I have been closely following the turmoil in the Jewish community created by the news that one hundred thousand Baptists will be visiting the Windy City this summer to attempt to bring its population closer to their view of God and His Will. The Jewish claim that this effort will be specifically aimed at Muslims, Hindus, and Jews, i.e., non-Christians, has not been denied by the organizers. I watched as Rabbi Ira Youdovin, Executive Director of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, appearing on Chicago Tonight asked one of the Ministers involved his opinion as to whether he, Rabbi Youdovin, could enter Heaven as a Jew. The Minister replied quoting the Christian Bible, "I am the way the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the father but by me." (John 14, 6) Continuing he stated that given this clear message from Scripture there is but one way to Heaven and that is through Jesus Christ. I'm confident that this statement by the minister does not come as a shock to any of my co-religionists. One need but turn to the Book of Mathew in which Jesus launches a diatribe against the Pharisees (the Jewish Sages) repeatedly introducing his litany of attacks with the phrase, "Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!..." (Mattthew 23: 13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29) to understand the traditional Christian view of Jewish belief and practice. After all, Christianity broke with Judaism precisely because Christians felt that the Jews had simply missed the boat
The problem of missionaries is, for me, a daily occurence. As the Rabbi of Uptown, a hot bed of missionary activity, I must literally stand by and watch as well financed efforts are made to "save" Russian Jewish seniors for Christ. Emanating to a great extent from the Uptown Baptist Church, it is well coordinated. Materials of all kinds, beautifully prepared and printed, excursions to places of interest, a food pantry and a Russian service on Sunday afternoons are the tools that are utilized. The most devastating factor however is Christian love. It is the most powerful weapon in the missionary's arsenal. These missionaries are there for our People at every turn in their lives. Help of any kind is but a phone call away. Just visiting with those who can't get out on their own, helping them with their shopping creates a bond of friendship and trust that is manipulated to "save" these Jewish People. Many of these good Christian folk are volunteers acting upon their deeply held conviction in the singular importance of bringing "G‑d's chosen People" to accept Jesus as an important step in saving the world. Two years ago my Synagogue, Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation sponsored a Bar-B-Q in our garden. Tables and chairs were set. A stage was put in place and a wonderful afternoon was had by all. The Melody Choir, made up of Russian Jewish seniors, presented a performance in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and English. Everyone enjoyed the hot dogs and drinks. The event would have been perfect except for one occurrence. As people were seating themselves, I noticed four youngsters in their late teens and early twenties purchase tickets and enter the garden. They quickly sat themselves among the people present and seemed to be getting along with everyone. It was only after about a half an hour that I saw that they were wearing crosses around their necks.
I went over to introduce myself to them. They told me that they were here for the summer working out of the Uptown Baptist Church as youth organizers. They had, quite by chance, come upon the Synagogue as they were walking by, and wanted to stop in. Never having had the opportunity to visit a "Jewish Church" they saw this moment as an opportunity to learn more about the Jewish religion.
I offered to take them on a tour of the building and as well explain some points about our religion. Like clock work the first question they asked me was what Jews do to receive forgiveness of their sins today since there is no longer a Temple in Jerusalem in which to offer sacrifice. The conversation continued as it always does when I am confronted by missionaries going nowhere as Christianity is a religion of Faith while Judaism is "merely" a religion of logic. The more logical my statements became the more assured they were that their Faith was being tested.
Changing pace, I asked them to bring a message to their Pastor. I told them that as an American I would always defend his right of free speech. However, I felt it was inappropriate to attempt to convert Jews to Christianity by stating that the acceptance of Jesus is in keeping with Judaism; that acceptance of Jesus as one's personal Messiah made one a "complete" Jew. Many of the missionaries repeatedly make this statement. They assured me that no one at their Church makes such an assertion. I asked them to convey my desire to their Pastor to meet with him so that we could discuss community issues and how we could work together to address them. They left.
After they departed a number of my members told me that these young people had discussed with them the need Jews have to complete themselves as Jews by accepting Jesus as their Savior.
