Messianic congregation wins legal battle against anti-missionaries

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Ultra-Orthodox blocking entrance to Beit Hallel Messianic congregation, March 2020 (Photo: courtesy Beit Hallel)

A Messianic congregation in Ashdod won a court case this week against the anti-missionary organization, Yad l’Achim after years of prolonged harassment.

“They harassed us for so long. We filed dozens of complaints with the police and nothing happened so eventually we went to court,” Ludmila Zakharchuk, lawyer for Congregation Beit Hallel, told KNI. “We won the court case just a few days ago.”

The court placed a restraining order preventing the harassers from coming within 100 meters of the congregation’s property and personal homes.

“It remains to be seen whether they will follow the court order this coming Friday or not,” Zakharchuk said.

The 350 believers who attend services in Ashdod have been subjected to harassment since 2011. Legal pressure caused the anti-missionaries to back down for a few years, but in 2018 a group of Haredi Jews defaced and vandalized the congregation and, since then, have ramped up the harassment.

“In January 2020 they organized a large anti-missionary convention here in Ashdod with more than 30 rabbis and, from that point, they started to come to our congregation to harass us every Friday when we have our meetings,” Zakharchuk told KNI.

The congregation in Ashdod is involved in providing humanitarian aid in the city. Each month, the ministry helps 1,200 families from Holocaust survivors and people with disabilities to single mothers and new immigrants. The congregation provides food, clothing and counseling to those who are in need. Some 100 volunteers man the center.

Yad l’Achim latches onto these activities, accusing the congregation of operating missionary activity disguised by humanitarian aid, saying that believers are “manipulating people in weak conditions.” This is a known tactic used by Yad l’Achim – discrediting Messianic humanitarian aid so that religious Jews can have a monopoly on helping the poor.

Yad l’Achim’s website reported about the January convention: “About 500 people of the Haredi sector attended the convention, led by the chief rabbis of the city, to increase awareness of the destructive missionary activity and to stand united in crushing counter measures.” Yes, those very words – פעילות מחץ נגדית.

According to the website, the attending rabbis described Messianic Jews as “the forces of impurity.” Quotes included inciting statements such as: “All Israel need to care for one another and save our brethren from the missionary forces of darkness;” “Anyone who saves one Jewish soul is as if he has saved the whole world;” “Do not be afraid of the great amount of resources that the missionaries invest in trying to convert Jews. Be strong and courageous.”

The Chief Rabbi of Ashdod said, “We cannot stand quiet when we see this destructive missionary activity occur in our city.” Vice Mayor of Ashdod Yechiel Weingraten, who is Haredi, praised the activity of Yad l’Achim to “purify their city.”

Rabbi Benjamin Kluger, described as an ex-missionary, gave a presentation about how Messianics “work from within,” according to Yad l’Achim’s article. Yad l’Achim did not mention, however, that Kluger was arrested in 2012 for vandalism against Messianic Jews (cars, churches and harassment), and that his title as “ex-missionary” is highly misleading. He grew up as a French Christian but converted to Judaism when he was 19 years old after unpleasant experiences of being silenced when voicing questions about the faith.

Harassment against the Ashdod congregation picked up again following the conference.

“In the beginning, right after the convention they were maybe 10 people. They made some noise, had public prayer and prevented people from entering our building,” Zakharchuk told KNI. “Then they raised the amount of people who came to harass us to 30, and then they started to send busloads of people from Bnei Brak with 50 or more people. On Purim they came with loudspeakers and distributed leaflets. It just got worse and worse, with noise specifically intended to disrupt our service. This went on until the coronavirus lockdown.”

During the lockdown, the congregation operated according to Health Ministry restrictions, which limited the number of participants at different stages and eventually closed houses of worship altogether briefly. Nevertheless, Yad l’Achim told police the congregation violated the rules.

“Once during a livestream from the congregation, the police arrived with welders, intending to weld our doors shut,” Zakharchuk said. “When they realized that the complaint filed against us was false, the police left us alone.”

When COVID restrictions were lifted, the congregation hoped to meet without being harassed.

“But eventually they showed up again, giving out flyers, putting up Yad l’Achim posters, harassing and taking photos of the people who attend the congregation,” Zakharchuk said. “Because of the corona limitations, we operated the Sabbath school for the kids outside, in the parking lot. They came and harassed them too, took photos of them, gave out leaflets – to children.”

Ironically, proselytizing children is the only missionary activity prohibited in Israel and Yad l’Achim often complains that any Messianic outreach that children might see is “illegal.” Evidently, they don’t mind distributing anti-missionary leaflets to Messianic children, an obvious violation of the very same law.

“We sued the leader of Yad l’Achim and several attendees, and the owner of the property on the other side of the street who cooperates with them and set up cameras to spy on us,” Zakharchuk told KNI.

During the trial, Yad l’Achim’s lawyer did not deny the facts, but claimed that they were protesting peacefully and that they want to “remove the masks” of the Messianic Jews, proving to their “victims” that they are Christians and not Jews.

“They are really on our tail all the time,” Zakharchuk said. “We open a building to store food parcels that we want to give out, they complain to the municipality that we are having illegal gatherings there. We get a closure order that we need to appeal to prove them wrong. Our legal battle against the municipality is still ongoing.”

“No synagogue or mosque would accept that people who oppose their faith would come and harass them like this. It’s scandalous. Harassing or disturbing a religious practice is prohibited in the law, but the police haven’t cared enough to enforce it. We had no choice but to go to court.”

The court decision, signed by Judge Adi Eisdorfer, prohibits Yad l’Achim and its activists from coming within 100 meters of the building. It also forbids them from using loud music and dances that block entry into the congregation. They may not gather in groups larger than allowed by law and they must obtain permits for every protest. They are also forbidden to film or photograph the congregation and their people, set up signs and posters or hand out leaflets. The owner of the property opposite the congregation may not share the footage from his surveillance cameras with anyone except the police and the court.

Israel Pochtar, the congregational leader in Ashdod, thanked supporters for their prayers that led to this victory.

“We thank Yeshua for this victory, but we still need continuous prayers while we see how these things translate in action since this Friday will be the first test after court’s decision and that’s the day of our weekly service when they always come to our doorstep,” Pochtar wrote. “Despite this being a spiritual warfare, it is also a legal battle, and however just it is, it doesn’t make it any less costly, as you can imagine. It’s especially hard now, during the corona crisis, when our congregation has experienced a tremendous drop in our donations. If it’s on your heart to contribute somehow to our legal battles, we would be grateful.”