Have been commissioned to write a book on Messianic Judaism, a new movement for Jews who believe that Jesus really was the Messiah after all. My wife and I are off to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to attend their annual conference. The flight seems unending. We then take a taxi to Messiah College. The driver tells us that more than 1,000 people have been arriving from around the world. Driving up to the college, we spot a yellow tent with a gigantic sign, Jews for Judaism. Bearded figures wave furiously at the taxi. Do I know them? On arrival am confronted by crowds of participants sporting T-shirts with the logo for the conference. Discover that the computer has just broken down and am told to go to the end of a gigantic queue. Fortunately we are rescued by conference organisers who let us in first. Apparently we are to be given VIP treatment. The room itself is located in one of the dormitories and is extremely austere with no air-conditioning. My wife complains and says that we should have stayed at the Hilton in Harrisburg. I tell her to remember that she is British and keep a stiff upper lip.
Get up early and join the crowds for breakfast. Food is absolutely delicious. There is a huge choice and our vegetarianism is amply catered for. Watch a bearded figure at the next table - wearing a skullcap and with fringes hanging out of his trousers - devour a bagel smothered with cheese and bacon. It is difficult to imagine a less kosher combination and I am mesmerised. Go to first session: "Why I am not a Christian". The speaker, a bespectacled Messianic rabbi also wearing a skull cap, tells us that although he believes that Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) is the Messiah, he is emphatically not a Christian. Instead, he is a fulfilled Jew. Later in the day, we go out to the Jews for Judaism tent that we passed yesterday. Discover that this group is here to protest against Messianic Judaism. Jews, they tell us, cannot possibly accept Jesus and remain Jewish. Though they wave enthusiastically at passers-by, nobody except us appears to want to talk to them.
Spend much of the day in the Messianic market-place, a vast array of books and religious objects set out in an auditorium. See a gigantic display of rams' horns (shofars) and try out several, to the consternation of other shoppers. My wife is unable to resist a tambourine shaped as a Star of David and I buy many too many books. In the evening we set off for the religious service in the college sports hall. Along one side is a replica of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem: in front a rock band plus violinist. When music begins the entire audience stands up. They raise their hands in prayer and sing uproariously. In the front a mass of people come forward to dance quasi-Israeli folk dances. This is interspersed with a variety of speakers whose words are constantly interrupted with shouts of "Praise the Lord". At the end of the service, the Messianic rabbis line up in front as the devout stand in line to receive a blessing. We stick firmly in our seats as we watch men and women swoon in religious ecstasy. Apparently they are being "slain in the spirit". "Oy Veh!" says my wife, "What's a nice Jewish boy like you doing in a place like this?" Thursday
We head off again to the Jews for Judaism tent where we are lectured about the iniquities of the Messianic movement. Our informants insist that they are evangelical Christians deceiving innocent Jewish people away from their ancestral heritage. I have my doubts. Whatever their theological claims, they certainly seem to be enthusiastic. Instead of being so condemnatory, the Jewish religious establishment might learn something from their techniques. In the afternoon, we go to hear another Messianic rabbi talk about the enemies of the movement. He harangues his audience with quotations from scripture: they respond "Amen" and "Praise the Lord". In the evening we are invited by the president of the Messianic movement to join all the Messianic rabbis for a pizza supper. He tells me that he became disenchanted with traditional Judaism largely because of synagogue school in Cincinnati, Ohio where he grew up. I tell him I was a rabbinic student in Cincinnati 25 years ago and taught at the same school. To my horror, I realise that I was probably one of his teachers!
My wife insists I go to the healing service this afternoon. We follow a large crowd to the college chapel where a spiritual healer is holding forth. The microphone is broken, so he shouts throughout the session. I wonder why he has not been able to cure the mechanical problem. The chapel is packed, and we are told to stand if we have any physical difficulties. My wife urges me to stand. I am recovering from an ear infection, and still hear minor buzzing noises. I sit tight. Lots of prayers are said, and various miraculous healings seem to take place. "Is there anybody else?", the healer asks. A few more stand up. Then the healer says he will cure anyone who is too shy to come forward. There are yet more prayers. I realise my ear is better and the buzzing seems to have stopped. Feel very disconcerted indeed!
Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter.