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New ‘Messianic Jewish’ group raises tough questions

By Leon Cohen
and Elana Kahn-Oren

August 19th, 2005

In many ways, we at The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle strive to adhere to the standards and practices of the general journalism profession. We seek in our news pages to do objective reporting, and to cover controversial issues within the Jewish community in a fair and balanced way.

But we are also an advocacy journal. We serve a community to which we belong and whose success and survival are our deepest concerns. Indeed, our mission directs us to “foster a sense of community within the Jewish population of Wisconsin.”

While we do not want to shy from difficult conversations or controversies, we want those controversies that we cover to be “for the sake of heaven,” as the Talmud section “Sayings of the Sages” (5:20) described the disagreements between the schools of Rabbis Hillel and Shammai — i.e., good faith disagreements about what policies and practices are truly good for the Jewish community.

Most of the time these two duties complement each other, but sometimes they conflict and we tiptoe the jagged border between “objective,” hard journalism and loving, though critical, advocacy.

This is part of our daily challenge and is inherent in the questions we repeatedly ask ourselves: How do we cover such contentious issues as interfaith marriage, criticism of the Israeli government, anti-Semitism and sticky local situations?

This month we face that challenge again, as a “Messianic Jewish” congregation calling itself Beth Messiah-Milwaukee has announced that it will hold its first service on Saturday, Aug. 27.

“Messianic Judaism” is a movement comprising organizations and individuals that proclaim Jews can maintain their Jewish identity while believing that Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of Christianity, is the Messiah. These organizations or individuals can or could be:

• Attempting to revive the “Jewish Christianity” that the earliest followers of Jesus practiced in the first and second centuries C.E., but that was rejected by the mainstreams of both Christianity and Judaism and vanished.

• Seeking to create a new religious movement for contemporary spiritual seekers.
• Striving dishonestly to lure Jews away from Judaism and into Christianity by dressing Christianity in Jewish clothing.

Paula Simon, executive director of the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations, has no doubt that this new operation is one of those working on the last-named project.

“Groups such as Beth Messiah engage in inherently fraudulent and misleading efforts by misusing Jewish traditions and symbols, and by making the false claim that a person can be both Jewish and a believer in Christ,” she wrote in a statement Monday. “The Jewish community is deeply offended by these initiatives.”

The Chronicle published a long investigative report about “Messianic Judaism” in September 1994. This report followed the standards of journalism in giving local people who belonged to such organizations a chance to have their say.

But the article ultimately showed that virtually all mainstream Jewish community organizations regard most “Messianic Jews” as enemies. Their disagreement with the Jewish community is not “for the sake of heaven.” Rather, they seek clearly to destroy the Jewish community by turning Jews into Christians.

After learning about the formation of this new organization, we ask ourselves: How do we react? If we cover this “congregation” in our news pages, by the standards of journalism we should call its leaders and give them a say.

But doing that not only brings them extra attention; it also might make it appear that we are giving them our hechsher (kashrut approval) as legitimate players in the Jewish community, or even in Jewish relations with the general community, which they are not.

But to pretend they don’t exist doesn’t serve the community either. We believe we need to warn the community that “Messianic Jews” are here, just as we would need to warn it about the existence of a neo-Nazi group.

We feel the community especially needs to be on the alert about this Beth Messiah, which is led by Frank Susler, pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship.

In a first-person article in the May 2005 issue of Havurah, a magazine published by Jews for Jesus in San Francisco, Susler said he was raised a Conservative Jew in Milwaukee, converted to Christianity, became a pastor and gradually moved into “Jewish ministry.”

He is a local product who may well be able to speak local “Jewish lingo,” and therefore might be able to pass himself off as a community member to the unwary or uninformed.

Because of this, we have chosen to share this news with you through an opinion article. In our own voices we want to say: Beware, there is a new group of missionizing Christians in Jewish clothing in town. Spread the word, and avoid them.

There is probably no need at this point to plan protests or otherwise react. But should Beth Messiah members appear at any Jewish community events and attempt to attract people, shun them and report their activity to the MJCCR.

In the late 1990s, a similar effort arose when one Kirk Gliebe started Kol Emeth Messianic Jewish Congregation. It didn’t last. Let us create an equally unwelcoming climate for Beth Messiah-Milwaukee.