Jews for Jesus Campaign Exposes Jewish Community’s Failures

It seems noteworthy that according to the NY Times, Jews for Jesus are specifically running campaigns “aimed at Russian-speaking Jews, Israelis and Hasidic Jews.”
This would make sense if they are doing so because they perceive these communities to be particularly vulnerable to their message.
We fought hard for Russian Jews back in the 70’s and 80’s.  But did we consistently fight for them once they were here? Have we reached out to the Russian Jewish community to make sure they feel they are indeed a part of the fabric of American Jewish life? Or do we often treat them as unequals, and sideline them as a separate community, a community that lacked knowledge even of the very basics of Judaism after seventy years of crushing communism?
And which “Hasidic Jews” are J4J targeting, and why?  Do we really think they are going to be spending most of their energy on the side locked yeshiva bochrim of Belz? Or are they targeting a specific group that has already– to a shocking extent– allowed crossover from Christianity to subsist within its midst? Chabad contains a real point of entry for those seeking to mix Judaism and Christianity with Rebbe worship.  And the Jewish community frequently continues to shrug it off, and generally downplay its significance.
As for the Israelis, it is quite clear that Zionism has not proven a satisfying replacement for Judaism.  But the Haredim, with their fundamentalism and their antics and bile have successfully partnered with the Labor-Zionists to convince many secular Israelis that Judaism is not for them.  Jews for J shrewdly assesses that maybe they are willing to consider something different.
And certainly with the continued rise and fallout of assimilation, it seems logical that Jews for J may find more frequent fertile ground in the offspring of a mixed marriage.  It is no surprise that they are listed on the links page of
If the overall Jewish community hadn’t developed large pockets of weakness, this campaign would never be happening on such a massive level.  Our anger is primarily at our own failure.
Or at least, it should be.

20 thoughts on “Jews for Jesus Campaign Exposes Jewish Community’s Failures

  1. As for the Israelis, it is quite clear that Zionism has not proven a satisfying replacement for Judaism”-
    Holy Toledo batman, did you just generalize about 6 million people in one sentence?
    “But the Haredim, with their fundamentalism and their antics and bile have successfully partnered with the Labor-Zionists to convince many secular Israelis that Judaism is not for them.”
    I’m sorry, I didn’t get the memo…if there was a merger, why wasn’t I made aware?
    This ‘post’ is way too assuming and hate filled to comment on seriously.
    I’m actually disappointed that Jewschool, which I assumed cared about having articles/ opinions articulate an intellegent point, would publish this.

  2. Mr. Kelsey,
    I think that your contempt for Jews for Jesus is justified. However, I don’t believe that the self-criticism you spewed in this post is in any way indicative of how you truly feel about JfJ and those Jews receptive to their message. The fact is, this post is more about trying really hard to step on people’s toes. Ineffective. The NYtimes article points to examples where Messianic Judaism (Christianity) are framed as the middle ground in interfaith relationships, a legitimate interest in Christian theology, and so on. I would like to think opposition to JewsforJesus is far more grounded social and historical concerns than theological ones. The long history of persecution of Jews by Christians is a complex one, which many only use to justify their view of the Holocaust. The fact is, if I were to level any criticism at my own Jewish education, is that it waited to explain Christian theology (and its Jewish counterarguments) to me until I was a senior in high school. This weakness, which frames the fight against missionizing as a purely social one will continue to alienate Jewish people who simply don’t feel part of a Jewish community, or fear that they ever will.

  3. Two well-spoken comments above. Watch out, DK, with that boxing people into categories tendancy.

  4. Great comments above. Thanks for the insight.
    DK- our failure? I hear that phrase bantered about whenever there’s talk about lost Jews, but I have yet to understand who’s the “we” and what’s the “failure”.
    We live in a culture where we need instant gratification. If a diet promises to help us lose 4 pounds in a week, we go with the one that promises 5 in the same time. We have no patience for driving, for lines, for human grocery cashiers.
    So is it any wonder that this generation also has no use for a faith system that says that every 7 days, there’s a day set aside that isn’t all about us? That there are restaurants that we can’t go to (and that the ones we can go to pretty much suck, across the board).
    It’s no wonder that observant Judaism is losing people faster than my dog sheds fur on July 4th (shout out to Nessa!). The part I can’t understand is why so many people stay in it. And until I figure that out, I’ll continue to settle for the Worst Chinese Food In The World- knowing full-well there’s an awesome place a few short miles away, but oh, yes- it’s not kosher…).
    I also want to comment on the J4J focus on Russian Jews. It’s ironic that the group with the most success at drawing in the Russians is… Chabad. So, with the acceptance of that type of messianic faith system, the Russians’d seem to be so ripe for J4J’s picking. The alternative scenario is that they like Chabad because they get vodka and herring at the farbrengens, in which case the J4Js could never compete.`

