A matter of faith

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are about to hold a meeting on Rehov Lincoln in Tel Aviv. Yad L’Achim, the anti-missionary haredi organization, is waiting for them.

“All of you good Jews, don’t leave the Jewish people, please read our literature about this cult,” says a woman handing out brochures to the scores of Russian immigrants hurrying into the office building where the Jehovah’s Witnesses rent a meeting room.

While she works, “Ya’acov,” in his mid-20s, who occasionally goes undercover for Yad L’Achim to large gatherings of proselytizing Christian sects, keeps the irate landlord busy, countering his rising complaints that Yad L’Achim is scaring off his tenants by insisting that he and his fellow activists are saving these Jews from “extermination.” Inside the building, Arlen Bezborodkin, a clean-cut Russian immigrant Jehovah’s Witness in a sports coat and tie who will be the speaker for the evening, says he has been harassed by Yad L’Achim for more than a year.

“Twice I was followed by a car full of haredim. Once they came into the building where I live and put up warning posters with my picture. They harassed me on the phone, they even tried to get me fired from my job, but my [Jewish] boss refused,” he says.

On the sidewalk, a woman getting out of a car and heading into the building tells her young daughter, “Don’t talk to those people.” Off to the side, watching the crowd, Ya’acov says, “They’re taught that Yad L’Achim is the personification of the devil.”

A veteran Russian immigrant who became ultra-Orthodox a few years ago, Ya’acov points out that despite the nice-looking, rather formal clothes the people are wearing, they are poor.

“They have no money to buy clothes – it’s second-hand stuff from charity houses,” he says, explaining that proselytizing sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Messianic Jews (popularly known as Jews for Jesus) zero in on Russian immigrants who are vulnerable because of poverty and culture shock.

Indicating a woman in the crowd standing inside the building, he says, “Her apartment is empty, and she’s had trouble finding a husband. She’s 32, lives in Tel Aviv.”

Impressed, I ask how he knows so much about her.

“We go to people’s houses, we get to know them,” he says. “We learn a lot about them.”

In the very near future, at least some of the immigrants at the meeting on Rehov Lincoln will be receiving follow-up calls and home visits from emissaries of Yad L’Achim.

Wherever missionaries and cults are in Israel – and they are scattered pretty much all over – Yad L’Achim (A Hand to Brethren) is there to spy on them, harass them, expose them to the Jewish public, and, above all, to try to biblically deprogram the many thousands of Jews – half or even more of whom are Russian immigrants – who fall into the cults’ embrace.

In this bloodless holy war with gentile missionaries, the Jewish anti-missionaries are tireless and devoted. They’re also extremely cunning and more than a little ruthless.

The organization, which is based in Bnei Brak and depends on the haredi community both in Israel and abroad for money, not only sends its own people undercover into the missionary and cult groups, it also has several gentile members of those groups on its payroll as informers.

Yad L’achim mainly targets the two largest Christian sects seeking to convert Jews – the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Messianic Jews – but also goes after Scientology, Hare Krishna, Falun Gong, Landmark Forum and other cults operating in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

“Over the years we’ve brought back hundreds of Jews who had gone over to Christianity, and we’ve prevented the assimilation of many thousands of others who had started the process by going to a lecture or two from the missionaries,” says Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifschitz, who co-founded Yad L’Achim in 1950. He emphasizes repeatedly that Yad L’Achim “has nothing whatsoever against Christians in Israel, just against missionaries.”

Well into his 70s, Lifschitz has the twinkle in the eye and Yiddish-accented voice of the proverbial kindly rabbi, but he is all business and is treated by people in his domain as the revered, unchallenged authority. He has a paid staff of about 60 and “at least 10 times” that many volunteers spread out across the country.

For Jews brought back into the fold who have no economic support and have to start their lives over from zero, Yad L’Achim provides food, clothing and apartments free of charge, as well as help finding jobs, he says.

In Yad L’Achim’s warehouse-like basement office on a busy Bnei Brak corner, “Lilya,” a pretty, casually-dressed Russian immigrant woman in her early 20s, recounts with a nervous giggle how she fell in with the Messianic Jews about five years ago, a few years after arriving in Israel.

“I was living with my mother in a little apartment in the center of the country,” she says, wary of revealing even the most innocuous personal detail, “and we didn’t have anything. My mother had a friend who I really liked, she was so serene, and she told me I should pray to Yeshua [the Hebrew name for Jesus] for whatever I wanted. So I started praying – to get a good grade on a test, and for certain other things – and it worked.

“In Russia I knew I was a Jew but I didn’t know anything about Judaism. And there were these Christian programs on television, with music and big churches and preachers, and I used to watch them. They were riveting,” she says.

