When Craig Miller read in a local newspaper that Hope of Israel, a Russian branch of Jews for Jesus, was inviting the Russian Jewish community to a Chanukah party a little over a year ago, he called every rabbi in the neighborhood. In thirty minutes he had convinced one of them, Rabbi Samuel Berger, to host an alternative Chanukah party at his synagogue. Four days later, on Saturday, December 3, 1994, nearly ninety Jewish demonstrators with long black coats and beards milled in front of the Methodist church in Sheepshead Bay. As Russian immigrants shuffled through the church's red doors, the men outside yelled, "You call yourselves Jewish and you walk into a church?" They invited the crowd to step into one of their three waiting vans and ride to their "real" Chanukah party down the street where Chanukah menorahs, latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (doughnuts) cluttered the tops of three long tables. "We didn't do everything ourselves, we got the community involved," Miller said. "It turned out to be a phenomenal experience."
"Phenomenal" is not how the leader of Hope of Israel, Greg Zhelezny, describes that evening. The commotion in front of the church brought five police cruisers and one police van to the scene. "They were pushing, and I told them Don't push people,'" Zhelezny recalled. "This one man started cursing me to my face. He would not stop. So I told him, you know what I said? I said, I love you.'"
The number of Jews accepting Christ as the Messiah and joining Messianic (Christ-believing) Jewish groups in this country is growing every year. Rabbi Tovia Singer, director of Jews for Judaism of Greater New York, an anti- missionary group, estimates that so far, more than 300,000 Jews have become involved in Messianic Jewish groups. Stan Telchin, an author and major figure in the Jews for Jesus movement, puts it a different way. He points out that more Jews have "received" Jesus since 1967 than at any other time in the past 2,000 years.
In New York, Messianic Jewish missionaries are targeting the Russian immigrant population in Brooklyn. This is time and money strategically spent. The New York Association for New Americans counts more than 200,000 Russian Jews who have touched down in New York City. Nearly 13,000 arrived last year. By the year 2000, the Russian community could make up a quarter of the city's Jewish population. Russian Jews are being courted not only for their numbers, but also because their religious backgrounds are so undernourished. Under seventy-five years of communism, and even today in a notoriously anti-Semitic nation, many Russian Jews connect their heritage with persecution rather than religion. They are, therefore, more likely to accept the Messianic missionaries' notion that the Jesus-believing Jew is a "fulfilled Jew" or a " completed Jew."
The fifth line on internal passports in the former Soviet Union lists nationality. This is where Nastya Zhelezny's passport reads "Yevrey"--Jew. In Russia, she explained, that identity rendered only ill treatment. "If you're walking down the street and somebody is not in a good mood and he sees your Jewish nose, he says, You ....'" Nastya checked herself: "Well, you can fill in a word. Sometimes the only reason I knew I was Jewish was because I got cursed as I walked down the street."
In 1990, when Nastya was 14, her family left their home in Kiev, Ukraine, and moved to Italy while waiting to be granted entry to the United States. It was in Italy that Claudia Zhelezny walked into her first synagogue. Her daughter remembered, "It was a synagogue for Russians so we started going because my mom was looking for spiritual things. A couple of times she did some rituals wrong and she got yelled at." Intimidated, the Zheleznys stopped attending. Nastya's older brother, Igor, remembers their time in Italy as painful. "We were sort of nowhere," he said.
Then, one day, Igor found the "American Club." Unlike most people in his temporary home, the people at the club impressed him with their interest in books and spirituality and the difficulties of immigration, and, better yet, they listened to him. The "American Club" began to soothe the emptiness that had gnawed at him since his family left Kiev. "It turns out they were missionaries," Nastya said of the group. "They had a meeting there, and there were English classes and when we came there, the first thing we heard was We love Jews.' And it was so strange for us because everyone had always hated us. "
By the time the Zheleznys arrived in New York two months later, the three were devoted believers in Jesus. A year later, Igor met people from Jews for Jesus, and the Zheleznys found a way to link their Jewish heritage and their newfound belief. It was Igor (now called Greg) Zhelezny who suggested to New York Jews for Jesus Director Mitch Glaser three years ago that he start a Russian branch in Brooklyn. Now, Nastya and Greg's new wife, Inna, lead the religious songs that fill the Methodist church. Greg delivers sermons in Russian, and Claudia, who has been working as a full-time missionary for Jews for Jesus, concludes each service with a long prayer, whispering "Gospodi, Gospodi" ("God, God").
