Kosher Jesus: Messianic Jews in the Holy Land

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Inside the small community of Christ-following Jews who've allied with American evangelicals to redeem Israel ... from its Jewishness.

RTXH6Z5-615.jpg.jpgRegis Duvignau/Reuters

Asher Intrater is playing Jewish geography with me. "Are you related to Max Posner of the delicatessen business?" he asks, referring to a long-defunct establishment in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live and where Intrater grew up and lived until he moved to Israel with his wife and four children 20 years ago. (My grandfather's name actually was Max Posner, but he didn't live in Maryland or own a delicatessen.)

"Our family was friends with his family," Intrater adds, in a moment of nostalgia for his Jewish childhood on a blazing hot July day in Yad Hashmonah, a commune about 20 minutes northwest of Jerusalem. We've just crossed a stone path outside the building where the staff of his organization, Revive Israel, has held its daily morning prayer service.

After New Testament readings, and as the band plays songs about Jesus's return, Intrater stepped across the circle of worshippers to tell me of a "miracle:" that everyone on his ministry team, save one, was an Israeli citizen. He seems to want to convince me -- not just as a reporter, but as a Jewish one -- that Messianic Jews like him represents the genuine Judaism, an authentic Israeli-ness that must be recaptured in order for Israel to be "restored." For that to happen, its wayward people must literally come to Jesus, a process he and his followers believe will lay the groundwork for the Messiah -- the one Israel, he insists, failed to recognize the first time -- to return.

Though there are an estimated 175,000 to 250,000 Messianic Jews in the U.S. and 350,000 worldwide, according to various counts, they are a tiny minority in Israel -- just 10,000-20,000 people by some estimates -- but growing, according to both its proponents and critics. Messianic Jews believe that Jesus is the Jewish messiah, and that the Bible prophesizes that God's plan is for him to return to Jerusalem, prevail in an apocalyptic battle with the Antichrist, and rule the world from the Temple Mount. Unlike Jews for Jesus, which focuses on bringing Jews into churches, Messianic Jews seek to make Jews believers in Jesus while still maintaining congregations that identify as Jewish and observe Jewish customs and holidays.

While these Messianic Jews are derisive of Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism (particularly what they call its "legalism"), they pick and choose some of the practices of traditional Judaism, such as weekly Torah readings -- although they add New Testament verses to it.

They import to Israel many of the worship practices and the political agenda of the American Christian right. They are tightly knit with an American-born global revival movement that holds that modern-day prophets and apostles receive direct revelations from God, forming an elite army of prayer warriors on a mission to carry out God's plans to purify Christianity, "restore" Israel, and bring the Messiah back. Following their American example, they have brought with them the religious right's opposition to abortion, homosexuality, and Islam.

The haredi opposition to Messianic Judaism only feeds Messianic Jews' contention that they (and Christians) are being persecuted.

Most Messianic Jews who are Israeli citizens serve in the army, bitterly contrasting their devotion to Israel with ultra-Orthodox haredim who have been exempt from military service. Messianic Jews support the occupation, not because they support the nationalistic policies of the Israeli government, but because of the role of re-gathering Jews to Israel plays in their end-times scenario. "What the whole world is angry with what they call occupation," said Intrater, "we don't see it that way. We see it as being regathered, repossessing the land that is ours. We're not occupying somebody else's land, we're coming to take back the land that belongs to us." During Israel's Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza, Intrater wrote in his weekly newsletter, "we are reminded that spiritual warfare is sometimes expressed on the battlefields of this world. That warfare is likely to become increasingly intense as we progress into the end times."

At Intrater's 200-member congregation, Ahavat Yeshua (Love of Jesus) that met in a reception hall in a nondescript office building in downtown Jerusalem, most of the congregants are young couples with young children, Israelis singing and praying on Friday afternoon with a copy of the King James Bible in their hands. Jewish prayers are said, including the priestly blessing from the Book of Numbers, but the congregational leader adds a blessing for "Yeshua HaMoshiach" (Hebrew for Jesus the Messiah), "who is our high priest."

It's difficult to count Messianic Jewish congregations in Israel or to know how many members congregations have. Ellen Horowitz, Content and Research Director for the Israel-based group Jewish Israel, which says it is educating Israelis about the "spiritual destruction" caused by evangelizing, estimates the total between 120 and 150 congregations. They are located all over the country, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and the Galilee. Some people will mention -- but will not detail -- missionaries working underground in both Israeli settlements and Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

* * *

I met two 23 year-old Messianic Jews at a café in Tel Aviv while they were attending a conference hosted by an American evangelical group. People "still think," one said, "that accepting Yeshua [Jesus] is not kosher, but I don't know what you ought to tell them, because I am a Jew, I was born a Jew, I am still a Jew. ... It doesn't make me less of a Jew. ... I believe in the God of the Tanakh [Old Testament] and of the New Testament."

Like other Messianic Jews, these two young men were reluctant to reveal their identity -- an indication of the significant controversy that surrounds the group in Israel. Proselytizing isn't illegal in Israel, except when offered with a material enticement or directed at a minor without their parents' consent. Still, there's intense social pressure against it. While Christian Zionists like megachurch pastor and Christians United for Israel founder John Hagee have pledged to Israeli leaders that they will not try to convert Jews, Messianic Jews, along with their evangelical counterparts, have made no such promises. Messianic Jews do evangelize to Jews in Israel, but it is far less aggressive and overt than their evangelizing in the United States, for example.

Their missionary efforts place them in an antagonistic position with Israel's government, and in particular the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by a member of the far-right religious Shas party. Under Israel's immigration laws, Jews who are considered to have abandoned their Judaism are not permitted to obtain citizenship, even if they otherwise qualify under the Law of Return.

Although they operate under the radar of most Israelis, Messianic Jews face intense opposition from haredi groups who portray Messianic Judaism as a cult endangering Israel's Jewish identity. They accuse Messianic Jews of preying on unsuspecting secular Israeli youth, immigrants, and others insufficiently in touch with their Judaism.

Messianic Jews frequently suggest that Jews refuse to accept Jesus as the messiah because of perceived Christian anti-Semitism, or because they don't realize that Jesus himself was a Jew. (Intrater calls Jesus "the greatest Jew in history, the greatest Israeli, the greatest rabbi that ever lived.") But Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, the director of Jews for Judaism, a North American group opposed to Messianic Judaism, said the reason why Jews "denied [Jesus] was because he failed to be the messiah and his followers started saying he was God." In Judaism, said Kravitz, the messiah will be human and cannot be God or God "in a body;" to claim the messiah is divine is "idolatry."

Binjamin Kluger, a spokesman for Yad L'Achim, a haredi organization that sees "the saving of each and every Jewish soul from Christian cults as a sacred mission," said that while many of the first Messianic Jews in Israel were American, Russian, or Ethiopian immigrants, now most are Israeli-born. (Yad L'Achim opposes intermarriage with similar zeal, deploying its Jewish Women Rescue Division to "save" Israeli women from dating or marrying Arab men.)

Instigated largely by Yad L'Achim, opponents have engaged in protests outside the meeting places of Messianic Jews, have interfered with their businesses, and have attempted, unsuccessfully, to have Intrater prosecuted for violating the prohibition against proselytizing to minors without parental consent.

Kluger, the Yad L'Achim spokesman, tried to portray his group's efforts in a more benign light, saying its members go to places where Messianic Jews meet "and try to talk them out of the cult." Messianic Jewish leaders, he said, "reject the attempts of Yad L'Achim to speak to them, the leaders, and besides that, they have conducted towards their communities a demonization of Yad L'Achim, presenting it as a terror organization. ... They have no incidents they can point at."

The 2011 U.S. State Department Report on International Religious Freedom identified Yad L'Achim as an "anti-missionary" group that feeds information to the Ministry of the Interior to deny visa entry for clergy, and describes them as "harassing and occasionally assaulting" missionaries. Kluger asserted that this characterization was a result of pressure on the U.S. government by American evangelicals.

Yad L'Achim insists that it has not engaged in or supported aggression, and denies any involvement in the most notorious case of anti-Messianic violence. In 2008, Jewish terrorist Jack Teitel set a Purim basket rigged with explosives outside the home of David Ortiz, a Messianic Jew living and working in the West Bank town of Ariel, seriously injuring his teenage son. Kluger said Teitle was "never connected" with Yad L'Achim and that it is "not a violent organization." Still, the Ortiz incident is frequently cited by Messianic Jews as evidence of why they must operate in secret.

The haredi opposition to Messianic Judaism only feeds Messianic Jews' contention that they (and Christians) are being persecuted -- something, Intrater says, he takes in stride, because "every time you have a new wave of kind of spontaneous spiritual outbreak, the people of the previous religious institutions feel threatened and they're the ones that tend to attack."

