Monthly Archives: October 2013

Hurricane Sandy: One-Year Memorial

Dear friends,

It was only one year ago when Hurricane Sandy stormed through the East Coast of the United States, leaving terrible destruction in its wake. The homes and hopes of families were destroyed, tens of thousands were out of work, personal property – from family pictures to cherished memorabilia – were swept away in the floods, and many were left homeless and helpless for weeks.

In the midst of this tragedy, God’s people were faithful and generous, as many followers of Yeshua the Messiah gathered clothing, food, electrical generators and so much more – distributing them to needy families in many areas. Chosen People Ministries focused on the thousands of Russian Jewish homes lining the shores of Staten Island, New York City, where there was tremendous loss and suffering because of the hurricane. We cleaned homes; distributed food, blankets, electrical generators, heaters, small refrigerators and stoves; and wept with those who wept… prayed with those who did not know how to pray… and stood alongside the victims of this terrible event that still traumatizes many of the families who suffered the most.

In the midst of what was a very difficult season, we saw God’s faithfulness and care for individuals and families, which was nothing short of amazing. Believers from all over the country came to the eastern seaboard, and many focused on some of the poor residents of Staten Island – mostly Russian Jewish people, who suffered tremendously – and showed God’s love in the most tangible ways.

Our ministry developed many personal relationships with folks who needed help, and those relationships continue until this day. Very few of us on the Chosen People Ministries staff were experienced in disaster relief, but we knew that God wanted us to love those who were hurting. We spent weeks and even months serving the hurting, and it was really wonderful to see how that love was received by many Jewish people in particular… who knew that the One motivating our love and actions was the Messiah Jesus – the Savior of the world.

We actually distributed tens of thousands of dollars to those who needed to rebuild their homes and lives, from paying contractors to rebuild their homes and having funds to survive!

I want to thank those who helped support the hurricane victims during this very difficult and dark time – because of you, the Light of the Messiah was able to shine brightly through us and others who served the suffering of Staten Island and many other communities during this time.

As we look towards November and the celebration of Thanksgiving – which of course falls on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah – I remember setting up tables outside with Hanukkah menorahs, gifts for children, hot chocolate and some Hanukkah foods in devastated neighborhoods of Staten Island. It was during those dark and gloomy nights that the lit candles on these tables reminded me of Messiah’s presence among us in ways that I personally will never forget. This passage from the writings of the prophet Isaiah became very dear to me:

But now thus says the Lord,

 he who created you, O Jacob,

he who formed you, O Israel:

 “Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

 I have called you by name, you are mine.

 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

 when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

and the flame shall not consume you.

 For I am the Lord your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… (Isaiah 43:1-3)

Please remember to keep praying for some of the victims who have yet to rebuild their homes and be restored in their finances, jobs and family lives.

Perhaps one of the lessons that we learned from this tragic event was that God wants us to be willing, and though we may not always be able or have the resources to do all we want – we can always do something, and that something might make a huge difference in someone’s life. I learned this lesson as a result of Hurricane Sandy, and I’m grateful to God for all that He did through so many to show His presence in the midst of the storm.

Your brother in the Messiah,

Mitch

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A Response To – Iran, Assimilation and the Threat to Israel and Jewish Survival: Will Jews Exist?

Blog:

Iran, Assimilation and the Threat to Israel and Jewish Survival: Will Jews Exist?

Part 1:  A Very Jewish Dialogue

I attended the above event held a couple of evenings ago on the campus of Yeshiva University in Manhattan and felt I needed to respond.  It is a little long so feel free to read part one and then part two.

The subject matter was broad, ranging from Israeli national security, the threat of Iran, to the results of the recent survey of the United States Jewish community. The topics were of great interest to the hundreds of attendees who, like me, only heard about the event a few days before. The dialogue lived up to the intensity of the title! The panelists discussed potential threats to Israel – which impact all Jews everywhere – and also some deep concerns brought to the surface by the recent Portrait of American Jews, a survey by the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project.[1]

The speakers were well chosen by the director of This World: The Values Network, Shmuley Boteach,[2] and included Sheldon Adelson,[3] Chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, who is a Jewish philanthropist and major benefactor of the Birthright Israel program.

Additionally, recent Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Bret Stephens,[4] was on the panel, as was Dr. Richard Joel,[5] the current president of Yeshiva University. Joel is a well-known and respected Jewish leader who formally led the Hillel organization – a part of the B’nai B’rith, which focuses on college campuses.

