Could your newest Facebook friend Mordechai really be a Jews For Jesus missionary out to convert you?
Jews For Judaism, the national organization dedicated to countering messianic Jewish missionaries, issued a warning earlier this month about the increasing use by missionaries of social networking Websites such as Facebook and other sites attractive to teens and young adults such as Youtube.
“They’re utilizing social media totally for their benefit,” said Ruth Guggenheim, director of Jews For Judaism’s Baltimore office, which oversees the organization’s East Coast operations. “Many of their Websites are very attractive, very Jewish-oriented. The Websites have gone into one-on-one peer/friendship evangelism.”
Jews For Judaism does not have any sort of statistics to illustrate its charge, but Guggenheim said the organization has received an increased amount of calls about social networking missionaries within the past six months. Her office receives four or five e-mails or calls a week about social-networking missionaries, as opposed to none last summer.
In the case of Facebook, like many other social-networking sites, Guggenheim noted that it is not always easy to know the people on the screen are telling the truth about their identities.
“Facebook is so difficult as it is for a young person to know who they really are talking to on the other side,” Guggenheim said. “Most young people keep befriending people and could have upwards of 300 friends. It’s become a huge opportunity for missionaries and any other predators.”
Concerned parents should watch out for certain buzzwords on the sites their children visit, she said. These often appear as questions, asking people if they are happy, fulfilled, or “saved.” These questions can be invitations to get more involved with the missionary group.
“They’re very, very comfortable talking about spiritual quests and relationships with God,” Guggenheim said. “In the Jewish community we don’t talk so [personally], if you will. If somebody is asking about your personal relationship with God, it’s likely not your local rabbi.”
Guggenheim also warned about missionaries taking Hebrew names, such as Mordechai, Reuven, or Rivka. It’s a conscious choice to use those names, she said, because they offer validity to the missionaries’ claims that they are authentically Jewish.
While it is unlikely many will make the leap to messianic Judaism because of a Facebook friend, the increase in viral marketing is cause for concern, Guggenheim said, because it can start people on a path that ends with messianics.
People who get involved in cults or missionary groups have legitimate questions and a need for something in their lives, Guggenheim said. Parents and teachers need to do a better job engaging their students in dialogue and ask what’s not engaging them and what’s turning them off to Judaism, she continued.
“The best way to keep our people from getting involved with missionaries is to offer them something tangible in Judaism,” she said. “What the missionaries are good at is opening up the door to thinking and spiritual questions, which we in the Jewish community are sometimes intimidated to answer.”
The Jewish community needs to reach out to its younger members and answer their questions, while promoting the positive aspects of Judaism, she said.
“If the Jewish community can’t be up there doing outreach in our own way then we’re missing an opportunity while they’re gaining,” Guggenheim said.