Reaching the Ultra-Orthodox
Campaign leaders Stephen Katz, Jonathan Bernd and Yoel ben David
“I will meet to talk more about this, but I want to meet with a woman.” Normally our missionaries would conclude that a man who said this was not interested in the gospel. But this was the ultra-Orthodox aspect of BYG New York and our missionaries were on new ground.
“Why a woman?” the Jews for Jesus missionary countered.
“All my life men have told me what to do, what to believe and what to think. I’m tired of it. And I have never had a meaningful conversation with a woman. I want to know what it is like.”
While this answer may not have indicated a deeply felt spiritual hunger, it was frank and deserved consideration.
“If we arranged for you to meet with a woman, she would still be accompanied by one of the men.”
“That’s fine,” the Hassid nodded. “As long as I can hear what she has to say.”
They are called “rebels,” the ones like this man who are not satisfied with the life ordered for them by the ultra- Orthodox community. They are willing to consider new ideas but they are wary. To consider Jesus as the Jewish Messiah is forbidden, and most see no reason to consider anything that contradicts the rabbis’ teachings. Even the rebels who question the rabbis’ authority know that they would lose family, friends and livelihood if they allowed themselves to believe the gospel. Therefore, arranging a visit with a Hassid is complicated. One person told our missionary, “Go to such and such a subway stop. Wait on the far end of the platform. When the train comes, get into the third to last car. Don’t look at me as I get into the same car. Get off at such and such a stop. Follow me to a place where we can talk.” It sounds unreal. But it’s not.
Hassidim are viewed by the outside world as somewhat of an oddity because of their garb and their customs. To many Christians they appear exotically holy. But we found that there are those who don the garb, not because of deeply-felt spiritual convictions, but because it is required. Ultra-Orthodox does not mean ultra-holy. It means absolute loyalty to tradition and absolute allegiance to the rebbe. To those of us who have seen the nervousness of the rebels who dare to speak to us, it means being in a cult where some are struggling to think for themselves.
When we decided to make outreach to this community one of the subcampaigns under BYG New York, we had no idea how to go about it. By God’s sovereign grace we were approached by friends who wanted our help to distribute a Yiddish version of a film about Jesus—and we sent the film to 80,000 Hassidic homes.
We called people’s homes to ask their thoughts about the DVD. We also received calls from many who took the initiative to respond. Stephen Katz, who has been a spokesperson for the team says, “Some callers just wanted to chastise or correct us, but others were willing to discuss the issues. Many had destroyed the DVD in compliance with the rabbis’ edict, but a significant remnant (he smiles) watched it before destroying it. Some are waiting to watch it when the controversy dies down. People are still sending in their contact information.”
Most of the actual campaign work was a matter of walking through parts of the communities, sometimes for four hours at a time, engaging in one-on-one conversations.
Stephen Katz was surprised by the number of substantial conversations they actually had with Hassidim— more than 100. At the time of this writing they’d had 18 visits with individuals and expected to have at least two more by the end of the week. “We prayed that God would reach people in the community but we didn’t know what to expect. We found that there are truly devout Hassidim, but there are also Hassidim who are agnostic or even atheists, and have, unknown to the community, ceased any number of Jewish religious practices. They maintain the outer appearance because they don’t know any other way of life.
“Pray for our continuing efforts, and pray that God will make a way for those who want to leave the community to do so, so that they can learn about the Messiah Jesus freely.”