Rabbi Singer understands that the faith of most Messianic Jews is sincere. " We have to walk humbly in this issue," he says. "The success of the movement really represents the unpaid bills of the Jewish community. You know, they say, What is your name? Do you have a place to eat tonight? Do you have someone to marry?' Very friendly. That notion of friendliness and loving, this is a Jewish idea they took from us. We gave away the business."
Jews for Jesus, founded in 1973 in San Francisco, is the most active among the Messianic Jewish missionary groups across the nation. The organization supports nine international branches--including two in the former Soviet Union--with an annual $16 million-dollar budget (mostly from private donations from the evangelical right).
Greg Zhelezny estimates that Hope of Israel, the Russian branch in Brooklyn, spends about $100,000 each year. Most of that money comes from the congregation's sponsor, New York's Redeemer Presbyterian Church. The money funds a rented office on Coney Island Avenue, bible study sessions in Russian, the rented church space in Sheepshead Bay on Saturday evenings and small perks like buffet suppers at their bible study sessions and donations of clothes, food and furniture for those settling into new homes.
But the bulk of the group's funding goes toward English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Greg Zhelezny estimates that $50,000, or 50 percent of the group's annual spending, supports the biweekly classes. The classes are free but include a mandatory one-hour bible study session. Now, more than 200 Russian immigrants are learning English from the missionaries, and there is a waiting list of more than 400. "ESL is the number one enticement used by Jews for Jesus," says Craig Miller, director of the Jewish Action Group in Brooklyn. "The Jewish community has abilities, but not as many resources."
The $100,000 budget Hope of Israel depends on from Jews for Jesus is hardly being matched by Brooklyn synagogues. Miller blames hard times for a drop in donations from the Jewish community. But Rabbi Singer argues that the problem has deeper roots.
"The Jewish community, in general, has money," said Singer. "The problem is we invest so much into beautiful homes and trips to Florida, and our kids have no Jewish education. If I'm on the train and I see someone reading the Bible, I know that person is a Christian because the Jews are reading The Wall Street Journal."
At a Friday night American Messianic Jewish service in Manhattan, "Rabbi" Schiffman and members of the congregation expressed their concern for the branch across the bridge in Brooklyn. When Schiffman asked for needs and wishes to include in the group prayer, Renay, a plump woman wearing a charm necklace with a cross and a star of David, raised her hand. "Stan Telchin is arriving tomorrow to speak to the Russian Messianic congregation, and I know there are people planning to demonstrate against him," she said. "I want to pray for him and for that congregation, that they stand strong against the opposition."
On the cold, damp Saturday evening last January when Stan Telchin arrived, a police officer was addressing a handful of Jews for Jesus believers inside the church. The Russian service was to begin in about a half-hour. Mitch Glaser of Jews for Jesus warned journalists not to talk to any of "his" people. He explained, "These people have been living under oppression for seventy-five years and they trust us. If you go asking them questions you could scare them away." Outside, six young Orthodox Jews had found their familiar patch of grass in front of the church and stood ready. Blue police barricades contained the demonstrators inside a thirty-foot-long pen. Officer John Schmucker assured the missionaries: "I tell you, if people want to harass people coming in they don't have a leg to stand on."
Outside, the ten "troublemakers" felt flattered. "All this for us? Wow!" said Yossie Urabeck, whose bright eyes and patchy beard made him look even younger than his 20 years. This was the fifth week in a row the demonstrators had stood outside the church.
While Miller and the Jewish Action Group can organize alternatives for Russian Jews and demonstrate at public Jews for Jesus events, the Jewish community is more or less powerless against the Messianic Jewish movement's most powerful tool: the missionary.
With the help of a missionary, Vladimir Rogovoy found Jesus about five months after arriving in the U.S. from Kiev, Ukraine. He was waiting in line to register for freshman classes at Polytech University in Brooklyn. It had been a long day, and Vladimir recalled that everyone was feeling a little edgy. Then Vladimir noticed a cluster of people sitting on the floor around a tall young man with disheveled brown hair and dark brown eyes. His look was unkempt, but he spoke with vitality and kindness. Vladimir drew closer.
"He was speaking English, and it was sometimes hard to understand, but what I did understand touched me. I had seen a movie called Jesus in Russia, but this was the first time that the idea of God actually came to me," Vladimir recalled. He said he was so intrigued by Greg's preaching that he brought the young man home at the end of the day so that he could hear more. The two men from Kiev talked until midnight. They were both tired, especially Greg, who, Vladimir said, "looked practically dead." Vladimir invited Greg back to his home later that week for dinner, and the pair quickly became friends. Greg brought Vladimir a Bible to read, and they talked about their shared Jewish backgrounds and their shared faiths.