  5. DK, Jews for Jesus is not very successful…. given the very low rate of conversions for this group, thier marketing campaign is not a very strong argument for anything.
    While I don’t have the statistics (anyone?) I’ve met many more Jews who don’t care at all about being Jewish than converts of any sort. And more Jews who attend/converted to Unitarianism, Quakerism, Paganism and Buddhism than those who became big ‘c’ Christian. Let alone the Southern Baptist varient.
    DK, you seem to be hanging some pretty heavy baggage on a very small hook.

  6. Dave, ol’ chap…
    If you actually read any of the commentary in my post, you’d know most of us are angry because a group of hucksters masquerading as us are going around snake-oiling people.
    Zionism was never intended as a religious philosophy to supplant actual Judaism. At best, it was intended as an overlay, at worse; it rejected the Orthodox as being archaic and intractable. Theodore Herzl wasn’t waiting for the Messiah to give us a Promised Land – he wanted one now, preferably with cheap wine and access to a nice beach. He wasn’t concerned with the spiritual well-being of the Jews – that was left to individuals. It’s a political stance, not a school of worship. The ‘spritiual void’ you’re talking about is the same you’ll find anywhere else: the malaise of modern times coupled with disillusionment with a faith that has been hijacked by a very loud fundamentalist minority.
    And saying that Chabad’s focus on charismatic leaders is an ‘entry point’ for Christianity is the same as saying Buddhists’ prayer towards statues makes a great entry point for Voodoo: the trappings are there, but it’s a superficial comparison at best. The eschatological arguments between Christianity and Judaism are not compatible, so… sorry. You’re better off saying American Idol offers an entry point, in that Jews For Jesus ALSO ask its fans to shut their brains off for mindless entertainment.
    You’re all over the map, Dave: the liberal Jews failed to fight for the Russians, the Zionists failed the spiritual fight for the Israelis, the Chabad failed Judaism by becoming idolatrous with their leaders, Jews as a whole failed because yes, as there have always been; some of us are frankly unenthused with Judaism.

  7. eli di geto zinger , you said,
    “I would like to think opposition to JewsforJesus is far more grounded social and historical concerns than theological ones.”
    It should absolutely include theological opposition.
    This shouldn’t just be about concern with just Jews4J. This should be about recognizing that we are facing a massive loss of members for a variety of reasons (including lack of interest) and to a variety of faiths, and may face this exponentially in the future. Or not. But it seems to be growing, and if the most famous spiritual predators seem to feel we are weak, that is something I take seriously enough to consider.
    You said, “Zionism was never intended as a religious philosophy to supplant actual Judaism.”
    No, it was accepted by many Labor Zionists as a secular and political philosophy to supplant actual Judaism.
    And I am “all over the map” because we are failing all over the map.
    And elements within Chabad definitely is changed the terms, and continue to change the terms, as to how far we go in terms of accepting Christian ideas into traditional Jewish circles.
    If Reuven would have told Shimon 30 years ago that there would be Orthodox Jews claiming that when the Rebbe died he had in fact not died, but would return as the Messiah, Shimon would have said this would be impossible in traditional Jewish circles. And if he said that Orthodox Jews wouldn’t react all that strongly, Shimon would laugh again.
    If this can happen in Orthodox Jewish circles, so too it can happen in secular Jewish circles.

