Denying that Messianic Jews are Really Jews: My Rejection from Taglit-Birthright Israel
Being Jewish already singles me out as different from the rest of the population. Within the Jewish religion many different branches exists. The three main subgroups are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Within these are different sects and classifications such as Hassidic and Sephardic. All of these groups have similarities and differences. The classification I belong to is a much smaller group called Messianic Judaism. So I am part of a small group within a small group; a minority within a minority.
So what is Messianic Judaism, you might be wondering?
Well, that’s a complicated question, and many definitions exist. From my own personal perspective, I’m a Jew that believes in Jesus, although I call him Yeshua as there are no J’s in Hebrew. I pray in Hebrew; I celebrate the Sabbath on Saturdays; I celebrate all Jewish Holidays; I fast on Yom Kippur; and I’ve attended a synagogue for most of my life. The difference is that in mainstream Judaism, Jews pray for their Messiah to come. As Messianic Jews, we pray for our Messiah to return.
To be a Messianic Jew is comparable to being the black sheep of the Jewish family. You’re labeled a traitor, deemed a disappointment, and rejected by the majority of mainstream Judaism. This rejection was made painfully clear to me when my application to Taglit-Brithright Israel was rejected because of my belief that Yeshua is the Messiah.
Taglit-Birthright Israel is a non-profit partnership between the Israeli government and local Jewish communities in Israel, which takes Jewish young adults from all over the world on a free tour to discover Israel. You only need to be a quarter Jewish to qualify. I have half-Jewish, half-Catholic family members who have been accepted into the program. In fact, people who have never stepped foot into a synagogue are allowed to go, but I was rejected with the following e-mail:
“Birthright Israel provides the gift of a first time, peer group, educational trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. You must meet ALL 3 of these criteria to be eligible for a program:
- You are 18 – 26 years of age;
- You are Jewish;
- You have not previously visited Israel on a peer group/educational experience or have not studied in Israel after the age of 18.
Birthright Israel has reviewed your application and determined that you are not eligible. You are considered ineligible for any of the following reasons:
- Your birthday is before May 1, 1989;
- You will not be 18 years of age by the departure date of the trip you applied for;
- You will not finish high school by the departure date of the trip;
- You are a student in an exclusively Jewish studies program;
- Responses on your application indicate that you do not meet the criteria for Jewish eligibility;
- You have already been on a Birthright Israel trip;
- You have spent approximately 3 months or more in Israel;
- You have been to Israel since you were 18 years of age or older to attend an Israel program or University or Yeshiva; to Serve or Volunteer on an Israeli Army Base or in another context which has been reviewed by Birthright Israel and considered to be a prior Israel experience.
- Some responses in your application need clarification and you have not yet responded to the email we have sent you.
If you have any questions, require further clarification, or feel that a mistake has been made, please email us at [email omitted].
Naturally, seeing that all I’ve ever know was Jewish culture and Judaism, I was confused. I responded by answering their list of criteria:
- Your birthday is before May 1, 1989; – Born in 1991
- You will not be 18 years of age by the departure date of the trip you applied for; I will be
- You will not finish high school by the departure date of the trip; I have
- You are a student in an exclusively Jewish studies program; I am not
- Responses on your application indicate that you do not meet the criteria for Jewish eligibility; My father came from an orthodox Jewish family as did my mother. My mother converted to Messianic Judaism, which is still a branch of Judaism.
- You have already been on a Birthright Israel trip; I have not
- You have spent approximately 3 months or more in Israel; I have never been
- You have been to Israel since you were 18 years of age or older to attend an Israel program or University or Yeshiva; to Serve or Volunteer on an Israeli Army Base or in another context which has been reviewed by Birthright Israel and considered to be a prior Israel experience. Never been to Israel, or an Israeli Army Base. I have not
- Some responses in your application need clarification and you have not yet responded to the email we have sent you. Did not receive an email.
It’s probably sad to say, but I’ve grown accustomed to being rejected by other Jews for my faith in Yeshua. I recall a recent incident in which one of my (non-Messianic) Jewish aunts gave my (Messianic Jewish) mother a rosary she found at their parent’s house because she thought it was my mom’s. In her mind, Messianic Judaism and Roman Catholicism were basically the same thing – but anyone who has bothered to examine the two religions for more than a few minutes should know that they are worlds apart. It’s also not uncommon for my distant Jewish relatives to say things to me, in tones dripping with judgement, like “Is your mom still doing that Jews for Jesus thing?” (I’m in no way affiliated with Jews for Jesus, but just for background: in some Jewish circles, being affiliated with Jews for Jesus is equivalent to saying that a person has rejected Judaism)
I hear people constantly say things like: “If you believe in Jesus you’re not Jewish!” Umm, sorry, no. It doesn’t work that way.
