Preying On Us?

Alan H. Feiler / Kirsten Beckerman
AUGUST 12, 2005


For David A. Finkelstein, the matter is absolutely crystal clear. No conflicts, contradictions, arguments or impasses. He believes he is saved, and those who are not, well, are simply, in his words, sinners.

A welcoming, garrulous man whose salt-and-pepper beard, bifocal spectacles and quick mind afford him the appearance and manner of a seasoned yeshiva bucher, Mr. Finkelstein is spiritual leader of Am Yeshua (People of Jesus), a Messianic congregation of approximately 40 worshippers that holds weekly services in a classroom of Reisterstown's Northminster Presbyterian Church.

(Messianic Jews, who incorporate Jewish thought and practice into their belief in Jesus, are also known as Hebrew-Christians, or by the colloquial catch-all "Jews for Jesus.")

Sitting in his elegant Owings Mills living room brimming with Jewish art and artifacts, Mr. Finkelstein entertains guests by composing and performing impromptu piano numbers ("I've Got A Little Piece Of Heaven") and cracking jokes, even about what he perceives as the mainstream Jewish community's rampant paranoia about the Messianic movement.


"Oooh!" he exclaims in mock conspiratorial tone, picking up a long, twisted and well-polished shofar resting against an entertainment center, "he's so deceptive! He's using Jewish symbols to make us believe in Jesus! He's gonna get us!"

But when seriously discussing the mission to convince Jews and others about the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, Mr. Finkelstein a Baltimore native who became a bar mitzvah at Pikesville's Beth Tfiloh Congregation and travels to Uganda annually to preach the Christian gospel offers no apologies or excuses.

"Look, if you were walking down the street and saw a house on fire, would you not do anything you could to save the people in that fire? Of course you would," he says. "When you have that theological view, that people are sinners and are in need of saving, you try to go and serve, wherever you can. It's absolutely necessary to share the Good News."

Looking up, Mr. Finkelstein smiles and points to a decorative border encircling the top of his living room that features a robust grapevine and the familiar Hebrew words "Hinei ma tov uma naim shevet achim gam yachad "See how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in harmony."

"That's really true," he says quietly, crossing his legs while sitting on a piano stool and gazing out of a window into the sunny afternoon haze. "That's what I really believe. That's what it's all about, and that's what Yeshua wants."

Mr. Finkelstein and some of his congregants are among the scores of local volunteers Messianics, mainstream Christians and others who plan to assist the San Francisco-based Jews for Jesus evangelical organization with "Operation Behold Your God," an intensive missionary campaign slated to converge on the Baltimore metropolitan area from Aug. 18 to Sept. 10. (Jews for Jesus' legal name is Hineni Ministries Inc.)

Started in 2001, "Behold Your God" is a five-year, $22 million effort launched by Jews for Jesus to proselytize to Jews living in 65 cities (outside of Israel) with Jewish communities exceeding 25,000. Among the cities already targeted by "Behold Your God" were Washington, D.C., Paris, Houston, Detroit, Denver, Miami and Melbourne. Next on the list are Berlin, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buenos Aires and Las Vegas.

The campaign takes its name from Isaiah 40:9 "Ascend upon a high mountain, O herald of Zion; raise your voice with strength, O herald of Jerusalem! Raise it, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, 'Behold your God!'"

Mr Finkelstein

"We're excited that we can join with them in serving the Lord," says Mr. Finkelstein, who became a follower of Jesus in 1980 while vacationing with his future wife and her family in Ocean City. "Whatever [Jews for Jesus] asks for, we'll do hand out materials, talk to people, financial assistance. We have a directive from the Lord Matthew 28 to share the kingdom of God. We've found the love of God, and we want you to have that, too.

"People need to behold your God," he says. "They should listen it's the truth. Jews and gentiles should be brought together for the messiah. We see that through Yeshua. This is our redeeming."

Susan Perlman, associate executive director of the national Jews for Jesus office, says "Behold Your God" is a vehicle to compel Jews and others to seriously consider the possibility that Jesus met the criteria for messiah as dictated by the Hebrew Bible and prophets. She says her organization is not striving to offend or agitate the local Jewish community, or anyone else.

"We're not stupid. We don't want to incite violence, or go to places where that'd be a temptation," she says. "We're not going to walk into a shul, or stand in a Chasidic area waving a pork chop. We're respectful, we don't want to upset people."

But confrontation certainly appears to be a goal. In a letter sent out to Messianic Jews last April, Stephen Katz, director of the Jews for Jesus office in Rockville, described the campaign as "where the rubber of our faith meets the road of rejection by those we care most about."

