Messianic Jews’ inclusion riles area Jewish leaders
Columbia’s four interfaith centers embody the planned community’s vision of bringing together diverse groups, providing a place to worship in a tolerant environment.
A congregation of Messianic Jews – who believe that Jesus is the Messiah – is building a fifth interfaith center in Columbia’s last village of River Hill. And that has ignited a debate over the freedom of religion in the town that was developed in 1967 as a home for people of all races and backgrounds.
Area Jewish leaders say that the Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation undermines Columbia developer James W. Rouse’s philosophy – which gave birth to the interfaith centers – and believe the group should not occupy a building intended for diverse faiths. They argue that Messianic Jews evangelize to convert Jews to Christianity under the guise of Judaism, a move they call blasphemous.
“They are deceptive and aggressive,” said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia. “Proselytizing doesn’t have a place in the interfaith community.”
But Rabbi Barry Rubin, who leads Emmanuel Messianic, said such fears are “antiquated … going back to the Middle Ages, which I understand, but it’s not necessary.” He said his congregation’s practices aren’t any different from other churches or synagogues that want people to come to their services.
“For some reason – I just think it’s a prejudice – when we talk to people about our place of worship, to join with us, it seems threatening,” he said. “We’re just teaching what we teach. If people want to come, fine. We can’t convert anybody.”
The Rouse Co. sold the 2-acre lot to the River Hill Interfaith Center Corp. for $65,100 in 1999. After a financial partner backed out of the deal – halting construction last year – the corporation now consists of the Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation, the Oak Ridge Community Church in Columbia and the Lederer Foundation, a Messianic Jewish publishing house in Baltimore that Rubin heads.
All land for interfaith centers is sold at a “pretty significant discount,” said Dennis Miller, a Rouse Co. vice president and general manager of Columbia, because “we think that having religious organizations in Columbia is part of the fabric of Columbia.”
Religious affiliation is not a factor in the Rouse Co.’s decision to sell land to congregations.
“The definition of a religious organization is not my determination,” Miller said.
“Ultimately, it’s all protected under the First Amendment,” he said.
Columbia’s interfaith centers were envisioned by James Rouse as another tool of social engineering when he created Columbia in the 1960s. They have proven successful, housing 10 congregations representing 13 denominations, said George W. Martin, chairman of the Columbia Religious Facilities Corp., which facilitates the land used for the centers.
At the centers, “People talk to one another, and people do things together,” he said.
“It’s not just sharing the building, but they share ideas and social action,” he said.
Rubin hopes construction of the River Hill interfaith center, named the Gathering Place, will resume before the end of the year and will be completed in time for his congregation’s observance of Rosh Hashana next year, when the center will be home to at least six groups. Columbia International Christian Centre and Dunamos Ministries in Baltimore have both signed on to lease space there, said the Rev. George Sebek of the Oak Ridge Community Church.
Preliminary estimates show that constructing the 25,000-square-foot building could cost about $3.8 million to $4 million, Sebek said.
Rubin describes his 100-member congregation as “pro-Torah and pro-Jewish.” It resembles a melding of Judaism and Christianity.
They practice the Torah and observe Shabbat, but they also read from the New Testament and recite prayers that close with “in the name of Yeshua Ha Mashiach” (Jesus the Messiah).
William Taft Stuart, an anthropology professor at the University of Maryland who studies Messianic Judaism, said Jews see Messianic Jews as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” He said the religion is not as large a threat to the Jewish population as intermarriage but, “symbolically, it’s far more threatening.”
“They’re not only backsliding from their appointed Judaism, they are considered traitors and examples of betrayal,” he said.
Scott Hillman, director of Jews for Judaism in Baltimore, said Messianic congregants are outside of the Jewish community because they’ve accepted another faith. He admonishes Rubin for calling himself a rabbi.
“To say to the Jewish community, ‘Accept me, I’m part of the community,’ when he’s preaching Christian theology is very problematic,” Hillman said.
Rabbi Mark Panoff of Temple Isaiah in Columbia said Messianic Jews engage in “false advertising,” as they spread their message that Jews are not fulfilled unless they accept Jesus as their savior.
“They’re disguising what they are … using the symbols of Jewish faith really to hide that this is a Christian group whose target is the Jewish community and to proselytize among Jews,” he said.
Hillman said if the Messianic group was constructing a building that wasn’t an interfaith center, the project likely wouldn’t solicit such a public uproar.
“You have the right to choose what you want to believe,” Hillman said. “But in Columbia, the interfaith centers are supposed to be a place of mutual respect, and this [congregation] doesn’t show that.”
Rubin dismisses such logic as “ludicrous” and said he can’t think of a more suitable place for his congregation.
“Our congregation is made up of Jews and non-Jews,” he said. “We have pulled together the essence of what interfaith is.”
Sebek, of the Oak Ridge Community Church, said the spirit of the interfaith centers is to accommodate people with different convictions and faiths, and his nondenominational congregation has no reservations about sharing a building with the Messianic group.
The Jewish community has “every right to espouse their concerns, but to come down on a congregation that espouses another belief … I think is not in keeping with the spirit that we want to communicate with the Howard County community,” he said.
Grossman said the Jewish community is attempting to educate Columbia residents about how the Messianic congregation is “a danger to our community.” She said allowing the group to build an interfaith center is an “embarrassment to Columbia,” and it is especially not suitable for River Hill, where she said about 3,000 of the 20,000 Jews in Howard County live.
Grossman conveyed that message to the River Hill Village Board last month, but board Chairwoman Tammy CitaraManis said religious beliefs play no role in the board’s decisions.
“We certainly cannot come in and tell someone they can’t do something because of their religion,” she said, explaining that the village board’s only function in the process is to act as a community voice.
Rubin said he understands the Jewish community’s feelings – he said he grew up with the “same prejudices and fears” – but that the concerns are unfounded.
“We don’t want trouble, we just want to go and worship and do our thing,” Rubin said. “That’s the whole nature of Columbia.”