Like her mother’s friend, she began attending a Messianic Jews’ church [which the Messianic Jews refer to as a synagogue] in Tel Aviv. Hundreds of people would attend the services.

“Once you accepted Jesus, they baptized you. I was just about to get baptized, and then a guy I’d gotten to know said he was worried for me, and he called Yad L’Achim.”

Soon after, Lilya got a call from Alex Artovsky, head of Yad L’Achim’s anti-missionary desk, and she agreed to talk with him at one of the organization’s offices.

“It took about an hour. He sat across from me, opened up his Bible, and proved to me that the New Testament was a lie.”

Since that evening about two years ago, Lilya has been going to school and living as a secular Israeli Jew.

“I believe in Judaism, but I’m not observant, and I don’t keep Shabbat. It’s too hard,” she laughs.

Artovsky IS in his early forties, but looks older with his long, thick, gray-streaked black beard. A veteran immigrant who was a policeman in the former Soviet Union and then in Hadera, he fills up a room with his booming voice, expansive gestures and loud, joyous laugh. Describing how he enjoys going incognito among missionaries, he pulls his beard this way and that, saying, “Sometimes I’ll go as a hippie, you know?”

He’s on the job day and night, losing himself in his work. We’d arranged that I would accompany him in the Ramle Central Bus Station, where he was going to meet a young Jewish woman to try to talk her out of her newfound Christianity. My cover, he said, was that we’d met through mutual friends, that I was a religious Jew who’d agreed to act as his chaperon – which he required as a married haredi man sitting with a woman – and that I was brand new to Israel and spoke no Hebrew, which would allow the woman to talk freely.

But when the hour arrived, he didn’t show up. Apologizing later for not calling to say he was meeting the woman elsewhere, Artovsky explained: “When I’m with my subject, somebody I’m trying to bring back to Judaism, I block everything else out.”

Through its intelligence network, Yad L’Achim knows dozens of locations where Christian groups and cults gather, and tries to keep them on the run. One way it does this is by convincing kashrut inspectors from the Chief Rabbinate to threaten hotels and banquet halls that their kashrut licenses will be revoked if they continue to rent to proselytizers. At times, no rabbinate middleman is necessary.

“The Jehovah’s Witnesses were meeting regularly at this one big restaurant on the Netanya promenade, and we told the owners who they were. Those guys on the promenade are like the mafia – they got rid of them fast,” says Artovsky.

Explains Lifschitz: “When we find out about a missionary, we’ll publicize his identity on posters, newspaper ads, by word of mouth. We don’t even have to phone up his place of work. A lot of Jewish employers don’t want to be involved with missionaries – what, they’re going to pay him a salary so he can convert Jews to Christianity? So seeing an ad in the newspaper is enough for [the employer] to fire him. But not all employers will do this.”

When the organization finds out the meeting place of a cult or proselytizing sect, it goes right in their face – leafleting and demonstrating out front, often tailing its leaders. The Messianic Jewish leader in Kiryat Yam, north of Haifa, says that a few years ago his congregants’ tires were slashed, and their office building was vandalized and eventually firebombed in the middle of the night when it was empty. While the arsonists were never caught, he assumes they belonged to the organization that had been harassing his “synagogue” for so long and still won’t leave it alone – Yad L’Achim.

In the small industrial zone of Kiryat Yam, heavily populated with Russian immigrants, an old man and woman are rummaging through the garbage bin near a frozen-food outlet. Nearby is the building that houses a Messianic Jewish church as well as its offices and charity warehouse, where food and clothing are given away. Several elderly immigrants are coming and going with charity parcels, and a few immigrant teenagers arrive for after-school practice with the congregation’s Messianic rock band.

“Are you Jewish?” Nehama Sher, a Yad L’Achim worker, asks the elderly immigrants in Russian. If they answer yes, she invites them to her organization’s charity house in Haifa. She doesn’t go in for a hard sell; these people haven’t become Christians, and she just wants to ease them away from the Messianic Jews’ benevolence.

Describing herself as “a pure Jew who had a goyishe education” in the former Soviet Union, Sher, 41, studied Judaism at Yad L’Achim’s courses for Russian immigrants, became observant, got married in Hebron and now has four daughters, proudly pulling out their photos. Although she is on salary with Yad L’Achim, she is also a true believer.

“Once I went to demonstrate outside a Jehovah’s Witnesses convention at the Congress Center [in Haifa], and buses filled with Jews were arriving, and I saw the little children. I imagined them being taken to be baptized, which is what happens to them,” she recalls. “Then their leader, an American Jew, intelligent, dignified, came past me and I couldn’t help it – I slapped him in the face. It was an automatic reaction.”

