Though officially illegal, the capital’s last Messianic Youth Ministry continues to recruit local Jewish teens
When Jerusalem-born Daniel Cohen was 15-years-old, he wanted to become a professional drummer. So when a friend told him about free drum lessons at The Jamm he went straight to the Russian Compound to check it out.
“At first, the people at The Jamm were really nice to me. They even started to teach me how to play the drums,” says Cohen.
After two months of hanging out at the coffee bar/youth center, one of Cohen’s newfound friends gave him a copy of the New Testament in Hebrew and began to initiate discussions on the subject of Christ. An additional two months passed before Cohen was invited to participate in a youth trip to the Sea of Galilee, where he could join other Jamm youth in a mikveh ceremony.
“He asked me if I knew what Baptism is,” recalls Cohen, who is now 17. “He said it wasn’t a Christian thing, but a Jewish thing for Jews who knew the ‘right way.'”
“I was shocked,” he continues. “I was born a Jew and I want to be a Jew and I am not interested in converting away from Judaism. It is horrible when you think you have friends and then you find out that they are actually your enemies.”
Cohen isn’t alone. The Jamm (Jerusalem Artists, Musicians and Media) Center has been trapping Jewish teens in its messianic web since it was established in 1998. With open mike nights on Wednesdays and Punk concerts on Thursdays, including free coffee, chai tea and snacks, the non-smoking, alcohol-free Jamm provides a clean and tempting atmosphere for Jerusalem youth.
In one of the organization’s pamphlets, The Jamm describes itself as “the first and only Israeli Messianic Youth ministry center of its kind in Israel,” the main goal of which is “to serve as a safe place for young people to find out about the mercies of the true and living God.”
According to Aaron Rubin at Yad L’Achim (Hands to Our Brothers), a Jerusalem-based organization dedicated to helping Jewish brethren escape from the clutches of cults and missionaries, The Jamm is among 100 so-called Messianic Jewish movements across Israel, 20 congregations of which are headquartered in Jerusalem.
Rubin lists the Baptists, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC) and Caspari near Ben Yehuda Street, where Christians from Norway offer literature and courses to augment the effectiveness of English, Russian, Hebrew and French-speaking missionaries, among the larger missionary communities in the capital city.
Although he estimates the total number of missionaries currently operating in the country at around 4,000, Rubin says their numbers have increased by 100 percent over the past decade and that they continue to grow at an even more rapid pace today.
“The number of congregations are growing,” says Rubin, who attributes the boom to several factors: the successful conversion to Christianity of new immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia; an increased number of dissidents who reject the theology of their church in favor of establishing their own individually-run institutions; the circumvention of the Law of Return, which according to a Supreme Court ruling in September 1992 stipulates that “openly-professed belief in Jesus is enough to render a born-Jew a member of another religion and thereby not eligible under Israel’s immigration law for automatic citizenship in the Jewish State”; and a general expansion of messianic activity.
Messianic Jews share a belief in the idea that Judaism is the source of Christianity. The New Testament (so-called New Covenant) represents a unified extension of the Old Testament. Main tenets include regarding God as a compound unity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and belief in Jesus’ virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death, bodily resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God the Father. They await the personal, bodily return of Jesus and believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost – the former to everlasting life, the latter to everlasting judgment and condemnation. It is in this Christian philosophy that the objective of conversion and “soul-saving” originates.
According to Rubin, the most common point of confusion for Jews who are approached by Messianic Jews is their self-definition as Jews. “They say they are Jews, not Christians and that their beliefs have nothing to do with Christianity.”
This approach is deceptive, explains Rubin, since one-quarter of Messianic Jewish congregations in Israel are led by Christian-educated leaders.
In addition to their deceiving self-description, initial methods to entice new congregants usually include putting up posters and websites and going to festivals and public places to distribute pamphlets and books bearing Jewish symbols.
The difference between The Jamm and other organizations of its kind is that currently, it is the only active missionary body whose target audience are minors.
“Some movements send their children to speak with Jewish children because it’s more delicate,” says Rubin, “but most Jewish missionaries try to stay away from kids because it is illegal.”
Article 368 of the Israeli Penal Code awards a maximum six-month incarceration for attempting to convert minors under the age of 18. Article 174(A) prohibits the offering and receiving of material benefits as an inducement to conversion of anyone, including those above and below the age of 18. Anyone who gives material benefits in exchange for a commitment to change one’s religion can be sentenced up to 5 years in prison and fined a maximum of NIS 50,000.