One of the critical political questions asked of the panelists was whether or not current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would “go it alone” if he felt the Iranian nuclear threat needed to be handled militarily in the immediate future.

Bret Stephens suggested that Netanyahu would not act without the blessing of the United States and chided him for being overly concerned with what other nations, including the United States, would think about such action.

Sheldon Adelson, who knows the Israeli Prime Minister well, believed he would act and take military action with or without the support of other countries – including the United States.

The discussion was fascinating but the views of the four panelists were not all that different, as each one believed that a secure and safe Israel was critical for the Jewish people, as well as for the United States and the West. Each one agreed with Netanyahu in his recent speech before the United Nations, believing that the current president of Iran would continue the same policies as his predecessor and maintain the same attitude towards the West and Israel.

The most vehement critic of Iran was the more secular Jew, Bret Stephens, who suggested that the real problem is not the current president, Hassan Rouhani but rather the supreme commander of Iran, Ali Khamenei.

Adelson concurred with those who believed that Rouhani was a believer in a form of Muslim eschatology held by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the military leadership of Iran. He specifically mentioned their belief in the Twelfth Imam, who is expected to come and save Islam and establish the Islamic view of a perpetual Islamic kingdom. In order for this to Imam to come – who is currently allegedly hidden – there must be chaos in the world. This viewpoint is well described by popular author Joel Rosenberg in a recent series of fiction books.[6]

Adelson thinks that Rouhani believes the use of nuclear weapons by Iran would create that chaos. In light of this, he believes that nothing but force will stop the Iranian nuclear threat, as it is theologically driven. He called upon Israel and the United States to take military action (even nuclear) to force Iran to back down from their nuclear program, but believed they should be able to utilize non-weapons grade plutonium for the creation of energy.

Part 2 of the Very Jewish Dialogue

This first part of the program was quite engaging, but the second part was even more interesting and evoked greater differences between the panelists during the discussion over the Pew survey results.

Boteach posed the possibility that within a short time all Jewish people – aside from those who are Orthodox – would disappear. Stephens suggested that the only way for the Jewish people to survive is to hitch their star to Israel. He added that though he was a totally secular Jew he was also glad that some Jews practice the Jewish religion in a more traditional way, as knowing that more religious Jews exist brings him a certain level of peace and security.

Boteach suggested that reaching out to Jewish young adults on university campuses who for the first time are faced with various lifestyle choices would be the best way to help so many Jewish young people feel part of the greater Jewish community. The Pew research demonstrated that the numbers of disenfranchised Jewish people was growing at a significant rate.

Fully 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called “Jews by religion” in this report); just 7% describe themselves as having no religion (“Jews of no religion”). By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults – the Millennials – 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.[7]

Adelson affirmed Boteach’s suggestion and said that this is why they are committed to funding Birthright Israel to bring young Jewish people to Israel. The program has strengthened the Jewish identity of literally thousands of young Jews. Adelson also raised the flag for his new site entitled Rethink Israel which is going to be the focus of your effort to help young people think that Israel is “cool”.[8]

Dr. Joel took issue with Boteach’s suggestion that the key to strengthening the identity of a new generation of Jews could and should happen on the college campus. He said that while all of this is important, the most important part of helping new generations of Jewish people grow in their Jewish identity is through reshaping and strengthening the Jewish home.

Boteach seemed to be the one most concerned with the Pew study about the declining numbers of Jewish people having involvement in Jewish life. The other three seemed concerned, but not as shaken as Boteach by the results.

I tend to agree with Boteach and believe that the Pew study is going to have a significant impact on the Jewish community in the United States. It is going to take some time before the results of the survey are assimilated, but I believe the Jewish community will start developing various programs to strengthen what the survey pointed out as problematic.

I am sorry that Boteach, who is usually a very fair and reasonable person, mentioned the Pew finding that more than 34% of the Jewish community felt that a Jew can believe in Jesus with evident disdain and as evidence of how far the American Jewish community is drifting from the true faith.