Noting that Baltimore "is the most Orthodox community in the United States," he wrote that participating in "Behold Your God" will "not be easy. It will stretch you physically and spiritually. ... Besides the religious community, there are many other venues for us to sow gospel seeds, including baseball games, preseason football games, the inner harbor and special events that we'll host. ... We need your help."

Ms. Perlman says approximately 24 Jews for Jesus professional workers and volunteers will come to Baltimore to hand out leaflets in areas with heavy Jewish pedestrian traffic, make phone calls and door-to-door visitations, plaster billboards and advertise in the local media all to get their message out and influence minds. (She would not identify the areas in which campaign workers will operate.) Ms. Perlman says the local campaign will be primarily directed by leaders of the Jews for Jesus office in Rockville. (Phone calls to the Rockville office from the Baltimore Jewish Times were directed to Ms. Perlman.)

"We only want to talk to people who want to talk to and engage us," she says. "We're not deceptive how can we be deceptive with signs and T-shirts that say who we are? Even the literature we distribute, there's nothing secretive about it.

"If people could see us as sincere people who came to our beliefs in an honest way, that would defeat the image that [critics of Jews for Jesus] want to create of us, that we prey on people, that we're deceptive," says Ms. Perlman, who estimates that approximately 75,000 Jewish-born Americans today believe in Jesus, as opposed to much larger figures cited by Jewish organizations. "People can debate that you can't be Jewish and Christian, but you can't say we're deceptive about who we say we are. We couldn't be more upfront."

Not surprisingly, that's a view Scott Hillman, executive director of Jews for Judaism, strongly disagrees with. A Baltimore-based international counter-missionary organization, Jews for Judaism is conducting an intensive campaign of its own to inform and alert mainstream Jews and others about "Behold Your God."

The organization is operating this counter- campaign with the aid of an interagency task force established by the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Among the Associated agencies actively involved are the Center for Jewish Education, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, the Baltimore Jewish Council and Hillel of Greater Baltimore.

"[Jews for Jesus is] coming because there are a lot of Jews here, and because Baltimore is a big tourist destination," Mr. Hillman says. "And they know what they're doing. They claim to have trained over 600 Christians to go after Jews, about what to say to Jews, about how to say it and about how to show them the Scriptures."

Scott Hillman

A belief in Jesus, Mr. Hillman says, is completely anathema to Judaism. He wants that long-held Jewish view which is endorsed by all streams and factions of normative Judaism to be conveyed to Jews and Christians everywhere.

Messianic Jews, he says, deceptively wear kippot, ritual fringes and tallitot, while employing Jewish prayers and concepts in their services and theology, to lure Jews to what is essentially Christian belief and thought.

"It's not just Jews who say this is wrong but Christians as well," he says.

When a Jew accepts Jesus as his savior, he becomes a Christian, Mr. Hillman says, and thus there really is no such thing as a "Jew for Jesus." Since Jesus did not meet the criteria for the messiah as stipulated and forecast by the Hebrew Bible and ancient prophets such as the fact that he did not produce global harmony during his lifetime, and experienced a physical death there can be no merging or creative mingling of the faiths, Mr. Hillman says.

Not so, insists Am Yeshua's Mr. Finkelstein, who calls himself a Messianic rabbi. "A certain Rabbinic understanding is incorrect about who the messiah is devastatingly wrong," he says. "It's normative to believe that the messiah will suffer. [Jesus] fits the bill perfectly. Their assumptions are wrong."

But Mr. Hillman says Jesus remains an alien figure in Jewish theological circles, despite his profound significance in world history.

"The only information we really have on Jesus is from the Christian Bible," he says. "Jesus has no relevance to Judaism. How many 'Jews for Vishnu' do you know? None they became Hindus.

"You can't have a group that believes widely different things a Chinese menu system where you take from A, B or C and be a true community. For Jews, what we use in our devotional lives is defined by parameters. It's what you practice. What we want to do is get people to think and engage them in their Judaism."

With the impending arrival of "Behold Your God," Rabbi Elan Adler, president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, says he is primarily concerned about unaffiliated and assimilated Jews.

"I worry about people who are perhaps more open to textual references and might say, 'Hey, that's a good point,' and are lured into a conversation," he says. "It all might sound correct and possible to them, if they're not educated or connected."

If approached by a "Behold Your God" worker, Rabbi Adler advises people "to be a mentsch. Be respectful but say, 'I'm very happy with what I believe in,' and that's it. Thanks but no thanks. The less you say, the better. But be a mentsch. You never know what a mentschy word can do."

