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Hope amid hate

Jews for Jesus sees opening for the gospel as fear over antisemitism grows


Photo by David G. McIntyre/Genesis

Hope amid hate
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On a drizzly January day on Haight Street in downtown San Francisco, David Brickner locks a glass door and stops to inspect a small spot of chipping paint on a sign that reads, “Jews for Jesus. Est. 32 A.D. give or take a year.”

Passersby often pause at the sign and puzzle it out. Some get the slightly irreverent joke, some don’t, says Brickner, who is nearing three decades as executive director of Jews for Jesus, one of the world’s leading Messianic organizations. The group loosely formed during the height of the city’s 1960s hippie counterculture and officially incorporated in 1973. This building on Haight Street has served as its headquarters since 1976.

A lot has changed since then. The peace-and-love vibe that once attracted thousands of hippies to the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood have given way to rampant homelessness, theft, and drug use. The day I visited Jews for Jesus headquarters, tarp-covered tents littered the downtown streets. One tent cluster on the same block as the group’s headquarters is wedged between an overflowing waste bin, a busy intersection, and a fenced-off building project that backs up to a boarded-up Baptist church. Swaths of people and businesses are leaving the city—and antisemitic crimes are rising, as they are in other major cities and on college campuses. Weeks before I met Brickner, three blocks up the street, a suspect on a skateboard assaulted a man who said he was Jewish. City authorities charged the attacker with a hate crime.

While attacks like that have pushed others to leave town, Jews for Jesus plans to stay put. It sees rising antisemitism as an open door to serve the Jewish community and share the truth of the gospel. Brickner believes that witness is even more important where antisemitism is at its worst.

In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League said it recorded 3,697 antisemitic incidents, including harassment, vandalism, and assault—a 36 percent jump from the 2,717 incidents in 2021 and a record since the group started tracking such ­incidents in 1979. In the past year, residents here and in neighboring cities have found antisemitic flyers on their front lawns, including one blaming Jews for “every single aspect of the COVID-19 agenda.” Similar flyers have popped up in Florida, Georgia, Oregon, and Virginia.

Nearly 4 in 10 Jews now say they avoid visible expressions of their Jewishness in public, according to a 2022 survey from the American Jewish Committee.

And the racist rhetoric comes from extremist movements on both the left and the right.

Lawmakers and advocacy groups have been quick to denounce comments made by influential public figures such as Kanye West, aka “Ye,” who recently praised Adolf Hitler and denied the Holocaust. Denunciations of Israel and antisemitic tropes cost Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a spot on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs committee. Last December, more than 100 U.S. lawmakers urged the Biden administration to “execute a unified national strategy to monitor and combat antisemitism.”

The nonprofit JewBelong is attempting to counter antisemitism with a billboard campaign in 22 U.S. cities, including San Francisco. The signs feature hot pink slogans such as, “Here’s an idea: Let’s ask everyone who is wondering if antisemitism is real to wear a yarmulke for a week and then report back.” Soon after two billboards addressing anti-­Zionism went up near the University of California, Berkeley, vandals defaced them with the words “Free Palestine.”

Jews for Jesus is taking a different approach.

“Antisemitism ultimately is a spiritual issue. The only antidote to that spiritual sickness is the balm of the gospel,” said Avi Snyder, Jews for Jesus European ambassador. “The only antidote … is the clear proclamation in love of God’s message that Jesus is the Savior who died for all of our sins and rose from the dead.”

More than four decades ago, Jews for Jesus members standing on a New York City street corner gave Snyder a ­gospel tract. “It challenged me to consider whether claims about Jesus were true,” he said. Not long after that encounter, Snyder abandoned atheism to follow Christ. He has worked with Jews for Jesus ever since.

David Brickner

David Brickner Photo by David G. McIntyre/Genesis

TODAY, JEWS FOR JESUS has traded street evangelism for a focus on invitation and service, both online and in person. In most of its locations, leaders host Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders, and other Jewish rituals, inviting local Jews to join them. It recently opened three coffee shops near major ­universities in Los Angeles, New York City, and Tel Aviv. In Israel, Jews for Jesus operates a shelter for Hebrew-speaking trafficked women, and its volunteers assist at a Christian rehabilitation center for men. The group has also built more of an online presence, including 24-hour live chat, animated Bible videos in Hebrew, and ads for the New Testament in Yiddish. In Eastern Europe, where antisemitism is heightened, outreach efforts meet practical needs. Jews for Jesus recently provided 25 generators for Jews in Ukraine.