  8. DK,
    My wife and I have been BT for four years through Chabad. Not once have we been asked, directed, or told to worship the Rebbe. I won’t even attempt to describe the beauty and spirituality and direction, etc. that becoming observant Jews has given our family, but it’s a darn-tootin shame that you find it so easy to generalize so grandly and ignorantly in such an absolutely negative way. I actually find it incredible that you denigrate Chabad so lowly in implying what you do, when it seems so obviously the opposite is true. My experience is not worldly; I am a simple Jew; but for my wife, children and myself, Chabad has, BH, only strengthened our Judaism through learning, practice, and community. How many families like mine are there? How many Jews have benefited from Chabad? What other Jewish organization would reach out to a suburban Jewish family? We weren’t asked for money, and no jacket was required. We had no religion in our lives; just identity. So we sent our son to a recon syn. When they moved Purim from a Tues. to a Frid., we felt weird about it. No idea why. The last relgious thing we’d done was his bris. Before that, our wedding (conserv). And all that to mostly please ‘rents and zaides and bubbies. Invited to Chabad one Simchas Torah, we were hooked. And so on. It’s a familiar story, isn’t it? Somewhat? So, how can one even imply Chabad is a “real entry point” for Southern Baptists posing as Jews for J? You seem to spread blame like mayonaise, licking your fingers of excess. I believe you may need to use a knife, rather than glob with a spoon. Whatever with the analogies: in my humblest opnion, the blame lies with the individual.

  9. Dave
    “…t was accepted by many Labor Zionists as a secular and political philosophy to supplant actual Judaism.”
    So… because an irreligious faction – one that was largeley if not totally secular to begin with – embraced a political paradigm as replacement for actual religion… ALL lay Israelis are spiritually displaced and susceptible to J4J shills? Labor Zionists make up a percentage of Jews, but I don’t think they’re representing the bulk of us anymore than the Haredi do.
    That’s not acceptible argument, anymore than ‘we’re failing all over the place’.
    As you so adroitly pointed out, we are not a monolithic community and never have been. These ‘failings’ aren’t NEW. There have always been more or less observant, more or less supportive, more or less clannish spokes in Jewish wheel. There is no Central Spiritual Authority for All jews Everyhwhere. We are a decentralized model of worship, and that is a great strength, but also a great weakness, because you can’t watch everyone and compel them to a single school of thought.
    You’re very keen on saying we’ve failed, we’ve failed – what’s your model of success?
    And ‘Rebbe worship’ is strong statement, considering we are of a culture that cultivates charismatic leaders and scholars who are quoted endlessly and reverantly. The Sages, the tzaddiks, the cavalcade of learned Rabbis – I think that the degree of reverance you’re talking about may be alien to your sensibiliies, but as Boruch David said upstairs: your insights are basically incorrect. And more than a little judgmental.
    Most Jews beef with J4J because it IS very different than any evangelical movement that’s come after us before, in that it is essentially dishonest at its heart. They bootleg our name and then come creeping in the night as Good Family with Something Special for their cousins. Which is sneaky used car salesman CRAP. And especially odious because it is at its heart a lie.

  10. Monk,
    When did I say “all” Israelis? No “all” about anybody over here, pal.
    If you don’t recognize that within Chabad there are elements of Messianic intensity that are unlike that of previous or parallel tzaddik reverence, that is a much longer discussion. Please see Shmarya: for the scoop.

  11. Dave:
    “As for the Israelis, it is quite clear that Zionism has not proven a satisfying replacement for Judaism.”
    ‘The Israelis’ is sort of an all-inclusive statement, no? That the Haredim + Labor Zionists have driven off ‘many secular Israelis’ attacks the problem from an imaginary vantage point: A large percentage of Israelis + Zionists were secular even when Israel was founded. It’s a moot point that the Ultra-Orthodox and other elements have maybe made the faith repulsive – it’s been an ONGOING condition of Judaism. So what’s different?
    And their methodology.
    Which is the point of umbrage that you keep gliding past. It’s not our ‘failings’ – these flaws are largely pre-existing and persistent (although you’re right, we could have whole ‘nother discussion about Chabad and messianism) that make Jews for Jesus a genuine threat. People who were going to fall off or convert or walk off a $%^&ing cliff would do it either way; they’ve existed since Moses. That Jews For jesus are charlatans and snake-oil salesmen acting under the pretense of the Jewish Nation is essentiall offensive bordering on slanderous – never mind misleading or outright fraud.
    And that is the point of contention for most of us.
    Jews for Jesus are to us what wealthy suburban wiggers are to Black people: trying get in under the radar by using the trappings of the culture they imitate and making false allusions to being the genuine article.

