National News

Rabbi at Pence Rally Invokes Jesus, Causing Backlash

Posted October 30, 2018 6:11 p.m. EDT
Updated October 30, 2018 6:19 p.m. EDT

At a campaign stop in Michigan on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence condemned anti-Semitism and the deadly massacre at Pittsburgh synagogue, and asked “a leader in the Jewish community” to offer a prayer for the victims and the country.

As he began his prayer, it became immediately clear the rabbi, Loren Jacobs of Congregation Shema Yisrael in suburban Detroit, would not be considered a Jew by any of the four major denominations of Judaism. In his prayer, he mentioned the “saving power” of the Lord and concluded, “In the name of Jesus, amen.”

Jacobs believes that Jesus is the Messiah, a conviction that is theologically incompatible with Judaism. Some Jews believe that the movement the rabbi represents, Messianic Judaism, is not only antithetical to Judaism but also hostile to their religion because its goal is to convince Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah, and by doing so to convert Jewish people to Christianity.

Jacobs, a leading figure in the denomination colloquially known as Jews for Jesus, quickly came under criticism Monday for appearing to represent Jews at the rally and for leading the only prayer by a religious figure at the event for the 11 people and six others injured in the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday.

After the rally, Pence’s office said that the vice president did not invite the rabbi to the event and asked him to offer a prayer onstage as a message of unity.

One religious leader upset about Jacobs’ prayer on Monday was Rabbi Jason Miller, who lives in Detroit. He said on Twitter that there are more than 60 Jewish rabbis in Michigan that campaign rally organizers could have asked to offer a prayer.

“For the record, Messianic ‘Judaism’ is a branch of Christianity & offensive to the Jewish community,” Miller wrote in a separate tweet. “It was an insulting political stunt.”

Through an aide, Jacobs declined an interview request. In an explanation of his beliefs on his congregation’s website, he wrote that while Jewish people are the “chosen people,” they must accept Jesus Christ to go to heaven.

Messianic Judaism has a long, complicated history in the United States and beyond.

A Goal of Converting Jews

The modern movement of Messianic Judaism is relatively new and started to take shape with the help of mass media. Some of the first religious groups that claimed to be both Jewish and believers in Jesus of Nazareth, such as the American Board of Missions to the Jews, were transparent with their mission: Proselytize to Jews.

While the evangelizing of Jews has occurred over hundreds of years, the groups that emerged in the second half of the 20th century were well-funded, organized and influential. Using Jewish symbols and wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawls, leaders spoke across the United States and even in Israel about Jesus Christ and the good news that the Jewish messiah had returned.

“Don’t call us converted Jews,” Moishe Rosen, a towering figure in the movement who founded the influential group “Jews for Jesus,” announced at an event in Madison Square Garden in 1972. “We are not something other than Jewish. I was born a Jew and I will die a Jew — but I am a Jew who believes in Jesus!” ‘Jews for Jesus’

Rosen, who was first ordained as a Baptist minister and later started “Jews for Jesus” in 1970s in San Francisco, grew the movement over the following decades, opening congregations across the country. He argued that being both a Jew and a follower of Jesus, who himself was Jewish, makes sense.

“We couldn’t be anything else but both,” Rosen, who died in 2010, said in an interview in 1972.

Rosen said that followers adhered to traditional Jewish traditions, such as High Holy Days, and attend synagogue regularly. Affiliates of “Jews for Jesus,” which is still active, include high-profile people including Jay Sekulow, the personal lawyer for President Donald Trump.

Around the same time, the American Board of Missions to the Jews, which now goes by the name Chosen People Ministries, expanded from its first mission, in Brooklyn, to open up posts across the United States and overseas, including in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“I’ve baptized well over 1,000 Jewish people,” the Rev. Daniel Fuchs, the board’s executive director, told The New York Times in 1975, adding that its ministry had led “many thousands” of Jews to accept Jesus as the messiah.

Israel Has Threatened to Bar Their Missionaries

“Jews for Jesus” estimates that up to 125,000 people worldwide are Messianic Jews. The largest population resides in the United States, the group said, followed by Israel.

During the rise of “Jews for Jesus” in the early ‘70s, Israel considered a measure to bar “Jews for Jesus” from missions there. That suggestion, which did not come to pass, came about after Orthodox Jewish volunteers went undercover, even participating in baptisms, to uncover the group’s proselytizing efforts in Israel.

In a 1973 article in The Times, under the headline “Israelis Alarmed by ‘Jews for Jesus,'” a member of Israeli parliament compared the conversion efforts to the Crusades.

Jewish resentment of missionaries is deep-rooted. Dr. Yehuda Ben‐Meir, a professor of psychology and a member of parliament, said the missionaries’ activities were considered a continuation of Christianity’s 2,000-year struggle to undermine Judaism.

“The Inquisition was part of it,” he said. “The Crusades were part of it. Now they’re using methods more appropriate to the times.”

After Israel became an independent state in 1948, the government passed the Law of Return, which grants Jewish people anywhere in the world the right to immigrate there and gain citizenship. The law, however, does not apply to “a member of another religion.”

In 1989, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Messianic Judaism was considered “another religion” and that its followers were Christians and not Jews. The government then told some Messianic Jews that they were no longer citizens and must leave.

“I have not accepted the Christian theology that surrounds Jesus,” Gary Beresford told The Times in 1993 after he was told to leave. “I accept that he is the Messiah, but I don’t accept the package that surrounds it.”