Jews for Judaism East, the regional arm of the national organization that opposes proselytizers targeting Jews for conversion and works to strengthen and preserve Jewish identity through education and counseling, closed its doors last month after 32 years.
Citing dwindling financial support as the primary cause, Executive Director Ruth Guggenheim said that the board came to the decision in October and planned for a Dec. 31 closure.
Guggenheim said that she and others on the board hope to start up Hatshuva, a resource with a similar mission but with a focus on Israel, where, she said, messianic Jews and evangelical Christians are fiercely targeting lone soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, the Russian immigrant community and young Jews.
At its peak, JFJ East, which opened as the first satellite office from the Los Angeles-based international organization in 1983, had seven employees and was well funded, especially during the mid-2000s, when Jews for Jesus sent missionaries “into every city with a major Jewish population” during its Behold Your God effort, Guggenheim said.
The organization’s work even drew the support of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, but after 2008, when most of JFJ’s significant funding dried up, “we tried [several times] to become a small but viable agency under The Associated to do the programs and one-on-one counseling,” said Guggenheim. That never came to fruition.
Guggenheim said that when the organization transitioned from reactive to proactive inspirational programming it garnered some support, “but now people have seemed to focus elsewhere,” and Jews don’t feel as threatened by missionaries because people don’t think they target Jews or Jewish kids.
There’s a perception that JFJ is “talking against other faith systems,” she said. “But that’s not true. We have many other interfaith supporters.”
“Ruthie Guggenheim has been the soul and center of our organization since I can remember,” said JFJ board member Marilyn Leavey Meyerson, “and she deserves accolades and kudos for what she’s been able to accomplish and her dedication to the organization.”
Meyerson, who voted for the closure “for many reasons and with a very heavy heart,” first learned about JFJ as a client. Her son, Jason, joined Jews for Jesus in California around 1990, and Meyerson’s rabbi referred her to JFJ.
“I was devastated. I was in tears for days at a time,” Meyerson, who is modern Orthodox, recalled. “It became therapy for me. I could go and express my deep feelings of disappointment, and [JFJ was] a source of comfort.”
Her son met with a JFJ representative, but he “was so fervent, his belief system had totally changed. … He wouldn’t change his position,” Meyerson said. Jason returned to Maryland and is currently a pastor and chiropractor in Ellicott City. “My husband and I chose to have an amenable relationship [with Jason and his family]. My grandchildren know we’re Jewish, and we hope that our son will come back to Judaism.”
Meyerson added she has committed to involvement with Hatshuva when it gets off the ground, hopefully by mid-2016.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, JFJ International founder, said his organization will have no involvement in Hatshuva, but he did say that it, along with a strong Toronto JFJ office, plans to expand programs, resources and anti-proselytizing efforts to the East Coast region. But Guggenheim still has concerns.
“The average young Jew cannot come back with answers with confidence” when confronted by a missionary, which is information and training JFJ provided, even by outreach to organizations and schools, said Guggenheim. “People don’t realize messianic Jews are not even Jewish and they’re raising their children in the Christian faith. … We don’t have to turn our backs on our loved ones [who have converted]. We always encourage to keep the door open; there is always a seat at the table. Otherwise, our loved ones will never reconsider their spiritual choices and come back to Judaism.”
Guggenheim said clients came to JFJ “looking for Jewish content and because they were not getting it [elsewhere], unless they were involved in Orthodox community.” JFJ also provided role-playing exercises.
JFJ led more than 2,700 educational programs for about 100,000 youths during its tenure, Guggenheim said. Its staff and volunteers spoke with every youth organization and crossed denominational lines within the Jewish community, helping whoever needed help by providing community awareness, professional development and support when organizations needed media coverage, supplying hard facts and figures. “When missionaries came into communities, we were the go-to.”
Louis Schwartz, past president and longtime board member, also voted for the closure but is disappointed that “people don’t realize the problem this still is,” he said, citing the deceptive manner with which missionaries target the Jewish community. Though people don’t seem as concerned about this issue now, “that doesn’t mean it’s going away.”
“I’m very sad because there’s a tremendous amount of history and accomplishment,” Kravitz said of the regional office’s closure. “We should all be appreciative of what Baltimore did and the areas they pioneered. We’ll look at the challenges as opportunities, and we have to move forward.”