Christian communities actively courting Israelis, whose members are collectively known as Messianic Jews, have been considerably reinforced by recent immigration waves and now comprise some 10,000 Israelis, according to Messianic leaders and their Jewish opponents.
Eitan Shishkoff, who heads the Messianic community in Kiryat Yam outside Haifa, said there are 10,000 members in roughly 80 Messianic congregations across the country. This figure has approximately doubled since the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union began in the late 1980s.
The Yad L'Achim organization, which has been dedicated to fighting Christian proselytization since 1950, shares the assessments about the overall number of Israeli Messianic Jews, though it says it only knows of 40 communities.
While illegal in Israel when involving material benefits for prospective converts, proselytization here has risen sharply in response to the post-Soviet immigration waves. Shishkoff says that some 70 percent of his 270 congregants are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Eliezer Uzichenko, who immigrated from Ukraine in 1998, is now the leader of the Beit Avinu community. Speaking by telephone, he said half his congregation was Russian-speaking.
Yad L'Achim says the Russian-speaking population is being deliberately targeted because of relatively weak ties to Judaism and poor socioeconomic status.
Yad L'Achim, which has hired Russian immigrants to join its battle against the reinvigorated proselytizing effort, says the immigrants are being bought through material benefits, a claim Messianic leaders deny. "Maybe a few of our members first came in contact with us through the charity, but 98 percent of them didn't – make that 99.9 percent," said Shishkoff.