After more than 30 years of leading congregations of Messianic Jews, Rabbi Ed Rothman has developed two very important skills: patience and tolerance. Patience because he knows that he's going to be asked the same question over and over, and tolerance because he knows that some people are going to get angry at the answer.

Messianic Jews are Jews who believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. Many Jews think that that makes them Christians, but many Christians still consider them Jews. And a whole lot of people are confused.

"The question I get asked the most is, 'How can you be Jewish and believe in Jesus?'" said Rothman, the rabbi at Seed of Abraham Messianic Congregation in St. Louis Park. "And I always say, 'Don't forget that all of Jesus' disciples were Jewish.'"

When Rothman founded his first synagogue, there were only about six Messianic Jewish congregations nationwide. Now, there are about 400, according to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA) and the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. Three of them are in the Twin Cities area: Anoka, St. Paul and St. Louis Park.

In some ways, Messianic Jews are left facing the worst of both religious worlds. They're subject to anti-Semitism by some non-Jews and shunned by some of their fellow Jews. It could be worse. In Israel, Messianic synagogues have been burned down in protest, said Jan Markell, a Minnesota author and radio talk-show host who, like Rothman, was a pioneer in the state's Messianic movement during the 1970s.

"The Jewish community gets very upset with anyone who tries to win over Jews to Jesus," said Markell, founder of Olive Tree Ministry, a Bible-based educational outreach program based in Maple Grove.

Rothman agrees. Since helping launch the state's first Messianic congregation in 1976, he's been vilified in print and in person. But while he preaches about Jesus, he also preaches about acceptance.

"If they believe, we're here as their friends," he said. "And if they don't believe, we're still here as their friends."

Loose band of believers in a no-man's land

In terms of where Messianic Jews fit into the overall religious landscape, they're in sort of a denominational no-man's land, said the Rev. Chris Morton, director of organizational development for the Minnesota Council of Churches.

"They don't really have a foothold in either the Christian or Jewish communities," he said. "They call themselves Jewish but the Jews don't accept them. And the Christians don't relate to them. They're a loose band that exists all by themselves."

The seeming contradiction between Judaism and the belief in Jesus as the Messiah disappears if you keep in mind that the term Jewish can be used in cultural and ethnic contexts as well as religious ones, Markell said. Members of Messianic congregations are looking for a worship experience that plugs into their background.

Attending "a Gentile Christian church can be quite a culture shock" for someone raised in a Jewish environment, Markell said. A Messianic congregation "is a place I feel at home. We do a lot of Jewish music, and we do some readings in Hebrew. We want to identify with Israel and the Jewish people."

A recent Shabbat service at Seed of Abraham moved seamlessly from Judaism to Christianity and back again. The service began with the traditional Jewish blowing of the shofar (ram's horn) but ended with the Christian benediction "May the Lord bless you and keep you. ... " A reading from the Torah was followed by one from the New Testament book of Romans. Often, the first verse of a song was in Hebrew, but the rest was in English.

There was also a spirit of evangelicalism. While the music played, dancers performed and some worshipers waved "spirit banners." Cries of "amen" rang out during prayers, and members of the congregation were encouraged to step forward with personal testimonies.

The roots of Christianity

Although the MJAA was founded in 1915, the Messianic movement really came into its own thanks to cultural forces beginning in the late 1960s, Markell said. The "young hippies, regardless of their religion" were breaking away from established religions "to find something that worked for them. It wasn't just us [who benefited]. It was Buddhism, Hinduism and New Age Christianity."

The boom has passed, but new members are still joining, "especially young Jews [who] are searching for something they can hang onto," Markell said. "Not all, but some, are discovering that Judaism doesn't work for them."

Messianic Jews argue that Christianity is deeply rooted in Judaism and thus doesn't conflict with Jewish tradition. For instance, they celebrate both Jewish and Christian holidays, although they focus more on the former.

"Many Jews assume that to follow Yeshua [Jesus] is to leave the faith of their fathers and become non-Jews," the MJAA says. That's a "misperception." In its statement of faith, the MJAA focuses on the common roots of Jews and Christians, arguing that both are descendants of Abraham.

"True Biblical Judaism, the faith of first-century believers, which we seek to practice, acknowledges the continuity of faith in the one true God, revealed throughout the Scriptures, and ultimately manifested in God's Son, Yeshua the Messiah," the statement says.

Most people know the Messianic movement through the Jews for Jesus organization. That group tends to keep a low profile in this part of the country. Jews for Jesus is a national evangelical group that focuses specifically on converting Jews to Christianity. Based in California, where it was founded in the mid-1970s, it is not officially associated with either of the national Messianic organizations.

"The thing that a lot of Jews are worried about is that we're trying to convert their people, and we're not," Rothman said. "Jews for Jesus is a very assertive missionary group. We've invited their speakers to talk to us when they're in town. But that sort of in-your-face approach doesn't work here. We've found that friendship is the best form of evangelicalism."

Which doesn't mean that everyone gets along. Rothman's parents were shunned by some members of their Conservative Jewish synagogue when he broke away from the fold.

"My parents tolerated [his decision] because I'd already gone through my surfing phase, my rock 'n' roll phase and my dirt bike phase, and they expected that within a year I'd move on to a new phase," he said.

"When they saw how it grounded me, they said, 'This isn't for us, but it's the best thing that has happened to you.'"

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392