It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Jewish Community, and We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

As part of a Jewish mission organization, I’m trying to gauge what changes have taken place so I can help us think missionally and creatively in light of those changes. Besides which, I belong to the generation that walks down the hallway and forgets why we walked down it … so I’m sure I need help to remember what happened 40 years ago!

If you’re under 40, it’s also helpful for you to know what societal changes have meant for Jewish evangelism and for the Messianic Jewish community. After all, this generation will be followed by another that will bring its own set of challenges. It helps to look back in order to help us think forward.

Just in case you are curious, here are a few things I discovered, or was reminded about, 40 years ago: in 1973, Abe Beame became the first Jewish mayor of New York City. The Yom Kippur War broke out in Israel. David Ben-Gurion died. Roe vs. Wade was decided in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Vietnam War ended. The Watergate hearings began, with President Richard Nixon famously announcing on national television, "I am not a crook." In short, the good, the bad and the ugly.

But what is more significant than isolated pinpoints of events are the larger shifts in society between then and now: The Jewish population of Israel has gone from 2.8 to more than 5.7 million people,[1] equaling or outpacing the figure for North America. Forty years ago there were 2.7 million Jews in the Soviet Union and campaigns to "Free Soviet Jewry;" large-scale immigration from Russia and Ukraine has left 277,000 remaining.  Forty years ago, the Jewish population of Germany was decimated. Today it has the fastest growing Jewish population in Europe. The New York City metropolitan area, once home to 2.4 million Jews,[2] now stands at 1.5 million, though that also reflects a rebound due to a huge increase among Orthodox Jews in that city. Intermarriage in North America stands at over 50%, a figure unthinkable 40 years ago (it’s higher on the West Coast than on the East Coast).

Beyond demographics, there have been other changes in the Jewish community:

  • the aging and loss of many remaining Holocaust survivors
  • the loss of Israeli idealism, which peaked after the 1967 Six-Day War but took a blow in the Yom Kippur War and afterwards
  • the resurgence of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe
  • the rise of Jewish diversity through mixed marriages and changing mores (e.g., LGBT synagogues)
  • the rise of social media, which of course has also affected society at large
  • the fading of Eastern European "yiddishkeit" in favor of new expressions
  • the increasing awareness of Islam and a rise in Muslim populations in Europe and elsewhere

These changes have meant adapting Jewish evangelism to a very different kind of community. And the Messianic Jewish movement has seen its own share of changes over the past 40 years, which has also affected how we reach out to the Jewish community:

  • the move from self-identification as "Hebrew Christian" to "Messianic Jewish"
  • the rise of the modern Messianic congregational movement
  • a rise in Jewish ethnic pride
  • an increasing boldness in standing for Yeshua
  • an increase in second-generation Jewish believers raised in Messianic Jewish homes
  • a diversity of Jewish practice, outreach methods and even theology
  • speaking into a Jewish community that has increasingly emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus and even of Messianic Jews …
  • … but also a Christian community that often has lost its moorings regarding bringing the gospel to Jewish people

In the midst of change, of course, there are also continuities. I just read a book called History of Brooklyn Jewry,by Samuel Abelow, written in 1937. Towards the end, the author devoted a chapter to the problems of the Brooklyn Jews. He wrote: "Another serious problem that confronts the Jews is the development of loyalty to the whole group in addition to loyalty to a particular organization of a special district."[3] I thought of our Messianic community and how difficult it is to foster unity and trust across the entire movement. But, then again, see the previous edition of Havurah for positive developments regarding Messianic unity.

With all the sea changes that have transpired, it is good to know that God has raised up a new generation of Jewish believers equipped to speak into the Jewish world of 2013 and beyond. I once saw a video in which an older leader was addressing a group of young Christians. "This generation," he told them, "is uniquely poised to bring the gospel to today’s world." I admit the mischievous thought passed through my mind, "I bet you say that to all the generations, don’t you?"

But he was right – God has people that he has made ready to serve the unique situation of each time and place. Someday, if the Earth is ruled by blue owl-like beings from another planet and matzah grows on trees, God will still have his people ready to serve. "Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations" (Psalm 90:1). We’re not in Kansas anymore, but God is everywhere, l’dor v’dor.


[1] 2013 figures are not yet available, so the most current figures are actually from 2010–11.

[2] Or 2.1 in 1973, based on a different estimate.

[3] Samuel Philip Abelow, History of Brooklyn Jewry, Brooklyn: Scheba Publishing, 1973, p. 333.


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Rich Robinson | San Francisco

Scholar in Residence, Missionary

Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.

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