Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office, first heard about messianic Jew Sid Roth’s book, “They Thought for Themselves,” when he received a call from this newspaper.
“Josh Lipowsky called after hearing from a reader who received the book,” said Neuer. “Over the next several weeks, I began to get calls – like lights on a map going off from all different parts of the state.”
“In every case, people were [both] taken aback that they received it directly and offended by the material,” he said, describing “what appears to be a fairly wide campaign to target Jews for so-called messianic organizations.”
The book profiles 10 Jews – from Holocaust survivors to media executives – who, writes Roth on his Website, “defied the status quo and thought for themselves,” finding Jesus and “changing their lives for the better.” Video testimonials from these individuals appear on the Website as well.
With calls coming from “concerned members of the Jewish community, including rabbis … most of the concern has focused on the direct targeting of individuals,” said Neuer.
According to a March 11 article on the Website matsav.com, many residents in Lakewood – which has a large Orthodox community – “were astonished” to find the book, self-described as a “gift,” in their mailbox. While many disposed of it immediately, according to the article, “[s]everal Lakewood residents related to [the Website] that because the book appeared harmless, they did not immediately realize its content and aim and did not immediately dispose of it.”
Indeed, said Neuer, he is not as worried about those who call him as about those who do not realize that the book is a “fraud.”
“Most thinking people will be able to recognize the source of the book [and Roth’s] attempt to proselytize and to deceive Jews into thinking that this is an extension of Judaism,” said Neuer. “The people who call ADL already recognize the book for what it is. I’m more concerned about those who take it seriously.”
For the most part, said Neuer, people have been calling his office looking for guidance, questioning how their names came to appear on Roth’s list and if they can request that their names be removed. According to Roth’s Website, he acquired the names from “list brokers and supporters.”
The ADL is preparing a memo for rabbis and federations addressing the issue, said Neuer, noting that, technically, Roth’s methods do not constitute “legal fraud,” since selling mailing lists is a common policy in direct marketing. He added, however, that Roth’s activities constitute “religious fraud.”
Roth is a former account executive for Merrill Lynch who, by his own account, became disenchanted with Judaism in 1972. Raised in a traditional Jewish home, in 1977 he started a ministry called Messianic Vision as well as a nationally syndicated radio program with the same name. He also hosts a television program called “It’s Supernatural.”
“Roth says that he was inspired to write the book because of a dream,” said Neuer, adding that both “the book and the campaign are incredibly offensive. Generally speaking, the very premise of Roth’s religious underpinnings is that Jews and Judaism are incomplete, and this campaign to convert Jews away from their faith [is] an affront and disrespectful to Judaism’s teachings.”
Teaneck resident Eli Rosenfeld, chief executive officer of Joseph Jacobs advertising agency received the book at home about four weeks ago.
“It was before Purim,” said Rosenfeld. “It was in a plain white envelope and my wife brought it in.”
Rosenfeld, who notified The Jewish Standard, said, “I thumbed through it and realized that something was off. My wife asked if I had ordered it. I hadn’t.”
Noting that he is not angry but simply concerned, Rosenfeld said that “there are always people who will read it not knowing what it is.”
He pointed out that messianic Judaism is rejected both by Jews and Christians.
“It’s a dangerous idea, attempting to confuse people and not be forthright. It’s different from the problem of Christian groups proselytizing [directly] and asking Jews to convert. This is done in an underhanded manner [saying] you can remain Jewish and still believe in Jesus. That is why it is so troublesome.”
Rosenfeld said he was also troubled that someone was willing to spend the sum required to print and distribute so many copies of the book.
“When you see that type of resource, you get scared about their next step to target our community,” he said, recalling an incident, 10 years ago, when his company was “duped” into a media buy for a movie that turned out to be a messianic Jewish film.
Under the headline “Missionaries dupe Jewish newspapers across country,” a Jewish Telegraphic agency story at the time reported that 80 American Jewish newspapers ended up printing a “fairly innocuous” ad for a film called “The Rabbi,” showing a man in a yarmulke praying at the Western Wall. What the ad – which ran in The Jewish Standard but not in its sister publication, the Jewish Community News – did not say was that the film was about “a self-described ‘Messianic Jew’ who gradually convinces his Orthodox family that he did not abandon Judaism when he took ‘Yeshua’ into his heart.”
While Roth calls his book “an offer of love, it is really a prescription for intolerance,” said the ADL’s Neuer. And while it is difficult to monitor the effects of such a book, he added, “at least in some cases it works” – especially among more vulnerable groups such as “the young, elderly, or spiritually vulnerable. It deliberately mixes religious symbols and distorts the essential meaning of [the two] religions.”
“It’s fraud,” said Neuer, “the deliberate blurring of lines between religions. He’s a snake oil salesman. The introductory video on his Website comes across as an infomercial – it treats religion like a hand blender.”