According to the Pew report and commentating on their own survey,

The only clear no-no, though, is believing Jesus was the Messiah, which clear majorities of most subgroups say is incompatible with being Jewish; even so, about a third (34%) of Jews say a person can be Jewish even if he or she believes Jesus was the Messiah. (Our researchers didn’t include so-called “Messianic Jews,” as part of the main survey population; they were considered people of Jewish background or Jewish affinity.)[9]

The above is terribly unscientific and shows both a flaw in the study and reflects the prejudice within the Jewish community against Jewish believers in Yeshua – especially those who maintain a Jewish lifestyle. Most Messianic Jews, like myself (I was raised as a nominal member of the Young Israel movement), have strong ties to the Jewish community and Israel and share many of the same values of those who believe God spoke to humanity at Sinai. Perhaps it is precisely this religious bigotry when expressed in other areas that is turning many of our young people off to a more traditional expression of Judaism?

This continued prejudice against Messianic Jews, who have a Jewish identity, love Israel and consider themselves as part of the Jewish community, has got to stop.

The mainstream Jewish community cannot continue to heap thousands of years of reaction to religious persecution by alleged “Christians” at the feet of Messianic Jews whose ancestors experienced this same persecution.

Perhaps the most distressing part of the mainstream Jewish community recent behavior towards Messianic Jews has been the unfortunate way Messianic Jewish young adults have been barred from participation in Birthright Israel and goes against everything Birthright is trying to accomplish. Messianic Jewish young adults who have either been asked to leave a Birthright trip or were barred at the last moment from participation have been alienated from mainstream Judaism.

These prejudices against Messianic Jews need to be reconsidered; and rather than distancing Messianic Jewish young adults from the Jewish community, they should be embraced.

I was happy to find out that a third of the Jewish community is changing in their attitudes towards Messianic Jews, which gives me some hope for the future.

This Part is Really Important!

In general it was a great evening, but I felt the question Boteach asked near the end of the program was both profound and worth pondering.

Boteach, asked, Can you have a Jewish future without the Jewish religion?

My answer would be NO… but in order to survive and thrive, the Jewish religion must reshape and recast itself for a new day. Sometimes I think Moses would never recognize the “religion” revealed at Mt. Sinai!

May I offer a few suggestions, based upon the survey results that express what many Jewish people today are looking for in Judaism?  I hope that Jewish leaders will begin promoting something slightly different than a very traditional religious faith and go beyond the religion to show the relevance of the God of Israel to the people of Israel.

1.  Many Jewish people and young Jews in particular are looking for a personal relationship with God and not an institutional religion – no matter how old and beautiful it is. Sometimes the beauty of Jewish tradition (and it can be very beautiful) eclipses our ability to develop a deeper and more personal relationship with God!

2.  I also think that Judaism needs to tone down the emphasis on the Hebrew language. Who wants to follow a faith we literally cannot understand – and why should we learn a new language in order to speak to God? It is a real turn-off to so many and yet there is little serious, non-guilt-producing discussion on this important issue.

The survey reported,

Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet. But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew.[10]

The Reform movement had it right in thinking that Jews should be able to pray in the vernacular, but sometimes veered from a more traditional and Scripturally-founded understanding of the One to whom we prayed.  We need to find a balance between prayer in our native tongue, salted with the Hebrew language of our forefathers and brothers and sisters in Israel, and spontaneity of conversation that is expected between those who love one another.

3. We have made far too much of institutional religions. For many, community is more important than the performance of religious ritual. What so many love about being Jewish is what Richard Joel referred to as “telling our story.” And in this he refers to our Jewish story – which goes far beyond religion.

Our relationship to God, to our community and to our Land will be forever intertwined. Some emphasize one over the other. After all, there would be no modern state of Israel if Theodor Herzl had sought religious solutions to Jewish survival. I am convinced that far less emphasis on formal religion and more focus on understanding our Jewish story as a community with a history, culture and a land, would bring many young Jews back to the Jewish people as a whole. We cannot allow the Jewish religion to become the only gateway to the Jewish community, or the words of the Pew survey will become prophetic.

May I suggest that connecting to the God of Israel is really the mortar or cement that Adelson talked about, which has the power to build an intergenerational Jewish community? It is God Himself who gives Jewish identity meaning that transcends both formal religious expression and secularism. This is what will give Judaism the dynamism to survive and give the Jewish people a future.

We are a theocentric community, whether we know it or not, and the relationship of the Jewish people to the God of Israel rises above the mundane and lifts the heart and soul to new heights of values, ethics, hope and faith…and commitment to the Jewish people.  Our young people need a way to know Him.

Yeshua the Messiah was my gateway back to the community, and I am convinced that the deep and rich relationship I now have with the God of my Fathers through the Messiah has made me a better Jew.

Thanks for the dialogue, Shmuley – it was thought provoking and fruitful!

