At first glance, Ahavat Zion look like an ordinary Jewish synagogue.
On a Saturday morning in Beverly Hills, worshippers pray facing
an ark containing Torah scrolls in a side room, a man puts on
a long-fringed tallit.
Here are all the familiar trappings of Judaism - monorot on stained
glass windows, a pulpit emblazoned with a star of David. Men
wear kipot; kiddish is said over a cup of wine.
But on closer look, the Jewish atmosphere gives way to, well,
something else. Something Christian. "I praise Christ all
the time, you know that," said a man over a cup of wine.
"Peace be with you," said a woman in flowing white robes
to a man with a large tape recorder. "Shabbat Shalom,"
he replied, as the player blared songs hailing the messiah.
Soon the bustle quiets and Ahvat Zion's bearded spiritual leader,
Barry Budoff, takes the pulpit. "We come to you in the name
of our Messiah, Yeshua," he chants, body rocking, eyes squeezed
Ahavat Zion calls itself a Messianic synagogue; congregates believe
that Jesus - or Yeshua, as they call him, is the promised Messiah,
the son of God who died and rose again for their salvation.
The service itself is a strange potpourri of Baptist-style preachings
and readings from a Hebrew siddur. Congregates worship in their
own personal styles; some shake tambourines to Messianic hymns,
others hold arms aloft or prostate themselves on the ground.
Messianic Jews are often products of marriages between Jews and
Christians, or themselves in mixed marriages. All insist they
are fully Jewish, but mainstream Jewish leaders say Jesus and
Judaism don't mix. "It's as impossible as kosher pork,"
said Rabbi Ben-Tzion Kravitz, head of Jews for Judaism, a counseling
program in Los Angeles to keep young Jews out of cults and Messianic
"I would call it a bastard," said Rabbi Schlomo Schwartz,
who heads Chabad's West Coast anti-Missionary efforts. "It's
an illegal child of an incestuous, adulterous relationship."
Messianic groups, Jewish leaders say, are deliberately misrepresenting
themselves to make Christianity more acceptable to Jews they want
to convert. "What they're doing is theological deception,"
Kravitz said. "It's consumer fraud. These groups understand
that for Jews to be attracted to a Christian church requires overcoming
So aggressive Christian missionaries, caught up in the nation's
new fundamentalist fervor, have come up with a new twist to the
evangelism game. "It's the devious trick of false labeling,"
And the "labels" are what Jewish leaders find so dangerous.
For example, they say, Messianic groups like Ahavat Zion list
themselves as synagogues in the yellow pages. And messianic leaders,
like Budoff, call themselves rabbis, though many admit they've
never been ordained in any traditional Jewish sense. Some, like
Jews for Jesus founder Marvin "Moishe" Rosen, are ordained
But Avi Snyder, Los Angeles director of Jews for Jesus, waves
the deception charge aside. "I'm curious as to where the
real charge lies," he says. "We're up front about who
we are. Is there anything ambiguous about the term 'Jews for
But Jewish leaders remain vehement. In April, more than 30 Jewish
groups signed a statement condemning "deceptive Christian
proselytizing" - the first time the diverse local Jewish
community has come together on the issue. "We recognize
the constitutional right of religious groups to practice their
faiths and to share those beliefs with others," the statement
but we condemn the deceptive practices employed
by certain Christian missionary groups in their zeal to win converts.
Of paramount concern
is the claim of certain Christian missionary
groups that they legitimately represent Jewish tradition. So-called
'Jews for Jesus', 'Messianic Jews,' 'Hebrew Christians'
history, the Jewish community, without exception, has agreed that
belief in Jesus as God, the Messiah, Savior, or the son of God
is Christian doctrine which wholly apart from Jewish tradition
and theology. Therefore, any movement which professes such belief
is not a part of Judaism and cannot legitimately represent itself
But Snyder strongly disagrees. "The charge of deception
is itself right on the border of being deceptive," he says.
"It's an old lawyers' trick. If you don't want people to
give an honest, open-minded hearing to what a witness is saying
on the witness stand, you discredit the witness."
