In a traditional Jewish congregation, the ark that holds the scrolls of the Torah is set in a place of honor in the synagogue.
But Emmanuel Messianic Congregation has its ark in the sanctuary of Covenant Baptist Church in Hickory Ridge, signifying the practice of a nontraditional type of Judaism that has other county Jewish leaders upset.
The Messianic group, which follows many Jewish beliefs but also worships Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) as the Messiah, moved to Columbia from Baltimore County last month.
"We help Jewish people understand the New Testament and understand the Messiah from a Jewish perspective, and we also help Christian people understand the Jewish roots of the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus," said Barry Rubin of Clarksville, who leads the 40-member Emmanuel Messianic group. "In many ways we bridge gaps."
However, other county rabbis are offended by the group's beliefs and say the congregation came to Columbia to deceive and convert vulnerable Jews.
"I think that Messianic Judaism is a profound distortion of both Judaism and Christianity," said Rabbi Martin Siegel of the Columbia Jewish Congregation in Columbia. "Therefore, it represents a threat to the spiritual integrity of both communities."
He added, "We just feel they're trying to invent a religion."
Messianic members insist they are indeed Jewish. They cite the fact that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, and say they observe the Jewish holidays and the Shabbat, and follow the Torah.
More Christian than Jewish?
But critics say members of Messianic congregations, which include Jews and gentiles, are more Christian than Jewish, because they believe in the Trinity and other tenets of Christianity.
Mainstream Jews say they are still waiting for the Messiah, the expected king and deliverer of Jews, and don't believe Jesus is the Messiah. They say that Jews who accept Jesus as the savior are no longer Jewish.
The debate about Messianic Judaism is passionate and complicated, said David A. Rausch, professor of history and Judaic Studies at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, who has written several publications on the subject.
Messianic members are criticized not only by traditional Jews but by Christians who accuse them of not fully assimilating, Mr. Rausch said. "They get it from both sides," he said.
Messianic Judaism in the United States dates to the turn of the century, when the Fundamental Evangelical movement swept the country, converting many Jews, Mr. Rausch said.
Jews who had converted to Christianity but wanted to keep their Jewish identities and customs later formed their own group and called themselves "Hebrew-Christians."
Messianic Judaism gained momentum in the 1960s when young American Jews who had converted to Christianity were inspired by the Six-Day War in Israel to go back to their roots, the history professor said.
Up to 200 U.S. congregations
Today, there are between 150 and 200 Messianic congregations in the United States. Some Messianic Jewish sources count the total number of members at about 160,000 in this country, Mr. Rausch said.
Mr. Rubin, who was raised a Reform-Conservative Jew, said he believes critics will change their opinions once they understand Messianic Judaism.
"A lot of people say, 'You're either Jewish or Christian.' We are Jewish people who believe Jesus is the Messiah, call us what you want."
The Emmanuel Messianic Congregation was established in 1915 East Baltimore as the Emmanuel Neighborhood Center and later moved to Baltimore County, Mr. Rubin said. At one time, the group was called the Emmanuel Presbyterian Hebrew-Christian Congregation.
The congregation came to Columbia because it's a central location for members and potential members who live across Maryland and Washington, D.C., Mr. Rubin said. It's unclear how long they'll meet at the Baptist church.
The Baptist church's minister, The Rev. D. Walter Collett, whom Mr. Rubin met a year ago, invited the congregation to use his church for space, Mr. Rubin said.
On Sept. 15, the group held its first Rosh Hashana service at Covenant Baptist.
Ten days later it began holding regular Shabbat services.
For the move, Willard Kauffman, an Ellicott City carpenter, made the 4-foot-high cabinet-like ark, which is topped with a light fixture resembling an eternal flame.
"Jewish people historically are called 'wandering Jews,' " Mr. Rubin said. "Having a portable ark sort of enables us to move around a bit. . . . There's some good symbolism in that."
The group continues to draw intense criticism from other Jewish leaders.
Rabbi Mark Panoff, a rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Columbia, said he respects people's rights to religious freedom. But he believes the Messianic Jewish group operates as a Fundamentalist Christian group under the guise of Judaism to try and convert Jews.
"Jews don't accept Jesus as the Messiah," Rabbi Panoff said.
Mr. Rubin's group is implying that "Jews are not fulfilled or complete until they accept Jesus as their savior," Rabbi Panoff charged. "We think this is disrespectful of Judaism and Jewish people."
He said, "We don't call them 'Messianic Jews,' we call them 'Hebrew Christians,' " because they've accepted Jesus as the Messiah.
Critics also charge that Mr. Rubin's group distorts Jewish symbols and rituals.
Rabbi Panoff said that during one ceremony the Messianic group said that matzo (flat, unleavened bread Jews eat during Passover) represented the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, aspects of the Christian Trinity.
"That's not part of our Jewish belief," he said.
Mark Powers, national director of Jews for Judaism in Baltimore, which strongly opposes the Messianic group, said "it's absurd" that Messianic members can claim to be Jews. He asked, "Can you believe in Buddha and still be called a Christian?"
"We don't feel one really negates the other," countered Marvin Morrison, leader of the Congregation Rosh Pina, a group of Messianic Jews in Owings Mills.
He said that Messianic Jews are not part of cults, as some critics have charged, and that they aren't trying to hurt Judaism.
"It's like name-calling," Mr. Morrison said. "It's an emotional appeal type of a statement and it isn't based on fact. It's based on fear and fear-mongering."
Mr. Rausch, the history professor, said he doesn't believe Messianic groups are cults.
"Any group that hasn't been part of the accepted norm has been called cults throughout history," he said.
He added that many in the Jewish community, "because of Christian persecution and because of the Holocaust, view any evangelistic group as a potential for spiritual genocide."
Cliff Schroeder, associate pastor of administration for Covenant
Baptist Church, said he's aware of the controversy, but said his members support the congregation the way it supports a small Hispanic and a Korean congregation getting started here also.
"We support Barry's effort to reach out to the Jewish community through the gospel," the pastor said. "Jesus came to save both Jew and gentile."
Covenant Baptist, he said, isn't trying to add to the debate, but isn't deterred in support for the Messianic group by charges that its members want to convert Jews.
"We are in favor of them converting anyone," Mr. Schroeder said. "The gospel is for Jews and it's for gentiles. It's for everyone."