Selling religion in the Five Towns

Missionaries considered a failure in predominantly Jewish area


As summer gets under way in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, people typically take a vacation, hit the beach or head to Israel. And for the past several years, another seasonal activity has become a custom in the communities: missionaries from Israel Restoration Ministries proselytizing door to door.

In early June, members of this San Diego-based ministry hiked through Lawrence and Far Rockaway, along Central Avenue, and knocked on residents’ doors, engaged them in conversation and dropped off packages that included an introductory note from founder Tom Cantor, a book and a DVD.

During the summer, other groups such as Jews for Jesus and Chosen People Ministries also undertake missions in selected areas. Israel Restoration Ministries is conducting a 12-week summer tour in major U.S. urban centers with large concentrations of Jewish people, such as Baltimore, Boston, Miami, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

“I want my Jewish people to discover and receive the greatest treasure of friendship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ,” Cantor said in explaining why his ministry is active in areas heavily populated by Jews.

The organization is funded by Scantbodies Laboratory Inc., a company he founded 40 years ago that manufactures antibodies, blockers, plasma and serum to help fight diseases.

Cantor, who is Jewish, says he considers himself a messenger who wants to see the Jewish people “rescued from their sins by God.” He said his need to save Jews grew out of his admiration of Simon Wasserman, a friend of Cantor’s father, who tried but failed to get his family out of Nazi Germany.

“Simon Wasserman risked his life to travel from [Palestine] to Germany unharmed, with a two-week pass from his Gestapo friend,” Cantor said. “With this pass, Simon was allowed to travel unharmed to Berlin to rescue his father, mother, sister and brother by taking them out of Germany to [Palestine]. Simon tried to convince his family [to leave] Germany, but they did not believe him.” Wasserman’s family members were murdered by the Nazis.

Gavriel Sanders, a member of the White Shul in Far Rockaway and a Hebrew schoolteacher, has written extensively on Christian missionaries seeking converts in Jewish communities. The Orthodox synagogue sent an email message to its members, written by Sanders, recommending that they not speak to the missionaries, refuse their literature and discard any packages they leave.

More than 300,000 Jews in North America are living as “some form of Christian,” according to the group Jews for Judaism. Sanders said that despite that number, the conversion rate of these groups, especially Cantor’s organization in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, is a “dismal failure.”

“In this particular case, these very nice, clean-cut, well-mannered Baptist young people are harmless, and believe that their content is compelling,” Sanders said. “It is not. I have spoken to them with the main objective to demonstrate that Torah-observant Jews do have a personal relationship with God, and human sacrifice is not God’s method of providing atonement.”

Rabbi Herschel Billet, the spiritual leader of Young Israel of Woodmere, the largest Orthodox congregation on Long Island’s South Shore, said he has lived in the Five Towns for 35 years and has seen missionaries come and go.

“Obviously, I respect everyone’s right to practice their religion,” Billet said. “The missionaries are very respectful — they have been coming here for years — but they are totally irrelevant in this neighborhood.”

He said that proselytizing for converts has not been part of Jewish tradition for the past 2,000 years. The rabbi did point out that missionaries who prey on poor people are an issue in Israel. “They’re struggling to survive, and take the money and the bait because they aren’t strong,” Billet said. “There are faith organizations that combat the missionaries, and rightfully so, to protect the religion.”

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