Intrater, one of the most visible Messianic Jews in Israel, portrays Messianic Jews as the victims of Jewish religious authorities, attempting to analogize it to historical Christian persecution of Jews. He told me, "That's why it's so ironic that the Jewish people were persecuted in Christian countries and we get here, and when the rabbis are in control of the religious institutions, they persecute us."

* * *

On Mount Zion, thought by some Christians to be in the vicinity of Jesus's last supper with his disciples, a building is marked simply with the numbers "24/7." There is no other sign, nothing to identify what it is or what is inside. But the 24/7 is a clue to anyone familiar with the growing evangelical global prayer movement that holds that only by the constant prayer and intercession of the true believers will the church -- and the world, including, and especially Israel -- be purified for Christ's return.

Inside, there is a set of rules, in Hebrew and English, posted on the wall in the foyer, along with an admonition: "Do not minister to people nearby the prayer room, in order to not draw attention to our ministry."

If you look hard enough, and ask enough people the right questions, you will find other places where Messianic Jews meet, engage in outreach, and worship. The building on Mount Zion houses Succat Hallel (an effort at translating "Tabernacle of Praise" into Hebrew, although it's not a phrasing familiar to Israelis). It is the site of round-the-clock prayer, modeled on the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City, and whose founder, Mike Bickle, is a leading figure in the global prayer movement.

Bickle, who has drawn the attention of American politicians like Texas Governor Rick Perry, and haspartnered with the Congressional Prayer Caucus, maintains close relationships with Messianic Jewish organizations in Israel. 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week prayer is, IHOP founders maintain, "a perpetual solemn assembly gathering corporately to fast and pray, in the spirit of the tabernacle of David."

'We are reminded that spiritual warfare is sometimes expressed on the battlefields of this world. That warfare is likely to become increasingly intense as we progress into the end times.'

Inside Succat Hallel, a Christian musical team from the Czech Republic is "on watch," meaning that they are playing a two-hour music set praising Yeshua. There are about another dozen people inside the spacious prayer room with a spectacular view, through its arched windows, of the Old City. As the Czech team sings that Jesus is "alive" and "our clear deliverer, our savior," that they "desire you, we long for you," a young woman dancing in the center of the room lays a purple flag emblazoned with a crown, which reads, "King Yeshua," on the floor. As the singing, dancing, and speaking in tongues continues, another woman lays an Israeli flag alongside it.

Rick Ridings, the American who founded Succat Hallel, wrote in a fundraising plea obtained by Jewish Israel that he pays $16,000 a month to rent this building from the Mount Zion Hotel next door. In a promotional video, Ridings says, "There are many prophetic locations" in Jerusalem that "need to be covered in prayer," specifically the Temple Mount, where a worship team prays weekly at the "place that God has said is the footstool of His throne upon the earth."

Succat Hallel also has a prayer room in the City of David but its location is kept closely guarded, I'm told by women who keep "watches" at Succat Hallel. Another house of prayer, the Jerusalem House of Prayer for All Nations (JHOPAN), is located at the top of the Mount of Olives, believed by some Christians to be the location of Christ's ascension to heaven and that of his return.

One of the prayer volunteers at Succat Hallel tells me that Tom Hess, the founder of JHOPAN, teaches a "harp school," where people learn "to learn to play the harp from King David's time." These prayer warriors believe that when Jesus returns, the Temple will be rebuilt, and Jesus will rule the world from the Temple Mount. They think they're preparing to worship like in David's time, with their harps -- and with their devotion to Christ.

In the Old City of Jerusalem, just inside the Jaffe Gate, is Christ Church, just across from the Tower of David. On Saturday mornings, Reuven Berger, one of the earliest Messianic Jews in Israel, leads services in Hebrew, with simultaneous translation into Russian and English. Berger told me that after the 1967 war, "many Jews began to receive the revelation of Jesus." Israel "as a nation," said Berger, has to be "restored into her calling in God."

Christ Church is affiliated with the group Church's Ministry Among the Jewish People, or CMJ, which describes its mission as "to equip local congregations to share the transforming love of Messiah Jesus with their Jewish friends and neighbors." (The church's sign in Jerusalem does not specify these intentions, and only uses the CMJ acronym.) I met Berger in the church's courtyard, a tranquil oasis from the crowds of the Old City, with outdoor seating for its coffee shop. It's a gathering spot for missionaries, where I also met Christians from the U.S., New Zealand, and Italy staying at the church's guest house, as well as Messianic Jews who worked with Intrater's Revive Israel.

In Tel Aviv, a more secular city, the activities of Messianic Jews are a little less clandestine, but still masked. Dugit, a Messianic Jewish coffee shop on Ben Yehuda Street, calls itself a "Messianic Outreach Center" in English, but those words are not translated into Hebrew on its signage.

