2016-06-30
ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 2 -- A half-hour from the Magic Kingdom, the Holy Land rises.

The white and gold temple of King Herod pierces the sky six stories above the Qumran Caves, where ancient Jews stashed the Dead Sea Scrolls. A palm-tree grove away, the Via Dolorosa, the path to Jesus' crucifixion, wends its way to Calvary's Garden Tomb, where robed townsfolk celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

So what if the temple is half as big as the original, the caves are 500,000 pounds of concrete, not sandstone, the Via Dolorosa is a fig toss from Interstate 4 and the robed Israelites are actually costumed Floridians?

In Orlando, this is a cultural oasis -- or desert, depending on whom you ask.

The Holy Land Experience gives God's waiting room a $16 million, multimedia makeover. When the Jerusalem City Gate opens Monday, visitors clutching ''passports'' (brochures, really) will be transported ''7,000 miles away and 3,000 years back in time'' to the sights, sounds, textures and tastes of the ancient Middle East, in the space of 15 acres and a few hours.

No one knows how to categorize it.

A theme park? The biblical motif is ubiquitous, from the armored and plastic-speared Romans guarding the gate, to the Goliath Burger at the Oasis Palms Cafe.

An amusement park? Well, there are no rides per se, but plenty of educational entertainment, according to Zion's Hope, the non-denominational evangelical Christian ministry that built this Holy Land adjacent to its offices.

Zion's Hope calls its handiwork a ''living museum,'' and, indeed, Old and New Testament stories are told through a dozen dramatists wearing dozens more robes.

Some call it sanitized, shrink-wrapped sacrilege. Others call it offensive, if not insidious. Still others call it the fastest way to the Promised Land, save for a first-class ticket on El Al.

But all agree they've never seen anything like it.

''There's a sense we're going where nobody's gone before,'' says Marvin Rosenthal, president of Zion's Hope and creator of the Holy Land Experience. ''We're using high-tech methods to communicate the Bible,'' a tome in which ''the message stays fixed but the methods are flexible.''

Except to some, Rosenthal is muddying the message.

Rosenthal is one of the country's 250,000 Hebrew Christians, also known as Messianic Jews -- Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah -- and his version of Holy Land reflects that. At the park, Jewish and Christian traditions blend: tabernacles intertwine with thorny crowns; menorahs share shelf space with Christian Bibles in the gift shop. For many critics, this theological brew is more alarming than the fact that it costs money to witness it.

After 25 years of hosting teaching tours abroad, in the actual sand-swept Holy Land, Rosenthal -- a Jew-cum-ordained Baptist minister -- became convinced that folks back home would ''learn so much more by being able to see and touch and feel and smell the important sites.''

So he asked the designers at Orlando-based ITEC Entertainment to transform 30 tons of boulders and 12 species of palms -- and a plethora of plaster and paint -- into Babylon and beyond. ''If people want to see the real Raiders of the Lost Ark ,'' Rosenthal says, ''this is the place to come,'' albeit at three-quarters the size of God's specs.

''As real places get dangerous the way Jerusalem has, one compromise between real and virtual reality is this place that's in between,'' explains John Stilgoe, an architectural historian at Harvard. ''I have no word for it, but you'll see a lot more of it.''

In the past, religious theme parks either never saw the light (Florida's Bible World) or fizzled from fraud and scandal (Jim Bakker's multimillion-dollar Heritage USA near Charlotte, N.C.).

This time, what's fueling the Holy Land Experience is a ''terrific rising force in traditional Christianity,'' Stilgoe says, pointing to the swath of red (Bush voters) through the middle of fall's electoral map. ''These people are affluent and well-educated, but they're not about to go to Jerusalem,'' he adds, predicting, ''I think (Rosenthal) is going to have a rip-roaring success.''

Not if Rosenthal's critics can help it. ''If it winds up as something strictly for Christians, I have nothing against it,'' says Philip Abramowitz of the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York. ''But if certain programs show Jews with Moses in the desert and all of a sudden flip to a scene showing Jesus, this bothers me.''

Abramowitz is alluding to a 20-minute show at the Wilderness Tabernacle, which juxtaposes Jewish prayer with a Christian Nativity scene. It's climaxed by a 40-mph blast of fake fog (carbon dioxide, water and glycol) and a 600-watt rumble from a set of bass speakers. Many find the image -- spreading the Word in part in Hebrew -- unsettling. And the very terms ''Hebrew Christian'' or ''Messianic Jew'' strike most Jews as oxymorons.

Normative Judaism -- from traditional Orthodoxy to the liberal Reform movement -- holds that the Messiah has yet to come, and to accept Jesus as such is to convert to Christianity. At best, say Jewish leaders, a Jew who believes in Jesus is an apostate -- someone who has abandoned the ancestral faith but is welcome to return by renouncing Jesus.

The issue is a sore point between evangelicals and Jews. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant group, and Jews have been at odds over the issue since the SBC announced some years back a new emphasis on proselytizing Jews, often through Messianic Jewish congregations.

Evangelicals say their faith compels them to she Christian truth with all, Jews included. Viewing Jews in an ethnic or racial sense, they maintain accepting Jesus no more diminishes one's Jewishness than it would any other ethnic identity.

''To be a Jew for Jesus is like a ham-and-cheese sandwich at an Orthodox bar mitzvah,'' says Irv Rubin of the Los Angeles-based Jewish Defense League. The JDL, a fringe militant organization, plans to ''take on'' the attraction on opening day by protesting in front of the park as well as Rosenthal's home.

Rosenthal makes no apologies for proselytizing, but insists his is an equal-opportunity conversion system. ''We don't single out Jewish people. We believe the Gospel is for the world,'' he says. ''We don't buttonhole people or corner people or mislead people. We're presenting non-controversial biblical Christian truths.''

Still, many find the notion of paying admission to pray at the altar of any faith disturbing. ''This trivializes the fundamental story of Christianity by turning its characters into theme-park characters,'' says Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Congregation Beth Am, one of 10 Jewish congregations in greater Orlando, all of which are opposed to Rosenthal's endeavor. ''Minnie and Mickey are not Mary and Joseph. The Three Wise Men are not Huey, Dewey and Louie.''

Admission prices are less than half of what Disney and Universal charge, and only 180,000 visitors are needed annually to stay in the black. (By comparison, Disney attracts as many as 15 million guests a year.) ''We're not huckstering God,'' insists Rosenthal, who volunteers that his salary, just under $70,000, is the highest on the 100-person staff. After operating costs are paid, any profits will be funneled into Zion's Hope. ''This is very reverent and very biblical, and I think people will be awed.''

Rosenthal seems particularly proud of the movie shown in the Theater of Life. The Seed of Promise , filmed in Israel, condenses God's creation of the universe into 35 seconds, instead of six days. The serpent slithering through the Garden of Eden was played by Prince Albert, a 12-foot albino Burmese python and veteran of TV and movie productions.

Marc Johnston of the Greater Orlando Baptist Association plans to head over in a couple of weeks. From what he's heard, ''it's not going to be something where they try to beat you over the head with a Bible.''

Bill Coan, one of ITEC's designers, feels confident that's true. ''I think we've been successful,'' he says. ''They've got an attraction there that should not insult anybody.'' Known for designing parks for Disney and Universal, ITEC has also been approached by Hindus and Buddhists interested in telling their faith stories through similar, three-dimensional means.

''If this takes off, in 15 years the Holy Land will start to be in the minds of American children what they saw on their vacation to Florida,'' Harvard's Stilgoe says. ''It's not good or bad, but it's very persuasive, and it gets very intriguing.''

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