Jews for Jesus: Why it works

by Maskil on November 21, 2007

JTA is currently running a series of three lengthy articles on the efforts of Jews for Jesus to proselytize among us. (I’m using Jews for Jesus as a convenient handle for all of these missionary organization and approaches.) I thought it might also be instructive to get a handle on how, where and why the Jews for Jesus (JfJ) approach works, and what we can do about it. Here’s how I see it:

  • Focuses on the vulnerable. JfJ tends to focus on the most vulnerable or disadvantaged members of the community. This includes immigrants, the disaffiliated, the poor, those who don’t feel secure in their Jewishness or feel slighted or rejected by the Jewish community, or some part thereof, i.e. anyone who’s ever “wanted to belong”.
  • Uses ignorance. JfJ is far more likely to appeal to those who are ignorant (or simply less educated) about Judaism, Jewish beliefs and the history of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Christianity (even dressed up in a Tallit) simply does not have that much appeal to the informed Jew, unless other non-religious or psychological factors are involved.
  • Uses Jewish artifacts. An obvious one. JfJ makes use of Jewish customs, rituals, traditions and ceremonial objects as the draping over the mannequin, which otherwise tends to look somewhat unappealing to even the most alienated Jewish eye.
  • Uses Jewish pride. This might seem strange to some, but many otherwise totally disaffiliated Jews nevertheless still consider themselves Jews out of pride. JfJ allows them to still regard themselves as Jews, while adopting a whole other belief system.
  • Uses warmth and caring. A real cunning strategy! What a non-Jewish friend of mine (a former born-again Christian) calls their “club of love”. Let’s face it; many of our Jewish institutions, even the ones we love dearly, don’t much look like a shoulder to cry on (still less a place to go to for a free meal). This is not a tactic; this is genuine; in most cases they really do care about those they are attempting to proselytize.
  • Focuses on the individual. As one of the interviewees in the series of articles says “theirs isn’t a numbers game”. They appear to be willing to expend an almost inordinate amount of effort on each potential convert.

Simply understanding why JfJ works (to the extent that it does) gives us a far better understanding of what we need to do to counter this missionary effort. Not that I believe that we should be doing anything special to counter missionary activity; we can best do that by continuing and intensifying efforts to reach out to everyone on the fringes of Judaism’s Big Tent. JfJ does, however, give us some pointers as to where we should be concentrating:

  • Those at risk. The most vulnerable, excluded and peripheral members of our community are those most at risk
  • Jewish education. Should be a lifelong process, accessible to all. We should not only have a clear understanding of what Judaism is and isn’t, we should be able to argue it.
  • Don’t just focus on the trappings of Judaism; focus on the good old-fashioned theology behind it. Those being proselytized need to understand that, while the rituals may be Jewish, the theology is undiluted Christianity. (And yes, the original Christians were Jews, but Christianity today scarcely resembles anything Jesus and his Disciples would recognize, still less be comfortable with…)
  • Give those “at risk” the tools to back up their last-ditch effort at Jewish pride.
  • Warmth and caring. With many Jews in Western Democracies becoming increasingly affluent, the warmth and caring associated with Diaspora Judaism for the last two millennia is becoming a scarce commodity, and can’t just be manufactured on demand. Addressing this is beyond the scope of this piece (and this writer!).
  • Focus on the individual. In playing the numbers game, we’ve forgotten about all the individuals making up those numbers. If we get this right, the numbers will follow.

Let’s put these things into practice! Jewish outreach on a global scale is too important for Jews and Judaism as a whole to be left in the hands of Chabad.

You can read the JTA articles individually here, or download a .PDF file containing the full text of all three:

JTA Forum: Article Comments: Saying ‘Shema,’ preaching Jesus

JTA Forum: Article Comments: Cozying up to prospective converts

Messianics Rising: A JTA Special Report


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