According to Yoram Sheftel, a Ramat Gan-based criminal lawyer who volunteers on behalf of Yad L’Achim, the problem is that both the prosecution and the law enforcement authorities do not enforce the law.
“They rarely enforce the laws pertaining to missionary crimes,” says Sheftel, who estimates that only one or two cases are actually brought to court every year.
No legal precedent exists because both crimes are dealt with at the lowest level, the Magistrate’s Court, with appeals going to the District Court.
“There is no practical chance that a case like this would make it to the Supreme Court,” adds Sheftel, who in 2000 drafted a bill that to date has neither been accepted nor rejected by the Knesset, which would make any attempt to persuade anyone to change his religion an offense against the law. “As it stands, the issue is not a priority in the eyes of the Jerusalem Police and the prosecution. These cases, therefore, are generally neither investigated nor prosecuted.”
Rivka Cohen, Daniel’s mother, who conditioned her interview on the changing of both her and her son’s names, testifies to that fact.
Once she found out what was really going on at The Jamm in April 2003, she filed a report with the Jerusalem Police, who closed the case about a month later. They reopened the file in December 2003 after she filed a letter of complaint to the minister of justice.
“I have not heard anything about it since the case was reopened eight months ago,” says Rivka. “From the very beginning, the police didn’t want to take me seriously.”
Besides the testimony of her son and the publications he was given at The Jamm that included a copy of the New Testament, a workbook about Jesus, a CD with Christian songs and a copy of the coffee house’s publication ‘Youth Speak ‘ a collection of personal stories by Israeli youth who became ‘believers’ in the Messianic movement, her report consisted of a video depicting incriminating discussions between Jamm members, shot by 18-year-old Yossi Levinson, a volunteer for Yad L’Achim who went undercover to investigate the place.
“It was disgusting. The place is dedicated to making Israeli youth believe in Yeshua,” says Levinson, who disguised himself as a believer looking to make a video for fundraising purposes in America, in order to unveil the true philosophy behind The Jamm. “It’s not maybe yes, maybe no. It’s black and white. The best thing a believer can do is to make a non-believer believe in Christ. It’s an even bigger ‘mitzvah’ if they convert a Jew.”
Levinson reveals that two days after he handed the video over to the Jerusalem Police, he got a call from friends at The Jamm inquiring how the video got into the wrong hands. “I was shocked. Until now, I don’t know how they found out about the video so quickly.”
The police didn’t call him in for questioning until three weeks later. At the same time, Richard Ayal Frieden, owner of The Jamm, was approached by police immediately.
Frieden is proud to define himself as a Jewish believer in Yeshua, but denies that the purpose of his establishment is to convert Israeli youth.
“The Jamm,” says Frieden, a former narcotics detective at the Jerusalem precinct who left his job in 1994, “is a non-profit organization that exists to promote local arts and to encourage youth and young adults in their respective musical talents. There is nothing illegal going on at The Jamm. We are not actively proselytizing young people.”
“There is a witch-hunt going on,” continues Frieden who, in addition to The Jamm, runs an annual week-long music camp for messianic kids and oversees the Jamm Academy of Arts, which holds after-school fine arts, multimedia and computer graphics classes taught by believing professionals and Heart Rock TV (HRTV), which produces TVY2, a 30-minute Hebrew music video program for central public access channel Tevel (Arutz Mekomi Merkaz), national public access channel 25 (Arutz Zahav Artzi), Matav Digitali and Yes 90 (Artzi Arutz Hapatuach).
“If I’ve committed a crime in sharing the love of God through the good work that we are doing at the Jamm,” says Frieden, “then put me on the stand.”
On the HRTV website, Frieden writes: “The youth of Israel are key to the future of Israel and to the expansion of the indigenous body of believers. Many Israeli youth are walking in darkness. We are here to inform them of ‘the one whom they have not believed ‘ and introduce them to ‘the one whom they have not heard’ (Romans 10:14).”
Frieden explains that The Jamm holds one faith-based worship service per week, meant exclusively for members of the Jerusalem Youth Cell Group. “Each person under the age of 18 who comes on Monday night needs permission from their parents.”
Minors, claims Frieden, are given a waiver that clearly indicates what the service is about, for parents to sign. “This is something that we’re quite strict about.”
Shmulik Ben-Rubi, spokesman for the Jerusalem Police, concurs. “We have talked to both kids and their parents and we have found that parents allow their kids to be in this place.”