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Filed under Birthright Israel, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Middle East, Shmuley Boteach

Rebalancing Evangelical Views about Israel

PLFI-Videos

This past weekend, we held a conference at the historic Calvary Baptist church in Manhattan – entitled The People, the Land and the Future of Israel. The videos from the conference are now available online for you to watch and share with others!

Visit videos.chosenpeople.com

I believe that these lectures, by some of the most influential and outstanding evangelical scholars in America, can potentially bring biblical balance to the growing numbers of evangelicals who are rethinking their commitments to Israel and the Jewish people.

It is no secret that an increasing number of evangelical Christians are very critical of Israel. Some of these brothers and sisters believe that the ongoing election of the Jewish people was buried at the cross and that there is no biblically justifiable present or future for ethnic Israel.

Some do see a mass conversion of the Jewish people at the end of the age (Romans 11:25-27) – before the second coming of Jesus – as argued by the Apostle Paul. As one brother once told me, “this passage does not fit into my theological system, but I must believe that it is true – because Paul wrote it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” My suggestion to him was that he might consider very prayerfully and carefully changing his theology of Israel and the Jewish people!

Nonetheless, I understand there are faithful believers who do not believe in the future or present election of Israel, based upon their reading of the Bible. This is a well-known and historic position held by a portion of evangelicals, which I disagree with but do not believe is necessarily dangerous or anti-Jewish. Sometimes the position is called Supersessionism or Replacement Theology, and there are many versions of this viewpoint.

However, this position can be dangerous and quite harmful when combined with accepting – rather naïvely – the current Palestinian narrative that has been produced by primarily non-Christian authors, those who hold to a strong belief in a Palestinian version of Liberation Theology. This has led to a growing syncretistic viewpoint that is more anti-Israel than pro-Palestinian.

This viewpoint is sometimes tied to the emerging social justice agenda of a newer generation of evangelicals who tend to “root for the underdog” and uncritically accept this anti-Israel narrative because of their concern for those viewed as politically and socially oppressed.  Previous generations who believed in a future for Israel based upon Scripture and were moved to compassion by the Holocaust felt differently. But, to quote a Jewish poet from the state of Minnesota – the times they are a-changin’!

The question of whether or not Israel has a biblical and covenantal right to the Land must be addressed without being influenced by the political debate, and the lectures from the conference do this quite well. The historical narrative regarding the formation of the modern state of Israel and the accompanying politics also need to be better understood by today’s evangelicals – especially those who, led by compassion, tend to accept the anti-Israel agenda promoted by the active pro-Palestinian evangelical lobby through their many books, films and conferences.

I believe that more light than heat will be gleaned by listening to the lectures from the recent conference, as well as in reading an excellent article recently written by a Christian writer in a Jewish magazine. Robert Nicholson does a superb job of charting the history of this discussion, how it impacts Christian-Jewish relationships, and gives some excellent suggestions on building better bridges between born-again Christians and the Jewish people.

I hope that you will both enjoy the lectures from the conference and the article by Robert Nicholson. Both will give you an in-depth understanding of the issues swirling around the current debate regarding Israel and the Palestinians. The following was my response to Robert Nicholson’s article, which I hope will be published in the forum.

I applaud the well-reasoned and researched article by Mr. Nicholson.  I am a Messianic Jew and appreciate the support of evangelicals who have a love for Israel based upon their reading of the Bible.  This is a more unshakable love that leads to a belief in the ultimate legitimacy of the Jewish state as part of God’s design for humanity.

As part of a historic, 120-year-old “mission” to the Jewish people, we do hope to see many Jewish people favorably consider Jesus – or Yeshua as we call Him – and even believe He is the Messiah.  I also hope that those Jewish people who do become followers of Jesus become more committed Jews, believe in the modern state and future of Israel, and encourage support of Gentile evangelicals for Israel. 

Our organization does tell Jewish people about Jesus, as this is part of our theological conviction and that of all evangelicals.  We also work very hard to help evangelicals learn more about the Jewish people and Israel and speak in many churches, hold conferences and produce literature that hopefully deepens the support of evangelicals for the Jewish people and Israel.   

I have found that most of my fellow evangelicals also accept a fundamental value of Messianic Jews, like myself, and a viewpoint which our organization has stood by for 120 years – that Jewish people who believe in Jesus should remain Jews, be loyal to the Jewish people and Jewish causes, and seek the general welfare and good of the worldwide Jewish community. 

