Calling Jews to Jesus

Southern Baptists go on a not-so-kosher search to convert Jews to Christ

When Waldman told his parents about his new faith, his mother yelled at him and called him a traitor, while his father didn't talk to him for more than a year. But he later reconciled with his parents, and his mother once told him that Baruch Ha Shem was the greatest synagogue she had ever been to.

Waldman draws a distinction between Southern Baptists and outfits such as Jews for Jesus: His flock doesn't aggressively hit the streets to evangelize Jews. "They do things that bring fear and offense, and that brings up the history we have already lived through," he says.

Indeed, pastors such as Waldman must walk a fine line to keep the few friends Messianic churches have while distancing himself from their more egregious excesses. When apprised of Sibley's quote that Jews who don't accept Jesus are going to hell, he deems the admonition out of line. "He has a heart and wants to reach us. But it's not up to anybody to determine whether someone's going to hell. It's up to God."

The Anti-Defamation League's Mark Briskman says Sibley is ignorant of the current Jewish revival.
Mark Graham
The Anti-Defamation League's Mark Briskman says Sibley is ignorant of the current Jewish revival.

Despite the congregation's more moderate outlook, past Baruch Ha Shem outreach efforts have earned Waldman full-blown scorn from the local Jewish community, which has ostracized him. Several years ago he sought to build ties with the Dallas community's small population of elderly Russian immigrant Jews. "We visited them with food and literature," he says. "They took all of it."

But local Jewish leaders, who charge Waldman with misrepresentation, quickly scotched that effort, complaining that it was unfair to evangelize people who, because of decades of Soviet-sponsored atheism, know little about their own heritage. "The immigrants have difficulty understanding [that Messianics] aren't real Jews," says Darrel Strelitz, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Dallas office.

Since then, Baruch Ha Shem has kept to itself, content to fill its pews quietly. "It's not worth the heartache and headache," Waldman says.

Still, there is heartache and there is heartache. The Southern Baptist effort to evangelize Jews has heated up as other Christian denominations, horrified by the Holocaust's slaughter in ostensibly Christian nations, have given up the task. "It's not easy to forget what Christians have done," says Scott Jones, a Methodist minister and evangelism professor at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology.

Anti-Semitism, explains the Anti-Defamation League's Briskman, is largely the legacy of centuries of Catholic conversion efforts manifested in the Crusades and the Inquisition, when the practice of Judaism was considered an affront to Christianity and church authority. But Jewish leaders are elated that Catholic authorities have thrown anti-Semitism's underpinnings out of the church by making it a sin.

Meanwhile, the controversy over Jewish evangelism has hit home. In Dallas the Jewish community is steeling itself against evangelism after an incident in which a 12-year-old boy, on the eve of his bar mitzvah, told his mother he'd been saved by Jesus.

Last November the boy was invited to a youth event at First Baptist Church of Allen that supposedly didn't involve evangelism. He had a good time and went back again.

On his second visit, a man asked him and several other boys if they wanted their sins erased. At first, the boy claims, he didn't sense a conversion effort, but before the night was over, he signed a card stating he had accepted Jesus.

Later he told his mother she should do the same -- or risk going to hell. "I felt like this was child abuse," the boy's mother angrily told The Dallas Morning News. "It's about like drugging somebody. They seduce you with the food and the music, and all your friends are there."

The boy has since returned to Judaism, and his bar mitzvah has been rescheduled. For now, the episode illustrates a vexing dilemma for Jews who consider their faith important but don't want to wall themselves off from the outside world. "We want to build bridges of respect and understanding," says Rivka Arad, director of religious education at Temple Shalom.

Meanwhile, Rudin of the American Jewish Committee looks at the Jewish evangelism push by Sibley and others from a historical perspective -- and to some observers, an optimistic one. "I see it as the last hurrah of Christian triumphalism," he says.

But Sibley and the Southern Baptist Convention soldier on in their mission to guide Jews to faith in the Christian Messiah, undeterred and resolute. After all, he says, Jesus was crucified for his beliefs. "We get as much hostility from liberal Christians as we do from liberal Jews," Sibley says. "Within some of those denominations, there are those who are still conservative and believe what the Scripture teaches."

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