Just when you think it's safe to go back in the water, think again.
This month, the Tampa, Fla., region is being targeted for gospel bombing by the missionary storm troopers Jews for Jesus. The S.F.-based organization is entering year two of a five-year global plan to proclaim Jesus as the messiah.
The group's literature explains its mission: "We exist to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide."
Make no bones about it: This month's campaign, led by veteran missionary Stan Meyer, is part of an expanded Jews for Jesus effort. The urban outreach movement, which began last year, is planning to target 66 major Jewish population centers worldwide, including Tehran, Istanbul, Kiev, Atlanta, St. Louis and Los Angeles.
Basically, any city with a Jewish population of 25,000 or more is on the hit list.
The organization allegedly received a multi-million-dollar grant to underwrite its "Behold Your God" campaign. Last April, the Bulletin reported on how Bay Area residents were subjected to 11 billboards using Holocaust survivors to hawk a video in which survivors told how accepting Jesus helped them get over their postwar trauma.
That campaign, which also consisted of full-page ads in local newspapers as well as members passing out their literature throughout the area, was the largest Jews for Jesus effort ever made in the San Francisco area.
However, in recent months, there have been whisperings of internal upheaval at the missionary agency. Disgruntled former missionaries allege that numerous missionaries have been fired, salaries of remaining non-executive staff have been cut, key projects have been postponed or canceled, and perhaps most noteworthy, several millions of dollars of operating money may have been lost through poor stock investments.
According to Mark Powers, international director of the counter-missionary organization Jews for Judaism, the Jews for Jesus' annual operating budget is estimated between $10 million to $12 million dollars.
It was also leaked that Jonathan Markham, the former fund-raising chief at Jews for Jesus, is no longer with the organization, though details are sketchy.
In spite of alleged financial difficulties, however, the "Behold Your God" campaign is essentially still on track.
Counter-missionary experts are keeping a close eye on the Tampa leg of the campaign which will end Feb. 17. It is the first city to be targeted in 2002, but perhaps more importantly, it is the first city to be targeted since Jews for Jesus' alleged financial loss.
Tampa is no stranger to these types of missionaries. The city, which is home to one of the nation's largest Hebrew Christian communities, has no less than four Messianic congregations in the area.
Indeed, the entire state of Florida is home to a substantial number of Hebrew Christian congregations, says counter-missionary Rabbi Tovia Singer. "Partially, it's because of the elderly population," he explains. "Most elderly Jews are simply dying of loneliness. There are Hebrew Christian evangelists who specifically target them.''
"These elderly are desperate for a soft touch and a warm smile," says Singer, the national director of Outreach Judaism, an international organization dedicated to countering the efforts of Christian groups and cults who specifically focus on converting Jews.
The missionaries often visit the elderly in assisted living homes and offer lavish attention, which induces some of these people to convert. In the past, there have even been reported cases of seniors signing over their wills to a Hebrew Christian ministry.
Discussing the Jews for Jesus videotape of Holocaust survivors who present testimonials referring to Jesus as the messiah, Singer says, "It's shattering to watch."
Rabbi Joel Wasser of Congregation Kol Ami in Tampa says, "We deal with this [anti-missionary activity] on a day-to-day basis" in Tampa.
Estimates place the Jewish population of the sleepy Florida city at around 25,000 — with an additional 25,000 in outlying areas including St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Those in Tampa's Jewish community believe they are being targeted at this exact time because of two events this month that attract thousands of tourists who would normally not be in the region: the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, a pseudo-Mardi Gras type of celebration and the Florida State Fair.
The area Jewish community says it plans to counteract the missionary assault. To that end, Mike Eisenstadt of the Tampa Jewish Federation has set up a special task force to help thwart the missionary activities.
On his local weekly Jewish radio show, Eisenstadt — who has personally done counter-missionary work — will discuss strategies that missionaries use.
Educating Jews about the tactics employed by missionary organizations is nothing new in Tampa. Rabbi Richard J. Birnholz of Tampa's Congregation Schaarai Zedek has been teaching his students about such tactics for 20 years.
"My part of it is inoculation," he explains. "We train our students ahead of time so they know how to deal with it."
Bentzion Kravitz, founder and West Coast director of Jews for Judaism, says of the missionaries, "They'll come to these cities; they'll preach; they'll sing; they may even engage in a bit of street drama. But their long-term gains will be negligible in most places. The Jewish community is savvier now, partly due to our years of steady warning, exposure and teaching.
"We are receiving inquiries and invitations from around the world to hold training seminars in response to 'Behold Your God.' Jews for Jesus is keeping us busy."
After hitting Tampa, the "Behold Your God" campaign will make its way overseas, where it will descend upon Odessa in the Ukraine on April 7, just three days after the conclusion of Passover. The missionaries will then snake their way across the Ukraine into Kiev and Kharkov in May.
The campaign will return to North America this summer, making its way to Portland, Atlanta, Boston, New York and Toronto, and then will go to Paris. In September, the campaign's busiest month of 2002, Hartford, St. Louis, Moscow and Mexico City will all be targeted. And finally, in December of this year, Los Angeles will be hit for three weeks.
"These cities are all afflicted with severe assimilation," explains Singer. "So you take a city like Paris, that has upwards of 700,000 Jewish people living there, but the intermarriage rate there is staggering."
According to sources, the Jews for Jesus activities will take place at airports, shopping malls, subway exits, college campuses, cultural events and even beaches. Despite the alleged financial loss, the missionary enterprise is in full swing to produce tailored video and print materials in a variety of languages, including Russian, French, Turkish, Hungarian, German and Spanish.
Powers says that, in general, Jews are more educated than ever about how to resist such missionary campaigns as "Behold Your God."
"The missionaries' greatest growth in recent years has been coming more from gentiles who want a Jewish flavor to their religious practices,'' he says. "Most Jewish conversions to Hebrew Christianity are based more on social needs, like loneliness, rather than theology. A Torah-educated Jew sees the missionary message for the Swiss cheese that it is."