As counter-measures, Jews for Judaism is conducting three town hall meetings (with the Baltimore Jewish Council), working with myriad Jewish organizations and agencies about education and awareness of Jews for Jesus and other proselytizing groups, and advertising in local media about "Behold Your God."

(Editor's Note: In recent weeks, the Baltimore Jewish times has run a series of advertisements from Jews for Judaism warning of "Behold Your God." Next week's Jewish Times will include an advertising supplement from Jews for Judaism about the campaign. The Jewish Times maintains a policy of not accepting ads or public announcements from Messianic groups or Christian proselytizing outfits.)

The first town hall meeting was held last Wednesday evening, Aug. 10, at the Park Heights JCC. The next meetings will be held next Monday night, Aug. 15, at Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills and next Wednesday evening, Aug. 17, at Temple Isaiah in Howard County. In addition, rabbis and other community leaders were provided with copies of "Missionary Impossible," a guide to combating missionaries produced by Jews for Judaism.

"We want to use this opportunity to inform the community about who they are, and at the same time say we have a wonderful, vibrant Jewish community to celebrate," says Michael Hoffman, the Associated's director of agency relations who helmed the task force. "It's not a sense of panic and fear. The Jewish community is strong and solid, and we have faith in our agencies to inform people about the campaign. Our leadership, lay and professional, knows about it and is ready."

Irv Horseman

Mr. Hillman says people in the Jewish community need to be on their guard and not think of "Behold Your God" as merely another religious group's newest marketing and proselytizing gimmick.

"Jews for Jesus is one specific incorporated outreach ministry they consider themselves an arm of the evangelical church that spends $15 million annually to target Jews for conversion," he says. "They say they're going to 'teach' their Jewish neighbors and friends, and that's how they sell themselves to Christians. They have a policy that front-line proselytizers have to be Jewish or married to Jews, and they believe they have the only answer.

"Christianity has an exclusivist view, that Jesus is the answer," he says, "and that's a problem. And theologically, they believe that the Jewish people are the key to [Jesus'] return," as prescribed by the Christian Bible, a view backed up by several Messianics and Christians interviewed for this article.

But more than any theological underpinnings, Mr. Finkelstein and other Messianic leaders feel that the mainstream Jewish community's wariness about their belief system stems from historical reasons two millennia of frequently lethal Christian anti-Semitism.

"I know there were things done in Jesus' name, but that wasn't done by Jesus," Mr. Finkelstein says. "The rabbis have an ax to grind. I'm sure they feel threatened, but it's not justified."

In his organization's new headquarters in the basement of Baltimore Hebrew University, Mr. Hillman offers pamphlets and videos that he feels clearly demonstrate the deceptive and misleading practices and tactics of Jews for Jesus and similar outfits. He says that Jews for Jesus, which was founded in the early 1970s, is one of approximately 900 missionary outfits in North America that attempt to recruit Jews to Christian theology and beliefs. (Jews for Judaism believes that more than 275,000 Jews in the United States and Canada are involved in the Messianic movement.)

Much of the financial, organizational and moral support of these groups is provided by fundamentalist Christian denominations, he says. Jews for Judaism contends that more than $250 million is annually spent by Christian groups to convert Jews.

(Ms. Perlman, of Jews for Jesus, adamantly denies that her organization receives financial assistance from Christian movements. "We're not a huge group of people," she says. "Our money comes from individuals who believe in Jesus, we don't have big backers or denominations behind us. We're not talking huge amounts of money here. We're not secretly funded by the Southern Baptists or Assemblies of God. We're a small non-profit. We should have the donors that the Jewish community has.")

While "Behold Your God" is casting a wide net to attempt to recruit the highest volume of potential believers, Mr. Hillman says the campaign will focus on such vulnerable components of the Jewish community as college students, interfaith families, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the elderly.

(Ms. Perlman denies that any specific Jewish groups are targeted by "Behold Your God," although she admits that materials are published in English and Russian, and that college campuses are fair game because they are "a marketplace of ideas." She notes, "We attract a lot of mid-life Jews who are searching for answers. Are they a vulnerable group, too?")

Mr. Hillman predicts that campaign workers will walk Jewish neighborhood streets, knock on doors, canvass college campuses, make phone calls and proselytize near such landmarks as Harborplace and Camden Yards.


"'Behold Your God' is simply a concerted effort, for a specific amount of time, to get as many people as possible," he says. "Anyone, from any background, is vulnerable."

