Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, think again. Beginning this Friday the Tampa, Florida region is going to be targeted for gospel bombing by the missionary storm troopers Jews for Jesus. The San Francisco-based organization is entering year two of a 5-year global strategy to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. Their literature explains their mission: "We exist to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide."
Make no bones about it. This February's attack led by veteran missionary Stan Meyer is not the usual Jews for Jesus effort. The urban outreach effort, which began last year, is planning to target 66 major Jewish population centers worldwide including Tehran, Istanbul, Kiev, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. Basically, any city with a Jewish population of 25,000 or more is on the hit list. The organization allegedly received a multi-million dollar grant to underwrite their "Behold Your God" campaign.
However, in recent months, Jewsweek has shadowed whisperings of internal upheaval at the missionary agency. Disgruntled former missionaries allege that: numerous missionaries have been fired; salaries of remaining non-executive staff have been cut; key projects have been postponed or cancelled; and perhaps most noteworthy, several millions of dollars of operating money may have been lost through poor stock investments.
Such a loss for any business is devastating. But for Jews for Jesus, it hits particularly hard at this time. According to Mark Powers, international director of the counter-missionary organization Jews for Judaism, the Jews for Jesus annual operating budget is estimated between $10-$12 million dollars. Jewsweek has also learned that Jonathon Markham, the former director of stewardship (fundraising) at Jews for Jesus, is no longer at the organization.
Focus on Tampa
Counter-missionary experts will be keeping a close eye on the Tampa leg of the "Behold Your God" campaign which starts Friday and lasts until February 17th since it is not only the first city to be targeted in 2002, but, perhaps more importantly, it is the first city to be targeted since Jews for Jesus' alleged financial loss.
Fortunately for those in the Jewish community, Tampa is no stranger to these types of missionaries. Tampa, which is home to one of the nation's largest Hebrew Christian communities, has no less than four Messianic congregations in the area.
Indeed, the entire state of Florida is home to a substantial number of Hebrew Christian congregations, says counter-missionary Rabbi Tovia Singer. "Partially, it's because of the elderly population," he explains. "Most elderly Jews are simply dying of loneliness. There are Hebrew Christian evangelists which specifically target them. These elderly are desperate for a soft touch and a warm smile," says Singer, the national director of Outreach Judaism, an international organization dedicated to countering the efforts of Christian groups and cults who specifically focus on converting Jews.
The missionaries often visit the elderly in assisted living homes and offer lavish attention, which induces some of them to convert. In the past, there have even been reported cases of seniors signing over their wills to a Hebrew Christian ministry. According to Singer, Jews for Jesus has even produced a videotape of Holocaust survivors giving testimonials about Jesus being the Messiah. "It's shattering to watch."
Those in Tampa's Jewish community believe they are being targeted at this exact time because of two events which attract tourists to the region. The Gasparilla Pirate Festival, a pseudo-Mardi Gras type celebration held in Tampa, takes place during the month of February. Also in February, the Florida State Fair takes place in Tampa, attracting thousands of people who would normally not be in the area.
The Tampa Jewish community has its guard up and plans to counteract the missionary assault. To that end, Mike Eisenstadt of the Tampa Jewish Federation has set up a special task force which will develop ways to help thwart the attacks through its most powerful weapon - education. Eisenstadt, who has personally done counter-missionary work, will discuss strategies that missionaries use on his weekly Jewish radio show broadcast on Tampa's airwaves.
Educating Jews of the tactics employed by missionary organizations is nothing new in Tampa. Rabbi Richard J. Birnholz of Tampa's Congregation Schaarai Zedek has been teaching his students about it for 20 years. "My part of it is inoculation," he explains. "We train our students ahead of time so they know how to deal with it."
Bentzion Kravitz, founder and West Coast director of Jews for Judaism observed, "They'll come to these cities; they'll preach; they'll sing; they may even engage in a bit of street drama. But their long-term gains will be negligible in most places. The Jewish community is savvier now, partly due to our years of steady warning, exposure, and teaching. We are receiving inquiries and invitations from around the world to hold training seminars in response to 'Behold Your God.' Jews for Jesus is keeping us busy."
The "Behold Your God" campaign will leave Tampa on February 17th and make its way overseas where it will descend upon Odessa, Ukraine on April 7th, just three days after the conclusion of Passover. The missionary assault will then snake its way across the Ukraine into Kiev and Kharkov during the month of May.
It will be back to North America this summer as "Behold Your God" arrives in Portland, Atlanta, Boston, New York, Toronto and then off to Paris. In September, the campaign's busiest month of 2002, Hartford, St. Louis, Moscow, and Mexico City will all be targeted. And finally, in December of this year, Los Angeles will be hit for three weeks.
"These cities are all afflicted with severe assimilation," explains Singer. "So you take a city like Paris, that has upwards of 700,000 Jewish people living there, but the intermarriage rate there is staggering."
According to sources, Jewsweek has learned that the assaults will take place at airports, shopping malls, subway exits, college campuses, cultural events, and even beaches. Despite the alleged financial loss, the missionary enterprise is in full swing to produce tailored video and print materials in a variety of languages, including Russian, French, Turkish, Hungarian, German, Spanish, and even Amharic.
Powers states that Jews in general are more informed than ever to resist such missionary campaigns as "Behold Your God." He adds, "The missionaries' greatest growth in recent years has been coming more from Gentiles who want a Jewish flavor to their religious practices. Most Jewish conversions to Hebrew Christianity are based more on social needs, like loneliness, rather than theology. A Torah educated Jew sees the missionary message for the Swiss cheese that it is."