The Beth Israel Worship Center looks like any synagogue under construction. Its few hundred members meet in a temporary sanctuary where an ark holding a Torah sits near a podium in front of a giant flag with a Star of David draped on the wall.
Jonathan Cahn is pictured in his congregation’s temporary sanctuary. Photo by Josh Lipowsky
But here’s a major difference: While many of the congregants claim to be Jews, the liturgy focuses on Jesus as savior. Beth Israel is a messianic congregation that recently opened its doors in Wayne, and the Jewish community has sought to educate itself against a possible missionary onslaught. Messianism has been condemned by Jewish clergy and leaders as a cloak for Christian missionizing.
The YM-YWHA of North Jersey held a counter-missionary event in February with the group Jews For Judaism. The event, cosponsored with Temple Beth Tikvah and Shomrei Torah, was geared toward the community’s young Jews. A member of Jews For Judaism posed as a missionary during the first part of the assembly and threw conventional missionary arguments at the audience. He later revealed himself as a member of the counter-missionary group for a discussion about specific responses.
"There was some confusion at first," said Steve Allen, the Y’s executive director. "The presentation was effective in the long run. They didn’t get that the person talking to them actually represented the preventative side because at first he presented himself as being from Jews For Jesus. The end result was very positive. It gave the kids a better understanding as to what to expect."
Since that presentation, Beth Israel has opened its doors at 11 Railroad Ave., a former furniture store. The group began meeting there in March and holds services Friday nights and Sunday mornings.
"We’ve been blessed by the town," said Jonathan Cahn, the congregation’s senior pastor, adding that his organization has received permission to meet inside the building while it is under construction.
Beth Israel decided to move to Wayne after a two-year search for a new location. It had rented space in a former department store in Garfield since 199′ until the building’s owners decided they wanted to retool the site as a commercial space. While in Garfield, the organization ran food and clothing drives locally and in Israel, as well as sending aid missions to Israel and Third World countries.
Cahn, who claims to have Orthodox smicha from a rabbi who had joined the messianic movement, told The Jewish Standard that he knew of the Y’s counter-missionary program and he understands his group’s reputation. "We were honored," he said. "We were flattered that they cared enough to do something. We have no problem with anything that educates people in the Jewish faith, as we do the same. The difference is we believe the Jewish messiah has come."
While the program at the Y focused on what to do if confronted by a missionary, the congregation has no intention of "targeting" the Jewish community, Cahn said. However, anybody is welcome at the center, he added.
"We have no plan to target any group with anything," he said. "At the same time, it would be wrong to hide our faith. If you believe that God is the answer and you withhold it, that’s wrong. We have always shared with everyone equally and not targeted anyone."
The new building’s d?cor features Israel. Flags, maps, and Stars of David are spread throughout the temporary sanctuary and offices. With two Torah scrolls, Hebrew classes, and Hebrew littered through the liturgy, Jews may find the center somewhat familiar, which is part of its design, Cahn said.
"I’m a Jew and will minister with a Jewish flavor and context but it’s to everybody," he said. "It’s like the United Nations. Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds are here. We’re instilling in people of all backgrounds a love for Israel and a love for things Jewish."
The Jewish community in Wayne remains cautious of its new neighbors but seems content to wait and see if there is a need for further action.
"At this moment there really has been no impact," Allen said. "What we did was a preventative measure early on. At this point, unless things change when there might be more of an impact and some kind of feeling we need to do it there are no plans to do another session."
Rabbi Randall Mark of Shomrei Torah agreed.
"Other than people sort of wondering if it’ll have any impact or not, the fact that it has opened has made no ripples here," he said.
Mark suggested that ideally, the Jewish community will continue on its path, Beth Israel will follow its path, and never the two shall meet.