Jews for Jesus

Another New York summer has passed: gone are the warm nights of stoop sitting; gone are the free concerts and outdoor movies and endless scrambles to claim picnic blanket space; and gone, too, are the Jews for Jesus.

For the 36th straight year, Jews for Jesus traveled here for their “Summer Witnessing Campaign.” They prepared in June with a two-week training at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, a boot camp for “the Lord’s army,” as their website puts it, that equips evangelical soldiers with the strength needed to withstand “the winds of rejection and opposition that are a regular part of the Summer Witnessing Campaign.” Each day began with calisthenics and marching. They studied the Bible and learned to identify with Jesus; His suffering on the cross was just as theirs would be on the streets of New York.

After training was complete, the Jews for Jesus materialized around town for the month of July—their activity brief yet fervent—like cicadas during mating season. Some Jews for Jesus came from nearby Brooklyn, while others journeyed from as far as Los Angeles, Russia, and Israel. From dawn till dusk, about thirty campaigners stationed themselves at street corners and subway stairwells, proffering tracts, rapid-fire, like Chinese menus. “Who do you think Jesus is?” they asked passers-by. They distributed 400,000 tracts, helping thirty-six people become born again into new lives. The Brooklyn Bridge on a Friday night, Bryant Park at lunch hour—three-dozen New Yorkers found Jesus during the Summer Witnessing Campaign.

By political standards, of course, this would be a failure. If Jesus were running for public office, he’d do much better to hire a team of former Obama staffers to run proper get-out-the-vote, homing in on the “undecideds” and launching targeted canvassing. But Jews for Jesus were only superficially interested in converts; theirs was an internally directed performance of faith among believers. As a rite of passage, the Summer Witnessing Campaign served to bind a people together, initiating the young. In this way, a fundamentalist subculture reproduces itself.

On June 27th, the first day of the campaign, a twenty-something Jews for Jesus staff member named Jeremiah Zaretsky tried—unsuccessfully—to share the gospel with a group of Israelis on the subway. While American Jews tend to reject Jews for Jesus’ advances with zeal—even my sweet, mild-mannered father takes great pleasure in retorting, “Fuck you!”—the Israelis responded along the lines of: to each his own. “Israelis,” Jeremiah lamented in his blog, “are so indifferent and pluralistic.” He prayed for wisdom.

Like many Jews for Jesus, Jeremiah was raised as a Messianic Jew—the term for an evangelical Christian with a Jewish background. Jeremiah’s parents found Jesus in the 1970s, when Messianic Judaism as a movement took off. Messianic Jews claim to be both Jewish and Christian; their central project is the construction of a hybrid Jewish-Christian identity. Numbering about 300,000 worldwide, they pray at Messianic synagogues, incorporating both the New Testament and Jewish ritual. They celebrate all the Jewish holidays you’ve never heard of.

Post-Israelis, Jeremiah told his video blog audience that the Summer Witnessing Campaign took a turn for the better. He recounted a Central Park foray in which he explained to a woman—a non-Jew—that Jesus died for her sins and rose from the grave. “I think my boyfriend is cheating on me,” she said in reply, suddenly breaking down into tears. “God is faithful,” Jeremiah assured her. “His love never fails.”

Then, together, Jeremiah and the woman bowed their heads and prayed. In evangelical terms, this is a Gentile Believer Decision—a GBD. To watch video blogs of Jews for Jesus describing Believer Decisions with faces aglow—nearly tubercular—is to gain an awful knowledge: there is a whole world of previously unimaginable joy that I might never feel.

After the Believer Decision comes “the follow-up”—which is actually the goal of every prospective convert encounter, regardless of whether or not there has been a Decision. During street evangelism, Jews for Jesus solicit contact information, and then staffers “follow-up” via phone calls, house visits, and invitations to holiday celebrations and bible study groups—an involved operation requiring an annual budget of $19 million, 78% of which comes from individual donations, entailing labor-intensive collection; at “usedforjesus.com,” one can read disaffected Jews for Jesus’ accounts of grueling hours and impossible fundraising benchmarks. Jeremiah wasn’t lying to the Believer Decision woman in Central Park: both God and Jews for Jesus will never forsake her.

At the end of the first week, campaign organizer Sara Friedman announced the stats on the Jews for Jesus blog: seven GBDs and one JBD (Jewish Believer Decision). In addition to the “Decisions,” they also counted conversations, called “contacts”: 69 UJs (Unbelieving Jews); 26 JBs (Jewish Believers); 346 GBs (Gentile Believers); and 140 UGs (Unbelieving Gentiles).