  12. if it weren’t for chabad, i’d probably have gone down the j4j route a long time ago… they brought me back to yiddishkeit along with countless others.

  13. If we could have some Jewvangelicals, that would make Judaism exciting and welcoming, we would keep more of our own. So many are drawn to the feel good , rock n roll churches in our areas.They go just cause a friend invites them…then the low Jesus talk, and the fun music and social programs draws them in.
    Chabad is great, but can be scary to less religous Jews. I have tried to get my sons to go, but their Hebrew is Conservative Hebrew and they are lost in the Chabad prayers and end up leaving dejected. The Conservative shul is “old” and the Reform is just not Jewish
    get us some Hebrew gospel music!

  14. Sorry, Elaine, but I fail to see the allure or the place of evangelicism in Judaism. To me, at least, Judaism is, what Judaism is. I find the wanna-be hip rock n roll Shabbos to be a distraction on a day when it isn’t all about my silly little earthly wants. I find an amidah without a guitar solo to be totally satisfying, and I can listen to my CDs after sunset.
    If, to you, your Conservative shul is “old” (what does that mean, anyway? Is the congregation elderly? Do you find the liturgy stale?) and your Reform temple is “not Jewish”, you need to look elsewhere, obviously. But when you find something, be sure it has substance, not just a catchy tune.

  15. I agree with Elaine. Chabad is fine for unaffiliated Jews who grew up with and have an affinity for the liturgy. Many beginners – particularly young people – don’t fall into that category, and aren’t fortunate enough to find a shliach who is adept at making the service “user-friendly”. And many synagogues, particularly in the suburbs, conduct services that are uninspired and lacking in content.
    There have been charismatic Jewish teachers in recent decades – Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi come to mind – who have brought considerable numbers back to Judaism. Of course, I don’t have figures in front of me, but it seems doubtful that the number of returnees equaled the number of émigrés to secularism and other religions (and there are those who would claim that what Reb Zalman has been doing isn’t “authentic” Judaism, although I wouldn’t be one of them). There is also Esther Jungreis, but she has an unfortunate tendency to confuse the broad category of Judaism with her own sentimental attachment to folk Yiddishkeit. In any case, Reb Shlomo is gone, and Reb Zalman and the Rebbetzin are nearing the end of their careers. I don’t know that there is anyone to replace them.
    My eighteen year-old cousin is in a Chabad yeshiva; his mother belongs to a Messianic congregation (which could, actually, be used to support David’s assertion). Naturally, he disapproves of his mother’s affiliation. I don’t approve of it, either, but I think that I understand it in a way that he doesn’t. I’ve told him that many of the people attracted by the Messianic movement are Jews who are unaffiliated, poorly educated (in Jewish terms), who feel estranged from Judaism and possibly from the Jewish people, and who are often lonely. I think that many of them also have a problem dealing with moral ambiguities – the “gray areas” of life. They tell these people “You aren’t alone, God loves you passionately, and you can have an intimate relationship with him.” They then supply them with an easily-understood liturgy (they don’t have to learn Hebrew), easy answers to life’s complexities and a theological framework in which to foster this relationship. Whether their subsequent “experiences” represent self-delusion or actual communion with God is a matter of speculation, and is impossible to know, but they certainly accept them as real. Judaism isn’t offering them much by way of competition. Most congregations run through services like they’re reading the grocery list. In terms of theology, they’re told, “Yeah, God loves you… but we really don’t talk about it”, and Orthodoxy adds, “and in the meantime, here are these 613 hoops you have to jump through.” I can understand that they find the former approach more attractive, especially as there are factions within Orthodoxy that regard them with condescension at best and contempt at worst.
    I’m not defending J4J’s tactics, and I’m certainly not defending conservative Christian theology, which I consider obscene – but I agree with David. We’re failing. The number of Messianic congregations, here and abroad, has increased dramatically over the past couple of decades. Obviously, they’re offering people something that they want, and our response can’t be, “Well, if they’re apathetic or simple-minded enough to fall for it, the hell with them.” We need to come up with something else, even if it starts out as nothing more than a way to make alienated Jews feel wanted.