While many people will probably be turned off by the typically heavy-handed, in-your-face style of the "Behold Your God" workers, Mr. Hillman warns that some individuals even in a conservative, tight-knit Jewish community like Baltimore could be easy prey. And even if a direct recipient of a proselytizer is not interested, he says, there is sometimes an "over-the-shoulder" impact among other passers-by.

Furthermore, he says, training sessions will be held at local churches and Messianic congregations to help build a local infrastructure and keep the momentum going long after the campaign's conclusion. And that's what's so disconcerting about "Behold Your God," Mr. Hillman says.

"What they do best is confrontational evangelism," he says, "so they're trying to get churches and Hebrew-Christian missionaries to go after Jews. They try to leave behind networks for follow-up, after they're gone, and that's more problematic. It's a full, coordinated effort."

Pastor George W. Raduano, senior spiritual leader of Trinity Assembly of God in Lutherville, says his church is among the Christian congregations and groups supporting and participating in "Behold Your God." He says the church will hold campaign seminars with Jews for Jesus representatives, and some congregants will be part of the street outreach.

"We love the Jewish people, and we think there's a truth that they have not understood yet," he says. "Being in Baltimore [with its large Jewish population], we have the opportunity to participate and take our theology to them."

Pastor Raduano says he understands mainstream Jewry's concerns about Christian proselytizing and the Messianic movement in general. He says he has not discussed "Behold Your God" with any local rabbis or Jewish leaders, but some of his congregants are Jewish-born and plan to participate in the campaign.

"We're not anti-Semitic by any stretch. We bless the Jewish people," he says. "But we just feel that the understanding of Jesus needs to be understood by the Jewish people. Why are [mainstream Jews] so alarmed? Why is there so much fear about what we consider the truth? If they think it's not the truth, why worry? We just want the Jewish people to hear the message first, and then the rest of the world that's in the New Testament."

Ms. Perlman of Jews for Jesus feels that the advent of "Behold Your God" is being exploited by Jewish agencies and groups to create a climate of fear while drumming up dollars for their operational budgets and programming.

"We're their biggest fund-raiser, their bread-and- butter, their raison d'etre," she says of Jews for Judaism. "When I look at the propaganda coming from their office, I wish we had as much success as they say. They should invite us to those town hall meetings and hear from us. We'll tell you how to prepare for us. We have nothing to hide.

"Our only goal is to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue for Jews in Baltimore," Ms. Perlman says. "People will have to deal with Jesus, either by throwing out newspapers or hanging up on us. We already have friends in Baltimore, so we hope to deepen our friendships. You can demonize us and call us a cult and keep us out, but we've never left our Jewish heritage. We're not ex-Jews, and we didn't come to believe in Jesus to stop being Jewish, or to become part of the majority. We didn't choose the easy route.

"We just want to offer a possibility to people. This is America, and there are people who would like to hear from us. We could raise questions that people are not getting answers to in their synagogues. Maybe the fear is that we're providing answers that the mainstream community isn't."

More than Jews for Jesus, Am Yeshua's Mr. Finkelstein argues that Jews for Judaism is taking advantage of the Jewish community. "They have their own tactics," he says, angrily. "They would violate Torah to do what they consider saving a Jew. The lies that they perpetuate about Messianic Jews are pathetic, obnoxious and disgusting."

Propaganda for Jews for Jesus

Mr. Hillman denies that he and others in the organized Jewish community who are sounding the bells about "Behold Your God" are in any way paranoid or alarmist. Nor is his group's response to Jews for Jesus a self-promotional strategy, he says. Jews for Judaism advances reactive and pro-active responses to proselytizers and cults, Mr. Hillman says.

"This is an opportunity to celebrate Jewish life in our community, not to say, 'The missionaries are coming!'" he says. "Don't be freaked out, but we know it's coming. Deal with it, be alert, be ready.

"They're a deceptive missionary organization," Mr. Hillman says. "To say you can be a Jew and a Christian does a disservice to both faith systems."

Bob and Marilyn Meyerson, one might say, are typical Jewish Baltimoreans, if such a thing exists. Decent, friendly, hard-working, family- and community-minded professionals, the Meyersons are Baltimore natives who live in Reisterstown. They have been married for 36 years and have a son and a daughter, whose b'nai mitzvah photographs line the Meyersons' clubroom wall.

