An Interview with Ruth Guggenheim, Executive Director Jews for Judaism
Ruth Guggenheim serves as the executive director for Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary organization active on college campuses and in the wider Jewish community
AS: Can you tell us a little about the history and mission of Jews for Judaism?
RG: Jews for Judaism was founded 30 years ago and began predominantly as a response to the growing Hebrew Christian movement and missionary groups specifically targeted at Jews. Nowadays both Jews and non-Jews usually use the term Messianic Jews to describe these groups, but we prefer to use the term Hebrew Christian to indicate that while these people may have been born Jews, they are Christian in their belief system. To give them the title “Messianic Jews” gives credence to their claim that they are an identifiable arm within the Jewish community.
While Jews for Judaism started in a reactive mode to these spiritual predators, over the years, we’ve also become more proactive, empowering Jews to know more about what the Jewish faith system is. Most Jews who are receptive to missionizing are really searching for something they perceive to be missing in the Jewish faith system.
Jews for Judaism focuses on researching and monitoring of evangelist groups targeting Jews. We bring this information to larger community, and additionally work on a one-on one basis with individuals looking for a relationship with God who have become caught up in these movements. We also work on educational programs for high school students, youth groups and college campuses. Our office in Baltimore has begun working on an exciting new by kids for kids leadership project, the LEAP, Leadership Empowerment and Achievement project, aimed at harnessing the power of social media as a venue where kids can share their passion for Judaism with other kids.
AS: Do you do most of your work on College Campuses?
RG: We really work both on and beyond college campuses. When missionary groups come in and target Jews in a specific community, we will work with the community’s federation to help raise awareness of these groups and their tactics. For example, Tom Cantor’s group, Restoration Israel, recently recruited volunteers dressed like Orthodox Jews to visit homes, and ask residents questions about their Judaism and their relationship with Israel. Currently, the Chosen People ministry, one of the largest and most well- funded Hebrew Chrisitian groups in world, is currently opening an outreach center in the heart of Flatbush. If you follow what they’ve done over the past years, they’ve now become confident about reaching even Orthodox Jews and Hasidic Jews, and are designing their center in Flatbush to look like any other kiruv organization, with a Yeshivah and Beit Midrash. This is the type of activity these organizations are now involved in. We also are active on college campuses. For example, around Chanukkah time, a husband and wife Hebrew Christian couple came to the University of Maryland, and began handing out latkes and sufganiyot to Jewish students, aiming to form connections with them. We were able to alert the staff at Hillel and other Jewish organizations on campus so that they could make their students aware of what was going on, and could contact interfaith organizations to have these type of deceptive activities condemned.
AS: What are some common missionary claims or tactics, and how do you try to refute them?
RG: Deception. They are notorious for deception. They are extremely confident in their capacity to deceive the average Jew. We need to do our part and raise awareness among the Jewish community that not everything you hear is authentic Judaism. To be frank, these Hebrew Christian groups are very well organized on social media and with their friendship evangelism campaigns, and we can’t keep up.
AS: What would you say to people who say that groups like Jews for Jesus have a right to put their ideas out there, and people’s decisions to join them is simply a matter of individual choice?
RG: Pluralism has its place in our society. However, deception never has a place. Judaism and Christianity are two separate faiths. Christianity very consciously broke off from Judaism and developed separate traditions and theology. Everyone would have to accept the fact that Christianity evolved, developing the belief that after Jesus they are no longer bound by the mitsvot and the so-called Old Testament. To all of a sudden begin to engage in them again two thousand years later is deception. Pluralism has its place, but you cannot lie to other people.
AS: How big of a problem are missionary groups as opposed to assimilation?
RG: It goes hand in glove with assimilation. The less engaged a Jew is, the more vulnerable he is to any type of outreach. At all points of our lives, we are all looking for different things, we are all “searchers”. The human condition dictates that we have to have something to hold on to, and many of us find that through a relationship with God. If someone gives us that feeling, and acts like a Jewish role model, that is very powerful. Hebrew Christians will explain that they grew up Jewish, but didn’t feel the spirituality, didn’t feel anything in shul on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, until they found Yeshua. When people are not engaged Jewishly, anyone can become a target for missionary. Statistically speaking, over the past 25 years, approximately 350, 000 Jewishly born Americans have chosen to engage in Christianity in some form. Some say the numbers should be closer to 500, 000. We tend to believe the numbers are on the lower end, and one of the reasons we are hesitant with the numbers is that often you have people calling themselves Hebrew Christians who are not in any way shape or form Jewish. For example, one young lady I am working with is going through a Jewish conversion. Her father was born Jewish and her mother was not, but she and her three siblings were all raised to call themselves “Messianic Jews”, even though halakhically they were not Jews at all.
AS: Going to school at Yeshiva University, students are mostly unaffected by missionaries directly. What do you see as our role in interacting with missionary groups?
RG: As people who have a very strong Jewish education and background, you owe it to klal yisrael to go out, and reach out to your fellow Jews, to be an or la-goyim. Sometimes we build our own barriers, to our detriment, and we are never really giving out or projecting to other people. Young people often become disillusioned, because of these unnecessary barriers. Most Hebrew Christians we work with, the average people we meet are truly just individuals looking for meaning. The more you can go out and engage other Jews with your knowledge, the better chance we have to keep Jews Jewish.