Barry Newman

Messianism and Cappuccino

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The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has, not long ago, put before the Israeli public the interesting fact that a well-respected and very popular Tel Aviv coffee bar, HaOgen, is in fact a hangout for adherents of Messianic Judaism. This is not the first time that the identity of this specific coffee shop was revealed, but for some reason the Anglo Israeli press feels that the subject is worth raising once again. Perhaps the press was piggybacking on the recent story of Michael Elkohen, a follower of Messianic Judaism who was in living for a number of years in Jerusalem in the guise of a Charedi rabbi. Anglo Israeli readers were growing tired, I guess, of Iran, the roller coaster movement of the pandemic, and coalition woes and worries. The time was right to instigate discussion and debate on a subject that few of us are on the fence over.

Personally, I cannot understand why this should cause any sort of an uproar, and am not in the least fazed by the presence in the heart of Tel Aviv’s commercial and cultural center. Unlike many others, I’ve never been frightened or threated by the movement, even when it went by the offensive name Jews for Jesus. I encountered them from time to time on the university campus where I studied and, for the most part, laughed them off. I was, though, put into an uncomfortable position some years later when a colleague invited me to a lecture at her church to be given by a JFJ representative. I politely declined, although she made sure to tell me the next morning how beautiful the guy spoke. I refrained from pointing out that the organization basically preys on the weak and insecure and engages in activities that, for the most part, relies on glitzy marketing slogans and context-less references to Tanach. The Torah has faced far more dangerous and formidable enemies in both the ancient and modern worlds, and have come out unscathed. Though they are most certainly annoying and irritating, their message is hardly persuasive and convincing; in other words, what they offer could not even remotely be thought of as earth shaking.

It is, though, documented and well known that the shop is closely associated with the Christian outreach program Dugit, and I doubt it would take very long for a customer to figure out that the bar has an agenda other than providing customers with good coffee. The names of the organization and the coffee bar point, of course, to what they are. Dugit is a small fishing boat that was commonly used in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). In fact, one such vessel, dated from the first century of the current era, was excavated some years ago and is currently on display at Kibbutz Ginosar; called the Jesus Boat, it attracts Christian tourists in search of artifacts from the time of the bible. Anchor, the translation of HaOgen, is a common symbol in Christian theology, representing safety and hope in a future existence.

Patrons, for the most part, enter the shop ignorant of the fact that it is being run by supporters of Messianic Judaism. And more often than not leave with nothing but a coffee and danish. The owner of the shop states unequivocally that there is no aggressive proselytism, although a library of Christian literature lines the back of the shop. So, if the shop’s barista or other staff member initiates a casual discussion on spiritual matters over a macchiato or decaf latte, no big deal, really. Those living or working on or around Frishman Street are unlikely to have the vulnerable profile Messianic Judaism generally latches on to, and as long as children and impressionable, immature teens are kept away, Café HaOgen is doing no harm. Besides, why needlessly cause any ill feeling with the Christian Evangelists, who have proven to be both friends and benefactors to our country. I’m sure they appreciate that Israel provides some slack as far as spreading the “good word” goes. By now they also know that the Torah and Jewish culture provides ample protection against glib tongued proselytes.

It stands to reason, though, that other such cells may be spread throughout the country, and while it’s unlikely that conspiracies to hijack the Jewish soul are being plotted in backrooms and basements, their presence in more residential, middle-class locations might be problematic. Or would it?  In a separate communication I asked if the media would be interested in conducting and reporting on what could be an intriguing social experiment:

  • Go to a predominantly secular neighborhood and discretely spread a rumor that a Bet Chabad will soon be opening in a nearby shopping plaza. Five minutes will not go by, I bet, before shrieks of horror that the neighborhood is being infested with religious fanatics and dire warnings will be transmitted through WhatsApp and whatnot that the Rebbe’s disciples are coming to brainwash their children.
  • Now, once the uproar dies down, spread a second rumor that a center for Messianic Judaism will shortly be operating out of a local community center. My guess is that this time the response will be one of delight and pride that their neighborhood is ready to embrace multicultural perspectives and that their children will learn the importance of pluralism.

Not surprisingly, there was no response. Nevertheless, this mixed-up way of thinking is the weakness that organizations like Dugit look for. And undoubtedly the reason why they believe that it’s only a matter of time before the rest of us see the light.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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