Snyder, a slight, bearded man whose speech is sprinkled with Yiddish,
sits in the meeting room for Jews for Jesus', Studio City headquarters.
The office is inconspicuously located above a clothing shop on
Ventura Boulevard; there is a dark flight of stairs, a buzzer
and peep-hole, and a small, plain plaque that reads, "Jews
for Jesus." The front door is always locked.
Inside, pictures of Israel decorate the walls, and a plaque reading
"Y'shua" adorns the meeting room; here, Snyder talks
quickly, eagerly about his work.
"My job is to let people know that, if you're Jewish, yes,
you should believe in Jesus," he says. Jews, he adds, can't
be complete unless they accept Jesus as savior. "You can't
call Judaism a belief system," he continues. "Tell
me what my belief consisted of when I was circumcised at eight
But Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Wilshire Boulevard Temple says this
kind of thinking as anti-Jewish. "Messianic Jews suggest
that Judaism as it is understood by the Jewish community is not
complete in and of itself," he explained. "That's theological
anti-Semitism. I take offense at that."
But Snyder has his own interpretation. "If Jesus were the
only cure to cancer and the only reason you withheld that information
to a person who's dying of cancer is because he's Jewish, I'd
say that was anti-Semitism," he said.
Snyder, when pressed, admits his beliefs are identical to those
of fundamentalist evangelical Christians - and that most of his
group's funding, $5.5 million a year, comes from evangelical Christian
churches, "I believe the Christian faith, divested of a lot
of cultural trappings stuck on afterward, is in harmony with the
Hebrew Scriptures and is a Jewish thing," he says.
However, this kind of thinking outrages mainstream Jewish leaders.
"For the first time in recorded history, an outside religious
group is trying to create a counterfeit Judaism," said Rick
Ross, a member of the task force in Missionaries and Cults of
the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "They know damn
well that they're evangelical Christians and what they are is
Can you be a Baptist for Buddah? A Catholic for
Krishna?" Ross also points out that Jews for Jesus is under
the auspices of the Evangelical Board of Financial Accountability.
And despite the Jewish trappings, Hebrew Christians are still
Christians, according to Donnell, vice president of the Task Force
on Missionaries and Cults of the Jewish Federation Council.
"Jewish rituals are only meaningful within a Jewish theological
context," he said. "You can't divorce the tradition
from the beliefs."
But Budoff has his own theory about why Jews react violently to
Messianics. "If we're right, they're out of a job,"
he adds: "Mainstream Judaism doesn't fulfill the needs of
a person's relationship with God. It deals primarily with traditions
mainstream Jewish community doesn't address that hunger."
But Leah Schoenberg, an observant Jew who used to call herself
a Christian, vehemently disagrees. "It's possible to get
the same thing out of Judaism," she says.
As a child, Schoenberg said she had "proud, strong feelings"
about being Jewish, but found synagogue "boring and dry."
In college, she spent a small amount of time talking to Christian
missionaries - and found herself attending a Baptist Church.
Christian services, she says, were much more exciting and emotional
then her childhood memories of a suburban synagogue. However,
after years of soul-searching, she became convinced Christianity
was fantasyland. "Losing Jesus was painful in the beginning,"
she says. "Almost like losing a loved one." Today,
she adds, she finds the same spiritual fulfillment in the Jewish
A hunger of sorts seems to draw some Jews into Hebrew Christianity;
experts agree the numbers have swelled rapidly during the last
decade. No one knows exactly how many Messianic Jews there are
in America, but estimates range from fewer than 10,000 to more
Mainstream leaders like Rabbi Schwartz say those who get involved
are down and out or rebellious. "They're up for grabs,"
he says- prime targets for any group that comes along, peddling
simple solutions to life's troubles.
It's a sunny Saturday morning after services at Ahavat Zion on
Beverly Drive, and congregates are socializing and drinking coffee.
Someone is playing hymns on a weather-beaten piano as some of
the congregates unfold their stories.