New York City, of course, is the promised land of UJs. For many of the young campaigners, it was their first visit to what they called, with the unselfconscious wonder that only a tourist can have, “the Big Apple.” And yet, judging by their Flickr stream, the campaigners were most enthralled by the legibly Jewish: an extended Williamsburg sequence showed a panoply of long, black coats, heavy beards, and peyos; a midtown shot depicted a lone black hat spotted in a crowd of uncovered heads.

Founded in 1973, Jews for Jesus presents a strange intersection of 1960s radicalism and 1970s fundamentalism. Some of the original members were disillusioned SDSers; through Jesus and social and political conservatism, they found inner peace after the upheaval of the 1960s. Other early Jews for Jesus had no part in the New Left but were drawn in by founder Martin—“Moishe” in later years—Rosen’s “anti-establishment” appeal. Rosen, a Baptist convert, borrowed tactics of visibility and confrontation from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Particularly free-spirited Jews for Jesus traveled the country by van, singing about Jesus in a folk group called The Liberated Wailing Wall. (As the name suggests, Jews for Jesus took pride in Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War—in no small part because it was a clear sign of the imminent Rapture and attending Second Coming.) As Yaacov Ariel has written in Evangelizing the Chosen People: Missions to the Jews in America, 1880-2000, his book on Protestant attempts to convert Jews in the New World, Jews for Jesus’ counterculture trappings offered young people a way to feel rebellious against their parents’ generation (while safely upholding conservative middle-class values in the form of prohibitions on drugs and pre-marital sex). If Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were the representative Jewish counterculture members, Jews for Jesus comprised a reactionary Jewish subculture. And since its inception, Jews for Jesus has offered an ongoing repudiation of the changes in American culture in the wake of the 1960s, promising Believers an ethos of self-denial instead of individual freedom, a coherent worldview instead of fragmentation and relativism.

“I view this world as a wrecked vessel,” the preacher Dwight L. Moody declared as the fundamentalist movement formed in the late 19th century. “The Lord has given me a lifeboat and said, ‘Moody, save all you can.’” In a time of urbanization and industrialization, facing hardship in this world, early fundamentalists turned to the next. They split from mainstream Protestants, who were then not only reconciling On the Origin of Species with the Bible but also preaching that being a good Christian required civic responsibility. As Randall Balmer has written in Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America, social reform was a daunting task from which fundamentalists conveniently absolved themselves. It is no accident that the Moody Bible Institute trains each year’s crop of Summer Witnessing Campaign recruits. Jews for Jesus’ particular variety of modern fundamentalism, while purporting to eradicate egoism, similarly abdicates social responsibility in favor of individual improvement.

There is at least one prominent Jew for Jesus who is committed to social reform: Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, or ACLJ, Pat Robertson’s answer to the ACLU. On a mission to break down the separation between church and state, you can thank the ACLJ for a number of Religious Right Supreme Court victories in the past two decades (e.g. Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District (1993), allowing a church to show films in a public school during after-hours; or Bray v. Alexandria Women’s Health Clinic (1993), which pitted the ACLJ against the ACLU, finding in favor of pro-lifers who had blockaded abortion clinics). More recently, in venues such as the Glenn Beck Program, Jay Sekulow and others at the ACLJ have been warning Americans of an imminent socialist government takeover of healthcare: doctors will euthanize the elderly to cut costs; Planned Parenthood will open health clinics in public schools; and “Barack Hussein Obortion” will kill the unborn with taxpayer dollars (if only!). Jews for Jesus don’t generally engage in electoral politics, but they are social conservatives with ties to not only the ACLJ but also the Promise Keepers and the (Jerry Falwell-affiliated) Liberty Counsel.

Midway through July, the teen component of the Summer Witnessing Campaign began. It’s called “Halutzim,” which is Hebrew for “pioneers”: a loaded term. Halutzim were the Zionist settlers in pre-1948 Palestine—the ones who made the “empty” desert bloom.

In an explicit effort to shore up their identities as “Jewish Believers,” the Halutzim were led to key sites of New York Ashkenazi cultural myth: Katz’s Deli, Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes, the Tenement Museum, and the Holocaust Museum in Battery Park. They also accompanied the adult campaigners on what Jews for Jesus call “sorties.” There is the “rush-hour sortie,” devoted to maximum tract distribution in subways, and the aboveground “contact sortie,” which is when they chat people up.

One day, a twenty-something Jews for Jesus staffer named Morgan Rapp took Ari and Devorah, two Halutzim participants, on a rush-hour sortie. She told her video blog viewers that she hoped the teens would see “that Jewish evangelism could be fun!” Yet secular Jews (UJs) engaged them in “spiritual warfare,” knocking tracts from Devorah’s hands and spitting on Ari. After fortifying themselves with a group prayer on the subway platform, the Jews for Jesus persisted. “We are persecuted for the gospel,” Morgan concluded. “But we thank the lord that we have the opportunity to be persecuted. It’s just like in Jesus’ time.”

