• FEATURES \ Jan 31, 2002
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    Spreading their word
Spreading their word (January 31) - Alex Fybishenko hands out Messianic Jewish tracts on street corners in Rishon Lezion.

"They're about belief, and that every person, especially the nation of Israel, should repent," says Fybishenko, using the traditional Jewish phrase for "repent" - lahzor bitshuva - in his fluent but distinctly Russian-tinted Hebrew. He reacts to questions with the suspicion of someone who has borne the brunt of angry comments in the past, such as the one made by a passerby who said Fybishenko and those like him should be burnt.

"We bless those people," says the middle-aged Fybishenko. "We bless everyone." He doesn't force anyone to take the pamphlets, he says. "Whoever wants, takes; whoever doesn't want, doesn't."

Fybishenko and his wife Regina emigrated from Moldova in 1990 and joined the Grace and Truth Christian Congregation in Rishon Letzion soon after. The congregation is affiliated with Christian Witness to Israel, which describes itself on its Web site as an "interdenominational evangelical society committed to sharing the good news of Jesus the Messiah with the Jewish people." The couple describe themselves as messianic Jews or Jewish believers in Yeshua, as they call Jesus.

The Fybishenkos are two of the estimated 1,500 adult, Russian-speaking immigrants who belong to messianic congregations. Soviet immigrants comprise nearly half - 42 percent - of the total number of congregation members, which includes Jews and non-Jews, according to a 1999 study published by the United Christian Council in Israel and the Caspari Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies. The Caspari Center is an educational institute facilitating mutual learning between the messianic Jewish movement and the Church.

The number of messianic groups in the country has more than tripled in the decade since mass Soviet aliya began. The study of Israeli messianism, called Facts and Myths about the Messianic Congregations in Israel, found 81 messianic groups - including formal congregations and less formal "house groups" - throughout the country at the end of the 1990s. From 1948 through the end of the Eighties, 24 groups existed. Nearly half the groups formed in the last decade are Russian-speaking or are led by people from the former Soviet Union, the study found.

Russian immigration has had such a profound impact on the makeup and number of messianic congregations partly, at least, because of the significant disparity that exists between the Soviet and the sabra communities. That gap, say Russian community leaders, runs from the social to the religious to the economic - and it may well affect the Jewish character of future generations of Russian Jews.

One of the key factors attracting Russian-speaking immigrants to messianic groups is the social distance dividing them from native Israelis, says Michael Rivkin, a Conservative rabbi who leads a Russian-speaking congregation in Ashkelon.

"I think that the core of the missionary problem is our society, our attitude. We need to think less about how to catch the missionaries, and think more about our attitude toward other Jews."

IMMIGRANTS may feel spurned by Israeli Jewish society and find Messianic groups more welcoming, says Rivkin, who emigrated from Moscow in 1989 after serving a five-year jail term for political dissidence.

"First of all, we have to change our feelings toward the immigrant community. We have to show them that we're very happy to see them here, that they're an inseparable part of the Jewish people. Not a different people, not a separate group."

The missionary issue came to light recently when a teacher and principal of a religious school in Beit Shemesh publicly burnt a copy of the New Testament that a student had brought to school after receiving it from missionaries. Beit Shemesh includes a sizable Russian community and has been the site of previous controversy regarding Russian-run stores selling pork.

Messianic services in Beit Shemesh are conducted by an American couple, who could not be reached for comment.

Christian and messianic groups appear to have expressly targeted the Russian community in their evangelizing efforts.

For instance, Rivkin tells of a bus ride in Jerusalem about two years ago when another immigrant sat next to him and began chatting in Russian. He offered a free tour of the Old City, with stops at Christian holy places. Rivkin says he has also seen Russian-language signs in Jerusalem advertising the tour. Around the same time, a man was handing out the New Testament in Russian on Jerusalem's Rehov Ben Yehuda, he says.

Jerusalem has 19 messianic groups, the highest concentration in the country, according to the study on messianic congregations.

Tatyana Tzadkin, another Russian community leader, reports that a man she didn't recognize once walked into a lecture she was giving in Carmiel while she was in the middle of discussing missionaries. After he left a short time later, her students told her that he was a Jewish missionary.

Tzadkin is a lecturer at Midreshet Yerushalayim, a program that offers Russian immigrants classes taught in their native tongue that relate to Jewish culture, history and philosophy. The program is run by the Conservative Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies. Tzadkin has also inadvertently opened the door of her Haifa home to missionaries who "don't say right away that they're Christian." They walk around the neighborhood, sometimes giving out pamphlets or New Testaments, she says, and have come to her house several times.

There is at least one messianic congregation in Haifa, whose pastor, says a Christian source, is "bold in his approach." Like many members of messianic congregations, the pastor is wary of the press and declined an interview.

When the missionaries came to her door, "I understood right away what this was," says Tzadkin, who immigrated nearly 12 years ago and has been teaching for more than eight years.

"I'm not against Christianity. But you don't have to sit on the fence. It's impossible this way, to be Jews and Christians."

