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Wednesday
Jan272016

SAVED FROM THE CLUTCHES OF THE MISSION

The fascinating personal story of Amitai Schiff, who was caught in the net of missionaries and himself became a missionary who entrapped other Jews, until the day he discovered the truth.

A week before his beloved grandfather died, he asked to speak to his grandson.  The grandfather knew that his days were numbered, that he suffered from many chronic illnesses, including dementia.  His strength waned from one day to the next and his memory failed him.  Unlike previous encounters which revolved around general worldly topics, at this meeting the grandfather hardly said a word.  His grandson helped him get out of bed and the two of them walked into the living room in the assisted living home.  On the table was a siddur which the grandfather opened to the first page and he asked his grandson to read what it said.

On the first page was written the family tree which extended back hundreds of years.  Fifteen generations back was the Maharam Schiff whose incisive Torah work is learned throughout the yeshiva world.  Before that, the family is linked to Rashi and other Torah giants such as the Maharal and Rabbi Dovid Kitzis.  The page also noted that the family descended from the Shpole Zeide.  The grandson read and copied the list of names and the visit was over.  The grandfather died a week later.

The grandson was Amitai Schiff, today a Tamim who learns in the yeshiva in Ramat Aviv.  But back then he was drawn into the cult of Messianic Jews and had become a missionary who worked to convince Jews to convert r”l.  He stood out among the others and was sent by the organization to festivals and outreach efforts in Jewish communities in Germany, New York, Britain, and India.  Wherever he went he tried to convince Jews to believe in J (Yoshka).

“In that visit before his passing, my grandfather hardly said anything,” recalled Amitai.  “In general, that entire visit, which took place a week before he died, was a heavenly experience.”  After years of blind faith, cracks appeared in the religion he was trying to sell.  “Many questions and theological contradictions came up to which I had no answers.  When I asked the old-timers in the group, I got convoluted explanations that just intensified the feeling that I was on a false path.

“After the visit with my grandfather, I looked for information about those righteous people I descended from and found that they were geniuses, tzaddikim, and elevated individuals.  The question that hit me was, if the messianic path was correct, how come those wiser than me did not discover it? Perhaps I was too hasty and had been swept up in a false religion.

“Whenever I am asked what saved me from the missionaries, I say that it was a combination of my searching and the merit of my ancestors.”

OPEN MIRACLES AT THE BORDER

Amitai grew up in a traditional home in Ramat Gan. 

“When my grandmother was alive, we would go to her every Shabbos for kiddush.  Sometimes, someone would quote something from the parsha.  Aside from that, there wasn’t much content.  Judaism was no more than Jewish folklore.  At some point, my father became interested in Chabad Chassidus and starting attending farbrengens with the shliach, R’ Motti Gal a”h.  I joined a few farbrengens and I connected and there was a time that I was a mekurav at the Chabad House.”

Amitai’s first encounter with Chabad was when he walked down the street and a Lubavitcher asked him to come into the Chabad House to complete a minyan. 

“I was happy to oblige and after that I became a regular visitor there.  For a while I attended Tanya classes and was enthusiastic about the Rebbe and his global work, but unfortunately, like observing traditions, it impressed me but did not penetrate in a deep way.  When I was drafted I dropped it all.”

Amitai Schiff abandoned every crumb of tradition that he had from his home even though, he says, he always had a strong feeling of searching.

“My grandfather was a celebrated soldier in the Irgun who fought to found the State and I, the third generation, was always looking for the happy ending of what he fought for.  I looked for Moshiach, I looked for Geula, and I sought a world without war and without hatred, a world of love and peace.”

It was with these sentiments that he was drafted into a field Intelligence unit.  As a young soldier in the army he went through some tough times, as well as open miracles which shook him up.

“After months of training, I was assigned as an NCO Intelligence Officer to the Southern Command and served on the border with Gaza.  I was a good boy from Ramat Gan and the loudest explosion I had ever heard was firecrackers before Purim.  And there I was visiting outposts that were being sighted every day for mortar and sniper fire.  Those first days were traumatic for me.

