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Conversion campaign raises complaints among Jews

A white van marked in burgundy with the name of a Glen Burnie Baptist church has been making the rounds in some area neighborhoods this summer with a controversial mission: seeking Jewish souls to save from the fires of eternal damnation. Many local Jews do not appreciate the effort.

The van carrying Baptist college students from southern California has been working the corridor from Mount Washington to Owings Mills, where many Jews live. The 10 students — women taking part in a national, million-dollar campaign financed by a California businessman — have conveyed the message that Jews can remain Jewish and still accept Jesus Christ as the divine Messiah.

Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the argument is deceptive, and rabbis of any established branch of Judaism would reject the notion of a "Jewish Christian" as oxymoronic, a contradiction of basic theological principles. The argument and the campaign advancing it are "very offensive to the Jewish community," he said, adding that he would object less if the pitch made clear that to accept Christ is to become Christian and cease to be Jewish in a religious sense.

The mobile proselytizing was the latest campaign by California-based Israel Restoration Ministries, founded by Tom Cantor, the president of Scantibodies Laboratory Inc., a medical products company based near San Diego. Cantor said he spends more than $4 million a year on Christian missionary work in this country and overseas — including about $1 million on a coast-to-coast "summer blitz" in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities with heavily Jewish neighborhoods.

For a second consecutive summer, Granite Baptist Church in Glen Burnie provided housing and the van for the young evangelists, who went door to door trying to talk with residents and leaving an envelope containing a booklet and video.

Last week Abramson met with the church's senior pastor. Abramson asked for the meeting after the council and the local chapter of Jews for Judaism, an international organization devoted to challenging conversion appeals, received dozens of calls complaining or asking questions about the summer campaign, which recently wrapped up.

Ruth Guggenheim, executive director of Jews for Judaism in Baltimore, said there were about 50 calls from local neighborhoods, with some people complaining that the evangelists seemed to be trying to portray themselves as Jews, or to open a conversation by saying they wanted to talk about Israel.

Senior Pastor Lou Rossi of Granite Baptist said the roughly hour-long meeting with Abramson, Guggenheim and Toba Minkin Rainess, deputy director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, was "very positive." He said he understood their concerns, but did not believe the young people were trying to deceive anyone.

"Our goal has never been to disrupt or violate the Jewish community, or any community," said Rossi, whose church draws some 700 people to Sunday services. While the church agreed to take part in the campaign before he became its senior pastor in December, Rossi said he supports the effort and would likely take part again, although perhaps with guidance for the young evangelists.

"I think there's a learning curve for young people" on proper approach, he said. "I think that can all be addressed."

He acknowledged, for instance, that canvassing a Jewish neighborhood in a van marked "Granite Baptist Church" might not be the best way to go, but it was not clear if or how that would be changed in the future.

He said the young women were dressed "very modestly," in long skirts, and for that reason they may have appeared to be Orthodox Jews. Rossi said they made no attempt to present themselves as Jewish.

The two faiths differ on several fundamental theological principles, including the nature of God and the Jewish rejection of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Jews believe that God is a singular entity and cannot be physically incarnated, while Christians believe God is a trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ was both human and divine.

Jews for Judaism says that Jews for Jesus and hundreds of other groups spending more than $250 million a year on conversion campaigns often appropriate Jewish symbols and themes in their materials, or claim the Old Testament includes prophecies of Jesus Christ — all in an effort to blur the line between Jewish and Christian religious identity.

Guggenheim pointed out, for instance, that last year the pamphlet handed out in the Israel Restoration Ministries' summer campaign here included the words "the Lord Jesus Christ" on the cover. This year, the cover was changed to say "The Jewish Messiah," and was expanded to include scriptural passages to assert that the New Testament is a "fulfillment" of the Old Testament.

"This is not talking to Jews," Guggenheim said in an interview in her office in Owings Mills, holding up a copy of the 2012 booklet. "This is no different than the Jehovah's Witnesses coming to your door."

Cantor said he wanted to have "Jesus Christ" on the cover this year, but he was overruled by others working on the campaign, who said: "Can we go a bit softer? Maybe we can get a few words in before the door slams?"

Cantor, who was born into a Jewish family in Los Angeles, said the expense of the missionary work is worth it, because "I am a Jew, I love my people. ... I don't want any of them going to hell" because they have not accepted Christ. He insisted Jews have no problem being Jewish and Muslim or Buddhist, but harbor a "pure unadulterated prejudice" about Christianity.

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of the Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville disagreed.

"You absolutely cannot be a Jew and a Buddhist or a Jew and a Muslim," Wohlberg said. He said if Cantor is so concerned about the welfare of Jews, he would do better to contribute money to Jewish nursing homes, soup kitchens and schools, rather than obsessing about Jewish souls.

"We don't see anything wrong with our soul," he said.


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