MAGEN: Counter Missionary Force Fights Soul Snatchers


by R. Wineberg - MOSCOW, RUSSIA

January 15, 2003

A flyer appears in a Russian city inviting the Jewish community to celebrate Shabbat. Illustrated with Jewish symbols, it offers dinner and inspiration at no charge and draws a sizeable crowd of local Jews. Smiling Kippah and tallit-clad men welcome them warmly and in conversation, quote Jewish scriptures, speak of Moshiach and aliya to Israel, and insert frequent references to their own Jewish backgrounds.

The organization, called “Shomer Israel” or “Emmanu-el” or the like, will invite the Jews back the next week, or for the next holiday, and after a few weeks, they will have built something of a community.

And then the Jewish rhetoric begins to change. Because, despite all the appearances, these organizations are not Jewish at all. In fact, they are the newest, most aggressive attempts in an age-old campaign: the battle for Jewish souls.

“Self described ‘Messianic Jews’ are essentially evangelical Christian missionaries in Jewish disguise,” explains Dr. Alexander Lakshin, director of the MAGEN League, the only counter-missionary organization in the Former Soviet Union. “Their aim, well camouflaged at first by a blitz of Jewish words, symbols, songs and traditions, is simple: to convert as many people as they can to Christianity.”

And this is not, he says, a small grassroots movement. In the Former Soviet Union alone, approximately 20 well-organized and generously funded Messianic groups operate well over 200 congregations in cities from Moscow to St. Petersburg. A 1998 survey conducted by K. Kjar-Hansen and B.F. Skjott indicates that over 40% of their membership is Jewish.

“Russian Jewry is Messianic Judaism’s number one target,” says Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of the Russia and the force behind the founding of Magen. “Simply because they’re easy prey.” Often in desperate financial straits, Russian Jews often find the lure of financial assistance too tempting to overcome. “These groups have all the funds needed to lure people in,” he says. “All too often, a person will only realize the true nature of the organization after they are already financially dependent on them, and by then, it’s too late to simply break away.”

Deprived of a Jewish education over four generations of communism, a Jew accosted by missionaries has no grandparent able to explain the pitfalls in the logic of messianic Judaism, says Dr. Lakshin. In fact, the elderly are as easy to convince as anyone else. “Missionaries convince people by distorting the facts of Judaism, and all too many Russian Jews simply don’t know better,” he explains. And widespread interest in Judaism after the fall of communism gave missionaries the perfect opportunity to pitch their purely Christian message as Jewish, and deceive thousands.

By the year 2000, nearly ten years after the fall of communism, Messianic activity, operating freely despite a mission statement that clearly constitutes fraud, had reached outrageous proportions in the Former Soviet Union, Lazar says. “In Russia, over 50% of Jewish communities were reporting missionary activity. In Ukraine, the number was closer to 80%.” And in the Moldova region, a full 100% of Jewish communities were being targeted in carefully planned Messianic campaigns, he says.

Ideally, the antidote to missionary activity is simply Jewish education, observes Rabbi Lazar. But that’s only a preventative measure. “Missionary activity in the FSU had reached a level where Jewish education was just not enough to stop it. We needed a serious, well-coordinated counter-offensive.”

Alexander Lakshin and Rabbi Lazar had crossed paths some 15 years before Rabbi Lazar contacted him in the summer of 2000. On a visit to the Soviet Union with a group of Yeshiva students from New York, Rabbi Lazar recalls meeting Alexander Lakshin, then a well-known Soviet Jewish activist, in a clandestine Yeshiva in St. Petersburg, known at the time as Leningrad, where Lakshin was studying. Fifteen years later, Lakshin was living in Brooklyn with his family when he got a call from Berel Lazar, now Russia’s Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Lazar wanted to discuss the creation of a counter-missionary force to be known as MAGEN, and offered him the position of director.

Lakshin was no stranger to the work, having been involved in various counter-missionary objectives in the US, and, more importantly, says Lazar, “he was no stranger to the landscape and mentality of Russian Jewry,” making him the ideal man for the job.

Funded by a large initial grant from the Rohr Family Foundation and the umbrella of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, the MAGEN LEAGUE was incorporated in the early months of 2001, and Lakshin and his family moved back to Moscow to run it.

MAGEN’s agenda, according to its website, is to “monitor missionary activity targeting Jews, operate educational programs for professional and lay leadership of Jewish communities and organizations, and publish informational materials explaining the anti-Jewish nature of so-called "Messianic Judaism.” A one-man operation at the outset, MAGEN now has chapters in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Kishinev, Lakshin says. Plans call for the opening of additional chapters in Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Belarus.

Essentially, says Lakshin, MAGEN is a resource center, and as the single counter force against mass missionary activity in the former Soviet Union, “gradual growth is not an option; Magen’s activity needs to be as rapid and widespread as the force we are fighting.”

Backed by the entire spectrum of the Jewish establishment in the former Soviet Union and the local governments in its fight against fraud, Rabbi Lazar claims that despite its scope, MAGEN’s focus is as much on the individual as the community. “Jews here are being taken for a ride,” he says. “If we can stop even one Jew from being deceived, MAGEN will have achieved its purpose.”

Mark Powers is the director of MAGEN’s recently opened US chapter. Involved in counter missionary activity in America for close to 25 years as director of a local chapter of Jews for Judaism, America’s primary anti-missionary organization, he claims emphatically that Messianic Judaism is “not a Russian problem.” “All forms of missionary activity, including Messianic Judaism, are alive and flourishing in America and Europe, indeed across the world,” he warns.

Though the cults of the sixties and seventies are thought to be long gone, Powers claims they have in fact proliferated in the last several decades, albeit quietly. “Missionary and cult activity has gotten smarter, more secretive, and far more dangerous,” he says. “To think that it is not a force at work in today’s society is to delude one’s self.”

Magen’s range of activities in the US will include public lectures for synagogues, schools, and youth groups, particularly on campus, and a large effort directed at counseling individuals and families involved in missionary activity.

Plans are in the works for a MAGEN office in Europe, as well. “In the battle for Jewish souls, we are dealing with a force too large, powerful and wealthy, to grow slowly,” Powers says. “We need to direct all our efforts at slowing them down and eventually eliminating them completely.”

It appears they have already begun making inroads. “Since 1990,” wrote Charisma, a magazine of the Russian Messianic movement, in a July 2001 issue, “Messianic activity went freely and unrestrained in Russia and Ukraine. Now it is facing a fierce and well-organized resistance.”

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