Global Conference on Russian Jewish Church Planting
WARSAW, POLAND, SEPTEMBER 14-18
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I recently attended the fourth Russian Messianic Jewish Leaders in Warsaw, Poland. This monumental event was sponsored by Chosen People Ministries and was attended by 150 leaders of Russian-speaking Messianic congregations and ministries from around the globe. The previous conferences were held in Berlin, Jerusalem and Kiev.
Each city was chosen for its importance to Jewish life and history. Berlin was chosen because of the Nazi-initiated effort to destroy the Jewish population; Jerusalem, for obvious reasons as it has always been the capital of Jewish life and spirituality. It is also a reminder of God’s faithfulness to the Jewish people. There are now more Russian-speaking Jewish people living in Israel than all the nations of the former Soviet Union (FSU) combined! Kiev, at one time, had the largest number of Jewish people in the FSU and was the home of many influential rabbis, scholars and Jewish leaders.
Prior to World War II, Warsaw was the largest Jewish city in the world. Before the Holocaust, Poland itself had three million Jewish people living in its environs. Much of modern Jewish culture and religious thought as we know it today was formed and shaped in Poland – the country that unfortunately lost the greatest number of Jewish people during the Holocaust.
If one was to analyze the movement of the Holy Spirit among Jewish people in the post-Holocaust era it would become immediately clear that the late 1960s through the early 1980s was a season of spectacular spiritual renewal within the Jewish community as thousands upon thousands of Jewish people became followers of Jesus the Messiah during this time. This movement is often paralleled to the way the Spirit of God worked among Jewish people during the Book of Acts!
Some have suggested that the social unrest; the impact of the Vietnam war, the counterculture and race riots sparked the growth of the Jesus movement when many Jewish and Gentile young people became followers of Yeshua the Messiah. The popularity of the film, Roots and the desire to connect with a stabilizing heritage consumed many young people. This led to non-Messianic renewal movements within the Jewish community as well. But, those Jewish young people who came to faith in Yeshua seemed to rediscover their Jewish identities. The growing importance of the nation of Israel also had an effect on the “Jewish Jesus movement” as well.
There were also a number of young Israelis who became believers in Jesus at that time – especially post-army travelers looking for truth and the meaning of life. Today, many of those Israelis who found the Lord at that time are the current leaders of the burgeoning Messianic movement in Israel.
Yet, there was one very large group of Jewish people who remained unreached by the Gospel as they were behind the Iron Curtain. There, the message of the Messiah was somewhat inaccessible, except through the Orthodox Church. Which, for many generations, was generally viewed as hostile towards the Jewish people. On a popular level this was certainly true if one was to look at the actions of many Ukrainian and Russian common people who participated in the pogroms of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Additionally, communism attempted to wipe away all ethnic and religious distinctives. Although these attempts were never fully successful, it was quite difficult to be a practicing Jewish person under the various communist regimes.
Things have changed decisively with the fall of the Iron Curtain and break up of the FSU during the time of Perestroika in approximately 1989. From that event forward, more than two million Jewish people left the FSU for Israel primarily, but also the United States, Canada, Germany and Australia. By far the largest group immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return and this movement continues today, especially due to the continued unrest in Eastern Ukraine.
Once again, social unrest opened the door to spiritual renewal, as many Russian-speaking Jewish people have become followers of Jesus during the last quarter century. Chosen People Ministries sponsored these conferences and I attended each of them. I remember at the first conference in Germany, when the leaders were introducing themselves and I was listening to their testimonies through translation, that there were only a small minority who became disciples of Jesus before Perestroika. Of course, they did not start their congregations until the early 1990s and afterwards.
While at the conference, each moment was packed with this rich sense of privilege for being able to view the fruit of an authentic movement of the Holy Spirit in a city where the Jewish people were almost completely destroyed. It was an incredibly moving experience.
