Two years ago, when local Jews wrote “return to sender” on unsolicited videotapes about the life of Christ while local evangelical Christians spread their message “to the Jews first,” religious leaders noticed that talk about faith was getting ugly in Palm Beach County.
So a handful of rabbis, ministers and laymen began to talk to each other.
On Wednesday they released the results of their meetings, a statement “Calling for Evangelical Jewish Understanding.”
The statement, which calls upon Christians to “be honest, open, and aboveboard” and to not single out Jews when spreading word of their faith, is signed by four Evangelical ministers, five rabbis and two Jewish community leaders.
It is, “if not historic, certainly unusual,” one rabbi said.
And, those involved said, the statement amounts to more than words.
It comes as Christians and Jews brace for a fresh wave of conflict, as the group called “Jews for Jesus” undertakes an unprecedented campaign through the county. The group often is supported by churches and is consistently spurned by Jewish religious leaders who say it relies on deception to win converts.
Two years ago, Christ Fellowship joined other Christian organizations, including Jews for Jesus, in mailing Jesus videotapes to homes throughout the county and in a conference called “To the Jews First in the New Millennium.”
The goal, organizers said, was to follow God’s biblical instructions to “witness” — proselytize — to Jews.
This year however, Christ Fellowship will not support activities planned in the Jews for Jesus campaign, said the Rev. Dan Light, the Palm Beach Gardens ministry’s pastor.
“We had to make the choice not to provide active support, including financial,” Light said. The lack of participation is not intended to indicate opposition to the group, he added.
It does reflect, he said, “that Christ Fellowship has chosen to develop a relationship with the Jewish community and to witness to all people.”
The relationship grew as a group of rabbis and ministers met monthly in 2001 to explain their faiths to each other, said Bill Gralnick, regional director of the American Jewish Committee. Gralnick pulled the group together, he said, because “there had to be a better way than shouting at each other across the headlines of newspapers.”
Six months ago, when Jewish leaders learned of the planned “Jews for Jesus” campaign, the dialogue deepened.
To Jews, who do not proselytize and who have seen their numbers dwindle as young people drift from their faith, being targeted by Christian proselytizers was deeply offensive, said Gralnick, who called it a “core” issue.
Evangelicals, whose faith is based around “witnessing,” found that hard to understand, he said.
That a level of understanding already had been reached, however, was clear in the response of one Evangelical Christian in the group, who explained that “Witnessing is the mother of all Christian mitzvoth.” Mitzvoth in Judaism is a profound religious obligation.
The statement released Wednesday calls on Evangelicals to accept “no” as a response from those to whom they try to spread their faith.
“It is the result of two years of quiet meetings between rabbis and ministers who have come to know one another and like one another,” said Rabbi Stephen Pinsky of Temple Beth Torah in Wellington.
The agreement is not a compromise, both say.
“The issue that has become important to us is the way that we witness, to do so in an inoffensive way,” he said. “Simply telling the message without living the message is counterproductive.”