Features

Igniting intolerance

Israel | Ultra-Orthodox put a torch to Messianic Jewish activities

Issue: "New Orleans' comeback kids," Oct. 22, 2005

In some ways, Rebekah Frei's life is similar to that of many other single moms. She drives her 5-year-old daughter to and from school, manages household duties, works hard to make ends meet, and has little time left for sleep. But Ms. Frei's life in Arad, Israel, is far from typical. The almost daily harassment from ultra-Orthodox Jews in her Negev desert town requires Ms. Frei to continually duck in and out of restaurants and the "rescue cars" of other Messianic Jews.

"They corner us in the street-yelling, cursing, and threatening. They stalk us, photograph us, and try to intimidate us all the time," Ms. Frei told WORLD.

Ms. Frei and her daughter, Michelle, are among the 15 Messianic Jewish families in Arad being targeted by the Hassedei Gur, or Haredim, an ultra-Orthodox sect of Jews determined to expel the believers from Arad. In recent months, the confrontations have turned violent: An August fire all but decimated a center used for outreach, and a September outing turned into a two-hour hostage situation when hundreds of Haredim arrived to protest the trip. The ultra-Orthodox accuse the believers of "missionary activity," and local authorities have done little to curb the harassment.

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There are few visible signs of Christians in Arad since believers worship together in homes, but the chess club where Ms. Frei volunteers also serves as an information center for Messianic Jews. Lura and Eddie Beckford opened the chess club a year and a half ago for the many Russian immigrants who love to play chess. They also distribute clothes and food to the poor in Arad and sell Bibles and books.

The Beckfords are now raising money to rebuild the chess club-with security doors and steel bars around the windows this time-since an August fire destroyed much of the building. Charges of arson brought against three Haredim in the wake of the fire were recently dropped, and Mrs. Beckford is concerned about the increasingly hostile incidents: "The attacks are becoming more violent, and the Haredim have promised that we will be taken out of the city in coffins."

The demonstration-turned-hostage ordeal in September was equally frightening. More than 100 Haredim surrounded the group and forced them to retreat into the club. When a carload of people attempted to evacuate the scene, several Haredim jumped on the car while others lay in the street, Mrs. Beckford said. Several believers were slightly injured during the confrontation.

The Haredim accuse the Messianic Jews of actively seeking people to convert: "They tell the passersby that we kidnap children and brainwash them, and we are converting Jews and making them into Gentiles," Mrs. Beckford said.

Although Israeli law says little about sharing religious beliefs with others, conducting underage conversion ceremonies is punishable by law. One Messianic Jewish family in Arad has been careful to follow this law but is targeted nonetheless by the Haredim in a case that has received national attention in Israel. A girl who often socialized with the family began attending their youth activities and was eventually baptized after she turned 18. The Haredim began weekly demonstrations-often with hundreds of people-in front of the family's home shortly after her faith became public over a year ago.

The Israeli High Court weighed in when local authorities-realizing that the confrontations were escalating in hostility-refused to grant the Haredim a permit for a 700-person demonstration in front of the family's home. The Haredim appealed to the Israeli High Court which proposed a compromise-half the number of people once each year. Both sides rejected the proposal and await a final ruling by the Court.

Ms. Frei believes she is a frequent target of their harassment because of her ultra-Orthodox background and journey into the Messianic Jewish faith: "It's a bitter pill for them to swallow . . . knowing that a nice Gur girl is a missionary." She admits the continual confrontations are taxing and worries about the safety of the Messianic Jews in Arad. But recent incidents have opened the eyes of the local police and brought attention to the existence of Messianic Jews in Israel and their faith-a worthy outcome in her eyes.

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