NEW YORK — It looks, at first glance, like one more celebration of Israel's 50th birthday.
A closer look, however, reveals that "Israel's Jubilee: 50 Years in the Land!" is being run by leaders of the self-described messianic Jewish movement, which cloaks Christian theology in Jewish terminology and practice.
The conference, slated to begin April 29 in Orlando, Fla., has prompted questions and confusion about its true intentions. Several prominent Jews invited to speak at the conference have backed out after learning more about who is behind it.
Promotional material for the event, sponsored by the Christian Alliance for Israel, says it will be "the largest gathering in American history to proclaim Christian love and commitment to Israel and the Jewish people."
"I'm trying to build unity here," said conference chair Cheryl Schang, who describes herself as a "Christian gentile" who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., where the Christian Alliance is based.
"I believe we have a biblical duty and responsibility to stand with Israel and support the Jewish people," Schang said.
But many Jews are not buying it.
"This conference is part of their methodology for getting close to the Jewish community, which is exactly what they want," said Mark Powers, national director of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary organization based in Baltimore.
"The subterfuge of saying it's an event just for Christians is pure baloney. It's an attempt to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the Jewish community, and any Jewish leader who falls for that gives them the credibility that they crave."
While evangelical Christian support for Israel — both political and financial — is not new, it makes some Jews uncomfortable. The discomfort arises in part because proselytizing is part of evangelical theology and in part because the community's domestic political agenda veers sharply from most of the American Jewish community.
The fact that many organizers and speakers slated for this program are messianics has raised the hackles of even some Jewish allies.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi and political conservative based in Washington state, said he accepted an invitation to participate in the event but was unaware of the organizers and other speakers.
Lapin's name and photograph appear on promotional material for the five-day conference, alongside photos of people who have been at the forefront of missionizing Jews to convert to belief in Jesus.
Lapin said that he will now reconsider his plans.
Several prominent Jews who say they were initially unfamiliar with the organizers have decided not to attend. These include Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America; and Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.
"We certainly welcome Christians celebrating Israel's 50th anniversary," Hoenlein said. "But if they're Jews for Jesus and other proselytizing groups, we don't give them credibility by associating with them."
Some also say they were misled by the organizers and were told that other Jewish leaders had already accepted when, in fact, they had not.
"They absolutely were deceptive in things they said when they invited me," said Klein.
"I'm offended by these Jews-for-Jesus-Hebrew-Christians-messianics, whatever you want to call them," he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also invited. And although Schang said the prime minister had said he was hoping to attend, a spokeswoman at the Israeli Embassy in Washington said Tuesday that he would not be there.
Schang said she does not understand why Jews object to participating in an event with messianic leaders.
"Somehow they got it in their mind that I'm out to convert them, which is absolutely not true," she said.
Schang said there would be no proselytizing permitted at the conference.
But critics note that one of the organizers of the Florida event is Jonathan Bernis, a self-declared rabbi and head of "Hear O Israel!" ministries who has toured the former Soviet Union for the last three years holding massive rallies in Moscow, Kiev and other large cities with significant Jewish populations.
In articles in the Messianic Times newspaper, Bernis claims to have converted 35,000 Russian Jews to belief in Jesus over the last couple of years, said Powers of Jews for Judaism.
Others slated to speak at the "Israel Jubilee" include:
*Joel Chernoff, who runs the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, and his brother David, who is the "rabbi" of Beth Yeshua, a large messianic congregation in Philadelphia.
*Sid Roth, who runs an organization called "Messianic Vision," as well as a program in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn that reaches out to Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union in an effort to convert them.
*Jay Sekulow, a Jewish convert to Christianity and an attorney who runs Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice in Virginia Beach, Va., and has represented Jews for Jesus before the U.S. Supreme Court and in a lawsuit against the New York Jewish Community Relations Council.