MELBOURNE – There is no cross at Kol Mashiach Synagogue.
“People think they’ll come in here, and suddenly we’ll produce one from the back room,” said Messianic Rabbi Alan Levine, the spiritual leader of the Melbourne congregation. “We won’t. We don’t have one.”
A cross, of course, is an enduring symbol of Christianity and belief in the life and death of Jesus. You’ll see one at virtually every Christian church around the world, but not at Kol Mashiach, which is in a secular-looking building on Lake Washington Road.
“We’re a synagogue, not a church,” Levine said. “Don’t call us a church.”
Here, members profess their faith in Jesus, whom they call Yeshua, as the messiah and savior, but also adhere to traditional Jewish customs and laws. They are part of a national Messianic movement of as many as 300,000 people. The movement consists of people raised Jewish and others, including Christians, who were not.
In Brevard County, Kol Mashiach and Shuvee Messianic Congregation are the only such groups. “Yeshua and his disciples were Jewish,” Levine said. “There is no getting around that fact. We truly believe Yeshua is the Messiah.”
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In accepting Yeshua, Messianic Jews generally do not celebrate Christian holy days such as Christmas and Easter, which they do not consider to be part of Biblical tradition.
Kol Mashiach, founded in 1989, has about 120 members who meet each Saturday. Shuvee Messianic, founded in 1993, has about 20 members who meet on Fridays in a building on U.S. 1 in Melbourne.
“We’re small, but we have a dedicated congregation,” said John Meilbye, a former teacher who oversees services at Shuvee Messianic with his wife, Patti.
Meilbye, unlike Levine, is not Jewish and does not call himself a rabbi. But he believes strongly “in teaching the Bible from a Jewish perspective.”
Believing in Jesus and observing Jewish customs is not a trouble-free path in Brevard, where about 5,000 people identify themselves as Jewish. The Messianic membership, as seen by the numbers, is extremely small in this county, an indication that most traditional Jews reject Jesus, and that most Christians do not observe Judaic customs and laws.
But that does not deter Levine and others from celebrating their beliefs.
Levine, a chiropractor by profession who was brought up Jewish “in the Queens and the Catskills,” said he has no intention of severing his ties with Judaic customs and tradition because of his beliefs.
In several interviews, he also stressed the “notion of Yeshua” unnerves leaders and members of Jewish synagogues who continue to await the Messiah.
He is right about that.
“Messianic congregations are Christians portraying themselves as Jews,” said Rabbi Richard Margolis, the leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Melbourne and a member of the Jewish Federation board of Brevard. In an e-mail, he added, “The issue is deceit. This is a deceptive missionary movement, organized and heavily funded by evangelical Christians whose sole purpose is to convert Jews to (fundamentalist) Christianity. There is nothing Jewish about any of this.”
In acknowledging Jesus and the Christian Scriptures, these congregations are accepting many other theological concepts contrary to the Jewish belief system, including original sin, the devil and demonology, “vicarious blood atonement,” and the trinity, Margolis said.
“I have great respect for the authentic Christian tradition and maintain an ongoing program of interfaith activities in our community,” Margolis said. “But I cannot countenance couching fundamentalist Christianity in Jewish symbols.”
Out of the mainstream
A Christian pastor, the Rev. Sheppard Lawrence of Merritt Island, said he views Messianic Jews “more as Christians because of their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. But, by their own admission, they really don’t fit into the mainstream of organized Christianity.”
Levine, who said he has attended services at fundamentalist Christian churches but has no “direct ties” to them, counters “Yeshua clearly is the Jewish Messiah,” written about in the Tenach, the Old Testament, by the Jewish prophets. In short, to Messianic Jews, the Messiah already has arrived on Earth. To traditional Jews like Margolis, that is a ridiculous notion. They believe one simply cannot believe in Jesus and be Jewish.
But believing in Yeshua and Judaism seem perfectly natural at Kol Mashiach, where synagogue members enthusiastically rejoice in both.
“The Messiah’s presence is here,” said Wendy Roy of Palm Bay. “This is where I’m supposed to be.”
Roy, a native of Montreal and a mother of two, said she is Jewish, but her family was not “observant” when she was a child.
After moving to Palm Bay several years ago, Roy said her faith in Yeshua began after her husband lost an eye in a hockey accident.
“I cried out to God, and I’ve been coming here since because I figured out who the Messiah was,” she said.
Like Roy, about half of the 120 members of Kol Mashiach are Jewish, Levine said. The others, like Larry Duchaine of Rockledge, mostly have Christian roots.
Duchaine was brought up Catholic. His wife, Kathi, was a member of a fundamentalist Pentecostal church.
About two years ago, they decided to join Kol Mashiach with their four children.
“We believe in the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments, and that is what we get here,” Duchaine said.
He said he has been encouraged by “the warmth and sense of family” at Kol Mashiach, where members partake in an informal lunch after services each Saturday and sometimes stay and talk well into the afternoon.
Outside the synagogue, though, Duchaine has encountered some prejudice from traditional Jews.
Recently, he and his family attended a Jewish festival, and he saw a friend who belongs to a traditional synagogue.
“Initially, she was all excited that we were attending a synagogue,” he said. “Then she asked me where we were going, and I responded, ‘Kol Mashiach.’ Her expression changed immediately, and she ended the conversation.”
Tom Breen writes for Florida Today.