Once when Sher was pregnant, she went for a “consultation” with a highly reputable gynecologist in the Haifa area, the son of Holocaust survivors who’d become a Jehovah’s Witness. She went with a concealed tape recorder.

“I taped him giving his propaganda, all his prophecies from the Bible,” she says. Yad L’Achim played the tape for the doctor’s health-care fund, which reprimanded him and made him pledge to keep his religion to himself during office hours.

“He kept his job,” says Lifschitz, “but other doctors like him have gotten fired. It’s illegal for a doctor to exploit his position to proselytize.”

When Sher began working outside the Kiryat Yam church, she says the congregation’s leaders “made tape recordings of me, slandered me, said I was poisoning their food, and that they’d call the police if I didn’t leave.” She’s still there, and so are the Messianic Jews.

The photographer and I walk into the church unannounced and a young native Israeli takes us to the office of the congregation’s leader, Eitan Shishkoff. He agrees to talk with us, show us around, let us take photos, whatever we want. There are lots of Russian- and Hebrew-language religious brochures and pictures around the premises, but none feature a familiar likeness of Jesus – who is referred to as Yeshua – or a crucifix or any other visibly Christian symbol or motif.

Warm and voluble, Shishkoff, 56, bears an amazing resemblance to Robin Williams with a beard. Born in Chicago to a Jewish mother and gentile father, he says he was raised a “humanist,” and after college lived as a hippie traveler, commune member and dabbler in Eastern mysticism. In 1973, he “found Yeshua the messiah” and became an active Messianic Jew. Although the Law of Return does not apply to Jewish converts to Christianity, he and his Jewish-turned-Messianic wife and their children immigrated to Israel as Jews in 1992.

“Why should I wave a big flag saying, ‘I’m a Messianic Jew,’ just because the Interior Ministry hasn’t understood yet that Messianic Jews make great Israelis?” he says. “I’m a 100% Israeli citizen, we love this country, our children serve in the army.”

He says there are about 270 adults and children in his congregation, about 70% of them Russian immigrants. Nationwide, he counts roughly 80 Messianic Jewish congregations.

“The most conservative estimate of the number of Messianic Jews in Israel is 7,000, but I think it’s more than 10,000,” he says.

Shishkoff emphatically denies Yad L’Achim’s accusation that the Kiryat Yam congregation, along with other proselytizing sects that give charity, are breaking Israeli law by offering money or other material inducements to Jews to convert. (Otherwise, gentile proselytizing to Jews in this country is legal, despite Yad L’Achim’s efforts in the Knesset to outlaw it.)

“Maybe a few of our members first came in contact with us through the charity, but 98% of them didn’t. Make that 99.9%,” he says.

As for Yad L’Achim’s accusation that proselytizing sects “prey” on poor or otherwise desperate Jews, Shishkoff says there’s nothing predatory about it – this is what the Torah commands Jews to do.

“In the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 61, it says, ‘He has sent me to preach good tidings to the poor,'” he notes.

The same goes for Jewish drug addicts and prostitutes who’ve been taken in by the Messianic Jews, he adds.

“If I’m not out to heal the broken-hearted, and I’m only going after people who are respectable, what kind of Jew is that?” he says, holding his sect’s Bible, a volume that contains both the Old and the New Testament.

He set up the congregation in Kiryat Yam in late 1995, and soon haredim from Yad L’Achim began coming around.

“They harassed our people after services, videotaping them and writing down their license plate numbers, threatening to report them to the Interior Ministry, to get them sent back to the [former] Soviet Union,” he says. “Paint was splashed on our door. Graffiti were spraypainted on the building – ‘Beware of missionaries,'” he continues, adding that later, the tires of 14 members’ cars parked in the congregation’s lot were slashed.

Then in the middle of the night in October 1997, a fire started in the warehouse.

“It was a firebombing,” he says. “Flames were coming out of the building. We had a computer in there that was destroyed, not a piece of paper was left.”

There were no injuries, and police investigators made no arrests.

“We’ve never proven who did it, but it’s no secret,” says Shishkoff, adding that now, when Yad L’Achim activists show up outside the congregation in force, the Messianic Jews videotape every one of them.

Rabbi Lifschitz flatly denies any accusations against Yad L’Achim for violent behavior.

“They’re lying, it’s all lies,” he says. “For all I know, maybe there was a fire there, but that doesn’t mean we started it. Maybe [the Messianic Jews] started it themselves so they could blame it on us.”

