‘Call us and get a free videotape! You can enjoy the movie Jesus for free in Hebrew or in Russian. The movie is based on historical facts and some of the actors are Israeli. Call today!”
This is just one of many flyers that Faina, who lives in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel, finds in her mail almost every day. There are also other tempting offers – “Get a free Bible,” “A free tour in Jerusalem – just for you!,” “Have questions about faith? We can answer them!”
The flyers, always in Russian and sometimes in Hebrew as well, never mention their sponsors. They do, however, offer phone numbers where one can obtain a Bible, arrange a tour or order a movie. Usually there is a Russian-speaker at hand to help with any questions or dilemmas.
After calling for the free video myself, I was offered the opportunity to learn more about the life of the “believers” here in Israel. The voice on the other end also promised someone would contact me shortly after the movie’s delivery to my house, in order “to discuss it.”
Ad: Vacation? City Trip? Weekend Break? Book Skip-the-line tickets
Further questions were answered reluctantly.
“You’d better come to one of our centers and find out for yourself. We have communities in almost every city in Israel, so you can come and watch the ceremonies. We will arrange for you to meet some of the believers,” said a woman who introduced herself as Svetlana.
“Who do you mean by ‘we’?” I asked.
“We are the Messianic Jews,” she answered.
In recent years, Messianic Judaism in Israel has experienced extraordinary growth. Yevgeny, 25, has been approached by representatives of Messianic Jews many times.
“Maybe I don’t look Jewish enough, so they always try to talk to me in the bus or in the bookshop. At first I thought that this is just another variety of Jewish Orthodoxy, because of the way they look. They often put a yarmulka on their heads, grow long beards and adopt Jewish names, so naturally I thought that they were like the hassidim or the Chabadnikim, and frankly speaking, I don’t know much about either. But after they’d offered to send me a free Bible and started talking about baptizing, I realized that this was something totally different.”
Messianic Jews consider themselves strictly Jewish: they read the Torah and observe some of the Jewish holidays and traditions. They also believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.
“We are not at all a new organization or sect, God forbid,” says Eliezer Uzichenko, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 1998, and is one of the well-known figures in the community and a member of the Beit Avinu congregation in the center of the country.
“We exist since the first century CE and we refuse to be called Christians, because that’s not what we are.”
Uzichenko and his comrades have an answer for every question. He explains that baptism, for example, is not a Christian tradition but a Jewish one, having originated from the Jewish concept of ablution.
Messianic Jews also maintain that Israel is the Promised Land for Jews, and believe passionately that every Jew must live here.
“Yes, we believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, but it doesn’t make us less Jewish than any other Jew,” says Noam, another member of the community, and the first non-Russian speaker I contacted. “If Chabad Lubavitch are Jewish, then we are also Jewish. They believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah, in spite of much evidence that he is not, and they did not stop being Jewish. That is also true for us.”
But apparently neither the Chief Rabbinate nor the High Court of Justice consider the Messianists to be Jews.
“It’s a known fact that there is a sect of people that were born as Jews and came to believe in Jesus Christ, who call themselves Messianic Jews. Apparently it’s important to them to stay attached to their Jewish heritage, but Judaism repelled them and they cannot be considered part of the Jewish community,” says Justice Zvi Berenson.
The Yad L’achim organization believes that the word “Jews” opens a lot of doors for the messianists, as many Russian immigrants do not know the difference until it is too late.
“They are operating in a very clever way. And it’s easy to mix them with Jews, because of their appearance. A person who studied Judaism will notice the catch and will detect the contradictions and lies. But not somebody who lacks a fundamental education in Judaism,” says Alex (no connection to main story’s Alex Artovsky), a 37-year-old who came to Israel at the end of the 1980s from the Ukraine and does not disclose his real name, though he serves as the official spokesman for Yad L’Achim’s anti-missionary division.
Although it is difficult to know the exact numbers, it is estimated that there are more than 10,000 people in Israel who call themselves Messianic Jews.
