Messianic Judaism Formed New Congregation in New Lakeland

The Messianic Judaism congregation held their first worship service in the beginning of this month, in the youth center of Southside Assembly of God. Like traditional Jewish congregations, it observes the Sabbath from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

A recent Friday evening service drew about 60 people, some dressed in suits and dresses, others casually in jeans and polo shirts. A dozen students from Southeastern College, the Assemblies of God school, were present. Typically, about 50 percent of those who attend are Christians.

There are also Jews wearing kippas and tallits---skullcaps and vests with long fringes, attend the service. Soon after the start of the service, a Torah with a colorful embroidered cover is taken from the cabinet known as an ark, which is a scroll of parchment containing the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, used in a synagogue during services.

Then the Torah is paraded around the room and men take a corner of their tallits, touch the Torah as it passes then touch their lips in a traditional gesture of respect.

The traditional Jewish Sabbath prayer includes the words, "Blessed are you for you have sanctified us by thy word and given us Yeshua the Messiah . . ." Messianic Jews believe that Yeshua of Nazareth was the expected Messiah. (Yeshua is called Jesus Christ by Christians.)

Although mostly patterned after the traditional Jewish prayer service, there are elements borrowed from Christian worship. A young woman offers an extemporaneous prayer, beginning with "Heavenly Father" and ending "in Yeshua's name." An extended set of praise and worship songs are sung in Hebrew and English as worshipers raise their hands in Pentecostal fashion. Dancers circle in the manner of Israeli folk dance. There are readings from the Torah and from the New Testament.

Messianic Judaism emerged in the 1970s in the wake of the Jesus movement, it is a religious movement, composed of faith groups that are mainly attended by ethnic/cultural Jews. Most Jews believe that the Messiah has yet to come while they accept Jesus is the Messiah who was to come. A Messianic Jew is defined as "a person who was born Jewish or converted to Judaism, who is a 'genuine believer' in Yeshua [Jesus], and who acknowledges his Jewishness." But they still want to preserve their Jewish traditions.

One of the largest organizations within Messianic Judaism is Jews for Jesus. They are also one of the few Messianic groups which aggressively seeks new members from among the Jewish population. It is not a church group or denomination; it is an Evangelical missionary outreach to Jews which seeks to convert them to a belief in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah foretold in the Jewish Scriptures, and to the many additional beliefs of Evangelical Christianity. There are about 250 to 300 Messianic Jewish congregations in the country now.

"When I came to faith, I remember I didn't want to give up my Jewishness. I was born and raised and will die a Jew, but that doesn't prevent me from believing in Yeshua," said Frank Poley, who has been appointed rabbi of Shoresh David. "I'm able to maintain everything I had growing up, with every bit of the same feeling. I haven't given up anything, and I've gained so much."

"I became quite Gentile. That's usually what happens. When you become Christian, you give up your Jewishness. I knew church wasn't the place for a Jewish person. Most Jewish believers right now have been assimilated," said Dean Spitzer, 56, a consultant for IBM.

The Spitzers tried attending Temple Emanuel, the Conservative Jewish synagogue in Lakeland, hiding their identities as Messianic Jews from all but a few close friends, but they were dissatisfied with that also. They began attending Messianic Jewish congregations in Orlando and Tampa. It is a way of maintaining their Jewish identity, Spitzer said.

Messianic Jews have to walk a fine line between Jewish and Christian traditions. The Spitzers practice as observant Jews, celebrating Passover but not Christmas or Easter, holidays that Spitzer terms "pagan" in origin.

"We celebrate the resurrection of the Lord and the birth of the Lord but not the holidays with all the trappings of the church," he said.

Judaism are often shunned by their Jewish families of origin and are excluded from the local Jewish community. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic's organization has stated: "For us in the Jewish community, anyone who claims that Jesus is their savior is no longer a Jew and is an apostate. Through that belief she has placed herself outside the Jewish community. Whether she cares to define herself as a Christian or as a 'fulfilled Jew,' 'Messianic Jew,' or any other designation is irrelevant; to us, she is clearly a Christian."

At Shoresh David, the worship proceeds, with traditional Jewish affirmations like the Shema followed later by a collection, something done in churches but not synagogues. Some said Messianic Judaism is recovering the situation of the first-century followers of Jesus.