Binyamin Klugger, who heads Yad L’Achim’s Jerusalem office, knows a lot about Messianic Jews in Israel; he spent several months passing as one while spying on them for Yad L’Achim. He did the same for six months among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and for months at a time with the Hare Krishna sect and various other proselytizing cults in Jerusalem. “Altogether, I was undercover for seven years,” says Klugger, 32, in French-accented Hebrew. “It was interesting. I liked it. But usually I couldn’t remain in any one group for more than a few months. I have a problem with idolatry.”

Delicately built with sharp features, wire-rim glasses, closely-cropped hair and a wispy beard, Klugger, who immigrated from France 13 years ago, looks like a monk in a black kippa. Interviewed in Yad L’Achim’s old office in the downtown haredi neighborhood of Geula, he is a cerebral, knowledgeable Orthodox Jew who clearly enjoys using his mind, especially against his opponents.

As an undercover agent in the cults, his immediate objective was to steer fresh converts to Yad L’Achim for deprogramming. The trick was to do it without the members knowing.

“I would present myself to the newcomers as a cult ‘insider’ and offer to help them in any way. We’d exchange telephone numbers and I’d give theirs to Yad L’Achim,” he explains.

He became privy to all sorts of cult secrets – where they wanted to rent space, where they were planning to proselytize.

“Yad L’Achim knows all their plans,” he says.

Once, he says, the Messianics were looking forward to a prominent American member immigrating deceitfully to Israel under the Law of Return; it was only later that they realized it was because of Klugger that the Interior Ministry turned down the American’s application.

Little by little, as the cults would see that Yad L’Achim was waiting for them at almost every turn, they would suspect a mole in their midst, and suspicion would fall on Klugger, the new immigrant from France who had “come to the Holy Land in the footsteps of Jesus.”

“When they asked me, I would make a joke out of it,” he says. “If they asked if I was a believer, I’d say ‘yes.’ I am a believer, I just don’t believe what they believe.”

But if he was asked if he believed in Jesus Christ or any other religion’s deity, he refused, blowing his cover and moving on to another cult.

“I was with the Messianics, and they started to ask me things, and finally I was with them in the YMCA and [one of the leaders of the group] came up to me with a couple of assistants and said, ‘What do you think you’re doing here? We know who you are – you’re with Yad L’Achim. Get out of here and don’t come back.’ I played dumb, I was saying, ‘What are you talking about, I believe with all my heart,’ and everything, but finally he challenged me to say out loud, right there, that I believed in Jesus Christ,” Klugger recalls. “I couldn’t say it. And that was it. That was the end. The whole thing took less than a minute, and I was gone.”

Before walking out of the YMCA, he said to the Messianics, “No one is irreplaceable. I’m leaving, but another one of us will be coming in.” He says the Jerusalem office has received threats from people he believes to be Messianic Jews.

“One of them hangs out on Jaffa Road, and when he sees me he tells me I’m ‘Satan’s messenger,’ that if I don’t stop what I’m doing he’ll ‘take care’ of me, and that I better be careful that I don’t get ‘erased.'”

Klugger’s days as an undercover agent in the Jerusalem area proselytizing sects are over, he says: “I’m too well known.”

What made him so well suited to working undercover among proselytizing Christians, what allowed him to pass so naturally as a true-believing Christian, is that he knew whereof he spoke: Klugger was born and raised Catholic. At age 13, he gave up Catholicism for Pentecostalism – fire-and-brimstone evangelical Christianity.

“My family was very religious. There was a priest in every generation,” he notes. By age 18, he says, he’d already evangelized “a minyan-and-a-half” – 15 people – for Jesus.

His Pentecostal pastor taught him that the evangelist’s prize is a Jewish soul won for Christ.

“I told the pastor that if that’s what God wants, that’s what I want. Wherever there are Jews, I will bring them to the church,” Klugger remembers.

But he left the sect after hearing his pastor describe all the deceitful methods for converting Jews.

“He’d tell us the Jews have suffered the Inquisition, the Crusades, pogroms, Nazis, so you can’t approach them in the name of Christianity, you have to approach them in the name of love. Don’t say you’re a Christian, say you’re a believer. Don’t use the word ‘church,’ use ‘community.’ Don’t talk about baptism, talk about the mikve [Jewish ritual bath],” Klugger says, adding that he still sees this today, only from the other side.

After losing faith in his pastor, he began comparing the New Testament to the Old, and decided that “it wasn’t the pastor that was lying, but the New Testament and Christianity.”

The New Testament claims to proceed from the Torah, he says, but it “distorts Torah passages, takes them out of context or just invents them. [Christians] built a theology out of mistakes, distortions and inventions.”