Their synagogue, Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation, also known as Liberty Jewish Center for generations, is an essential part of their lives. Mr. Meyerson, an Allstate Leasing account executive, is president of the modern Orthodox shul; Mrs. Meyerson, a retired Verizon manager, sets up the weekly kiddush after Shabbat services.

And their son is what they themselves call a "Jew for Jesus."

"There is more pain about this than anyone can imagine," says a teary Mrs. Meyerson, "and it's all because of deceptive practices."

Five years ago, their 35-year-old son whom the Meyersons requested not be contacted or identified by the Jewish Times revealed to them that he believed in Jesus.

"He considers himself 'a fulfilled Jew,'" says Mrs. Meyerson, who joined the board of Jews for Judaism two years ago.

The Meyersons first learned of their son's theological shift after he announced he was getting married, to a non-Jew. During graduate school in the Los Angeles area, he informed them, he was first approached by proselytizers on campus and eventually became a Messianic Jew.

"As far as we had known, he was into what we were doing Jewishly," says Mrs. Meyerson, shaking her head while sitting on her living room sofa. "I asked him if [his future wife] was going to convert to Judaism and he said, 'Mom, I'm a Jew for Jesus.' And that was it. It was devastating. It was so bizarre when those words came out of his mouth. We had no clue. I didn't know what to say or how to deal with it. It was a huge blow."

Desperate and bewildered, the Meyersons took their son to various local rabbis and to Jews for Judaism, to try to convince him of the error of his ways, all to no avail.

"He tried to proselytize to us," Mrs. Meyerson remembers, "our own son it was like a dagger in your heart. He kept trying to convince us to accept Jesus as our personal savior. Part of their belief system is that if you don't believe, you're going to hell."

When their son and daughter-in-law married months later, with a Messianic spiritual leader officiating, the Meyersons boycotted the ceremony and reception. "I cried more that day than when my parents died," says Mr. Meyerson. "If someone had said that I wouldn't be at my own son's wedding, I would've said they were crazy."

Today, the Meyersons see their son and daughter-in-law regularly and maintain a "pleasant" relationship with them, although they strictly avoid discussing religion, even at the Passover and Rosh Hashanah dinner tables. Their son, they say, belongs to a Messianic group in Howard County.

"It's strange sometimes. The relationship is strained," Mrs. Meyerson says. "We pray every day that he'll wake up and believe that what he was brought up in was correct. He feels that because Jesus was a Jew, he's a Jew. We hope that he'll see the light.

"We love our son and want to be a part of his life. We can't shut the door," she says. "But he knows we don't approve of his belief system and will never accept it, and we don't want him to try to convince us."

Recently, the Meyersons began speaking at public gatherings, warning Jewish community members about the perils of Christian proselytizing, the Messianic movement and "Behold Your God."

"This 'Behold Your God' campaign is so scary," says Mrs. Meyerson. "They're going to be in our faces. They disguise things, and they're devious. They're trained, and they think they get kudos from HaShem for converting Jews. Why not Muslims or Buddhists?

"It's a very focused effort to reach Jews," she says. "They're so deceptive, but they make it all sound so innocent. They twist words and deceive people. That's why I talk. It's therapy for me. If there's one person in an audience that I can save, it's all worth it."

Mr. Meyerson, who is often stoic when discussing the subject of his son and "Behold Your God," nods his head. "They go everywhere, bus stops and senior citizen homes, anywhere they can," he says, "and they have big bucks behind them. The phone calls, the pamphlets this isn't going to go away.

"But you can't believe in Jesus and be a Jew. Hello?!" Mr. Meyerson says, his voice rising. "Our own son didn't know that this is not what Jews believe? Unfortunately, anyone is susceptible."

While they might not agree with the Meyersons' religious views, some local Messianic leaders concur with their criticism of "Behold Your God" and its tactics. Emphatically, they say they are not "Jews for Jesus" or connected to the organization of that name, but simply Jews who have accepted "Yeshua" as their savior.

"That kind of campaign isn't something I'm comfortable with. It's not my cup of tea," says Barry Rubin, longtime spiritual leader of Columbia's Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation and president of Lederer/Messianic Jewish Communications. "I don't think it accomplishes much, and most people are offended by it."

Although he believes in the campaign's inherent message and the right of Jews for Jesus to express it, Mr. Rubin says he prefers a more subtle and less threatening approach.

"I fear that when there's a lot of noise, the message is obscured," he says. "If I want to talk to Jewish people about the messiah, it's easier in a deli or in my congregation, or on the phone. People know where I am."

Irv Horseman, congregational leader of Owings Mills' Rosh Pina, says he feels that "Behold Your God" could even be harmful to local Messianic groups such as his.