“You see, we are not what is called a pyramid-structured organization. There are several communities and the estimated number of all the members is slightly over 10,000,” says Uzichenko. This figure is also supported by Yad L’Achim, which claims that at least 50 percent of these Messianic Jews are Russian immigrants – an estimate the Messianic Jews themselves corroborate.
“More than 50% of my community [Beit Avinu] are Russian-speakers,” says Uzichenko, “although the numbers differ from region to region.”
Messianic Jews have many centers in the former Soviet Union, especially in Ukraine, where there is still a highly concentrated Jewish population.
“There are many concerts, shows and charity activities going on there. I personally know a boy, a Jewish Agency activist, by the way, who became a missionary Jew and today he is engaged in missionary activity. Many come to Israel after they have joined the Messianic Jews,” says Irina, who immigrated from Ukraine three years ago.
The representatives of various Messianic organizations are eager to explain that they are not engaged in any missionary activities, but simply distribute information to anybody who is interested.
“The real missionaries are the Orthodox Jews, who enroll in their schools hundreds of thousands of new immigrants without telling them the truth,” says Noam, who is frustrated with what he calls “a common mix-up” and refuses any notion that he is Christian.
“Yes, we distribute films and books, but we have never forced anybody to join us or to listen to us, and we have the right to disseminate the information about our organization just like everybody else,” says Uzichenko, who stresses that luring people into the faith with money or gifts of any kind is wrong.
“It was much easier for us before to spot the missionaries, “says Alex, “because they used to dress as priests, monks, etc. But nowadays it becomes quite difficult, since they look just like you and me and you can never tell who is who. So we developed a special system of informants: we work just like the Shin Bet and we have our people in every community to tell us what is going on and who will be their next target.”
There is no explicit law in Israel that forbids missionary activity per se. There is a law that forbids missionary activity among minors and a law that forbids giving material inducements to change faith, but apparently, neither law is being enforced.
“We complained about the actions of one of the missionaries in Tel Aviv who tried to convert a 17-year-old girl, but our complaint was never taken seriously. The police think the complaint is nonsense, but in our opinion what [the missionaries] do is equal to killing, because they destroy the heart of the Jewish nation,” says Alex.
Indeed, Yad L’Achim says the groups it watches don’t seem to be worried about being arrested or prosecuted for missionary activity.
“As far as I know, these laws are hardly implemented, so I think that we would be fine,” smiles Uzichenko.
Leonid Belozerkovsky, editor and owner of the Russian-language newspaper Novosty Nedely, believes that if Russian immigrants knew more about Judaism it would be more difficult to lure them to different sects.
“Why do people turn to these kinds of organizations, whether they call them Messianic Jews or Jehovah’s Witnesses?” he asks. “Some of the immigrants came with their non-Jewish spouses, and if a spouse becomes a follower of a certain sect, the other one might join them. Others just try to fill the spiritual void, they are searching for something, but they don’t know what, and if they meet an emissary of a certain sect who claims he can fill this need, they will go for it. And there are also others who are non-Jews, so they can do whatever they like.”
Yad L’Achim believes the government could do more to help improve the situation.
“The government should open a chain of ulpanim where immigrants could learn about Judaism. Just the fundamental, basic stuff, so they could learn more about Jewish history, the traditions, the holidays. What happens is that people, especially the older generation, come to Israel, study Hebrew more or less, but they never get to study about the history of Israel and the Jewish nation. Unlike the US, where every immigrant has to take a test on American history, there is no similar demand in Israel. The government should invest more in the education of its new citizens,” says Alex.
Still, the question remains: how successful have the Messianic Jews in Israel been in bringing new converts to their cause?
Belozerkovsky thinks that “en bloc” the Messianic Jews succeeded less than they thought they would. “Russian immigrants are not at all eager to change their faith, even if they know very little about it,” he believes.
But Alex thinks Messianic Jews pose a real threat to the existence of the Jewish people. To him, “even one converted Jew is one too many.”