Three years ago I was asked to move from San Francisco to New York City to take charge of the New York Branch as well as train all new Jews for Jesus staff missionaries. I came at the beginning of a great influx of Russian Jews. Such a high level of immigration, which last year reached more than 25,000, had not been seen since the late 1800s.
Missions to the Jews began to develop due to that earlier influx of Russian and Polish Jews at the turn of the century. At that time, God raised up workers and institutions to meet the spiritual and social needs of the new Jewish immigrants. Centers designed to bring the gospel to them were established in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The Jewish settlers were somewhat open to the gospel, although many had been steeped in rabbinic Judaism and were prejudiced against Jesus.
Now in the 1990s, the new wave of Jewish immigrants we are experiencing seems far more interested in Jesus than those earlier settlers from Eastern Europe. Perhaps it is because these new immigrants were denied all forms of religion since the revolution in 1917, and now they want to find out what was kept from them all those years.
When I took over the New York branch, it was obvious to me that these new Russian Jewish immigrants were open to the gospel. In 1990, our summer campaigners made many contacts and received the names and addresses of many Russian Jews. During my first year in New York City, we tried to follow up on them all, but we found that the differences in language and culture made effective evangelism very difficult. We turned to other individuals and organizations for help, but we found that they, too, had more people to care for than they could handle!
With the increasing number of immigrants, the number of Russian Jewish contacts who wanted to know more about the Lord grew. According to New York City’s Department of City Planning, 977 former Soviet Jews settled in the five boroughs of New York in 1988. The number of new Soviet Jewish immigrants was 2,726 the following year. (That was the first time that our campaigners began to notice this phenomenon.) In 1990, the number of new Soviet Jewish immigrants was 8,278 and in 1991 it was 17,537, double of what it had been the previous year. The latest tally, offered by the New York Association of New Americans, claims that 21,620 former Soviet Jews settled in New York City during 1993. The Russian Jewish population is centered in Brooklyn, and 13,598 former Soviet Jews have settled in that borough this past year. It is unclear how many Russian Jews now live in New York City, but the estimate must be well over 100,000, with Brooklyn being the heart of the Russian Jewish community.
The immigrant Russian Jews are open to the gospel for many reasons. Immigrants in general are usually more open because for them resettling is a time of exposure to new ideas and rethinking most areas of life. The Russian Jews never heard very much good about Christianity in the old country because it was illegal, but they never knew much about Judaism either. Religion was not allowed to be taught to children, and that left the Russian Jews curious and untainted by many of the prejudices with which the earlier, turn-of-the-century immigrants had entered the United States. Today’s Russian immigrants want to know more about God, the Bible, their Jewish identity and Christ.
Several years ago Max, a Russian Jewish believer who had immigrated to the United States decades earlier, saw this opportunity to minister to Russian Jews. He came to New York City for that purpose, but soon he was unable to deal effectively with the large numbers who expressed interest. During the fall of 1993, two young Russian-speaking Jewish believers helped considerably. (One was from Odessa and the other had come to the Lord through the ministry of Jews for Jesus after immigrating to San Francisco.) Yet it was apparent that even with their help, more had to be done for the great number of Russian Jews who were open to the gospel.
In the fall of 1992, we met a Russian Jewish family and began discussing with them what might be done. The Zheleznys accepted the Lord during their stay in Ladispoli, Italy, a transition center for Russian immigrants. Most of the family had done that through the ministry of Joel McElreath, a Conservative Baptist Foreign Missions Society worker in Italy. They grew in the Lord at the Slavic Evangelical Church in Manhattan, a congregation that has met the needs of many of the immigrants and has developed a large Jewish membership.
In January of 1993, in cooperation with the Zhelezny family, a meeting called the Hope of Israel Messianic Fellowship was begun. The son, Yegor, became the preacher and intern. The mother, Klaudia, began as the volunteer coordinator and eventually came on staff as a full-time outreach worker. The daughter, Nancy, along with Yegor’s new wife, Inna, led the children’s ministry at the Saturday evening fellowship; and the father, Vladimir, was the chief workman in charge of refurbishing the Messianic Center and Bookstore located at 2357 Coney Island Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
During the last two years, more than 150 Russian Jews have accepted the Lord through the ministry of Jews for Jesus. Thirty of these have come to faith at the Hope of Israel Messianic Fellowship since January 1993. We now have a weekly meeting that averages between 50 and 60 adults. Bible classes for adults, children and teens are held after the evangelistic service. There are also three other weekly Bible studies in Brooklyn, two of which are held at the Hope of Israel Center.
From the start, I was excited about the general challenge of coming to work in New York. Yet little did I know that in this new assignment the Lord was preparing to delight me with one of the most enjoyable and fruitful experiences of my entire missionary career.