This movement has grown rapidly in Israel and some say that 60% of the 12,000-15,000 Messianic Jews in Israel today speak Russian as their first language. Now, many of the leaders have planted multiple congregations, received training at various seminaries and Bible schools and have decades of experience as pastors or Messianic rabbis.
Chosen People Ministries now has 30-plus staff members who are Russian-speaking Jewish people on our global staff. Prior to this movement of the Spirit, we had one!
This is an undeniable, true movement of the Holy Spirit among the Jewish people. This is a signpost telling us that we are moving closer to the future redemption of all Israel described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 11:11-29.
This movement is impacting the worldwide Messianic Jewish community in many ways. A good number of our Russian-speaking Jewish people are contributing so much to our ongoing movement which now numbers into the hundreds of thousands.
The conference attendees listened to lectures, enjoyed various workshops that focused on evangelism, children’s work, caring for the elderly and much more. One of the major concerns of the conference was the issue of Jewish identity in the Messiah as Russian Jews. Many had been raised to believe that it was impossible to be Jewish and believe in Yeshua the Messiah! These leaders are now growing in their understanding of what it means to be Jewish.
The differences in how the Russian Messianic Jewish Israelis viewed these issues is quite different than for those who live in the Diaspora and in the nations of the FSU. The Israelis now live in our Jewish homeland and have an easier time figuring out how to express their Jewish identity and pass it along to the next generation. It became clear that though the common language of the attendees was Russian, the Messianic leaders formed three distinct groups; those from Israel, those from the FSU, and those from the West. It was clear that the longer they had been away from the FSU the more their understanding of what it means to be a Jewish follower of Jesus was shaped.
Those still living in the nations of the FSU probably had the least influence of more mainstream Jewish life. Yet they were the most eager to learn more about Jewishness of Jesus. They express their faith in worshipping the Messiah Jesus with Hebrew liturgies. The Russian-Israeli Messianic Jews have a more nationalistic identity as Israelis and struggle the least with their Jewish identities.
So many of the Russian-speaking Messianic Jewish leaders expressed the sentiment that they were now able to enjoy their traditions and expressions of Jewishness that were previously denied them by the Soviets! This was a driving thought throughout the conference – recapturing what the Soviets attempted to take away. As one of the leaders said, “we were robbed of our Jewish identity and now we have taken it back through knowing Jesus the Messiah.” So many of these believers have endured persecution for the sake of the Gospel. However, they remain unashamed of Yeshua and of their Jewish identities. They tend to wear yarmulkes (skull caps), even in Europe where many Jewish people do not do so for safety reasons as antisemitism is on the rise.
The Russian Messianic community want to publicly identify as Jews for many reasons. Above all so that they can share the Gospel in a Jewish way to Jewish people. The Israelis also seem to have a great burden to reach the religious Jewish community as well. Those who live in Russia, especially Moscow, are now also trying to continue their ministries and desire religious freedom in light of greater restrictions today. Their heart is to share the Gospel with others freely.
Continued poverty is also an issue in Israel among elderly Russian Holocaust survivors. Chosen People Ministries has a fruitful ministry to these dear people as do many of the other Russian-speaking Messianic congregations and ministries. Additionally, the Messianic Jews in Ukraine are having a difficult time because of the fighting in this dangerous region, which has impacted the Jewish people – especially the elderly Jewish population. Some of the believers and nonbelievers are simply too old to move to Israel and Chosen People Ministries is helping congregations in the area with benevolence funds.
The fellowship and worship times were incredible – especially Friday night and Saturday morning, which is when most of these Messianic congregations usually have their services. Just the fact that Jewish believers in Jesus were gathered in Warsaw was amazing. A gathering of this nature had not taken place in Poland since the Holocaust!
Please continue reading the reports of each day activities and enjoy the pictures and amateur videos so that you can somehow touch this great and growing movement of Russian-speaking Jewish followers of Jesus – the Jewish Messiah for all!