But efforts to spread the gospel are slow to gain traction.

“Jewish evangelism isn’t like one of these ministries where you see tens and thousands of Jewish people coming to know the Lord in one fell swoop,” said chief partnership officer Susan Perlman. “It’s hard work, and our victories may be different from other Christian ministries.”

Antisemitism is ultimately a spiritual issue. The only antidote to that spiritual sickness is the balm of the gospel.

Brickner said one of Jews for Jesus’ earliest accomplishments was getting the word out about Messianic Jews. In the late 1960s, a small cadre passed out hand-drawn tracts with catchy phrases, such as, “Jesus made me kosher,” or “Christmas is a Jewish holiday.” A fifth-generation Messianic Jew, Brickner recounts abandoning his career in orchestral performance in his early 20s to join a musical band affiliated with the group called the Liberating Wailing Wall. Churches across the country swept up in the Jesus Movement invited the band to perform.

People initially dismissed Jews for Jesus as a fringe group of hippies. Some labeled it a cult. Near-constant criticism pushed the group to organize quickly, maintain scrupulous finances, and prioritize integrity, Brickner said. Persistence eventually led to grudging recognition. Over time, “it became apparent that we were a solid Jewish community identifying as followers of Jesus … and supporting Jewish causes, including the rights of the state of Israel and opposing antisemitism,” he said. “Rabbis couldn’t say Jews don’t believe in Jesus, or that those who do were bad Jews, because we existed.”

This year, Jews for Jesus celebrates 50 years of ministry. It now has 240 missionaries and more than a dozen offices in 12 countries. From their headquarters, Brickner and Perlman walk me one block up the street to the Victorian-style “hospitality home” the group uses for hosting guests and events, including Bible studies and Passover Seders. There, volunteers crowd around a kitchen island chopping vegetables and peeling potatoes for their weekly Shabbat dinner. Tables draped in white linens stretch across the living and dining room, this time set for 18 guests involved in Messianic ministry and ­visiting from other parts of California and the country. Later this year, the group will host gatherings in San Francisco and Cyprus to commemorate its anniversary.

Susan Perlman and David Brickner at work in the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus.

Susan Perlman and David Brickner at work in the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Photo by David G. McIntyre/Genesis

CRITICS STILL DISMISS Jews for Jesus’ work in the Jewish community. As recently as 2018, Jewish leaders from major branches of Judaism and from both political parties denounced former Republican Vice President Mike Pence for attending a Michigan campaign event during which a Messianic Jewish rabbi affiliated with Jews for Jesus delivered the opening prayer days after a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue left 11 people dead. One rabbi called it “an insulting political stunt.” Matthew Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition told CNN, “Any kind of elevation or legitimization or profile for Messianic Jews or Jews for Jesus is unacceptable.”

But not all Jews feel that way. In 2013, 34 percent of Jews agreed a person could be Jewish even if he or she believes Jesus is the Messiah, according to a report from Pew Research Center. A 2021 follow-up survey from Pew found that three-quarters of Jews identified as Jewish by religion, but an increasing number saw their Jewish identity as ethnic, cultural, or ancestral. Brickner says increasing secularization, intermarriage, and Jews for Jesus’ consistent witness within the Jewish community have led to lessening antagonism toward Messianic Jews.

He hopes that translates into a more unified front, especially because he believes the Jewish community is headed into a dark time with increasing hostility toward Israel and Jewish people worldwide. Brickner regularly challenges Christians and Bible-believing churches to take a public stand against antisemitism and come quickly to the aid of Jewish neighbors and synagogues facing harassment, vandalism, or violence. “Christians have an incredible opportunity … we focus on fighting antisemitism with love and truth. The gospel changes hearts like nothing else.”

—This story has been corrected to reflect that the Anti-Defamation League reported a record number of 3,697 antisemitic incidents in 2022.


Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.

@mbjackson77

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