In a video blog entry of his own, Ari began with a dudely “What’s up?” nod at the camera. “Got spit on,” he said, with a teenage mixture of stoicism and petulance. “Yeah, that was fun.” In the background, another kid chimed in, “That’s pretty common.” Ari, in any case, had earned his stripes.

The “spiritual warfare,” that is to say spitting, of the UJs is extreme. No one reacts that way to Jehovah’s Witnesses. It must stem from a visceral sense of tribal betrayal. Jews are a people who have traditionally viewed history as a series of persecutions—many carried out in Jesus’ name—from which they have somehow survived, passing on to their progeny both the memory of suffering and a collective identity in terms of negation: not for Jesus.

As an UJ, I will never grasp the affective piety of evangelicals; often, they describe it as a “warming” of the heart in daily life. According to polling data, anywhere between twenty-five and forty-six percent of Americans fall under the umbrella category of “evangelical.”

Unable to forge the evangelical’s intimate relationship with God myself, I wanted to at least understand the corporal component of spiritual warfare. For the homestretch of the campaign trail, I ventured into the trenches of the Lord’s army: the subway. Like every New York summer, the entire city felt like a giant, sweaty armpit. Below ground, hot, humid air currents flowed as if urine-infused. (I lasted just three subterranean afternoons, and my field notes suggest much of it was spent resting and snacking.)

In the stairwell at Union Square, I chanced upon Jhan Moskowitz, the graying, kindly looking director of Jews for Jesus’ North American Ministries (and a participant in the very first Summer Witnessing Campaign in 1974). “Who do you think Jesus is?” I asked repeatedly, but Jhan was busy with his rush-hour sortie and wouldn’t take my conversation bait. And so I took a less obnoxious tact: the boggling (and more reporterly) question of why. “The heat, the crowds—this is miserable,” I started to say. But Jhan cut me off. “Am Yisrael chai. Am Yisrael chai,” he sang, walking away. “The Jewish nation lives. The people of Israel live.”

In sermons published on the Jews for Jesus website, Jhan Moskowitz describes growing up in the Bronx, the son of Holocaust survivors. After working on a kibbutz in Israel in 1967, Jhan became, in his words, a “seeker.” He found Jesus in the early 70s. His wife, Melissa, found Jesus then as well. She had been involved in SDS, but, after hurling bricks and getting tear-gassed, was done being an angry radical. Realizing Jesus was the “Prince of Peace,” she decided to become “an activist for His kingdom.”

In one sermon, Jhan recounted giving his father a copy of the New Testament in Yiddish. He wanted his father to forgive the Nazis, to pray: “forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And that’s where his father closed the book, shaking his head no. “Dad,” Jhan said, “they still win that way.”

Making sense of the Holocaust is a perennial Jewish project, and Jews for Jesus does its part to contribute. Survivor Stories, a Jews for Jesus video, begins with the requisite footage of barbed wire and emaciated children. Then come the testimonies of elderly Jews with thick Eastern European accents. “People died like flies,” says a woman as mournful cello music plays. Another woman, at once frail and formidable, a Semitic Didion, says flatly, “Whoever was not able to walk was shot.” The cello fades, and cheesy keyboard music begins. “I’ve been able to forgive,” says Vera Schlamm, a Bergen-Belsen survivor. “I have no bitterness in my heart but peace and joy.” Within the spent genre of Holocaust testimony, Jews for Jesus delivers novelty. Turned on its head is the trope of survivors’ inability to reconcile the experience of the camps with the rest of their lives: belief in Jesus sutures all ruptures, personal and historical. These are horror stories with happy endings.

And so, in its way, was the Summer Witnessing Campaign. Returning home with faith stronger than ever, Lauren Doell, a junior at Vanguard University, a Pentecostal school, created a Facebook album with the subheading “what i thought would be the worst summer ending up being the best summer and the pics that prove it.” On the last night, all of the young campaigners got dressed up for a special night out on the town, ending with chocolate fondue at Max Brenner’s followed by late-night evangelism in Union Square—on their own accord, without direction from campaign organizers. Among them were David Strull, a Messianic Jew from Chicago, and Shoshana Gordon, daughter of a Christian woman and a Jewish Believer from Mexico City. In a classic shot of young romance in New York, one photo showed Shoshana and David seated side-by-side on the subway—whose sweltering platforms they had haunted all summer, distributing leaflets—holding hands, looking at one another with adoration. “Que linda pareja hacen” (“What a nice couple you make”), Shoshana’s mother wrote in a comment, approving the onward march of the generations.

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