  16. Allow me to attempt to draw a parallel between “failed Zionism” and J4J. First there definitely was a large number of Zionists in the planning and development stage that viewed Zionism as a modern, robust, and adventurous replacement for Judaism.
    Even for those that didn’t “worship” the tenets of Zionism, it was still for many a panacea for a post-WWII broken and brokenhearted people who wanted and needed something to make them feel good and proud about being Jewish.
    Did it work? Has it worked consistently?
    Perhaps, in some form. Until around 1982. The invasion of Lebanon was perhaps the opening of the floodgates that allowed many to vent their previously surpressed negative passions about Jews. Until then, the memory of the Churban (Holocaust) prevented them from doing so but with the barrage of lies, exaggerations, and questionable journalism recorded the war’s events, many Jews (especially American ones) who invested their souls with the concept of Zionism now reverted back to the dark and foreboding existence of being a Jew.
    Therefore, perhaps Zionism was limited in instilling that upbeat feeling for being Jewish.
    It’s those in the darkness, pining for “good news” that are ripe targets for missionaries (especially of the bait ‘n switch variety like J4J). Maybe any vestiges of guilt a potential apostate harbors is rationalized away by painting themselves as a victim of betrayal by….whatever Israel is guilty of that particular week in the media.
    I don’t have hard stats, but some anecdotal evidence indicates that J4J success from its inception in 1960 something through the early 1980s was marginal at best. However, from the mid-80s until present, their success in attracting disaffected ones along withe the ignorant increased exponentially.
    I’m a BT. Around the age of 20 I started making the first moves that would likely classify one as a BT. This was about 5 years after Lebanon and at the beginning of the so called first “intifada”. For me, it took some pretty strong doses of Torah medicine to overcome that dark and foreboding and isolated feeling part ‘n parcel with a tumultuous past and to make sense of it all. However, I’m not asserting that anti-Israel sentiment alone was the catalyst into mitzvah-observance.

  17. Interesting comments by Cipher. I’m not sure how much can be done about services – the liturgy is set, and too much extra singing tends to expand the length of the services beyond endurance for most, as well as threatening to turn the experience into more of a concert than a service (I’m all in favor of music, but there are limits). The rabbi can speak, but even the best speaker would have a hard time holding the attention of the experienced congregants, those with some knowledge and the absolute beginners all at once. But then, synagogue services are hardly the place where Judaism actually lives. I doubt that many religiously committed Jews would agree that what inspires them most happens in the synagogue (except maybe on Yom Kippur). It’s the sense of purpose, the careful mixture of discipline and enjoyment, the family life, the intellectual experience (for some)… and these are best displayed in the home, on Shabbat. So maybe the best program is to invite newcomers to Shabbat meals, where they can see how things work for themselves, and where they can interact with the hosts and discuss any issue at the appropriate level, at a relaxed pace. Aside from this, events and classes geared to newcomers are a good idea.
    That said, at least from the Orthodox perspective, we may not be able to offer a direct substitute for what J for J provides. We can provide support and friendship, possibly a beginner’s version of Judaism that includes an emphasis on a relationship with G-d, and not insist that all mitzvot be kept immediately. But unless and until a newcomer becomes Orthodox, or makes an effort, which is difficult, we can’t tell them that everything they do is in accordance with the religion (this is not in and of itself condescension or contempt, just honesty). Some people are OK with this, and some are not. For those who need a quick emotional fix without expending a great deal of effort (and in some cases this need may not be the person’s fault), groups like Jews for J or the Kabbalah Centre will seem more attractive.

  18. So, I’m living in Florida after 20 years in Brooklyn. They’ve got these Bible TV stations, 2 of them. I won’t pay for cable, and the regular stations are pretty bad. Flipping through them I pass those Bible stations. I’ve seen programs about their efforts in Haiti.
    The other night I couldn’t believe my eyes.. the program they were showing was their efforts on behalf of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union. The byline – “save a Jew” for this amount of $$ you ca save 1,2,3 or feed a family. Many of the elderly Jews they showed were survivors. I was so uncomfortable with the thought that these christians were doing for my extended family. I wondered what more I should be doing, “we” could be doing. There are messianic jews, j4j, on this channel too, but it is this save a jew thing that blows me away.

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