“When the reverberations of bombs started to become routine and my fear dissipated, I began to experience open miracles.  The first miracle was when one morning I visited the border crossing near the Erez industrial area from where workers came and went from Gaza to Israel.  As an Intelligence person I had to install various intelligence gathering aids. One time, before I left the crossing area for the nearby army post, I noticed an Arab woman who was being examined by two border policemen stationed there.  I had just gone out when a strong explosion shook the area.

“I quickly went back to where the explosion had occurred and saw that that Arab woman was a suicide terrorist who murdered the two policemen checking her.  I pushed aside the thought of what would have happened if I had tarried there another minute or two.

“Two years later, in 5764, I was observing by way of cameras two armored personnel carriers that had gone to the Philadelphi Corridor in order to search out tunnels.  All was tranquil until suddenly, the earth opened up and two strong blasts demolished the vehicles and killed the thirteen soldiers in them.

“I watched all this on the cameras.  The images of the dead shook me up.  The pain struck me much more deeply when I found out that among the dead was my good friend, Lior Vizenski. From that point, the situation in our sector only got worse and being there was like playing Russian roulette, miracles and death.  I’ll never forget how I climbed up to a pillbox position when a bullet whistled over my head, or another time we did work on the protective fence and a few minutes after we left a shaped charge IED exploded which was meant to kill us.  It turns out that the delay mechanism had miraculously malfunctioned.”

ENSNARED

Toward the end of his military duty, Amitai went on furlough for a week.

“While running around taking care of some important personal matters, I came across three guys who were manning a stand.  On their shirts it said, Jews for J.  I was curious.  As foreign as this was to me, I was still very curious.  I wanted to understand how a Jew could believe in J while still continuing to be a Jew.

“After talking a little bit I wanted to leave but they offered me a booklet with questions and answers on the subject.  I took the booklet and read it at home.  I met the guys again and once again got into a conversation.  The missionaries’ clever tactics did their magic and in my naiveté I believed they were a small but interesting branch of Judaism.  I did not realize it was all a lie.  The fellow who spoke to me was an Israeli who had been studying mathematics in the US.  After talking for fifteen minutes, I gave him my personal contact information and we arranged to meet again.”

After nine months of independent, intensive learning of their books, Amitai came to certain conclusions which he believed in wholeheartedly.

“I mastered the theological material I had been given to read, but did not do any real deep research into the Jewish version of things regarding the prophecies that supposedly are about J.  My intensive army duty did not leave me time to delve into things deeply, and I became focused on the messianic version as absolute truth.

“After those nine months of study while simultaneously completing an officers’ course, I decided to become a missionary, though that’s not what we were called.  One of the old time missionaries in the group trained me, and for a long time I was happy to have become an integral part of the group that calls itself Messianic Jews.  At that time it was important to me to join a congregation of believers and be surrounded by fellow sharers of the secret, belief in J.  I tried a few congregations until I landed in the one in Bat Yam.”

After a short time he felt emptiness once again and switched to a congregation in Tel Aviv.

“I quickly felt I had found the right place where I could deepen my faith in J.  On my first visits to messianic Jewish communities, I was afraid that they were just playing with me and that these were completely Christian congregations.  I looked for Christian symbols but when I did not find any I was happy that these were in fact Jewish communities that believed in J and not in Christianity.  I loved the idea that you could remain a Jew, 100%, and at the same time believe in J.

“It’s only now, in hindsight, that I know that I fell victim to their fraud.  Now I know that the fact that there were no Christian symbols in their messianic communities was for only one purpose—to catch as many innocent Jews as they could in their net in order to convert them to Christianity.  Sad to say, I was caught and became a spreader of the word.  It’s not for naught that these cults call themselves Jewish congregations and they have Jewish symbols and their prayer houses are not called churches.

“For a number of years I was deeply involved with Jews for J, and as soon as my military service was over, I went on missions to New York and Berlin together with other Jews who were caught.  Unfortunately, I was successful.  I took an active role in missionary trips to various festivals that take place around the country, in the south and the north.  I dropped everything else and devoted all my time to this.  Wherever we went, we found creative ways to ensnare Jews.”

How did they convince someone who as a teenager participated in farbrengens and attended Tanya classes?

After I became interested in Judaism I thought a lot about how the missionaries had been able to exploit me.  The reality is they are clever and operate wisely.

