Evangelical Christians have a record of showing support for Israel, but many Jews question their motives.
To promote better communication and understanding, the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey has arranged a series of meetings between some of its members and representatives of an area evangelical church.
The relationship between JCRC and the evangelical community, however, is nothing new. The Rev. Bill Fritzky from In My Father’s House in Wayne has led several groups from Christians United For Israel on JCRC-sponsored buses to pro-Israel rallies in New York in recent years.
“They’ve been very supportive of us with all kinds of Israel matters,” said Joy Kurland, director of the Regional CRC, which is an agency of UJA-NNJ, UJC of Metrowest, and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.
About a year ago, members of the JCRC created a PowerPoint presentation, Hope For Peace, to create a better understanding of Israel for non-Jewish audiences. They took it to In My Father’s House, and that led to what Kurland called a “desire on the part of the evangelical clergy to foster greater relationships with the Jewish community.”
The result was a four-month study group of JCRC members and evangelicals, which began in January.
“A lot of people approach the evangelical community with skepticism,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of Temple Emeth in Teaneck and vice chair of the JCRC’s intergroup relations committee. “You can’t tell if your skepticism is founded or not until you engage in dialogue. That’s the reason I found this so rewarding.”
Sirbu leads the eight-member delegation from the JCRC, while the Rev. John Diomede of the House of Bread in Park Ridge leads the eight-member evangelical delegation.
“We’re approaching this as an opportunity to really learn from one another,” Sirbu said. “We know we have a really strong common bond in our love for Israel. We haven’t explored the details, and we’re bound to find some differences in why we love Israel.”
The House of Bread, also known as Beth-Lehem, is not a messianic Jewish congregation, Diomede said, but its congregants do believe their heritage comes from the Tanach and Israel. As a result, Diomede said, the church is “Jewish friendly” and “Israel friendly.”
“The JCRC invited us because they wanted to know why we were Israel friendly,” he said. “These sessions became a dialogue that helped them understand why.”
The sessions, Sirbu emphasized, are about building trust and understanding, which is why they are not open to the public. How participants will funnel what they have learned about each other to the wider community has not yet been discussed, but Sirbu appeared open to continuing cooperation beyond the four sessions.
The first session focused on a part of the Bible Jews and evangelicals share: the Ten Commandments. After discussing how each side viewed them, the groups debated whether they should be displayed publicly. Sirbu argued they should not be, while Diomede took the pro side.
“The point was not for either one to win but to hear the differences in how we perceive the Ten Commandments, and, second of all, how we perceive the First Amendment,” Sirbu said. “If we’re going to learn from each other as people in such a diverse country, it’s important for us to not only study each other’s interpretations of the Ten Commandments but of the First Amendment as well.”
Sirbu learned from his counterpart that for Christians, the Ten Commandments represent a symbol of “a certain societal order” and the role God plays in society.
“They’re not necessarily in favor of displaying the Ten Commandments as rules, but they’re interested in displaying the Ten Commandments as symbols of what a civilized society stands for,” the rabbi said.
Conversely, he said, when most Jews see the Ten Commandments displayed publicly, in a classroom or courthouse for example, they see it as an intrusion of religion into what ought to be a secular space.
The second session, earlier this month, focused on misunderstood concepts within Judaism and Christianity. Sirbu discussed the idea of Jews as the chosen people, while Diomede focused on Jesus.
“He argued that the figure we have come to understand as Jesus has been distorted over the centuries,” Sirbu said.
“Part of the problem with Christianity is that historically it has become something different than what it started out to be,” Diomede said. “Our goal is to reach back to our roots and look at the messianic writing and see that cohesiveness with Tanach.”
The next session, in April, will focus on chapter 56 of Isaiah, which includes the verse, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” According to Sirbu, the group interprets this verse as a mandate for interfaith work. The last session, in May, will focus on why each side loves Israel.
“We felt it had to be discussed but we had to build up to it – we had to understand each other in these other ways first,” Sirbu said.
The study groups have given Sirbu and other JCRC members a new understanding of their evangelical allies, the rabbi said. On the flip side, said Diomede, the evangelicals are happy to clear up misconceptions the Jewish community may have about them.
“What these sessions are bringing out is we’re able to represent ourselves to the Jewish people as a friend and a supporter, as opposed to a different religion,” he said.