Susan (not her real name) says she grew up in the Fairfax area
with a "great feeling of Jewish identity." "But
when I became a believer," she says, "I felt I had to
give it all up. It was hard on my heart, because a leopard just
can't change its spots." A petite, earthy-looking woman
in peasant skirt and sandals, Susan says she first became Christian
after her mother's death and her own abortion. After this "death
and sin experience," she says, she saw a "light in missionaries'
lives that was sorely lacking" in her own. Today, Susan
debbles in teaching and writing, her direction unclear except
for a keen faith.
Vivian Newman is a small, 74-year-old woman, a Jewish Russian
immigrant who witnessed pogroms in the Old County. Speaking with
tremulous emotion, she recalls how she came to Ahavat Zion 11
years ago, when the place was still run by the Assemblies of God
church. At the time she got involved, Vivian says she was at
a low ebb. "Somebody called me and asked if I'd like to
come to a synagogue," she said. "I was walking with
a cane because I was paralyzed from the hip down." The caller,
she said, had gotten her name from a television repairman, she
noticed Vivian was crippled.
Newman vehemently opposes people who criticize Messianic Judaism.
"We believe in God just like everybody else," she says.
"We are in the United States and we can pray and obey God
any way we want to. We're not anti-Jewish. (Mainstream) Jews
are afraid, just like they were afraid of Yeshua
Arnie LeVine says he first became interested in Christianity through
his wife, who got him to watch Trinity Broadcasting Network and
other evangelical Christian television shows. He says he also
read a book put out by Jews for Jesus.
Once he came to believe in Jesus as Messiah, LeVine says it "took
quite a while
to find a place (of worship) I felt comfortable
approaching. My wife and I didn't really feel comfortable in
churches, mainly because we're Jewish." LeVine has been attending
Ahavat Zion for two years now. "It's one of the few places
you can go and still be a Jew," he says, though Jewish leaders
would call him an apostle Jew - one who has embraced an alien
Messianic synagogues also seem to be attracting a growing number
of non-Jews, experts say. Gabriel and Marilyn Insalaco are one
such example at Ahavat Zion. They are not Jewish, but they say
they spend much of their time "witnessing" (proselytizing)
to Jews. "We have witnessed to Jews who don't believe in
the Messiah," Gabriel said. "But some of them have
come to Christ. Some with names like Isaac!" Gabriel says
he witnesses everywhere, even at work, where he serves as a housekeeping
supervisor in a large hospital.
Gabriel's wife, Marilyn, wears a white robe and sandals.
"The Lord Yeshua has sent me here to witness to the house
of Israel," she explained. "My task is to visit the
fatherless and the widows in their affliction and to keep myself
unspotted from the world." But when asked whether she considers
herself a Jew, she replied: "The Lord Yeshua tells me it
is better to be called a murderer or a thief."
Barbara Plessen, Barry Budoff's secretary, arrives at Ahavat Zion
with her husband and five children. Her family attended a Seventh
Day Adventist Church before making the switch to Messianic Judaism.
"We just wanted to go back to the Bible
and we know
the closest is going back to the Jewish way," she says.
"Messianic Judaism is Judaism but you have Jesus," she
added. Plessen who has never formally converted to Judaism, says
she bought a book explaining how to celebrate Jewish holidays.
"We have Passover and other festivals," she said.
"It's easy to put Jesus into these things."
Here in Los Angeles, the war seems to be escalating between Hebrew
Christians and the Jewish community. "Jews have the dubious
distinction of being the most targeted single denomination in
the United States by the fundamentalist and evangelical movements,"
Rick Ross said.
Ross points out that one in five people in the U.S. are fundamentalist
Christians. "Think of the damage that can be done by the
combined ministries - a combined budget of more than a billion
dollars a year," she says. He estimates that evangelical
groups spend some $50 million a year to target Jews.
Jews for Jesus probably the most visible of these organizations,
has a full-time staff of more 100 in 56 cities (there are eight
staff workers in Studio City). Staff workers and volunteers are
often seen proselytizing on street corners; they pass out some
2.5 million pamphlets a year.
Recently, Snyder successfully challenged a resolution by the commissioners
of Los Angeles International Airport that prohibits distribution
of religious tracts. (The federal district judge's decision that
the central terminal is a public forum is now being appealed).