Messianic Jews emphasize the Jewish roots of Christianity and believe in the divinity of Jesus. They are shunned by all the major Jewish movements, and say they have been widely ignored or rejected by much of the Christian world as well.

Attempting to convince adults of one's beliefs - whether by knocking on doors, handing out pamphlets or conducting "friendship evangelism," a term used to describe an outreach process that begins with a smile and leads up to Jesus - is perfectly legal in Israel. The only legal restrictions include a ban on proselytizing to minors, and a 1977 Israeli law that prohibits anyone from offering or receiving material benefits as an inducement to conversion. According to a 1999 US State Department report on, there have been no reports of enforcement of that law.

Representatives from anti-missionary organizations such as the Israeli group Yad L'achim and the international group Jews for Judaism say they have received repeated reports of organizations that claim to abide by those laws but regularly break them. Aaron Rubin, head of the anti-missionary department of Yad L'achim, says police do not follow up on specific complaints he brings them. Messianic and Christian groups deny breaking any laws.

On the other hand, the US State Department reports that evangelical Christian and other religious groups have complained that the police are slow to investigate incidents of alleged harassment, threats and vandalism committed by Yad L'achim. Haredi politicians also periodically attempt to pass new anti-proselytizing laws. The most recent instance was at the end of December, when the Knesset Constitution, Legislation and Law committee voted down a bill proposed by the religious parties making it illegal to proselytize via mail or fax machines. The Justice Ministry and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel objected to the law on the grounds that it violates the right to freedom of religion and speech.

But even if missionary organizations stick to the letter of the law, Russian immigrants who have not been privy to the Jewish education Rivkin and Tzadkin received may not know enough to understand the full implications of Messianic Judaism or Christianity.

Some of the immigrants are "not even completely aware that Christianity and Judaism are different things," says Rivkin, adding that there are those who think Judaism is a branch of Christianity. For many Russians, he says, "the whole topic of Judaism is completely strange."

Tzadkin agrees that incomplete Jewish knowledge and a semi-formed Jewish identity are prominent features of the Russian Jewish community.

"It's easier to do something with people from Russia, because there are mixed marriages and they don't feel so much that they're totally Jewish," she says. The missionaries, she adds, "really take the souls."

If lack of Jewish education is a major factor in people's willingness to profess belief in Jesus, it follows that filling in that knowledge gap would help solve the problem. The "foolproof" way to combat missionary activity, says Yad L'achim's Rubin, is if "everybody gets a good Jewish education."

"If people would know the [Hebrew] Bible, know Jewish history, be secure in their Jewish identity, there would be no room for missionaries to work," he says. "If people know, the whole thing would be laughable."

OFTEN, the problem doesn't even start in this country.

Some of the people who belong to messianic Jewish congregations are not halachically Jewish, and may not purport to be. In addition, many of the Russian immigrants who belong to such congregations date their belief back to their pre-immigration days.

It's unclear how many of the messianic congregants are halachically Jewish, since the study of Messianic Jewish congregations defines Jews as those who qualify under the Law of Return, which requires only that one grandparent be Jewish. Using that definition, the study found that 61 percent of adult members of messianic congregations are Jewish and 18% are married to a Jew - indicating that the number of halachically Jewish members is less than that.

The study also reports that about half the new Russian members of messianic congregations, and most of the Russian congregational leaders here, were already Jesus-believers in the former Soviet Union.

Fybishenko refuses to say whether or not she believed in Jesus before coming to Israel, calling it "a private matter." She immigrated with husband Alex, their two children (they now have three) and her parents, all of them, she says, "believe that Yeshua is the Messiah." The 40-year-old says she was surprised to find so many messianic Jews in Israel.

Fybishenko works as a secretary at Grace and Truth Christian Congregation, which is one of the few messianic congregations to use the word "Christian" in its name. The congregation is at least 80% Russian-speaking, and all parts of the Saturday morning service are translated into Russian after they are conducted in Hebrew.

Fybishenko says she doesn't talk about her faith to anyone who doesn't ask, but she always answers honestly when someone does.

"We're called to this, to tell people the truth," she says. "We're obligated to bring the news - first of all in our lives - everywhere that we are."

The pastor of the 400-member congregation, Baruch Maoz, helped found Grace and Truth in 1976 - 13 years after he was introduced to messianic Judaism while serving in the IDF. When asked whether the congregation has explicitly targeted the Russian community, Maoz says, "We haven't pinpointed anybody." He adds, "We make an effort to present our face to any and all who would be willing."

But the congregation's Web site makes note of a campaign that does appear to have targeted Russian immigrants shortly after the founding of the congregation: "In 1978, when the wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union began, we opened our doors to them. We also undertook an extensive evangelistic campaign, which was blessed by God (as evidenced by many conversions he has granted us)."

The methods the congregation uses to spread the ideas of messianism include stuffing mailboxes, publishing advertisements and handing out messianic literature at places including city parks, malls, main intersections, bus stations and the seashore, says Maoz.

"Wherever it's a public property, that's where you'll find us sooner or later."