He began studying Judaism with a French rabbi, decided to convert, and, with the rabbi’s assistance, moved to Jerusalem and entered a yeshiva in 1992, and was soon converted to Judaism by the Chief Rabbinate.

One day in the Old City he was approached by a man who began talking Torah but soon was talking Jesus. Klugger told the head of his yeshiva how this had upset him, and how he had to do something about these missionaries.

“The head of the yeshiva,” he says, “told me about Yad L’Achim.”

It is a cool Thursday evening in Kikar Zion, where I am to meet Klugger and “Sara,” a bright, gentle, Israeli-born woman of about 20 in an ankle-length, embroidered dress. A Messianic Jew for two years, she has agreed to talk with Klugger at the behest of her traditionally Jewish parents. My cover is that I’m “searching,” having gone to a couple of Messianic meetings to see what they’re about, and I’m also meeting Klugger to appease my concerned family members. The three of us sit down at an outdoor caf on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall.

Klugger’s strategy is very simple – to destroy Sara’s faith in Christianity by proving to her that the New Testament is, as he says, “a lie,” that it is not built on the Torah as Christianity claims. He intends to prove this in the most literal way, by comparing certain New Testament passages with the original ones in the Torah, and show word for word (sometimes even letter for letter) how they don’t match up, leaving no other conclusion, he says, than that the New Testament is false.

As soon as we sit down, Klugger pulls out his Bible and Sara pulls out hers.

At first he seems to be doing pretty well – counting generations, comparing spelling and syntax, jumping from passage to verse, setting a furious pace through the Old and New Testaments. Sara is hard-pressed to keep up, raising her head from the text only for an occasional polite question while Klugger does all the talking. He pulls out sheaves of printed material that expound on his arguments and hands them to her.

“I’ve brought you a lot of homework,” he says, smiling and friendly. Sara turns to me and we laugh. She may not be sold, but she’s impressed at how well-prepared Klugger has come for this evening at a caf .

Then, strolling through the mall, “Alon” comes up to our table, and Sara, visibly relieved to see him, gives him a big grin and a quick hug. In his mid-20s, confident and formidable with his solid build and shaved head, Alon is a member of the same Messianic chapter as Sara’s, located next to the nearby McDonald’s. He asks what’s happening, and Sara mumbles something through embarrassed laughter.

Klugger smiles at him.

“Alon, right?” he says, then tells Alon his last name, then the name of the head of his Messianic chapter.

Smiling back at him, Alon asks, “With whom do I have the pleasure?” Klugger tells him.

“Is it all right if I sit down?” Alon asks.

Everybody says sure, and from that point the evening goes straight downhill for Yad L’Achim’s cause.

While I sit there in attentive silence, Alon and Sara team up to argue over every contradiction Klugger brings up, telling him these aren’t contradictions at all, and challenging him with chapters and verses of their own. It becomes evident that what Klugger sees as a simple, objective matter of what is and isn’t printed on the page is actually a matter of scriptural interpretation, and that when faced with people who’ve believed in Christianity for a long time and know their Old and New Testaments well, it is a very tall order to deprogram them the Yad L’Achim way – by leading them to an admission that the New Testament is a lie. Klugger is faced with two such people in Alon and Sara, and together they’ve got him on the defensive.

While he and Alon argue head to head over texts, Sara tells me: “I don’t care about all that stuff he was telling me, I don’t care whether this letter or that letter is on this page or that. I know inside what the Lord did for me, I know how he healed me. There’s nothing he can show me that’s going to change that.”

Finally Klugger says he has to leave, and he tries to get the check for the coffees and mineral waters, but Alon and Sara are determined to pay for their own.

“Yad L’Achim is going to treat me? Forget it,” says Alon, and everybody laughs.

The goodbyes are good-natured; it’s clear to Alon, Sara and myself that Klugger hasn’t made a dent in their faith, that it’s all been an interesting but, for Yad L’Achim’s purposes, futile couple of hours.

Not to Klugger, though. A few minutes after we break up, I phone to ask for his postmortem.

“After that guy sat down, it turned into more of an attack than a conversation, but it was a good start,” he says. “She saw that the [New Testament] passages were distorted, and she went home with a lot of material to read.”

It won’t be easy to bring her back to Judaism, he admits; Sara shares an apartment with another Messianic Jew, she’s exposed to constant brainwashing, and so is Alon, whom Klugger has his eye on now.

“I’ll be seeing them again,” he says matter-of-factly.

The anti-missionaries of Yad L’Achim have a mission of their own, to recover lost Jews, and they don’t yield.

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Jerusalem Post, Israel
Apr. 29, 2005
Larry Derfner

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday May 2, 2005.
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