While walking by the student union building at the University of Maryland last week, freshman Talya Janus caught sight of a Chanukah table advertising free latkes.
“I was with my friend, and I said, ‘Great. Free food,’ ” she recalled. The two students went over to check out the latkes and sufganiyot (Chanukah donuts). As they partook, Janus overheard the person manning the table speaking to a man about Isaiah from the Bible.
They walked away and noticed Rabbi Ari Israel, executive director of the University of Maryland’s Hillel. He informed Janus and her friend that the reason for the table was not merely to wish students a happy Chanukah.
That table, he said, was sponsored by The Chosen Ministries, which is working to convert Jews by talking to them about the Christian gospel.
“It was actually very upsetting. I felt tricked,” said Janus, an Orthodox Jew from Silver Spring. The pre-nursing student noted, “I also felt stupid. I didn’t know to look out.”
Israel, as well as others on the College Park campus, was alerted to the presence of this group after viewing a video on the Internet, which very specifically states that Chosen People Ministries was coming down from New York to target Jewish students in the D.C. area.
That video, which can be viewed at the HomeofShalom.com, states there are 30,000 Jewish students in the D.C.-Baltimore area, and “over 7,000 Jewish students at the University of Maryland alone.”
“Our goal here is to reach them with the Gospel of the Messiah Yeshua,” it states in the video.
Israel said the presence of the group on campus during Chanukah is “tragically ironic. It is corrupting Chanukah and trying to snatch Jews from their religious freedom. You get your latkes. They talk to you, and then they say, ‘I am here to talk about the gospel.’ ”
Israel strongly criticized the group. “If you are pretending you are Jewish, that’s devious,” he said, noting, “Free speech exists, but there are boundaries.”
The Hillel director said he was confident that the group will have little, if any effect, on Jewish students. “We are, first of all, unified as a Jewish group on the campus,” he said of group’s like Hillel and Chabad. “We are sharing information. We are working vigilantly to impress upon our students of this challenge.”
Israel has been involved with the Hillel at Maryland for close to two decades and is only aware of one person who converted after being approached by missionaries.
Also, he noted, the university administration and Christian groups on campus also are helpful. Israel said he received “a beautiful email” from a Christian chaplain on campus, calling what the Chosen Peoples Ministry was doing a misrepresentation of the Christian faith. The chaplain wrote in the email that he stands in support of efforts to end proselytizing.
To Israel, it’s really not about confronting or arguing with people trying to convert Jews. The best way to keep Jewish students Jewish is to “keep our eyes on the prize and help students on their own Jewish journeys,” he explained.
Ryan Karp and his wife, Jessica, head the group now active at University of Maryland. In a telephone interview, Ryan Karp strongly denied pushing his religion on anyone. Instead, he said, the students here are bright and can decide for themselves what to believe. He is just showing them the gospel for them to accept or not, he said.
“Our goal is to give people information with which they can make a decision.” Karp said. As for the Chanukah table, Ryan said, “All we did was have a table and wish students a Happy Chanukah” and give out latkes with applesauce and sour cream. There was a card on the table about a student group called Metro Moses and anyone interested could look into it, he said.
Karp, who has a Jewish father and a Christian mother, added that Metro Moses had “only a handful, not too many members” and that he was its leader.
“I kind of resent the term ‘sucking them in,’ ” he said, when asked a question about his efforts by Washington Jewish Week. “I am just spreading Chanukah cheer.”
“These kids are really, really intelligent and really smart,” Karp said. “They aren’t so vulnerable.”
Karp said he conducted a Passover seder on campus earlier this year in which 100 students, both Christians and Jews, attended. The Chanukah table was his group’s second event, but he noted that, “I work with students individually on campus.”
Karp said he planned to hold another seder this coming Passover.
“I don’t convince anybody of anything,” he stressed. “The evidence comes from the Tanach [the Jewish Bible]. If they decide Yeshua is the messiah,” that’s their decision, he said. “If not, that’s okay. I won’t force anyone. I am not into any kind of coercion.”
Karp, who grew up in the D.C. area, recalled how he was on a Taglit-Birthright trip when, on the fifth day of that experience, he told another participant he believed that Yeshua was the messiah. “That person’s roommate cursed me out. Later that night, the leaders of the trip told me I had to leave. They kicked me out,” he recalled. “It broke my heart.”
“I am talking about a Jewish man,” he said, referring to Jesus. “The most famous Jew in history was somehow a dividing line between me and my religion. He takes my sorrow. He takes my pain. I can feel joy with him. That is the message.”
There currently are about 6,000 undergraduates and almost 700 graduate students who are Jewish at the University of Maryland, Israel said.