Every Friday night at their home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Melissa Moskowitz and her husband Jhan host a Shabbat dinner that is not just for Jews. Before the meal, friends sit chatting on couches, and dinner begins with blessings over the challah and wine. After the guests finish eating, Jhan Moskowitz—who was raised Orthodox—gives a short sermon on the Torah portion.
Then he praises Jesus.
One of about 150 thousand Jews for Jesus worldwide, Jhan Moskowitz is the organization’s North American director, overseeing 10 branches in the United States and Canada. Like the rest of those who identify with Jews for Jesus, called “believers,” he sees no contradiction in teaching Torah while invoking Jesus’s name.
Melissa Moskowitz also works for the organization as a youth minister in Brooklyn. There are 10 such youth ministers nationwide, and one of their main tasks is to reach out—or “witness”—to students on college campuses. Most of this witnessing occurs in casual, personal settings such as meals, group meetings or individual counseling sessions.
Unlike the staff members of Hillel or Chabad, however, these youth ministers are not on campus full-time, nor does the organization register official student groups. Instead, Jews for Jesus ministers focus their efforts on person-by-person outreach and on serving students who are already believers. Melissa Moskowitz said that being at college makes students more likely to inquire about Jews for Jesus.
“I think that’s the nature of being a student,” she said. “You are learning. With that comes perhaps the willingness of people to consider the dimension of spirituality in their lives.”
Jews for Jesus has little significant presence on college campuses in New York. Active at a number of the city’s smaller schools, the organization focuses its activity in the city at Brooklyn College. BC is almost a third Jewish, with a large Orthodox population. Few of the students there are Jews for Jesus.
Melissa Moskowitz noted that some Manhattan campuses may not be as receptive to the message of Jews for Jesus because of their location or the attitudes of their students.
“Columbia [University] is in the middle of a more ethnically mixed, more liberal type of atmosphere,” she said, adding that at Columbia, students “are also a bit more intellectual and so they’re not going to be as angry about Jesus, but they’re also not going to be as easy to engage in conversation.”
In addition to individual meetings with students, Melissa Moskowitz staffs an informational table during BC’s Welcome Week and seeks to engage students while they eat in the school cafeteria. Jeremiah Zaretsky, who also witnesses at BC for Jews for Jesus, said that the group encounters opposition from passersby.
“People snicker and maybe make a comment,” Zaretsky said. “I was there yesterday and two people were walking by and one friend took the pamphlet. She said, ‘You can’t be Jewish and believe in Jesus.’” Recently, when an elderly man approached Zaretsky and started to complain, “campus security had to come and just sort of encourage him to just keep on walking.”
Joshua Sofaer, the New York City director of Jews for Jesus, said that the most vehement opposition to the organization comes from religious Jews.
“If a student is, let’s say from a religious Jewish or an observant Jewish standpoint, they will have objections to Jews for Jesus on a variety of levels,” said Sofaer, who attended BC in the mid-1990s. “Everything from whether or not we qualify to really be called Jews [to] whether or not our belief system is valid.”
But Arielle Rothbard, a believer who goes to school at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, said that her college classmates have been more tolerant toward and curious about her beliefs than the people with whom she attended high school in New Jersey.
“Even non-Jewish students have asked me more just about my belief in Jesus,” she said. “There have been students in my classes who have asked me, ‘What does it mean that you’re a Jewish person, but then [have] this whole Jesus thing?’”
Jews for Jesus presents itself to Jewish students as an alternative to mainstream Jewish denominations, not as a different religion seeking converts. As such, its ministers find themselves in a strange place when relating to other religious groups on campus. Like most mainstream Jewish organizations, Hillel at Brooklyn College treats Jews for Jesus as an evangelizing Christian sect and opposes the group’s activities on campus.
But Marcos Askenazi, the Hillel’s community-in-action coordinator, said that Jews for Jesus ministers have almost never crossed paths with Hillel staff.
“I have never seen a table from them. I have never seen any stand from them. We don’t really feel them as such a presence,” he said. “None of our students have ever said anything. I know that they’re there, but they don’t stir up any controversy. They never really push that hard. They’re not really that good at publicizing.”
Dina Kupfer, a Jewish graduate student at BC who attended nearby Touro College as an undergraduate, said that Jews for Jesus ministers have never approached her or any of her friends. She noted, however, that although Jews for Jesus has little campus presence, its ministers have “been stepping up their activism in the area” around the school.
According to Jews for Judaism, an organization that runs programs to educate and caution Jews regarding missionary activity, Jews for Jesus has become less active during the past decade. Instead, similar outreach toward Jews has come more from other Messianic Jewish organizations posing as mainstream Jewish groups.
“What we have seen change drastically is that it’s not the in-your-face groups that are going to be successful, but the ones behind the scenes,” said Ruth Guggenheim, the director of Jews for Judaism. “Peppering all this info in Jewish garb is the mode right now. Jews for Jesus doesn’t need to be as aggressive as it used to be because their colleagues are stepping up to the plate.”
Askenazi added that the Hillel has been too busy dealing with anti-Israel activity on campus—what Askenazi refers to as “the new Palestinian club”—to worry about Jews for Jesus.
Jews for Jesus ministers have, however, faced what they see as unfair discrimination from the college’s staff itself—if not from BC’s student organizations.
“We had the Jews for Jesus music group there about a month ago,” Zaretsky said. “They wanted to come on campus and just play some music in the common grounds where everyone’s allowed, and the campus security did prevent them from coming on campus.”
Ignored or opposed by campus Jewish organizations, Jews for Jesus has partnered instead with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship—an umbrella Christian group—to present their message. Jews for Jesus sponsors events and debates with InterVarsity. Brunel Bienvenu—a BC InterVarsity staff member—mentioned in an e-mail to New Voices that, when first meeting with Jews for Jesus, InterVarsity staff “knew that we shared common interests and beliefs and discussed ways in which we could partner to engage the community with the message of Jesus Christ.”
The irony of working with a Christian group to spread a purportedly Jewish message is not lost on Jews for Jesus. Many of the group’s believers came to “find” Christ after experiencing a Christian-influenced revelation. Sofaer began to believe in Jesus after talking with a group of Christians in New Zealand. He acknowledges that, “from a purely theological standpoint, what we believe, there’s not a difference” between Jews for Jesus and Christians.
Such open associations with Christian groups would seemingly put Jews for Jesus even further beyond the pale of mainstream Judaism. Guggenheim, however, sees a bright side to the collaboration between InterVarsity and Jews for Jesus.
“Jews for Jesus is upfront with who they are,” she said. “They’re there. If you’re not interested, stay away.”
Carly Silver is a junior at Barnard College majoring in religion. She has been writing for New Voices since 2009.