"We have to live here. We don't want the Jewish community to be more upset with us than they already are," Mr. Horseman says. "We believe in Yeshua, but we want it to be a normal thing, not an oppressive, in-your-face thing. We believe in the message that Yeshua is the messiah, but we don't necessarily believe in the practices of Jews for Jesus."

At a recent Shabbat service at Rosh Pina, paraphernalia and information pertaining to "Behold Your God" or Jews for Jesus was conspicuously absent from a lobby table brimming with pamphlets, brochures, notices and Messianic publications. Many of the approximately 100 congregants there, who participated in a high-energy and festive worship service, say they were unhappy about the campaign's upcoming arrival in Baltimore.

"It looks like an attack," says Mr. Horseman. "[Jews for Jesus] drops the bomb, but we have to live with it."

While skeptical about "Behold Your God," Mr. Rubin says that a sense of concern or alarm about the campaign is completely unnecessary and unfounded. He feels that Jewish communal dollars could be better spent.

"So there are tracts that will be handed out in the streets. People can throw them away," he says. "Even if it was the American Nazi Party handing out leaflets, I wouldn't get upset it's just leaflets. Not that I'm making a comparison."

In some respects, Mr. Horseman contends, Jews for Jesus and Jews for Judaism have much in common, in terms of their approaches and manners of operating.

"It's two opposites doing the same thing," he says. "Jews for Judaism thinks they're defending the Jewish community, and they've done some bad things for Messianic Jews. I give them the benefit of the doubt that they think they're doing the right thing, but I don't agree with their methodology." As far as Jews for Jesus, Mr. Horseman says, "It's an urgent message, but it's not the way you reach people in the long-term."

Ms. Perlman, of the national Jews for Jesus office, expressed surprise that some Messianic leaders were disturbed about the campaign. She feels that "Behold Your God" will greatly benefit local Messianic congregations.

"I don't think what we do turns people off," she says. "This is the right thing to do. People should make up their own minds and think for themselves."

Mr. Finkelstein, of Am Yeshua, admits that his embrace of "Behold Your God," as opposed to the dismay about the campaign among his movement's counterparts, reveals growing pains in the Messianic world. In addition to conflicting views about how to reach potential Messianic Jews, he says there are differences on practices and rituals that could potentially divide the movement down the road. (Mr. Finkelstein served as Rosh Pina's co-spiritual leader unil breaking away from that congregation last year.)

But one point on which Mr. Finkelstein and his fellow Messianics agree is that the Jewish community, in general, is failing to produce Jews with a strong knowledge base and thirst for their religion and beliefs. And that's why Jews today, Mr. Finkelstein says, are searching for spirituality outside of mainstream Judaism and its rigid trappings and materialistic bent.

"We are a people who have gone astray. We did a horrible job," Mr. Finkelstein says. "Most Jewish people I know don't give God a second thought. Most are ignorant of their own faith. It's really a sad thing."

Ironically, Scott Hillman of Jews for Judaism agrees. The inability of the institutional and organizational Jewish community to make more Jews feel welcome and excited about Judaism is leading them to other types of worship, he says, as evidenced by the growth of Messianic Judaism.

"We have the best product in the world, and we do a lousy job selling it," Mr. Hillman says. "The problem is that people think they know all about their Judaism, so when they're looking for a framework for life, they don't look at Judaism. We have to blame ourselves.

"We have a fine community in Baltimore," he says. "But those who are connected take it for granted, and those who are not find it hard to make a connection. That's what the Jewish community really needs to work on."

Although their son received a strong Jewish education, Bob and Marilyn Meyerson admit it just wasn't enough. Something, they say, was and is missing.

"We're not good at explaining things to our kids," says Mrs. Meyerson. "They don't feel a spiritual connection to Judaism, and these guys [in the Messianic movement] are very good at it and make them feel there's no other way to be, that you can be Jewish but you have to accept Jesus. They bring them into the fold and make them feel comfortable, they talk about love. We don't talk about love. We argue and alienate each other. It's not really in our culture to be warm and open our arms.

"Most Jews," she says, "don't know the real facts about why Jesus doesn't qualify [as the messiah]. They didn't teach that in Hebrew school. We need to tell our kids that someone is going to say to them, 'Do you know about Yeshua?' They make it sound OK. But our kids are not prepared to deal with it. They need the answers to respond. We need to give them the answers.

"They need to know why we are Jews and what exactly we believe in."

Copyright 2004 the Baltimore Jewish Times