Messianic book targets local Jewish homes

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

A few weeks ago, an unsolicited book, “They Thought for Themselves: Ten Amazing Jews,” by Sid Roth, arrived at the homes of an unknown number of St. Louis area Jewish residents. 

No one seems to know how many copies of the 237-page paperback were mailed to people in the area.

But the book — and the author’s reputation of several decades — have raised questions about the Jews-for-Jesus movement, the propriety of proselytizing to Jews and the often-troubled history of Jewish-Christian relations over the last two millennia.

Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad House at Washington University and his wife, Chana, were among the Jewish recipients of Roth’s book.

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“We thought it was funny that they sent it to us,” Novack said, quipping that the book is “ecologically unfriendly” — a waste of paper.

“They are devious,” he said of Roth and followers of the Jews-for-Jesus movement, “but they are also wrong. People have been trying to convert Jews for nearly 2,000 years.”

Then, as did others who received the book, Novack softened his response: “I am confident enough in my Jewish knowledge and identity not to be offended.”

Having a strong Jewish education and grounding in Judaism is a good antidote, they say. 

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois, said it’s worth looking through proselytizing materials, if only to learn the tactics and arguments being used. “It’s a form of education, to counter the conversation.” 

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said she has not seen “They Thought for Themselves,” nor has she heard of anyone receiving it in the mail. Yet she said such a mailing to presumably Jewish households “raises questions of concern.”

She said she is concerned about anyone who could be vulnerable to such testimonials as are found in Roth’s book.

“Normalizing the act of Jews leaving Judaism, making it seem like a natural progression, is often used and is offensive,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “To see Jews as incomplete is offensive.”

Yet she acknowledged that Roth is protected by the same freedom of speech and religious belief as others living in the United States.

The paperback features the French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” on its cover. It’s Roth’s account of 10 Jewish men and women who converted to Christianity.

A former Merrill Lynch account executive who says he “hit rock bottom” in 1972 and five years later founded Messianic Vision, Roth is regarded as a leader in the evangelical movement, with the special cachet that he was raised in a Jewish home and in the Jewish faith.

Yet, when asked in an interview with The Jewish Light if he was considered more authentic in his evangelical appeal because of his birth and background, Roth said: “Not that I can tell.”

In the introduction to his book, Roth writes:

“Even as a child, I saw the hypocrisy in our religious observance. For instance, on major holidays, we parked several blocks away from the shul because we didn’t want the rabbi to know we drove on the Shabbat.”

On his website, written in the third person, Roth says that after his discovery of Jesus, after he hit bottom, “Sid was set free from demonic oppression through a supernatural encounter with Jesus. Immediately, he began to boldly proclaim Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.”

Roth uses books, tape recordings, lectures and a television program to spread the word. He calls himself “an Israeli” whose foundation, Messianic Vision Inc., declares in its mission statement: “The Messianic Vision is more than a ministry or a program. It is a desire to reach with the good news of the messiah, ‘to the Jew first’ (Romans 1:16). Messianic Vision believes that the best way to evangelize all people is to proclaim the Word of God and demonstrate His power through the miraculous.”

In Roth’s TV show, “It’s Supernatural,” he questions guests in a supportive way about their experiences as Christians who perceive revelations according to the predictions in the Jewish and Christian bibles. Some offer their insights as to the threat Islam plays in today’s world, among other things. 

Roth’s website is sidroth.org. 

According to the website MinistryWatch, in 2004 Roth’s non-profit organization Messianic Vision had $412,272 in assets on hand and spent $2,214,934 in expenses. A paragraph about Messianic Vision states: “In response to the ministry, large numbers of books, tapes and videos are sold and shipped throughout the U.S. The primary support of the ministry is from contributions from individuals who comprise the daily radio and television audience.”

A call to Roth’s office got a quick call back last Friday afternoon. Anyone who answers the phone at his office does so by saying “Shalom.” After our conversation, Roth, who was in Charlotte, N.C., wished me “Shabbat Shalom.”

When asked where he got the mailing list of presumably Jewish homes in the St. Louis area, Roth answered: “I don’t know about St. Louis specifically. I purchased a mailing list with 2 million households.” 

Michelle Gralnick, head of M Gralnick Enterprises LLC, a local marketing firm, received Roth’s book in the mail and immediately began asking questions: “How did they get my contact information? Who is funding this?”

Roth said he has his book mailed to people to encourage them “to think for yourself. I’m giving you some facts that you might never have pondered.” He said he has sent three-quarters of a million to Russians. 

When told that some recipients here have thrown his book into a recycling bin, he replied: “If they want to trash it, they can trash it. If they want to read it, there are facts in it.” 

Roth likes to say that he has been researching the supernatural and God for more than 30 years. The guests he has on his TV show often confirm the type of supernatural events that Roth offers as proof of his beliefs. 

One program featured a discussion in which the messiah in Islamic tradition was called the anti-Christ in Christian tradition. Roth’s guest explained how the Mahdi — the Muslim messiah, which he labeled the anti-Christ — would take over Jerusalem and launch the final struggle before this world is destroyed.

On the last page of his book, Roth writes: “America may be your birthplace, but Israel is your inheritance!” He continues by saying that Israel is “in on the rise” and “America is on the decline” and that the Jewish people should return to Israel.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, director of the Los Angeles office of Jews for Judaism, said Roth’s approach often mixes Jewish and Christian theology and symbols in ways that can confuse and mislead prospective Jewish converts to Christianity. 

Kravitz said it is especially important to messianic Jews to convert Jews because they “believe the Jew is the cornerstone that is preventing Jesus (the messiah) from returning. It validates their concept that ‘we’ve got to convert the Jews’ to be successful is their messianic mission.”

His concern, he said, is that messianic Jews can be quite persuasive with a Jewish person who is confused, depressed and uncertain about his or her faith.

“They know how to present the Gospel in a way that is palatable” to Jews in distress, Kravitz said.

Meanwhile, Rabbi James Bennett of Shaare Emeth, said he gets material like Roth’s book in mail at least once a week — and has for years. Since he is confident in his faith, he said he is not troubled personally about the effort of a Sid Roth or others in the messianic Jewish movement.

“Usually, I look at it long enough to figure out what it is, then I throw it in recycling,” Bennett said of the material that comes to his office.

Nonetheless, he warned, “shame on us that we are not better at educating our own people” about Judaism and its distinctions from Christianity.