MESSIANIC JEWS TRY TO BRIDGE 2 WORLDS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A bearded man blows a ram's horn into a sunlit Annapolis street, andthe ancient greeting "Shabbat shalom" echoes through the room.

Men in prayer shawls sway and sing, sing and pray. Fringes poke from beneath their shirts. Yarmulkes cap their heads. Women clutch children's hands and repeat, "Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God is one . . ."

The families look traditionally Jewish. The sanctuary on Bay Ridge Avenue could be any synagogue, anywhere.

But there is one weighty difference between these Jews and the rest of the Jewish community:They believe Jesus was the Jewish messiah.

In the rituals of daily life, the 30 families in the Shulchan Adonai congregation qualify as faithful Jews. They bar and bat mitzvah their children and send them to Hebrew school; they keep kosher households.

Mezuzahs, small boxes containing portions of Scripture, adorn the doorways of their homes. They are scrupulous about feast-keeping and maintaining culturalidentity.

But in their theology, as Jews who have accepted Jesus as God, they have parted company with 2,000 years of tradition.

ToSteve Heiliczer, 43, a member of the Annapolis group, adding Messianic to Jewish means a fulfillment of his heritage, an embracing of allthat it means to be Jewish.

"A messianic Jew has returned to the biblical life of Judaism, celebrating everlasting atonement which wasbought by the blood of our eternal paschal lamb sacrifice, Yeshua," Heiliczer says.

Messianic Jews, as they call themselves, have worked through theological questions such as whether God could have a son, whether the rabbis of Christ's time could have made a mistake concerning his identity.

They are avid students of Hebrew Scripture, pointing to prophecies they believe Jesus fulfilled, and miracles he performed, as the basis of their belief in Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus.

At the same time, they believe they should retain their Torah lifestyle, observing that God would not spend 2,000 years creatinga religion called Judaism only to drop it and start over.

Says David Rudolph, rabbi at Shulchan Adonai, "The New Testament emphasizes God's love and faithfulness to the Jewish people, and it authoritatively quotes the Hebrew Scriptures 1,604 times. As Paul, an observant Jew to the end of his life, wrote, 'They are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable.' "

Messianic Jews come from both nominally religious homes and the strictest Orthodox circles. At Shulchan Adonai, they come in all ages. Regardless of background, they say they are attracted by a personal relationship with God they could not find in traditional Judaism.

"At the synagogue, I felt that God was more of a theological idea, not a personto get to know," explains Rudolph. "Yeshua provided a relationship like Abraham had when he would just talk to God."

Messianic Jews pay for their belief in the Christian's Jesus. To Jews, the movement violates monotheism and is the rankest heresy. Messianic Jews become used to snubs and scorn, to families counting them as dead.

Rudolph was attending a Maryland synagogue with his family when the cantor happened to recognize him as a Messianic Jew. "I was simultaneously pushed, grabbed, pushed, yelled at and spit on at the same time. He called me a traitor to my people. He said I was like Hitler and the rest who tried to destroy the Jews," Rudolph recalls.

While many Christian churches embrace the Messianic Jews wholeheartedly, some Protestant churches also oppose the movement, arguing that Jews do not need Christ, that such a suggestion is insulting to the Jewish people.

Other Christian churches object on different grounds, saying that a continued observance of Jewish law is a religious regression. For example, when 19-year-old Dorine Heiliczer declines to eat pepperoni pizzaat a party because it violates her kosher lifestyle, her Christian college friends think she's a little weird.

"It's very difficult toexplain to my friends at (Evangel College in Missouri) because they don't see any Jewishness in Christianity. There's a lot of anti-Semitism without people realizing it," says Dorine, who grew up attending Hebrew day school and living as an observant Jew.

She says her faith is worth the rejection.

"It feels like the most right thing in my life. Being just Jewish I was ignorant of any personal relationship with God, but being a (Messianic) believer, God is my friend, someone I know."

Caught between two worlds -- or blessed by both, depending on who is talking -- Messianic Jews continue to grow in numbers,says Mark Powers, executive director of Jews for Judaism, a counter-missionary organization based in Baltimore.

Worldwide, Messianic Jews number more than 150,000, he says. Messianic Jews say they have been around since the time of Yeshua, pointing out that the first-century church was considered to be a sect of Judaism, and that all the original believers in Jesus were Jewish.

That emphasis was lost during two thousand years of Christianity, but Jewish believers are again seeking the cultural roots of their faith, Heiliczer notes. In the Baltimore-Washington area, there are at least eight Messianic congregations, with services that emphasize singing, dancing and spirituality.

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When somebody told 8-year-old David Rudolph that the Yeshua he worshiped in his Messianic Jewish synagogue was Jesus Christ -- the blue-eyed Caucasian he'd seen portrayed in an Easter show on TV -- he was flabbergasted.

"I actually didn't believe it. I thought it was a joke," he says.

The Yeshua he worshiped, thought the youngster, would look more like the rabbi at his conservative Bethesda synagogue: Strong and bearded, probably dressed like an Orthodox Israeli.

"When I found out this Christian Jesus was the same person as myYeshua, I was shocked. How could this be?"

