Jewish Journal Submission for October 2015

“Messianic In the Hood”

Last December as our Jewish Community kindled the eight lights of Chanukkah, new neighbors in the hood set ablaze their many chanukiyot, and likewise celebrated the miracle of our ancient victory over religious oppression. As we sang the few “secular” songs composed in its honor, chanted the blessings and recited in the synagogue the one liturgical poem “for the miracles wrought in the days of our ancestors,” our new neighbors did likewise. They read prayers in Hebrew, and in their Christian Messianic Church. Hephsek (pause). In their church?

Not uncommon, many churches do recall the miracle of Chanukkah as prelude to a major seasonal celebration of their faith group; our wider Jewish-community, too, has joined with that of the Catholic See to commemorate the link to free worship in public celebration in one form or another in the spirit of ecumenism and friendship.

But not many celebrate the Jewish ritual calendar with more Jewish fervor and appearance than the Baruch Hashem Messianic Christian Church on Huebner Road, 700 feet from my former congregation, Agudas Achim.  In negotiation to purchase the St. Andrew Lutheran Church, the same building our Congregation Israel of San Antonio elevated to Judaism from 2006-2012, BHMCC celebrates their well-attended religious services on a daily basis, Shabbat and Festivals; observes the Jewish ritual calendar in a manner similar to many synagogues. Worshippers there don tallit and kippah, each sings Shalom Alechem, some read from the Torah in Hebrew with the selections projected on the same screens we used, and offer praise to Hashem, the God of Israel, and to Jesus.

Our family moved to San Antonio fifteen years ago from Los Angeles. Here, it has been a privilege to serve as Hazzan and Ritual Leader for three different Jewish congregations. Augmenting the privilege was to be empaneled for ten years 2000-2010, on the Oblate School of Theology “Evenings of World Faith-The Three Abrahamic Religions” – evenings which shared perspectives on intimate subjects unique to one group or another. Not without some controversy, and also wide acceptance, the evenings presented capsule views on preselected topics by the clergy representatives—and the audience interest was intense. Often, the Messianic Christian community joined the audience, especially when a view of Jesus was discussed and opined of the panel members—especially the Jewish one.

In fact, the messianic community is present in great numbers at Passover Seders at many Jewish congregations, at Shabbat worship and even the High Holy Days. I am informed that all of the Jewish congregations in San Antonio, to one degree or another, have welcomed members of that Christian community warmly and cordially. And in hindsight, with trepidation.

Why are they in attendance in our schules and centers? Are they learning about the Jewish roots of their Christian belief?  Perhaps. Taking note on how Jewish ritual is performed, its choreography and music? Yes. Converting Jews?

Indeed, one man named Duane repeatedly asked me early on for a recording of the Shabbat service at Agudas; eventually for the congregation we created Shirenu Ut’filatenu –a 5 compact disc learning series for Agudas Achim in 2001. I had preserved all the tunes my predecessor Cantor Lutman had inculcated, and added some treasures learned in Los Angeles and recorded them with accompaniments, choral forces and even an orchestra. Perhaps Duane wanted to learn the “new top -ten?”

Duane was a Messianic Christian, I later learned.

My first yontiff at Agudas Achim in 2000 was memorable and treasured for the warmth and reception our family received by our new community. This was enhanced by the presence of a Rabbi with whom I worked in my first full-time assignment in Los Angeles (at the age of 18) and invited to join me for those sacred rites.  As Rabbi Tomsky and I processed to the music of our choir the evening of Rosh Hashanah, I noticed a beautifully quaffed young woman in white silk dress and large matching silk hat, seated on the aisle next to a Chassidic-looking fully-bearded gentleman with shtreimel (hat) and long black kapote complete with gartel. Instantly I had two simultaneous thoughts: what a wonderful, ecumenical congregation to welcome all to the services, and then, wait a minute! They are sitting together in a conservative synagogue; something “is!”

I was informed later that the same couple often guested themselves at services there and elsewhere, dressed in a unique costume- well before Purim. “Messianic,” I was informed.

Early this summer, I received nine phone calls from members of our community when they learned that the Messianic Christians, the Baruch Hashem Messianic Congregation were now “close” and in the neighborhood.  I could write “nearly a dozen” or “many” to emphasize the point that nearly a Minyan of calls came in to my office. Those inquiring asked if “we” were now affiliated with the Messianic congregation, if we still used the building in concert with them, and other questions that candidly began as judgments and criticism before the facts were told.  Our Federation had, in years past, a task force teaching Jews how to encounter the missionary Christian. One of our Agudas members headed this effort.  Were we successful?

