Every Saturday morning at the Parkade Center, people running errands and doing early morning shopping can hear songs of worship in Hebrew drifting from a storefront inside.
Suite 134-I in the Parkade Center is home to Shema Israel, the only place of worship for Messianic Jews in Columbia. Messianic Jews follow the traditional practices of Judaism, as proscribed by the Old Covenant (Old Testament). Composed of Jews and non-Jews, Messianic congregations believe in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah of Israel.
HistoryHasidism, a form of mystical Orthodox Judaism, started in the 18th century near the Polish-Russian border. It was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer. He is known more commonly as Baal Shem Tov, which means “master of the good name” in Hebrew. He stressed that God and the Torah are accessible to all people, not just rabbinical scholars. Hasid, in Hebrew, means pious, and is used to describe a person whose spiritual devotion exceeds the requirements of Jewish religious law. “Within the Hasidic movement, there are many different groups,” said Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom. “It is not one monolithic group.” Hasidism is composed of two main tendencies — the emotional and the philosophical. Some different groups include Lubavitcher, Satmar, Belzer, Bobover, Gerer and Bratslaver Hasidim. These groups are named after the Eastern European towns in which they originated.
PracticesThe Hasidim, like all Orthodox Jews, believe the Torah is the literal word of God. They, therefore, follow the 613 commandments, or mitzvot, found in the Torah that can still be practiced. The mitzvot cover ethical and ritual obligations, including kosher dietary laws, rules of dress and restricted activities for the Sabbath. The beard and payos, or side curls, common to all Hasidic men are worn in obedience of one such commandment. “Technically speaking, they are Orthodox Jews,” Feintuch said. However, “the Hasidic Jews emphasize exuberance and excitement through song and dance.” Hasidic Judaism differs from non-Hasidic Orthodox Judaism in that it focuses more on mysticism than rationalism. The Hasidim follow a rebbe, a spiritual master, who may or may not be a rabbi. The rebbe provides guidance in many aspects of a Hasidim’s life, including interpretation of the Torah and the choosing of a spouse.
LocationThe largest Hasidic communities today are in the U.S., Canada and Israel. Cities with the largest populations include New York City (particularly Brooklyn), Baltimore, Chicago, Sydney, Paris, Montreal and London. Feintuch said he is not aware of any Hasidim in Columbia. Sources: PBS.org/alifeapart; Religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu; Religionfacts.com
Maja Hill, a member of Shema Israel and an ordained Christian minister, said Messianic Judaism arose within Judaism during Jesus’ time. But over time, the Jewish practices that were once interwoven with Christian worship were eliminated.
Hill shares the same concept of Jesus as Christians and describes herself as Christian by faith. She considers herself a Messianic Jew as a way to preserve her heritage and distinguish herself from the Christian church that “severed itself” from its Jewish roots. Hill said she believes Messianic Judaism was initiated by God to restore Christianity’s ancient Biblical practices.
“Messianic Judaism is about restoring the biblical faith that began with Abraham, Isaac, then Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel,” she said. “God founded the nation of Israel when (God) brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. (God) gave them a religious culture, social and legal system.”
Messianic believers say that the church was born at Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost, which occurred before A.D. 50, although the exact date is unknown. On that day, according to Acts 2: 14-41, about 3,000 Jews professed Jesus as the Messiah. Christians also consider this to be the beginning of their church.
Many Messianics believe the persecution of Jews by Christians, starting with Roman Emperor Constantine around A.D. 300, led to the severing of Jewish roots in the church. Hill said the persecution caused Jews who believed in Jesus to rid themselves of ancient biblical observances found in the Torah and instead adopt Gentile (non-Jewish) customs.
Jon Phipps, founder of Shema Israel, said that as non-Jews become believers, they are adopted into the Jewish heritage, according to his interpretation of Romans 11:11-24, in which God tells Paul that his rejection of Israel is only temporary.
“‘Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree, the olive tree being the symbol of Israel,” he said. “That’s why we follow the feasts and the Sabbath, because that’s the Jewish roots.”
When Phipps lived in Colorado, he attended a Messianic Jewish service. He moved to Columbia
in 2002. A few years later, he began studying the Torah at home. He moved the study group to the Parkade Center in September.
Shema Israel holds services at 11:00 a.m. every Saturday. Services begin with songs sung in Hebrew and English, followed by readings from the Torah. Portions of the Old Testament are read and interpreted. Unlike services in Jewish synagogues, New Testament verses reflecting the Torah are also studied.
For Hill, whose parents escaped Majdanek, a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, discovering Shema Israel in January meant embracing a heritage her family largely shunned. Even after Hill’s mother acknowledged the family’s Jewish roots, she was forced to go to a neighborhood Christian church because it was considered safer and more socially advantageous. Hill is one of two ethnically Jewish members of Shema Israel.
“I have not been a member of a particular church since August of 2005 and the first time I came to Shema Israel, I had a sense in my heart, that I believed was downloaded by God, that I was home,” she said.
According to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, the largest association of Messianic Jews in the world, non-Jewish Messianics endorse the nation of Israel as a fulfillment of end-time Biblical prophecy.
Leslie Hanson attends Shema Israel and teaches a class on the Jewish roots of Christian faith at her church, First Assembly of God. She said she is a Christian and considers herself to be Messianic by faith.
Hanson uses the Complete Jewish Bible, the only English version of the Bible that is Jewish in style and presentation. Translated by David H. Stern, a Messianic theologian, it includes the Tanakh — the Old Testament — and the B’rit Hadashah, or New Testament. Stern translated a Greek version of the New Testament into Hebrew, then into English. Comparing the meaning of the translations helps Hanson understand what it means to be a Christian who observes Torah laws still applicable today.
“The word ‘Messianic’ is a Hebrew word that means the anointed one,” she said. “That’s what Christ means, the anointed one. So it’s the same thing; it’s just two different words.”