Ben-Rubi notes that the investigation surrounding The Jam is still open. “If we find any sign of conversion, we will act according to the law. But as far as we know, they are not trying to convert kids.”
The police might have missed Cohen, who says he was invited to a worship night without being given a waiver. “I was never asked to have my parents sign a permission form. I just came on a Thursday night and they invited me to come on Monday. They invite all the people who come on Thursday to the prayer meeting. That’s how I got there. I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise.”
According to Cohen, believer meetings are the prime time for circulating missionary literature.
“I personally don’t hand out anything,” says K., a 28-year-old Jamm volunteer from Germany. “I cannot hide what I believe in, but I would never force it on anybody or give someone a pamphlet.”
Cohen has a different version. “They gave me workbooks and the New Testament and said that Jesus gave his life for us and we need to give our lives to Him.”
Cohen, whose parents divorced a couple of years before he started spending time at The Jamm, realizes in retrospect that he was the perfect candidate for missionary activity. “It was a very rough time in my life. I needed friends and the people at The Jamm were nice. They listened and talked to me.”
The believers, he says, also offered him a place to stay at their shared boys’ house. “They go to the weak people and they try to take them in.”
Rubin says that Cohen’s assessment is accurate. “It is very difficult to change the mind of someone who doesn’t have any problems in his life. That’s why they are going to lonely people or people with financial or family problems. There are a lot of people out there who are in trouble and these missionaries give them hope.”
Levinson asserts that awarding hope is The Jamm’s most cherished technique.
“They act nice to people who don’t have someone who will listen to them at home, or who don’t have a nice home,” he says. “The Jamm is a nice, warm place for people who don’t have a nice, warm place to go.”
Rubin claims that the current economic crisis in Israel and in the capital in particular, provides the missionaries with more opportunities than usual, since many Israelis are particularly needy at this time.
“It’s a business,” says Rubin and emphasizes that all of the messianic congregations in Israel receive money from Christian churches abroad to help them conduct their activities. “When they are speaking with Jews, they are Jews. When they try to get money from Christians, they are Christians. Basically, they are liars.”
The Jamm fits the mold. Not only does the organization have affiliates in both Franklin, Tennessee and the Netherlands, it is sponsored in part by Gratefully Grafted Ministries International, headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which offers financial support to some 40 messianic ministries in Israel, including congregations, worship centers and “outreach programs” like The Jamm.
Says Rubin, “The Jamm aims to target youth in the street and they don’t have a problem getting the money to do it from abroad.”
“The Jamm is a Christian fundamentalist group and nothing more than that,” adds Binyamin Kluger, head of advocacy for the anti-missionary department at Yad L’Achim.
“Why are Israeli authorities doing nothing to stop them?” asks Rivka. “I just don’t understand. If the law clearly says that what they are doing is wrong, why isn’t anything being done about it?
“I just try to imagine what would happen if a couple of religious Jews started trying to convert Christian boys to stop believing in Yeshua. I’m sure it wouldn’t hold for one week.”
She then offers one reason the Israeli justice system has neglected to deal with the issue. “Perhaps Christians in America have a very big influence here, but unless we are willing to sacrifice our own Jewish kids for the donations and tourism money of Christians, our first obligation is to protect our own youth.”
A letter written by then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in which he expressed his disagreemet with the 1997 Proposed Bill on the Prohibition of Inducement for Religious Conversion, supports Cohen’s suggestion.
“It has come to my attention that a bill before the Israeli parliament concerning possession of missionary literature has created a stir among our many Christian friends,” wrote Netanyahu in response to the private member bill proposed by then-Labor Party opposition member Nissim Zvilli and Rabbi Moshe Gafni of the Yahadut HaTorah Party, which would have made the printing, distribution and possession of missionary material a crime punishable by up to one year in prison. “I would like to assure you that this bill does not have the support of the Israeli government…the government strenuously objects to this bill and will act to ensure that it does not pass. Israel deeply values your support, and we appreciate your friendship and commitment.”
The reason for the legal authorities’ lack of action against missionary organizations remains obscure. In the meantime, The Jamm, which has a link on the Jerusalem Municipality website, has plans to expand its horizons to include an indoor skateboarding park on Ben Yehuda Street, a project their pamphlet describes as “a [potential] harvest field for the Lord.”
“There are few cases that are as black and white as The Jamm,” says Rubin. “The case is very clear. Why aren’t they being properly investigated or prosecuted? It’s a very good question.”
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