Congregation Israel of San Antonio had not rented the space since 2012. So, I decided to pay the pastor a visit earlier this summer while on my Sabbatical.

Garcia Roy, a gentle, soft spoken man with elegant demeanor greeted me in the company of a mutual friend. He is well known by several members of the Jewish community in positions of leadership. His temporary office at St. Andrew reminded me of that occupied by rabbis in my past: cluttered with papers, sefarim, an ark and scrolls of the Torah- beautifully adorned. A mezuzah beckons on the door post. A Cross glimmers in the afternoon light. His congregants are Christians from birth, some former Jews and those who believe they are completed by praying as both.

We did not debate theology or style; we spoke in Hebrew; and we discussed Marat ayin-the concept that some things are not seemingly kosher in first light.

No, I did not recognize his rabbinic title or s’micha, or his “Jewish” legitimacy. His sincerity and unpretentious manner evidenced a confidence of self as we exchanged and evaluated my concerns- given what I had heard and witnessed for myself in past years.  I asked him directly “Is one of your goals to missionize the Jewish community?” No. “Do you consider yourself a Hebrew Christian?” No. “Do you realize that there is heartburn in some circles that you have moved in?” Yes. “Why do you think that is?”

Pastor Roy offered, “Perhaps our worship resembles yours (I attended your services here, at Chai and Agudas).  Our focus on is how Jesus might have prayed as a Jew. He is our Messiah. We do what he did, we think; we want to know and celebrate our Hebrew roots.”

I shared with him “well, we have a name for people like you: Christian.” We smiled.

My unsolicited and unofficial advice to him was that he be encouraged to “brand” the new center as a Messianic Christian Church, not as a synagogue or temple or, to the extent possible, and try to dissuade any from calling it either one.

His Jewish practices are surely not copyrighted patrimony of our faith—we welcome all most cordially to our spiritual homes. And absent any overt solicitations, or “misbehaviors” no one is asked to leave.  If they like what we “do” they have no need of license to borrow it. In fact, lots of Jewish ritual was borrowed and made, m’kadesh-Jewishly holy” from the lands and peoples amongst whom we were dispersed.

My callers, I informed him, were adamant that something be done about this new neighbor; some were worried, some thought CISA had become a church. Our smiles broadened. “Can you imagine the congregation we must have!? What 900 families, overnight?” Bigger smiles.

Imagine when Jews move to a new location, only rarely does the real estate decline.

Why do some seek redress for those “copying” our ritual and costume? Admittedly, it is strange to hear “Sh’ma  Israel” and “our God is an awesome God” in tandem chorus. Are some confused that this borrowing will lead to defection?  Perhaps, and with good reason.

In my view, the person most connected and firm in their Jewishness on a daily basis, the person who practices and learns, the one who can discern that Tikkun Olam begins with the self, and only then can be extended to others, need not worry about the new Northside neighbors.  Noting the obvious concerns, perhaps as participatory and engaged Jews, ever infusing our worship with freshness and vigor, ready to explain and demonstrate the excellence of Judaism with knowledge to our own, and requiring much of ourselves, so-called ritual plagiarism is of naught in the long view. Neglect and ignorance led to the diaspora, we are taught; a new nationalism and intensity, muscle and faith brought us home.

We might well need to reexamine gimmickry and fluff,  the new “relational” piety which seemingly equates interpersonal camaraderie with “God and Thou,” slogan and popular branding with substance,  and the unique elegance culled from 2500 years of tradition to make Jews better Jews. “Except the Lord build the House; they who build it labor in vain.”

To be sure our community has engaged many souls, and many are generational in their loyalty to its many expressions regardless of “denomination.”

How then the concern when a Christian group takes the best of what we offer, and makes it their own?  We have concluded the season of renewals and admonition, celebration and community. The hardest part going forward is making “our own” live within, each day as the year progresses into the next.

It is good for us; it is good for the hood.

Hazzan David Silverstein, JD
Congregation Israel of San Antonio
A Conservative/Covenantal Jewish Congregation in Prayer and Practice