One of the ways we do this is to encourage a thoughtful, biblical, pro-Israel position that continues to extend compassion and grace to others, including Palestinian evangelicals and those raised Muslim or in Historic Christian homes, and works towards genuine reconciliation and peace – which means that we do not readily accept the new anti-Israel narrative and agenda promoted by the groups so well-described in this excellent article.

Please feel free to pass along the link to the conference media (videos.chosenpeople.com) – by doing so, you will be helping to create the balance described above.

What might a new balance produce?

The understanding that evangelicals should pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for solutions to the political and social tensions within Israel, the threat of terrorism and the ever-present efforts to destroy the Jewish state by Hamas, Syria and Iran. And for humble and Jesus-centered communication between evangelicals on both sides of these issues!

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you. (Psalm 122:6)

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Stunning survey results on Jewish beliefs in America

Shalom!

Just a few days ago, some amazing statistics were published regarding the significant changes in the lives of Jewish people in America.

This survey was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project – and the results are stunning!

One of the most interesting points is that over 30% of the Jewish people surveyed affirmed that believing in Jesus is NOT incompatible with being Jewish!

As a Messianic Jew and leader of Chosen People Ministries, it is incredible to think that hundreds of thousands of Jewish people in the United States are now open to the concept that you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus.  This is a dramatic change from the times when I first became a follower of Jesus in 1970.

Over the years, I and many others in our ministry have labored to challenge the long-held concept that Jewishness and belief in Jesus were incompatible – so I am greatly encouraged by these findings, and I believe that this is just one step closer for many Jewish people to explore and even accept the claims of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

Further, the survey indicated that 1.7 million Jewish people identify themselves as Christians. This is absolutely staggering to me!  However, the number of these individuals who might be considered ‘Christians by conviction’ remains to be seen.

At the same time, I am concerned about other aspects of the survey results, because it revealed that many Jewish people are no longer interested in practicing the Jewish religion, or even in being Jewish.

Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, and one-fourth does not even believe in God!

This trend seems to be intensifying among members of the younger generation.  According to the survey, 32% of those born after 1980 say they have no religion. Rather, their “Jewish identification” expresses itself culturally and politically – especially in support of Israel.

Clearly, these trends might indicate a greater openness among the Jewish people to consider belief in Jesus as the Messiah, yet as a Messianic Jew I also believe in the importance of sustaining the uniqueness of the Jewish people as described in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Though I am glad to see Jewish people coming to faith, I am also troubled to see that the Jewish community is fragmenting and becoming more secular.

According to the Bible, the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob established the Jewish people as a nation to glorify Him and to serve His holy purposes (Genesis 12:1-3, Deuteronomy 7:7-8). Even the great Apostle Paul viewed himself as a both a Jewish person and a follower of Jesus the Messiah, and maintained that those Jews who believed in Jesus remained part of the Jewish community (Romans 11:1-5).

Leading by his example, I believe Paul encouraged Jewish followers of Jesus to be a visible and vocal part of the broader Jewish community. Further, the Bible does not distinguish between having a relationship with God and maintaining community loyalties as a Jew.  In fact, the Bible views being a “good Jew” as one who has faith in God and desires to be obedient to His expectations outlined in the Scriptures – both the Old and New Testaments.

As Messianic Jews, we understand that Jesus is the Messiah and that the God of Israel wants us to follow the Messiah of Israel – as Jews!  This will obviously be interpreted and expressed differently by Jewish believers. Some will express their love for God and His Messiah in more traditionally observant Jewish ways, and others in a manner that is more culturally and community oriented.

The survey also highlighted the large dichotomy between the more Orthodox Jews who are remaining loyal to the Jewish religion, and the younger generation that is beginning to search for answers outside of Orthodoxy.  This is one more reason why the new Charles Feinberg Messianic Jewish Center in the heart of Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn is needed, as our outreach will appeal to both groups.

Furthermore, about 10% of the Jewish people in American – more than half a million – are Russian Jews.  The largest concentration of Russian Jews, numbering over 300,000, happens to be within a few miles of our new Brooklyn Center.

In sum, the survey is indeed fascinating and will have a profound influence on the Jewish community in the days ahead.  I will continue reflecting on its implications, especially the impact it will leave on the movement of Jewish people believing in Jesus.  Perhaps the remnant Paul describes in Romans 11:5 is larger than we thought!

You can click here to read the full survey.

Also see:  http://www.nycreligion.info/?p=10529

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