Seven months later, Greg invited Vladimir to his wedding, which was held not in anything like the bland "Houses of Marriage" Vladimir had known in the Ukraine, but in a church. Vladimir was dazed with wonder. "The ceremony brought me closer to the idea that you have to believe in something else in this world besides physical things," he said. "I had accepted it before, but this high level of spirituality at this wedding it ... I just felt something. "
Today, thanks largely to Greg and his sister Nastya Zhelezny, Vladimir's life in his new homeland is rich. Before he met the Zheleznys, the slight, dark-eyed Ukrainian saw New York as a place of filthy streets and brusque people. "It was a shock," he remembered. "Before I came I had a different picture in my mind; I expected a great civilization, and that was certainly not what I saw." Now, as he sat beside Nastya, to whom he is engaged, with their matching pair of black-and-white cocker spaniels snoozing at their feet and a tray of hot tea steaming on a corner table, Vladimir concluded softly, " I came to this country looking for material treasures, and I ended up finding spiritual treasures instead."
Greg points to stories like Vladimir's to defend the missionary work he and the others do for Jews for Jesus. He argues that the group isn't trying to " steal" Jews from their religion, but offering Russian immigrants an element often missing from their lives: spirituality. Says Zhelezny: "If you go to Brighton Beach and you see what these people are interested in--diamonds, fur coats, Mercedes Benz--people come here because they want to be Americans' at all costs. It's a very unfortunate state to be in. So I think it's a very humane thing to reach out to these people and at least alert them to spiritual things."
As long as missionaries like Greg Zhelezny are avidly seeking to fill what they see as a tragic gap in Russian immigrants' lives, Russian Jews will be encouraged to shun tradition and join Messianic groups. And Rabbi Singer knows he has an uphill struggle in convincing Russians to learn more about traditional Jewish religion. "I'm reaching a lot of people," says Singer. " But the reality is that they're winning. We expect to lose about 8,000 Jews to missionaries in the U.S. this year. It's very serious."
It may sound strange to hear Singer speak about evangelical missionary groups in competitive terms, but the reality is many evangelical missionaries do feel that they are in a race. The year 2000 is significant for Christians who believe the turn of the century will beckon the second coming of Jesus Christ. Matthew 23:39 says, "Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." Many fundamentalist Christians take this passage to mean that everyone--especially Jews--must accept Christ as the Messiah before he will appear again. The push is on to convert as many Jews as possible in the next five years and, as Rabbi Singer jokes to traditional Jews, "Ladies and gentlemen, you are holding up the show. " Evangelical Christians also point to references in the New Testament that single out Jews as a priority for missionaries, especially Romans 1:16, where Paul echoes the instructions of Jesus, saying, "Go to the Jew first and then to the Greek."
Such biblical passages make Messianic Jews like Greg Zhelezny feel that they are carrying out an urgent, sacred duty when they talk to a Jew about Jesus. Thirty-nine percent of respondents to a 1995 Gallup Poll identify themselves as evangelical, born-again Christians. If even a fraction of these people interpret the "instructions" of the New Testament as Zhelezny does, the drive to convert the Jews is clearly intense.
Alarge portion of Rabbi Singer's work lies in counseling those Jews who have already been converted to Christianity. His technique is to guide the converted Jew through the text of the Bible in intense study to disprove the Messianic Jewish claim that the Old Testament foreshadows the coming of Christ as the Messiah. He uses both texts of the Bible since, as he said, " that's the currency they're dealing in."
Isaiah 53 is the main text that Messianic Jews point to as proof that the Old Testament foretold the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. They say the passage describes the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. Miller and Singer argue that the figure in Isaiah 53 described as "stricken, smitten of God and afflicted" is not one man--Jesus--but an entire group of people--the Jews. Singer and Miller hold that when Vladimir Rogovoy or Greg Zhelezny read this text, they are reading not a justification for their acceptance of Christ, but for sticking with traditional Judaism even when it brings hardship.
"The Russian Jews could have given up their Jewish identity," said Miller. " They could have said, It's too tough being a Jew under communism. I don't want to put up with it.' They could have done that and instead they didn't. They lost jobs and privileges. Their lives were horrible. Why didn't they give up their Jewish identity? Why? The suffering servant is the answer. Jews have a special role, and this is what this passage is talking about."
Nastya Zhelezny and Vladimir Rogovoy only shake their heads at this argument. "We cannot stop being Jewish even if we believe in Jesus," Rogovoy said. "If we go back to Russia we will be just as persecuted whether or not we believe in Jesus."
By Amanda Onion