Until about a year ago, it was possible, and comforting, to think that the chareidi community was immune to missionaries. It was thought that missionaries could only succeed where there is ignorance of Judaism and a spiritual vacuum, two things that don’t exist in the chareidi world.
But activitists at Yad L’Achim, the anti-missionary organization, have in recent months discovered a disturbing pattern that shatters the myth. That missionaries are active at all first came to light when Yad L’Achim field workers monitoring a missionary convention at Kfar Hamaccabiah in Ramat Gan spotted two boys wearing large kippot circulating freely among the cult figures, as if it were the most natural thing. Closer investigation revealed that the boys had attended chareidi schools in Ukraine before moving to Israel six months ago and that their mother had intended to continue this education. But once in Israel she was approached by missionaries who offered financial inducements and succeeded in forging a bond. Before long she was a card-carrying member of a missionary cult, and her son was registered at a secular school.
Intelligence work on the part of Yad L’Achim revealed that the woman was planning to undergo baptism on the third day of the Maccabiah convention and wanted her son baptized as well. For some unknown reason, no doubt Heavenly intervention, the baptisms were cancelled at the last minute. The mother and son were put under surveillance to learn how far they had gone in adopting the cult, and what strategy could be used to sever the dangerous ties between her and the mission. The goal, in this case and others, was to save children who were in danger of being converted out of Judaism – especially children who survived as chareidi Jews in Russia!
The rest of the story is straight out of a suspense novel. In order to learn about the the boy, a Yad L’Achim activist became the driver of his school van. In this way, he was able to listen in on the students and learn who his friends were, what he did after school and where he played.
The next stage was forging a connection with a neighbor of the mother, preferably somone with children the same age as hers. A suitable candidate was found and, acting under the guidance of Yad L’Achim, reached out to the woman and helped bring her back to Judaism. Lengthy discussions between the two women bore fruit, and the mother completely severed her relationship with the missionaries. Just last week she registered her son, who became close friends with her neighbor, in Keren Hayeled in Bnei Brak for next year and the family is planning to move to Bnei Brak.
But there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of other cases that don’t have a happy ending. One morning, dozens of students attending a Beit Shemesh school belonging to a chareidi network showed up with copies of the new testament. The teachers were shocked and soon learned that the vast majority of their students were attending “religious services” every Shabbos at the nearby Abu-Gemal convent with their parents. The services ended with the generous distribution of treats for the children, making them eager to return the next week.
Yad L’Achim was called in and discovered that a nonreligious teacher hired to teach one of the secular subjects was a frequent visitor at the convent, and it was he who encouraged the children to attend. The teacher was summarily dismissed and a memo warning of the dangers of going to the convent was sent to the students’ homes.
“The children come to school [after being at the convent] and tell others of their experiences; as a result other children want to go. … Going to this place is diametrically opposed to everything this school stands for.”
In Upper Nazareth, a Jewish city of some 60,000, the religious school was infiltrated by a 13-year-old boy who missionized among the students. The tragic story was revealed in the local newspaper, Kol Ha’emek Vehagalil, and led to a full-blown probe by Yad L’Achim.
The story reveals the unlimited resources the missionaries have at their disposal. A group of professional guitar players was hired to offer free entertainment around the city. Not coincidentally, they planted themselves on the route most students take to get to school. The lively performance caused the students to stop and enjoy, and during this time conversations were started up that led to the distribution of missionary material. The ties become closer, helped along the way by financial inducements.
The school was completely unaware that anything was amiss. To the contrary, the principal was pleased to hear that children were going to learn Tanach on Shabbos afternoon. And then details began to surface about the classes. The lessons were on the new testament and they were being taught in a missionary center.
The revelations not only shook up the teaching staff, but also the city council, most of whose members are not religious. “We’re talking about a phenomenon that is widespread and that must concern us,” said Deputy Mayor P. Gumon. “We must find a solution before it’s too late.”