Birthright responded to my email with the following message:
So apparently there’s an agreed upon formula out there for establishing Jewishness – only Messianic Jews aren’t invited to agree on this formula, you see. I hadn’t realized that calculating Jewishness could be broken down into simple mathematics. So I tried to solve the problem analytically, and wrote out a mathematical equation.
“Two Jewish parents, plus attending synagogue, plus reading the Hebrew alphabet, minus unclean food, plus celebrating Jewish holidays and culture, equals Jewishness,” written like so:
2JP + Syn + RH – UF + CHC = Jewish
Apparently when you add in MJ (Messianic Judaism) it negates any value carried by the other variables, similar to multiplying something by 0.
2JP + Syn + RH – UF + CHC + MJ = Not Jewish
Who knew you could mathematically determine someone’s religion?
So they called me a Christian.
Not that I find anything wrong with Christianity: I am a believer in Yeshua, but culturally speaking, that’s not how I identify. I don’t celebrate Christian holidays. I celebrate Jewish holidays. I don’t go to church on Sundays. I go to Synagogue on Shabbat. I don’t wear crosses or pray the prayers that most Christians do. I have a mezuzah necklace, a chai, and a Jewish star.
I love Christians, and the majority of my friends are Christians – who by the way have never rejected me for my faith. Nor have any of my Muslim friends for that matter. My Catholic, Buddhist, Atheist, and Agnostic friends all accept me for who I am. I’m just much more at home in my local Messianic synagogue, as opposed to my local church. Sometimes I wish I was more at home in a traditional church; maybe then my life would be easier. But my heart belongs in Jewish culture, as an integrated member of Jewish society.
Yet despite all this, Taglit-Birthright Israel told me that I’m not Jewish. They’re basically saying:
The broader Jewish community doesn’t accept you.
You are not one of us, and we don’t want you.
Go play with the Christians where you belong.
Who are they to tell me my “Jewishness” is unacceptable? Who are they to ostracize me for my belief in Yeshua? Especially with the past, and current struggles that the Jewish people have had! The Jewish community knows very well the pain of being shunned by society – yet they are quick to shun their own.
My great grandparents fled Europe to escape the Holocaust. Some of them wound up in concentration camps. Some escaped with their lives. My grandparents on my dad’s side left Yemen and immigrated to Israel in order to flee from persecution.
Has history not taught us over and over again the lesson that because we are a persecuted people, it’s all the more important that we stick together and support each other? Are we not all one people? Do we not all come from the same lineage? Our ancestry is one. Shouldn’t we be one?
My only desire was to go on Birthright and explore the place I consider to be my homeland. This would have given me the opportunity to visit my father’s grave in Israel for the first time. He died this past August before I’d gotten the chance to really know him. I couldn’t go to his funeral because I didn’t have $1,600.00 for the ticket, let alone money for living expenses. The year before that, my grandmother passed away before I could meet her. I wanted to see my roots; to know where I came from, and to know who I am and who my family is.
America never quite felt like home. Israel has always had my heart, regardless of my nationality. Yet, instead of an opportunity to travel there, all I was left with was a broken heart.
I know the God that the Jewish people believe in, for I pray to Him too. I refuse to deny my faith, and I know, in my heart, that God will bless that. My beliefs are a part of me. It’s who I am, and I would not betray that or myself for anything. At this point, I’d rather save my own money, for however long it takes, and go on my own terms, rather than with an organization that calls itself “Taglit-Birthright,” but denies Jewish people this very thing.
I know that I am Jewish, regardless of what anyone has to say about it.
I refuse to discriminate. I do not believe in denying others their beliefs or their religion.
I know who I am.
I implore Taglit-Birthright Israel, and any other groups that deny the Jewishness of Messianic Jews, to please stop making the mistakes of the past. Learn from our shared history before it repeats itself. Exclusivism begets persecution, which begets destruction, and we cannot afford to lose any more Jewish culture or people.
“Who has inflicted this upon us? Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up till now? It is God that has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again. If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example. Who knows, it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and that reason alone do we have to suffer now. We can never become just Netherlanders, or just English, or representatives of any country for that matter; we will always remain Jews, but we want to, too.”
― The Diary of Anne Frank
“Ours is a country built more on people than on territory. The Jews will come from everywhere: from France, from Russia, from America, from Yemen… Their faith is their passport.”
― David Ben-Gurion
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By Alison Madar
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