I was in a sensitive state after the dramatic events I had experienced in the army and I was looking for something spiritual and this is how they got to me.  Aside from that, they know how to market their wares in a way that doesn’t scare you off.  They don’t tell you to become a Christian, but “come and be a better Jew.”  They also know how to connect you right away with the right community that suits you and will be a support group.

In the first community I was in, in Bat Yam, I met a member of the community, a Company Sergeant Major in Givati.  You meet ordinary Israelis, people in high-tech.  It is very important to them to create a sense of togetherness and it definitely has an effect.  They speak to you a lot against religious Jews and create a sense of segregation.

How did your parents, traditional Jews, react when their son became a missionary?

In the initial stages, I hid it from them.  My family became aware of my being part of a group of messianic Jews only at a later point, when I started working to convince Jews to believe in J.  I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my father after neighbors and acquaintances in the neighborhood saw me set up a stand in the train station in Arlozorov.  My father was in shock about what he heard. He suggested that I meet with rabbis who would explain my mistake to me but of course I refused.

In the summer of 5766 I went through one of my most difficult times as a missionary.  During a campaign that I was a part of in Jewish communities in New York, I met the rabbi from Ramat Gan who learned with me and prepared me for my bar mitzva.  He just appeared out of nowhere.  He tried to talk to me but was not successful.  When he returned to Eretz Yisroel he told my father sadly what I was up to.  My father took this very hard and was beside himself with anguish.  When I returned home I got it over the head from him. Some time later things between us heated up even more and a short time later my father told me sadly that he was unwilling to have me live at home as long as I continued to talk about messianic Jews.

That night I found myself at a loss, out of my home.  The breakdown in my relationship with my father saddened me tremendously because family is important to me.  I had to wander from one friend’s house to another and they supported me and became my family.  This only served to deepen my connection within the messianic community and strengthened my faith in J.

***

After seven years as a missionary, Amitai decided to learn more about messianic theology and he went to study at Israel College of the Bible, a seminary in Netanya which trains missionaries.  There he was exposed to messianic ideology and to the gaps between it and the traditional view of Judaism. 

“I discovered believing Jews who go to a Lutheran church and call it, in innocence or denial, a Jewish community.  After studying for two and a half years, I chose not to continue my studies and moved to Beit Emanuel in Yaffo.”

FIRST DOUBTS

“I began to have doubts.  It started with a gut feeling that they weren’t telling me the whole truth, but I couldn’t put my finger on what the lies were.  When I later started doing research, I found that Christianity is divided into denominations and sub-denominations that are different from one another not only in their dress and practices but in their entire grasp of what Christianity is about.  I also saw that Christianity has no set principles and every priest does what he wants and the faith changes according to the spirit of the time and place.

“After seven years of blind faith I began to sober up but it did not happen instantly.  G-d began showing me different things in order to get me out of the clutches of the missionaries.”

In 5770, after Amitai left his studies at the missionary seminary, he decided to pursue academic studies, first in a college prep academy and a year later he started attending Bar Ilan University. Two years after that, he took a course on Jewish Thought.  Despite the many cracks, there were moments when he thought that along the way he would be able to convince at least some of the lecturers and participants about faith in J.

“In the various courses I found myself defending messianic belief.  As the topics of free choice and the fate of the Jewish people came up, I started delving into books of Jewish thought and the differences between Judaism and Christianity.  I saw that the messianic faith which I had worshiped had fed me falsity in fine packaging.

“During a sociology class, for example, we learned about genealogy and roots and we were shown firsthand how one goes about doing a proper research project on family histories, in Torah, in Scripture and throughout the generations, as opposed to entire nations which left behind mighty archaeological monuments but no family trees.  The Jewish nation always preserved its genealogical tree. I spent days and nights trying to piece together the ancestry of J, and to my disappointment found that most of it is full of holes and contradictions that no rational explanation could resolve for me.

“I tried to deal with this fact.  I asked the experts in the messianic cults but discovered that the messianic answers did not comport with any serious academic research.  The false genealogical tree taught me that J’s so-called messianic identity was just as fictional, which was in addition to the fact that the description of him does not fit the description of Moshiach according to Torah and Jewish tradition.”

The doubts in messianic faith were painful for him.  At first he decided to keep them to himself.  He felt ashamed by the very fact that he had doubts about his faith.  After thinking about it some more, he decided to clarify things in depth, to rethink it and to try and salvage his messianic faith that he had held for years.