Another city council member said he had also received complaints. “I have received appeals from concerned residents who complained that missionaries are circulating in their neighborhoods and convincing young children to join the Messianic Jews cult,” he said. “They organize social activities and start brainwashing them to convert to Christiantiy.”
When the situation got out of hand, and an increasing number of students in the religious school were coming under the influence of missionaries, Yad L’Achim was called in by the principal. The top experts in the anti-missionary department came to meet with the students.
It was they who discovered that the instigator was a 13-year-old boy, the son of two missionaries belonging to Messianic Jews. The youngster was summoned by the principal and told he would have to sign a document promising to stop missionizing. To everyone’s schock, he simply refused, claiming that this was his faith. The school dismissed him, but Yad L’Achim kept track to see where he might end up. On learning that the boy had registered in a technical school in the Air Force, Yad L’Achim approached the administration and warned him of his past.
But it isn’t just immigrant children or children from “weak backgrounds” who are vulnerable to missionaries. Yad L’Achim learned that religious families on a religious moshav called Hoshaya had come under the influence of the missionaries. There is reportedly a hard core of supporters and they are not willing to hear anything negative about their new-found friends from the mission.
And a chareidi girl in a Bnei Brak also stumbled. As a result, Harav Stern, of the beis din of Hagaon Harav Wosner, appealed to Yad L’Achim Chairman Hagaon Harav Sholom Dov Lipschitz personally to ask for his help.
Yad L’Achim is now working with the girl to try to deprogram her.
Making the battle more difficult is that the missionaries have unlimited resources and unlimited chutzpa. They published an 84-page color booklet bearing the innocent name Sefer Toras Hamussar shel Hayahadus – Mekora Veshorasha, “The Book of Jewish Mussar – Its Source and Roots.” The author of the book: Harav Y. B. Ben Avraham.
The text in the back explains that this volume is the first attempt to point out the origins of the mussar teachings of the Sages of the Mishna and Talmud. The books brings excerpts from Pirkei Avos, with “explanations of sources” from Christian writings.
By the end of the book, the missionaries are less subtle about their intentions. “We offer you additional messianic literature,” the authors say. “You can receive four books from the following list for free, with no obligation on your part. If reading these books evokes questions or responses, we are always happy to hear from you and will try to respond to the best of our abilities.” The foundation that sponsors this book gives the story away: “The Foundation for Messianic Brotherhood.”
One particularly hair-raising case involves a chareidi man, the father of many children, who lives in Bnei Brak. He teaches secular studies in a religious school in the Dan region, and in the past year has come under the influence of the missionaries.
At first reports trickled in from Yad L’Achim field workers who reported seeing an avreich participating in events run by Avi Mizrachi, head of Messianic Jews in Tel Aviv. A short while later, the chareidi man himself appealed to Yad L’Achim for help. He knew he was in trouble and needed help to break away. The teacher continues to lead a double life and knows the serious implications that his belonging to a cult can have for his family. But the connection is so strong that it, for the meantime, defies logical appeals.
No one is immune to missionaries, say the experts at Yad L’Achim. What’s more, not everyone is equipped to meet the challenge of “Da ma lehashiv l’apikores.” Those who aren’t specially trained are absolutely not to engage missionaries in dailogue.
A number of students in mainstream Bnei Brak yeshivos recently received missionary material and decided to confront those who distributed it in order to refute them. But they underestimated how well-trained the missionaries are. The missionaries want people to engage them in debate, to criticize them – this gives them an opening, a means to develop a relationship.
“Sadly, it is impossible to underestimate the power of tuma,” said one expert, adding, “Our people musn’t read or examine any missionary material or make any contact with the missionaries. It is also assur according to halacha.”
Final recommenation of the experts: Don’t take lightly the phenomenon of missionaires on street corners handing out material. There is a considerable number of both youths and older people, who are despondent and ripe for the missionaries who are experts at offering “redemption” to the hopeless.