MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Thursday, February 28th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Messianic Jewish congregations.
There are roughly 300 such congregations in the United States. These are groups led by Jewish rabbis that observe many traditional Jewish customs.
But there’s one stark difference between them and their orthodox Jewish neighbors: Messianic Jews believe Jesus is the messiah.
BASHAM: The American Messianic Jewish movement began in earnest in the 1970s. The idea was simple: that Jewish people can believe in Jesus –– and still retain their Jewishness.
But attracting Jewish people to the faith can be challenging. In America, the majority of Messianic Jewish Congregations are populated not by ethnically Jewish believers. They’re actually filled with Gentiles.
WORLD Radio’s Maria Baer visited one such congregation near Columbus, Ohio, to find out why.
MARIA BAER, REPORTER. It’s a fair bet that most of the 120 regular attendees at Beth Messiah Messianic Congregation in New Albany, Ohio, didn’t grow up speaking Hebrew.
WORSHIP AND SHEMA: [Hebrew worship song]
But here they are, gathered on a snowy Saturday. It’s Shabbat, after all—singing together in the ancient language. “Adonai Adoneinu, ma adir simcha, bechol ha’aretz.” “Oh Lord, Our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth”— the eighth Psalm.
Beth Messiah is by all outward appearances a traditional Jewish synagogue. There are stained glass windows and an ornately carved ark where the Torah is kept. But there’s a reason Beth Messiah’s congregants come here instead of the orthodox synagogue just down the street. The rabbi at Beth Messiah teaches that Jesus is Lord. The congregation calls Him by his traditional Hebrew name: Yeshua.
WORSHIP AND SHEMA: [Yeshua…Yeshua…]
Rabbi Howard Silverman is the shepherd of this flock. As a Messianic Jew, Howard doesn’t believe that Jewish people are still bound by Old Testament law. But He says he still keeps many of those customs to express his set-apartness. He’s made that calling clear to fellow Jews in his congregation, and there’s a small number of men wearing yarmulkes this Saturday morning. But there are more who are not.
There’s a reason for that, too. Howard says that out of Beth Messiah’s 120 congregants, only about two-dozen are ethnically Jewish.
SILVERMAN: We always like to say, in our leadership meetings or our congregational meetings, it’s not that we have too many people who are not Jewish, we don’t have enough people that are Jewish.
The ratio doesn’t bother Howard. He says it’s a testimony to Beth Messiah’s inclusiveness. But the statistics here line up with those of most other American Messianic congregations—majority Gentile.
Howard is thrilled that his Gentile congregants feel just as valued as Jewish members. But he says each group retains its unique identity. He asks the Gentiles not to wear the tallit, for example. That’s the white and blue Jewish prayer shawl. And when non-Jewish children turn 13, their coming-of-age ceremonies are not the traditional bar and bat mitzvahs.
SILVERMAN: So that the kids and adults who are not Jewish are not trying to be Jewish, are not pretending to be Jewish, but part of our testimony is the unity of Jew and Gentile, and the blessing of the other, and you can only do that if you maintain your own identity.
For Howard, his Jewish identity is one he’s held close all his life. He still keeps Kosher, reads prayers in Hebrew, and turns east toward Jerusalem to recite the Shema, or Deuteronomy 6. Those practices remain very important to him.
SILVERMAN: However, we believe that God has called us – we’re Jewish people, so the calling on Israel in the Bible is still the calling on Jewish people, and so we’re called to be a light to the nations and we’re called to be a distinct people.
Howard says it would be offensive if his Gentile congregants tried to co-opt a Jewish identity. But he says that’s not what’s happening here. He says many non-Jewish believers are attracted to Messianic congregations because they may harbor a zeal for the state of Israel, for example. He says others come because God has put a burden on their hearts for the salvation of the Jewish people; or because they want to better understand the Jewish roots of the Christian faith.
That is what attracted Sylvia Rollins to Beth Messiah.
ROLLINS: I really had an interest in that time to learn about how everything’s connected. You know, what is Passover, and how does that connect to Messiah, and everything like that.
Rollins is a missionary and says she also felt God’s call to serve the Jewish people. She says her identity as a Gentile is not a problem.
ROLLINS: Everybody’s accepted. In fact, Howard will encourage – you know, Gentiles were created Gentiles for a reason. You never feel like a second-class citizen, there’s a purpose for both.
Henri Goulet, another Gentile worshipper at Beth Messiah, has similar things to say. He came to the Messianic movement after sensing mainstream Protestants had lost the connection to Christianity’s Jewish roots.
GOULET: The Hebrew professor was exegeting on Deuteronomy 6:5 – you shall love the Lord your God with the whole of your heart, with the whole of your being and with the whole of your muchness’ and the professor said this, of course, is the core of the Hebrew scriptures.” And I thought, why don’t I know this?”
Goulet has been a member and now a leader at Beth Messiah for several years. Like Rollins, Goulet said being a Gentile does not make him feel “less than.”
GOULET: You know, really, what this is all about is just being in God’s history. ”Rejoice, O nations, with His people,” so that the world could say “Oh look, the new creation has begun.” Nations are with His people side by side, getting along and we have the privilege then of representing this unity.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Maria Baer, reporting from New Albany, Ohio.