That was the beginningof a search for religious truth, says Rudolph, who grew up attendingboth a synagogue and a Messianic synagogue, one with each parent.

Reading the Hebrew prophecies and parts of the New Testament, he began to wonder if Yeshua was indeed the messiah. Soon the teen-ager's life was an agony of questioning.

"It was tough to reconcile Judaism's emphasis on monotheism with the idea of Yeshua as God, but I concluded that if God could make the universe, he could do anything, including putting his spirit into a human body. I learned that for hundreds of years, God lived in a box (in the Ark of the Covenant)," Rudolph reasoned. "And for hundreds of years, God lived in a house (the temple). If God could live in a box, or a house, why not a body?"

Theyoungster was bar mitzvahed at his traditional synagogue but continued to wonder if the rabbis -- whom he had been taught to highly respect -- could have been wrong. "It was very, very intimidating. I knew very little about why they rejected Jesus. I thought, 'Who am I to disagree with these great wise men of history?' "

Studying Jewish history, Rudolph learned that some of the greatest rabbis had been mistaken in believing various frauds who claimed to be the Messiah. "It made me feel that the rabbis have been wrong, so they could also be wrong about Yeshua," he says.

He also concluded that because for centuries most Jews did not study the New Testament, their primary impression of Christianity came from the very Christians who were persecuting them. "My people and my rabbis did not reject Yeshua, they rejected a misconception about Yeshua that had been created over the courseof centuries," he says.

The rejection continues, says Rudolph, who for three years has been the rabbi of Shulchan Adonai.

He recalls the angry passer-by who stopped at the sukkah (a temporary structure used for meals and sleeping during the fall holiday of Sukkot) thatShulchan Adonai had set up on the lawn. The visitor jumped out of his car, ran over and angrily demanded, "WHAT IS THIS? WHO ARE YOU? I don't want you here. I am a member of the Jewish Atheist Society, and I am offended by this."

"A man tried to run over my father with his car because my Dad is a Messianic Jew," Rudolph says. "I even know someone who was kidnapped because he's a Messianic Jew."

For Rudolph, 24, who spent six years of college studying Jewish law and Hebrew, as well as the New Testament, the prejudice is unfair.

"Messianic Jews practice a Jewish lifestyle because they are convinced God hascalled them to be a distinct and enduring people," he says. "Messianic Jewish children grow up with a strong sense of Jewish identity andcontinue to live as Jews into their adult lives."

And they also grow up with a sense of personal connection with God, Messianic Jews insist.

"To me, the traditional synagogue seemed lifeless, joyless," Rudolph says, "whereas the Messianic Jews seemed to really celebrate. At my conservative synagogue, a lot of people were practicing Judaism because they're supposed to. At the Messianic Jewish synagogue, people are practicing Judaism with all their heart."

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One thingabout which Messianic Jews are adamant is that they have not simply converted to "the other side." Most frustrating to Rudolph is what hecalls the misperception that Messianic Jews wish to convert their people to Christianity.

"Whereas 19th-century missionaries did and many 20th-century Hebrew Christians do seek to convert the Jewish people to Christianity, Messianic Jews do not," Rudolph says.

Heiliczer, another Messianic Jew, also acknowledges that many Christian churches who attempt to evangelize Jews seek to tear them from their Jewish roots.

"But Messianic Judaism is not Christianity, and the last thing that the Messiah ever wanted was to have a group of Christian missionaries running around attempting to spiritually lobotomize Jews into being Gentiles," Heiliczer says.

What all that means in everyday life is demonstrated by Kevin and Janel Lind, another couple at Shulchan Adonai. Kevin, 32, is a research scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory. His wife, Janel, worked as an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab until the couple moved recently from California. He isa Gentile converted to Jewish Christianity. She is a Jew converted to Messianic Judaism.

Living a Messianic Jewish lifestyle means thecouple's week is centered around the Sabbath. They celebrate Sabbathon Saturdays, lighting the candles Friday evening, going to servicesFriday evening and Saturday morning. They speak seriously of the commands of Scripture: to love God, to worship God, to live holy lives. Books on Talmud, many in Hebrew, line their shelves.

Drawn to the Messianic Jewish lifestyle, Kevin -- who converted to Christianity from agnosticism during college -- took a course in Talmud. He married Janel, and they adopted what they call "a Torah lifestyle."

Initially, Kevin's Protestant parents found both his theology and his new practices hard to understand. "They protested, 'Aren't you putting yourself back under bondage to the law?' "

For Janel, 33, a spacecraft systems design engineer, the response from relatives was more stressful. "When I was baptized, the family disowned me. They counted me as dead," she says. Relatives have thrown her out of their homes. She doesn't remember the faces of many aunts and uncles and cousins.

But from the perspective of the Linds and others in their congregation, they are as Jewish as possible.

"Every time I put the kippah (yarmulke) on," says Kevin, "I know when I walk out that door, when people look at me, God's reputation is affected by how I live. A Torah lifestyle reminds you of God in everything you do."

Adds Janel, "Notonly can you be Jewish and believe in Yeshua as Messiah, but it's one of the most Jewish things you can do."

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