together and wanted to share that good news with them in Yiddish, so they came to me,” he said.

The group has been upgrading the translation into more modern Yiddish, in what would be the first revision of the text in over 80 years, but has not yet finished, he said. The group did not respond to a Times of Israel request for an interview.

Rubin said he had not been involved with the group after granting them the rights to the text and did not know any information about what they mailed out.

“All I know is that nobody’s doing this out of perverse or ungodly reasons. It’s just a desire to get out the good news,” he said.

“This is not any sort of deceptive, manipulative, sneaky tactic that anybody’s using. The group that used my version of the Yiddish New Testament and modified it are just a group of people who want to share the good news that the Messiah has come with other Jews, so they felt the best way to do that is to use a Yiddish New Testament,” he said. “They’re not unethical, they’re just zealous.”

The New York Public Library has one copy of the Einspruch Yiddish Bible. It is kept in an underground storage room lined with shelves beneath the park adjacent to the library. A librarian said there was no information on how long the book has been there, where it came from, or if anyone has taken it out. A blue stamp on the first page says “‘Sep 15, 41.”

The cover is a deep, navy blue, unadorned except for the title on the book’s spine in stately gold lettering: “Der Brit Hadasha.” It is 590 pages long, but slim, with the names of the Gospels stationed at the top of its pages — Mattiah, Yohanan, Lukas and Marcus. The font is elegant and austere and the pages feel brittle.

Most Popular
read more: