Missionaries dupe Jewish newspapers across country

NEW YORK — An advertisement that appeared in 80 American Jewish newspapers last week looks fairly innocuous.

The title of a film, "The Rabbi," appears in Hebrew-style lettering, above a close-up shot of a bearded man in a yarmulke praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

"The unforgettable story of an Israeli rabbi and his struggles in modern society," the ad says. "The drama of this family relationship will move and inspire you."

What it does not mention is that "The Rabbi," a one-hour made-for-television film broadcast on stations throughout the country last weekend, is about a self-described "Messianic Jew" who gradually convinces his Orthodox family that he did not abandon Judaism when he took "Yeshua" into his heart — the name Messianic Jews use for Jesus.

Also omitted from the advertisement is the fact that "The Rabbi" was produced by Morris Cerullo, a San Diego-based Christian missionary who describes himself as a "servant of God."

With this misleading ad and a Jewish-owned firm as his unwitting accomplice, Cerullo managed to infiltrate a world generally beyond the grips of Messianics and missionaries: the Jewish press, including the Jewish Bulletin. Jewish newspapers do not promote Messianic activities or print advertisements from these groups.

"It's outrageous to deceive a group of religious newspapers — to use deception to further their cause," said Nora Contini, Bulletin associate publisher.

Cerullo did not return phone calls from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

His strategy of going through the Jewish media indicates a departure from missionaries' traditional focus on Jews on the fringes and instead a desire to reach highly affiliated Jews.

The movie — whose production values and acting resemble that of daytime soap operas — conveys the idea, rejected by all streams of Judaism, that one can remain a committed Jew while believing in Jesus.

It shows the yarmulke-wearing Messianic son, Yochanan, enjoying a Passover seder with his family, where his young son, Ya'akov, sings the Four Questions and talks about attending synagogue. Yochanan cites texts from the Hebrew Bible that he claims prove Jesus is the messiah, and his reasoning wins over his atheist Holocaust survivor uncle, his sister and even his rabbi father.

"I couldn't blindly accept the rabbis' interpretation," says Yochanan, later, noting "the moment Yeshua came into my heart, I stopped hating."

At the end of the film, Cerullo appears on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem explaining that "the purpose of this drama is to demonstrate why we need to trust Yeshua as the messiah. We're not betraying our Jewishness, but we're becoming a better Jew."

Cerullo signs off with a "Shalom," and the program is followed by a special offer, promoted in a Yiddish-accented voiceover, for a free blessing plaque.

The film aired in the Bay Area Saturday on Foxnet and WHT Satellite.

Alerted on March 23 to the content of the film, the Joseph Jacobs firm — which links prospective advertisers to Jewish publications — said it was contacting Jewish newspapers to let them know about the ad. However, by the time the firm learned the truth about "The Rabbi," most of the papers, including the Jewish Bulletin, had already been printed.

"In the future, if something comes through a little like this, we will delve into it a bit further," said Eli Rosenfeld, vice president of sales for the New York firm.

Rosenfeld said that the ad had come through an agency, Walter Bennett Communications in suburban Philadelphia, which had said the client wished to remain anonymous, something that is "not entirely unusual" in the industry.

"Nothing in the ad screams missionary," said Rosenfeld, adding that had he known the content of the film, "the ads would never have gotten past our office."

Richard Jacobs, the chairman of Joseph Jacobs, said that he had specifically asked Walter Bennett Communications whether "The Rabbi" was a proselytizing program and was told it was not.

He had been suspicious of the firm because it was not listed in an official directory of advertising agencies, would not disclose the identity of its client and did not submit the advertisement itself until the last minute.

In retrospect, Jacobs said, he suspects the firm deliberately submitted the advertisement close to deadline so that it would not be closely scrutinized. "We feel very bad about this," said Jacobs.

Robert Strayton, the account executive at Walter Bennett, declined to comment.

"It's very much a Trojan horse," said Richard Friedman, executive vice president of the Syracuse, N.Y., Jewish Federation, the first community to notify Joseph Jacobs about the movie.

"You come into our community and advertise this, but what you're really looking to do is destroy our community.

"If you truly believe in your message of Christianity, then why aren't you open and above board?" Friedman asked.

"The Rabbi" was broadcast on March 22 in Syracuse, which has 9,000 Jews.

Immediately, 15 people complained to the federation, which quickly sent out letters to the community and — with the local interreligious council — drafted an op-ed piece for the local paper denouncing the movie and its advertising strategy.

How could a Christian missionary, whose Web site includes "Jewish" as part of his "Seven Point Master Plan for World Evangelism," so easily dupe so many at once?

"This was stealthy and well thought out, and lots of knowledge of the Jewish world went into it," said Friedman. "The Jewish newspapers have been dealing with Joseph Jacobs forever, so everyone trusts the person they got it from."

At the Forward in New York, managing editor Ira Stoll said it's up to the newspaper to screen the ads it might run.

"We have a policy of not running ads from Christian missionary groups," Stoll said. "In this case, no one realized this ad was from a missionary group until after we published it."

For its part, Joseph Jacobs does not yet have any specific plans for preventing similar errors in the future.

"In the future, we'll attempt to be a little sharper" Rosenfeld said, "but this guy knew what he was doing."