Saturday, July 29, 2006

Jews for Jesus on the Radio

Last Monday I was driving to upstate New York for a day of fly-fishing. I was listening to WQXR, 96.3, the popular classical station in New York City. A commercial comes on and I hear the music for Fiddler on The Roof. I am thinking to myself, maybe there is a new production that is being advertised.

Then a man comes on using a thick Jewish accent and starts talking about Jesus. He says that he is from the group: Jews for Jesus. And that it is ok to be Jewish and believe in Jesus. And all the while, the fiddler on the Roof music is playing in the background. I was shocked and angry. The Jews for Jesus were disguising their message in a Jewish context, so that Jews would feel comfortable, and may be willing to convert.

So I did something I almost never do. I called the station. I spoke to someone in the advertising department. I explained that I am a rabbi on Long Island, that they are surely entitled to take money from whomever they wanted to place ads on their station. But I said that I was deeply offended by this commercial. By the way, during this conversion, I remained civil and polite and did not yell, which I believe is the most effective way of getting your point across. The woman from the radio station listened and said that I was not the first one to call. She also said that she would pass on my concern to the management. We will see if they decide to stop running that Jews for Jesus ad or not.

Jews for Jesus appear every summer in New York City. In Grand Central Station and even near my house in Queens, I see kids handing out literature, trying to convert Jews. And the Jews for Jesus always bother me greatly. So I spent some time thinking about why.

Part of my frustration comes from the deception. They say they are Jews and they play Fiddler on the Roof. Yet they are Christians and their true intent is to covert us. I don’t like it when people are trying to con me. I worry that other Jews may fall into this trap.

But as a rabbi in particular, the Jews for Jesus also really make me angry. I spend all day, everyday trying to pass on Jewish tradition. I teach kids of all ages, showing them the beauty of Judaism. I give sermons on how Judaism and Torah can help you be a better person. At a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I help pass the Torah from grandparents, to parents, to a new Jewish adult. Here I am working hard to help people become more Jewish. And the Jews for Jesus are doing the opposite, trying to make Jews less Jewish, but using Jewish songs and rituals to do it!

My job as a rabbi is hard enough. I have to compete with the secular world. I remember a discussion I had on the High Holidays in 2004. It was either Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur and the evening services fell on the same night as the Yankees-Red Sox playoff game. This person said that he thought the attendance at services would be low because people would stay home to see the game. Now whether or not this was true, the mere fact that we had to discuss it was troubling. Of course I replied: What about TIVO? Let them record it and come to Temple!

What I mean to say here is that passing on Judaism and keeping our faith strong is hard enough in our secular American society. The last thing we need are groups like Jews for Jesus appearing on our radio stations, trying to convert us.

I believe that the best response to the Jews for Jesus is to be vigilant and to be educated. When Jews for Jesus come out every summer, we must watch them. We must speak out against them when necessary, but always with civility. And the surest way to overcome those who wish to convert us is education. It is important in a religious school setting to teach our children about Jews for Jesus. For parents, it is up to you to tell your children what to do when someone tries to convert them to Christianity. I think the best answer when approached by someone from Jews for Jesus on the street is to say: “No Thank You, I’m Jewish.”


geoffrobinson said...

You are confusing disagreement with deception. You disagree with them. Deception would mean they don't really believe what they claim to believe. If they weren't for Jesus, that would be deception.

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

Thank you for your comment and you make a fair point. I agree that Jews for Jesus believe what they say: that a person can be Jewish and accpet Jesus. However, as a Rabbi, it FEELS like deception; a group that I consider not Jewish is using some of the well-known cultural aspects of Judaism like Fiddler on the Roof music and yiddish accent in order to convert Jews to Christianity.

kelly mo said...

Hi, Eric! Wikipedia provides some interesting support for the deception argument. Namely that Jews for Jesus employ Jews as "only front-line missionaries," but hire Christians to administrative positions.

Notably, a group of Christian Scholars (including Roman Catholics) issued a statement in September 2002 that opposes the evangelical mission of Jews for Jesus: "Christians should not target Jews for conversion. Christian worship that teaches contempt for Judaism dishonors God."

Anonymous said...

Kelly Mo neglects to mention that the Wikipedia article is accompanied by a warning that it contains information that is biased against the organization the article refers to. Doesn't make for much of a credible reference to bolster the argument.

Rabbi, you certainly are entitled to express your opinion that Jews for Jesus is not Jewish. I think it's fair to ask that you then explain how someone born a Jew can stop being Jewish. And if they are born Jews, why are they not entitled to the cultural aspects that are theirs because they're born Jews? Would you tell a Jew who is a practicing Buddhist they had to abandon their culture?

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

Thank you for your comment. I would like to respond to a few of your points.

It is possible for a Jew to no longer be Jewish by converting to another faith. And that is essentially what I believe Jews for Jesus do when they proclaim a belief in Jesus. It is simply not possible to remain Jewish and accept Jesus.

Now to your second point. There are many "Jew-Bu"s, Jews who embrace Judaism and Buddhism. Some say that they are looking for a spirituality not found in traditional Judaism. (By the way, this is not true--One only need to type in the word "kabbalah" into google to see the vast network of Jewish spiritual teaching out there.) In my eyes, it is possible to embrace Eastern spirituality and remain Jewish since Buddhism also believes in one God.

But I also feel that being a "cultural" Jew is not enough. I love bagel and lox. But Jewish food alone does not the Jew make. One must find a way into Jewish practice and Jewish life. Maybe that is lighting candles on Shabbat at home, or just saying Baruch Atah Adoni, Blessed are you God, when something good happens in your life. But in my view, the label "Jew" should be backed up with some kind of Jewish practice for it to have meaning in our lives.

kelly mo said...

P.S. When we say, "accept Jesus," I think its important to distinguish between "accepting Jesus as one's Lord and saviour, the only Son of God," etc. versus accepting the notion that Jesus' teachings are the foundation of Christianity. I think a Jew can certainly do the latter.

I also think its important to acknowledge that "Jewishness" is often associated with a shared sense of cultural heritage that transcends day-to-day customs like the foods we eat, but may not be rooted in spiritual practice. I would assume this does influence one's religious identity (even those who are secular).