His doubts gave him no rest. He decided to share them with some of the “shepherds of the community,” teachers, preachers, and fellow believers.  Despite the desire by some of them to help him, the theological answers he got were not satisfying.  Their stutters and stammers led him to conclude that the teachings of messianic Judaism are a “re-engineering” of the texts by the Catholic church.  He discovered that the Torah warns the Jewish people not to exchange their belief in G-d with belief in another G-d, that a person or image cannot be ascribed to G-d, and the choice of the Jewish people as His nation never wavers throughout the scriptural narrative.

When he delved deeper into the verses he discovered that the Christian commentators took many of them out of context.

“There is a chapter that the missionaries always wave about, Yeshayahu 53, where it speaks about a suffering servant of G-d.  They decided it is talking about J.  When I opened the Navi and read the chapter before it and the chapter after it I realized that the prophet was using the term “eved” for the Jewish people and not a specific person.  I found distortions of verses nearly every day and I began to feel I was living a lie.”

REKINDLING THE LIGHT

At that time of inner turmoil, one day Amitai went to bring in the mail and he found a brochure published by Yad L’Achim.

“I had no idea how they got my address.  I had heard about the organization during the seven years I was living a mistake, how they destroy our work.  I began reading their publication.  It had questions and answers and I felt such a relief reading them.”

He read it from beginning to end and all that night he did not sleep.  He mulled over the invective he had constantly heard against Yad L’Achim, about how they were thugs and violent people.  Despite everything, he decided to take a big risk and make a move.  The many doubts he felt, along with the questionable statements he was hearing from the shepherds of the community and other people around him, had lit red warning lights in his mind.

“On the last page of the booklet there was a phone number with an invitation to members of messianic communities to sit and discuss theology with them.  In light of my doubts I decided to meet up with them in order to check out my faith.  My fingers shook as I dialed the number.”

On the line was a nice person by the name of Danny who arranged a meeting for him at the Yad L’Achim office.  Amitai went to the meeting and another nine meetings were arranged with R’ Asor.  Although he already understood the lies of Jews for J, his animal soul was not willing to surrender so quickly.   Amitai fought like a lion.  He asked tough questions and fought for the messianic faith.  But after the long series of meetings, each of which took several hours, he finally acknowledged the lie of messianic Judaism.

That happened three years ago.  After much soul searching and a long inner journey he decided to return to his roots, to his parents, his family and friends.  Even his elderly maternal grandfather who was 95 and suffered over his being lost to his people, managed to have one happy year with him before he died, satisfied with his descendants who carried on the Jewish chain of tradition.

How did your former friends, the missionaries, react?

They were in shock.  You have to understand that in these communities there are Jews and gentiles, some of them are innocent, i.e. they truly and innocently believe in these things.  They were stunned that I had crossed lines.  When I made the move, I decided, in consultation with someone at Yad L’Achim, to do it loudly.  I was interviewed together with Rabbi Asor for one of the religious Internet sites, and one by one I refuted their claims.  Then I shut my cell phone because I knew that they would hear about the interview and would be calling me with attempts to dissuade me.  I later found out that the messianic Jews produced a magazine in order to respond to all the points I brought up.

Because I left, more and more young people left.  I checked things out and know that whoever got involved in Jews for J through me, ultimately left it.

TRUE HOMECOMING

After returning to his Jewish roots, Amitai met a Lubavitcher by the name of Yoav Robinson and they became close friends. 

“During the past three years he has been helping me execute a tikkun for the past and connect me in a deep inner way to the Rebbe and Chassidus.” 

According to Amitai, the closure to his story took place on Simchas Torah of this year in 770.

“Last year I was with Yoav in Kfar Chabad and we wrote to the Rebbe through the Igros Kodesh.  The answer I opened to was that before going to 770 I needed to have study sessions.  So this past year, along with my job as a traffic light inspector, I have regular study sessions, some with study partners in the yeshiva in Ramat Aviv.  And then I went to the Rebbe for Simchas Torah.  The experience is indescribable. It entered my neshama in a deep way.

“Throughout my visit I thought of my previous visit to New York when I had come to talk about J.  This time, I wore a suit and hat and was in the home of the Nasi Ha’dor, Moshiach Hashem.”

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