What evolved from this event was an exchange of letters between myself and the Pastor. All who saw these letters, and this included Christian clergy, could not get over the mistruths with which the Pastor's were seasoned. None felt that there was any point in my meeting with him given his lack of honesty. For example - while originally supporting the youngsters in stating that they had come upon the Synagogue quite by chance, in a later letter he admitted that they had sought out the Synagogue to attend the Bar-B-Q. While denying that their attendance at the Bar-B-Q involved winning souls for Christ, he claimed it was my Congregants who initiated the discussion of religion. (As you may know the vast majority of my Congregants have tremendous difficulty speaking English. Coming as they do from the former Soviet Union it is hard to believe that they would initiate a religious conversation in English with perfect strangers.) The Pastor attributed this lapse in good taste to the fact that their youth coordinator was out of town and hadn't briefed the youngsters prior to their visit. His statement, "If we really believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel, and we do, then singling out the Jewish people to not hear this good news must be the greatest form of anti-Semitism there is," (Taken from his letter dated October 1, 1998) frankly says it all.
Many times I find literature left inside the Synagogue in Russian aimed at bringing the "good news" to my membership. This past Shabbat one of my Congregants, an older woman who does have a Jewish background, told me that she, along with other Russian Jewish seniors, was taken to a "Synagogue." A luncheon was served, some singing, and a lecture on Judaism followed. However, toward the end of the lecture something strange happened. The speaker began to explain that to be real Jews they needed to accept Jesus into their hearts. She realized that this was not a real Synagogue. I asked her how many others came to that same conclusion. "Very few," she responded.
Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation's membership is primarily made up of Russian Jewish seniors. The only Jewish House of Worship in the Uptown community, the responsibility to deal with the missionary onslaught falls to us. Truth be told, I am able to do little against an effort that is well staffed, enjoys the support of committed volunteers, and works from a solid financial base. It is my opinion that the Chicago Jewish community has not taken the proper approach to this vexing problem. Let me explain.
Pharaoh said, "Go bring offerings to your God in the land." Moses said, "It is not proper to do so, for we will offer the deity of Egypt to Hashem our God - behold if we were to slaughter the deity of Egypt in their sight will they not stone us?" (Exodus 8:21 & 22) What was Moses trying to say? If the Pharaoh gave the Jewish People permission to offer sacrifice, even if it was the sacrifice of the Egyptian deity, the power of Pharoh, the god king, would preclude any stoning of the Jews by the Egyptians. Why then did Moses express such a concern?
Moses knew that an enslaved People allowed to sacrifice their taskmaster's god in front of him would never feel the spiritual connection to God this offering was intended to create. They would rather revel in getting back at the taskmaster, humiliating him. Moses understood that for this sacrifice to have spiritual meaning for the Jewish People it had to be done outside Egypt, away from those who kept the Jews in slavery.
While getting other Christian clergy to agree that the one hundred thousand project is inappropriate, that targeting Jews and other non-Christians by missionaries is unacceptable, we as a community have not dealt with the real problem. The Jewish People must find religious strength and purpose in their own Faith. This has nothing to do with responding to missionary activity. It must be our goal to create activity and religious opportunity for our Russian brothers and sisters, joyful and meaningful activity, if we want to keep them Jewish. This effort must be solidly grounded in our own firm belief in the truth of our religion and our G‑d, the Divine Author of the Torah. This can only be accomplished if we are willing to put forward the monies needed to orchestrate such activity. The millions spent on outreach to the Jewish community by missionaries are not matched by the same kinds of expenditures in our own community. Being able to distribute some simple literature to my community on the beliefs and practices of Judaism in Russian has been an almost impossible goal to achieve. At every turn the producers of such material require that I purchase it. Thank G‑d for a Christian Minister from New Jersey who, appalled by this type of dishonest missionary work, prepared a video in Russian on Jewish history and Faith. He was kind enough to send me two hundred copies which I distributed in Uptown. Endorsed by Rabbis and the State of Israel it is a reasonably good production. It is my prayer that these videos circulate hopefully enlightening my fellow Jews to the truth and value of a Jewish religious life.
Struggling to keep the Synagogue's heat bill paid and at the same time trying to do as much as we can for our community, we at Agudas Achim are stretched to the limit. Our budget must cover the losses we incur in sponsoring Hanukkah and Purim parties, and our Passover Seders. Admission costs are minimal ($18.00 for a full seder with dinner) yet few in my community can pay. Our working principle has been each person should pay whatever he or she can. This has meant that, for example, the majority of those attending the Seder (last year we had 200 people) pay about $5.00 a piece).
It is time the Chicago Jewish community take concrete steps toward responding to missionary activity not only by exposing some of its disingenuous qualities, but by establishing concrete programs and activities, well funded programs and activities, run by deeply religious and motivated individuals which can imbue our fellow Jews with a love of and respect for Judaism. Until we are committed to doing this, I'm afraid that the missionaries will enjoy the upper hand.