Members of the congregation do not typically go door to door, he says, calling it an invasion of privacy. He adds that proselytizing to minors is immoral as well as illegal.

Maoz is also director and general editor of HaGefen Publishing, which, like the congregation, is affiliated with Christian Witness to Israel. HaGefen has just published the first volume of its children's Bible, which translates biblical Hebrew to simple, modern Hebrew. After the just-published Pentateuch, HaGefen plans to put out a translation of the Prophets, Writings and New Testament. The translation is "nonpartisan," and several non-messianic institutions have purchased the first volume, says Maoz.

IN ADDITION to the social and spiritual needs of Russian immigrants, their economic situation may also play a role in their vulnerability. At least four major Christian or messianic organizations have programs specifically aimed at providing Russian immigrants with basic material goods, including food and blankets.

The economic needs are real, across the spectrum of Israeli society. One out of every five Israelis and one out of every four children lived below the poverty line last year. Unemployment is also high, with 9.3% of the overall labor force and 11.5% of new immigrants out of work, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. From 1995 to 2000, immigrants comprised about a quarter of people receiving unemployment benefits, according to the National Insurance Institute.

Bridges for Peace is a Christian organization based in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood with a dual mission - to teach Christians about the importance of the land of Israel and the Jewish roots of Christianity, and to follow Jesus' example by helping Jews in need.

Bridges works with 69 other organizations in the country, including Orthodox groups and the Jerusalem municipality, to deliver 35 to 40 tons of food per month, repair homes and help immigrants. About 400 families, most of them Russian immigrants, receive direct help, primarily with ongoing food distribution.

The organization won the mayor's award in 1995 for home repair and in 1993 for the food bank.

All Bridges staff members - including three Russian immigrants and four native Israelis - believe in Yeshua, says Bill Stevens, manager of the distribution center. Small Israeli flags stick out of shelves throughout the center, and all the food distributed is kosher. Canned olives, large sacks of chick peas and bulk-packaged toilet paper line the warehouse. The prayer service and Bible discussion group that takes place every morning is intended for staff only.

The only immediate indication that the distribution center is part of a Christian organization is the collection of Christian Bibles on a book shelf and the Bridges "teaching letters," full of Scriptural commentary, tucked in a rack near the entrance. But Aaron Rubin and Mark Powers, international director of Jews for Judaism, both accuse the organization of proselytizing.

Missionaries have been caught working there before, says Rubin. "Every time they have another excuse why they didn't know about it."

The fact that Christian aid organizations do help those in need just serves their purpose, adds Powers.

"That's how they get through the door, because you've got these poor families, you've got these new immigrants who don't know any better. They've got these fertile fields and they're using them."

Powers says that people who Bridges employees approached have provided proof of the missionizing, but did not share specifics.

"People say, 'Oh, how can you say such terrible things about such wonderful groups?'" says Powers. "I believe in proof."

But the one time Bridges was sued on charges of proselytizing, the case was thrown out, says Stevens, who has worked at the organization for 12 years and is here on a clergy visa. The case was brought about two years ago by an American who accused the organization of forcing people to listen to the Gospel before they could receive their immigrant gift baskets - which for Russians, includes a Russian-Hebrew Bible, distributed in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League.

"We're not a proselytizing organization," says Rebecca Brimmer, administrative director for the international headquarters of Bridges.

Although no staff members are ever asked to deny what they believe, says Stevens, they are told not to bring up their beliefs as long as no one asks them. He says he tells employees, "If you feel God is calling you and telling you to evangelize - I'm not saying he's not - this is not the organization for you."

A few years ago, he says, a staff member resigned because of the restriction.

Stevens attributes the suspicion against Bridges to a blood-filled history between the Church and the Jews.

"Any Christian organization working in Israel will have accusations against them," he says. "I think the very history of Christian-Jewish relations is always going to bring up that kind of bitterness and hard feelings."

Perhaps part of the confusion lies in an evangelistic ideology. Asked whether he thinks theologically that Jews should accept Jesus, Stevens hesitates before saying, "I have a wonderful gift that's been given to me by God through our messenger Yeshua and I wish everyone in the world could share that gift. But I'm not here to force that gift on anybody."

He admits that staff members are permitted to evangelize outside of work hours. "We ask all of them to be sensitive and to use good wisdom, but if it's outside of the purview of work, then we don't put any restrictions on that," says Stevens. Handing out tracts is not, in Stevens' view, sensitive or useful.

He refuses to discuss methods for wise proselytizing, saying, "I'm not an evangelist."

It's difficult to know, and even more difficult to prove, what really happens when a Christian or Messianic Jew starts talking to a Russian immigrant who may well feel separated from Israeli Jewish society and have few religious or financial resources.

But perhaps it would help if the nearest friendly face belonged to a fellow Jew.

"We spent millions of dollars to save Russian and Ethiopian Jews," says Powers. "Why should we let the missionaries 'save' Russian and Ethiopian Jews? If anybody's going to save them, let it be us.

"I think if we are truly concerned about our fellow Jews," he says, "then we need to be concerned about their poverty, and we need to be concerned about their spirituality."