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.”