Heard the one about the Rabbi, the Christian missionary, and the Russian-language newspaper? A Kings County court may have to soon, as the National Council of Young Israel, founded in 1912 to make Orthodox Judaism user-friendly, is attempting to bring a trademark-infringement suit against Chosen People Ministries, founded in 1894 to make Judaism . . . Christian.
The lawsuit -- filed after an ad for Chosen People's unorthodox Rosh Hashanah services appeared in the Brooklyn newspaper Russkaya Reklama bearing Young Israel's own distinctive logo -- is only the latest in a series of scuffles between New York City Jewish groups and Christian missionary organizations intent on convincing Jews that they can embrace Jesus without forsaking their religion. According to Dr. Philip Abramowitz, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council's Task Force on Missionaries and Cults, his group has had its busiest year ever, working in parks, subway stations, and nursing homes to counter the missionaries' citywide activities. " 'Jews for Jesus' is oxymoronic," says Abramowitz. "There's no such thing as a kosher pig!"
The battle has revved up considerably with the approaching millennium, because the conversion of the Jews is integral to certain apocalyptic scenarios. In September, Chosen People Ministries and a group of Southern Baptists hosted a Manhattan conference, attended by nearly 300 people, that focused on the importance of converting a whole lot of Jews, and soon -- the Book of Revelation mentions 144,000, though there are different views among messianists of exactly what that number signifies. To meet the demand, so to speak, CPM president Mitch Glaser estimates that his staff has grown by 25 percent since January; and Avi Snyder, head of Jews for Jesus's New York City operations, guesses that his group has almost quadrupled its advertising spending over that same period.
While the missionaries prefer to downplay their differences with organized Judaism, the skirmishing has taken a nasty turn. Abramowitz believes that it was a Jew for Jesus who attacked two of his counter-leafleteers over the summer, sending one to the hospital. And Glaser says that his unusual High Holiday service in a Bay Ridge church -- the one that triggered the new lawsuit -- nearly turned into a riot. Police reports confirm that protesters opposing the service emptied containers of ammonia and a canvas sack filled with live rodents, shouting, "Don't believe any of this!" But despite it all (and despite that pesky Apocalypse looming on the horizon), Glaser remains optimistic. "We have a common bond," he insists, "whether we believe in Jesus or not."