Julius Ciss has always considered himself Jewish, even during the five years in the late 1970s when he believed in Jesus. Ciss, the founder and executive director of Jews for Judaism, said that Messianic Jewish missionaries tailored their brand of Christianity to be similar to traditional Judaism, so that it would be familiar and comforting to their potential converts – Jewish people who do not feel fulfilled in their spiritual lives.
When Ciss went to Messianic Jewish services, he would see people wearing kippot and tallitot, and sometimes there would be an Aron Kodesh with a Torah scroll inside. All the Christian names and terms were Hebraicized: Jesus became Yehoshua, Mary became Miriam, the New Testament became Brit Hadasha (meaning “New Covenant”) and so on.
“This can make a Jewish person feel comfortable and not have the guilt that one would assume a Jew would have in being open to the message of Christianity,” said Ciss, who had earlier rejected more overt Christian messaging. “So my strong identity as a Jew, even though I didn’t understand much about it, was the only reason that I went to this Hebrew Christian group.
A group of Jewish activists eventually got through to Ciss and, in 1980, he left the Messianic Jewish movement. He spent the better part of the ’80s doing counter-missionary work on his own. Then, in 1989, he started Jews for Judaism in Toronto, after an American organization with the same name reached out to him.
Over the past three decades, Jews for Judaism, which will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in November, has worked with countless Messianic Jews, teaching them about the true Jewish faith. The organization also works with Jewish people who practice Eastern religions, struggle with intermarriage or feel apathetic about their Judaism. It devotes a large portion of its resources to educational programs designed to show Jews that Messianic Judaism is really just Christianity in disguise.
“Through our educational program, what we hope to do is inoculate the Jewish community against the threat of missionaries and possibly cults … so that Jewish people will be a little bit more cautious when they see the red flags of these groups and also have a stronger understanding of Judaism,” said Ciss.
He said there are an estimated 350,000 to 500,000 Jews around the world who have fallen for Messianic Judaism, and ideally Jews for Judaism would like to reach all of them. But in practice, once a Jewish person begins to feel comfortable in a Messianic Jewish community, it can be very difficult to reach them. That’s why he believes that preventive measures are necessary.
That’s also why the first step to reintegrating these Jews isn’t teaching them about real Judaism, said Rabbi Michael Skobac, the organization’s director of education. The first step is establishing trust.
“When it comes to Jews who are involved with Christianity, they are basically told not to speak with us. They are told that we are Satan, we’re the devil, we’re the Antichrist,” said Rabbi Skobac. “Even if they’re not told that, they’re thrilled with what they’re doing. They’re happy. They didn’t see anything in Judaism that was compelling. Now they have a rich, vibrant spiritual life … why should they sabotage what’s making them so happy?”
Instead of lecturing closed-off Messianic Jews about Judaism, Rabbi Skobac said the goal is to make them curious about Judaism.
“A lot of the work is basically breaking that hard ground and trying to open someone up to be willing to even engage with us. So once that happens, it’s pretty easy. Because we believe that the case for Judaism is incredibly strong, and that the foundations of the Christian faith are not that strong,” said Rabbi Skobac.
On March 31, the organization will hold its 25th Annual Cavalcade of Stars charity event at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto. Started by Jerry and Sandy Genesove as a small concert in 1995, the annual event has become a staple of Jews for Judaism’s fundraising, earning around $50,000 last year. The event features comedy and musical acts, and a special honouree.
For more information, call 416-789-0020.