In the northern port city of Akko, Harvest of Asher, a congregation of about 20 families, is located in a warehouse area between an eyeglass factory and an auto repair shop. Its leader, Guy Cohen, who is Israeli-born, married an Estonian immigrant who told me she was already a believer in Jesus when she arrived in Israel. Cohen said he has a "vision" for a $20-million ministry complex -- much bigger than his current location, which includes a sanctuary, school, offices, and a crisis pregnancy center -- for which an American Messianic Jew, who is an architect, drew up plans. Cohen travels to the United States twice a year to raise money from churches for his project.

His ministry is named for the Tribe of Asher, which, in the Book of Judges, stood to inherit Akko but failed to conquer it. Cohen seems to want nothing short of remedying that biblical failure by bringing Jesus to Akko's citizens.

He takes me up to the roof of the building, with its 360-degree view, including of Akko's Old City, a UNESCO world heritage site that preserves Crusader and Ottoman-era fortifications and architecture. Known as Ptolemais in the New Testament, the Book of Acts says the Apostle Paul stopped here on his journey to Jerusalem. It has been conquered by Alexander the Great, Arabs, Crusaders, and Ottomans, and seized by Israel in 1948; the most holy site for Baha'i faith is also located near Akko.

Cohen revels in his city's tumultuous religious history, and sees a role for himself in its religious future, in correcting his fellow citizens mistakes. Israel, he said, has "forsaken its covenant with God."

"We need to pray that the hardened heart of the people will be softened," he said affably as we sip coffee in his office. The "love of Yeshua, the love of the Lord," he added, will "bring repentance to all this area."

* * *

So for Messianic Jews, how does this all end? Although they often talk about love, their end-times theories are catastrophically violent. Speaking in 2009 at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City (on which Succat Hallel on Mount Zion is modeled), Intrater said, "there is no doubt" that before Jesus's return "all the nations of the world will be gathered in an attack against the nation of Israel, particularly with Jerusalem at the center of it."

What the world will see as aggression against Israel, he added, "God interprets that as an attack against Jesus." Two-thirds of Israel's population will be wiped out in a "second Holocaust." There will be "a massive amount of people being killed," Intrater said, making "September 11 look like a child's game." In his scenario, Jesus is both judge and "army commander," forcing everyone involved to choose: "You're either going to be for him or against him."

In the end-times scenario popularized by the Left Behind series and promoted by Hagee, Christians will be raptured to heaven before the final battle for Jerusalem, able to return after the bloodshed is over to reap the benefits of what they say will be Christ's reign of peace. Messianic Jews and their evangelical counterparts (including American evangelicals who self-identify as Messianic Jews) do not believe the Rapture will happen. Instead, they believe they are preparing a purified church for Jesus' return.

Intrater insists there is a "positive ending" to his violent prophecies. He writes, "Just as the first Holocaust and World War II ended up in the re-birth of the nation of Israel, so will the second Holocaust and World War III end up in the birth of the Millennial kingdom of peace and prosperity on earth."

That prospect is not abstract to Intrater's followers. "I'm talking a body experience," said Troy Wallace, a former engineer, the North America director for Revive Israel, and the Assistant Congregational Leader at El Shaddai Congregation in Frederick, Maryland, which Intrater founded before moving to Israel. "It's real, it's tangible," said Wallace. "It's not some far-far away spiritual nirvana like Buddhism."

In the meantime, Messianic Jews are assiduously attempting to, essentially, redeem Israel from its Jewishness. That seems to be the task at hand at the Jerusalem Prayer Tower, another 24-7 prayer meeting place located on the top floor of an office building on the bustling downtown thoroughfare Jaffa Street. At the "Restoring Jerusalem" prayer meeting, an American Christian woman read about Jezebel from the Book of Revelation, and exhorted the half dozen people in the room to pray to "purify" and "cleanse" Jerusalem.

Another woman prayed for the Jews "to change their mind, to feel you, Lord, to convert to you, Lord." The first woman resumed her prayers, hoping that Jesus will give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "a great understanding of who you are." She seems to earnestly believe this is a plausible scenario. "Help him, Lord," she implores. "Bring him to Messiah."

Research for this article was supported by a 2012 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California's Knight Chair in Media and Religion.

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Sarah Posner is a senior editor at the online magazine Religion Dispatches. Her reporting on religion and politics has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Nation, Salon, The American Prospect, and other publications.

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