TORONTO — It has been 18 years since counter-missionary group Jews for Judaism first opened its doors in Toronto, in response to the ever-growing problem of “Hebrew Christian” groups aggressively campaigning to convert Jews.
The chai anniversary is fitting, given Jews for Judaism’s endeavours to bring people back to a Jewish life.
The office opened when Julius Ciss, the executive director, noticed the dearth of response to counter the missionary presence in Toronto. In 1982, he produced simple pamphlets and put ads in Jewish newspapers across Canada, as well as lecturing in synagogues.
Ciss, who was in the “Jews for Jesus” movement for a short time, had returned to Judaism and wanted to help others do so.
In 1989, the main branch of Jews for Judaism in Baltimore heard what Ciss was doing and asked him to join the organization. Eventually, Rabbi Michael Skobac, who is now the educational director, began working with Ciss.
The only Canadian office is in Toronto, but Ciss and Skobac also do speaking tours across Canada. They make themselves available for counselling sessions, relying on the Internet and long-distance calls to connect with out-of-city requests.
“We wish we could go out of business due to lack of business, but business is bigger than ever,” says Ciss. Last year alone, he cites some 1,700 counselling sessions with Jewish victims of cults and missionaries. They fulfilled 2,600 requests for information, and more than 7,000 people attended their lectures. Jews for Judaism also distributed 90,000 free educational books and materials in 2007. They have the endorsement of Canadian Jewish Congress, United Jewish Appeal and other Jewish organizations across Canada.
Ciss says there are 120 groups specifically targeting Jews for conversion in Canada. Seven years ago, Toronto had 100 messianic churches, according to Ciss. Now there are 130 who campaign regularly and widely to convince Jews that Jesus is compatible with Judaism.
But it’s not the only anniversary for the counter-missionary group. Ten years ago, around Chanukah, Jews for Judaism opened their Thornhill, Ont., office, next to a just-opened “Jews for Jesus”-type church. The house of worship uses Jewish symbols and iconography, and even some blessings in Hebrew, but its congregants believe in Jesus.
Jews for Judaism moved in as community members were outraged that the church had opened at the corner of Bathurst Street and Steeles Avenue, a location where there was much Jewish activity – such as a Jewish youth organization, Jewish-Russian immigrant life and a kosher ice cream parlour – leaving many to believe the young and vulnerable were at risk.
As the Toronto office celebrates a milestone, a new office in Jerusalem run by a former “messianic Jew” has opened.
“A lot of Israelis believe in Christianity, and the ‘Jews for Jesus’ types blanket the country,” says Ciss. A few years ago, he and Rabbi Skobac were on a speaking tour of Israel, and asked how many in one audience knew someone who is Jewish, but believes in Jesus. About a third of them raised their hands. “A shocking testament to the missionary problem,” says Ciss.
This is compared to his empirical surveys in Canada and the United States, where he sees one-tenth, and a quarter, respectively, of the audience raise their hands to his question. One report says that about three-quarters of the new converts are Israeli or Russian.
“There is a spiritual weakness in that respect. They are susceptible,” says Rabbi Skobac. “Outreach is needed not to protest the missionary’s existence. But we want to try, lovingly, to help them realize that while we are in vehement opposition to what they’re [the missionaries are] preaching, we desire dialog to help them [Jews who have converted to Christianity] see the reality of the path they’ve chosen, and re-evaluate their Jewish commitment and bring their soul back to Judaism.”
The Toronto branch of Jews for Judaism will present its flagship program, a free “counter-missionary survival seminar,” over six consecutive weeks, starting Jan. 16, at Congregation Shaarei Tzedec on Markham Street in downtown Toronto. The program is designed to point out the reasons why Judaism does not accept Jesus.
This is especially pertinent today, as many use the Internet to find Jewish answers, says Ciss, and it is almost impossible to search for a Jewish topic without getting a number of responses from Christian groups.
“Ultimately, you’re going to get ‘Hebrew Christian’ groups that will come up in some kind of search. These are spiritual predators. A lot of these groups have fluency in Hebrew and Judaism,” says Ciss. Continuing to respond to these threats, Jews for Judaism is revamping their Internet home in 2008, www.jewsforjudaism.org.
What he is most proud of over 18 years is hearing how missionaries complain how difficult it is to get their message out, due to Jews for Judaism’s activity. “It’s because of the education we’ve been inculcating in our community,” says Ciss.
“The preventative work we do makes us the pre-eminent group that works to stop the message of Christian missionaries and the misinformation that they are disseminating.”