WASHINGTON – They talked about Israel and about proselytizing – but perhaps the most important thing about the recent meeting between nearly 40 Jewish and evangelical Christian leaders was that they were talking at all.
Organizers believe the two-day meeting last month in Washington was the first time, at least in recent memory, that rabbis, pastors and other on-the-ground leaders of the two faith groups had sat down to have a conversation about their respective faiths and concerns about various issues.
“There were relatively few people who knew who to call when there was tension between the communities,” said David Neff, editor of Christianity Today.
Neff came up with the idea for the conference with a close friend and fellow Chicagoan – Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Judaic scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
The event, held June 15-16, attracted leaders representing large swaths of the more than 50 million evangelical Christian adults in the United States – and, in the process, underscored the changing face of the movement.
Many American Jews tend to associate evangelicals with heavily pro-Republican political preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and outspoken backers of Israel such as John Hagee. Neff noted, however, that while evangelical Christians do tend to lean conservative politically, most evangelical churches shy away from participation in electoral politics.
Neff also said that while evangelical Christians tend to be supporters of the Jewish state, only about 10 percent adhere to Hagee’s eschatology of premillennial dispensationalism in which Israel plays a central role in the second coming of Jesus. Hagee says that his support of Israel is based in Genesis and not connected to any eschatology.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which co-convened the conference, added that many evangelical leaders and their followers not only are concerned with traditional conservative political causes like fighting abortion, but also placing a greater focus on combating poverty and protecting the environment.
Similarly, while previous efforts by Jewish organizations focused almost exclusively on boosting and harnessing evangelical support for Israel, JCPA – an umbrella organization bringing together the major synagogue movements, several nonsectarian national Jewish organizations and more than 100 local Jewish communities – boasts an agenda that encompasses Middle East issues as well as many domestic concerns.
Among the top agenda items at the June conference were Israel and proselytizing.
“We want to be able to understand how many of the Jewish people hear certain issues,” said Joel Hunter, senior pastor at the 12,000-person Northland, A Church Distributed in Orlando, Fla., and a co-convenor of the conference. “We don’t want to unintentionally offend or miscommunicate” because of a lack of knowledge of an issue.
For instance, Hunter noted how U.S. Jewish leaders emphasized that Israel should not be depicted as only a product of the Holocaust, but also a millennial-old connection to the Jewish people.
Hunter, who gave the benediction after Barack Obama’s Democratic convention speech last summer, said that such information is important for building relationships with Jewish friends, but also in the context of Christians beginning to have more dialogues with Muslim leaders.
“We want to keep in mind how a Jewish person would interpret and perceive what is happening in that conversation” with Muslims, he said.
The conference participants also spent time discussing Jewish concerns about proselytizing or evangelicals sharing their faith with others.
“I don’t think that we are worried about conversion,” Gutow said, “but I think that when one religious group says we have the only avenue, it makes us feel condescended towards.”
Hunter said such Jewish concerns are something that evangelicals needed to hear because “part of our spiritual maturity comes with the appreciation of other people’s faith experiences.”
No Jewish leader said evangelicals shouldn’t share their faith, but offered thoughts on “what is a helpful way” to do it, and what comes across as “artificial and pushy and offensive,” Hunter said.
Gutow said he thought the evangelicals in the room “really understood” that while sharing their faith was an essential component of their spiritual lives, it could be problematic for Jews. He was one of several participants who noted how open and intense both the formal and informal discussions were throughout the conference.
In addition to exchanging thoughts on issues, others said they learned that the two faith traditions have some important similarities.
Neff and Poupko said it wasn’t clear why clergy leaders of the two faiths hadn’t sat down for such discussions previously – there were some efforts involving mostly academics in the 1980s – but speculated that part of the reason was that the two groups don’t cross paths frequently in everyday life.
Poupko noted that Jews and evangelicals simply live in different places, with Jews traditionally concentrated more in urban settings and evangelicals frequently located outside of cities and in areas of the country where Jews are not as populous.
That won’t be an obstacle anymore. Hunter said that if he has any question about how a certain issue involving Israel should be approached, he won’t hesitate to call one of the rabbis he met and ask, “How does this sound to you?”
Similarly, Gutow said he had met Hunter a few times in the past, but now “picking up the phone and calling him is a no-brainer.”
“My Rolodex is tremendously expanded,” said Neff, “not just in the sense of having more names and phone numbers,” but “with people I know.”
In addition to all those informal contacts, organizers said they hope to schedule another formal meeting next year.