I went to see a documentary in North York recently. It started with Jews, it ended with Jesus and in the middle was the Holocaust. The soothing voice of the film's narrator urged the audience to accept Jesus as their god (and offered them a "mazel tov" if they were already on board). The six Jews onscreen agreed as they told their stories. And they were Holocaust survivors. What could be more Jewish than that?
Oh, and another thing: in the middle of the film three-quarters of the audience suddenly walked out in protest.
For a number of weeks, Toronto's Jewish community has been the target of Jews for Jesus and its Behold Your God missionary campaign, a theological foray that makes many Jews terribly uncomfortable for obvious historical reasons.
Len Rudner, the Canadian Jewish Congress's director of community relations, tells me that Jews for Jesus "has appropriated the symbols of Judaism." Regular missionary work is fine, he says, but Jews for Jesus is full of just plain trickery.
But are they really dishonest? Obnoxious, fanatic, opportunist - I can see all that. Still, I can't help wondering. If the Jewish establishment is really panicked about its members dissolving into the non-Judaic world, it's probably picked the least likely culprit.
Better to take on the Dalai Lama, whose gentle Buddhism tweaks the spiritual practice of many an urban Jew. (Rumour has it that a third of non-Asian Buddhists in North America are Jewish.) ***
In a seminar room in the Lipa Green Building at the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre, Rabbi Michael Skobac, the Toronto-based director of education for Jews for Judaism, is presiding over a class on how to organize against Christian missionaries. Rabbi Skobac shows clips of Jews for Jesus recruiting videos featuring gleeful young messianic Jews dancing to klezmer music and singing Christian rock in Hebrew.
Skobac blames the Jewish community for failing to compete with this. Too many Jews have lost touch with the spiritual aspects of the religion, he says, and not enough work is being done to make it fun for young people.
Listening to him, I'm shocked he takes so little comfort from the huge numbers of Jews from Riverdale to Thornhill now joining Orthodox congregations, lighting Shabbat candles and keeping the Sabbath - certainly, far more significant than the dribble turning to Christ.
Jews for Jesus, however, doesn't think its new acolytes are few in number, but there's no accurate measure of recruitment; the only numbers available come from the organization.
"It's sad that (Jews for Judaism is) acting like the thought police, telling people what they can and cannot think," says Andrew Barron, who heads Jews for Jesus Canada. "It's tyranny. We've never said that what we teach is the same as what's taught in synagogues." He adds that the group uses so many references to Jesus, there's no way it could be confused with traditional Judaism.
The confrontation between the group and the Toronto Jewish community goes back to the early 1980s, when non-student missionaries handing out tracts at York University were banned for trespassing. That launched a lengthy legal battle, which Jews for Jesus lost.
But not all Jewish community leaders think the head-on approach is helpful. If anything, they think Jewish leaders are giving Jews for Jesus too much credibility by drawing so much attention to it.
"Let them do their shtick," says Eva Goldfinger, leader of Toronto's Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. "Who cares? They have the right to do what they're doing."
While Goldfinger doesn't approve of the sect's religious appropriation, she says, "I get just as worked up about the hysteria in the Jewish community. It's up to spiritual and secular leaders to make Judaism more interesting and attractive. We don't need Jews for Jesus to lose Jews." ***
It's a Sunday night at the Toronto Zionist Centre and a hundred people have amassed for a Stand Up For Judaism rally. The message? Christianity and Judaism are irreconcilable, and Jews for Jesus is as ludicrous as Quakers for Krishna, Hindus for Haile Selassi or Unitarians for Yoda. I silently add to the list Jews for paganism, thinking fondly of Starhawk and all the Jewish witches I know. Now that's a growing movement. And what would they make here of Leonard Cohen's two- year stay in the mountains with the monks? Speakers deride the sect, saying it's offensive it to their faith to see messianic Jews practising Christianity while mimicking Jewish traditions, from kippas and Hanukkah to calling their ministers rabbis.
Indeed, the home page of Jews for Jesus's ultra-Jewish founder, Moishe Rosen, is so filled with Yiddishisms, Woody Allen references and self-deprecating humour that it verges on parody.
Jews for Judaism, a group supported in part by the United Jewish Appeal to directly counter Jews for Jesus, is happy to parade its own star convert, Gavriel Aryeh Sanders, an evangelical Christian minister who became a Jew.
Sanders gives a forceful revival- style speech about the dangers of missionaries and assimilation. It ends with, "There are two kinds of Jews: those whose grandchildren will be Jewish and those whose won't." The fear of assimilation and spiralling intermarriage rates are never far away.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz takes the podium to tell the story of a California student he drew back to Judaism.
The young man prayed that he would find a Jewish replacement for his Christian fiancée - and it worked, Kravitz tells the applauding audience. The new woman even looked identical! I marvel at the weirdness.