Aliyah with a cat, a dog and Jesus

Jerusalem, Israel - They claim Israeli citizenship under the Right of Return; the state says they forfeited their rights to immigrate as Jews when they accepted Jesus as the messiah

A growing number of messianic Jews are seeking to immigrate to Israel by means of the Right of Return law that makes every Jew eligible for citizenship.

According to a Jewish Agency official speaking off the record recently, fewer than 100 self-identified messianic Jews seek to immigrate annually, but that number is rising.

"The messianic movement has a campaign for aliyah and our emissaries are approached [by messianic Jews] with increasing frequency," the official said.

The movement, also known as Jews for Jesus, is growing especially in the United States and Israel. The community is somewhat secretive because of its unpopularity with the Jewish establishment, so hard figures are difficult to come by. In the United States, there are an estimated 200 congregations with tens of thousands of followers. Locally, there are congregations in nearly every major city. A survey conducted within the local community in 1997-98 reported 5,000 active members. Representatives say this number may now be as high as 12,000, but experts call this a great exaggeration.

For nearly two years, "Sarah Jacobs" [not her real name] has been trying to obtain new immigrant status in Israel. Born and raised in an Orthodox home in Brooklyn, she sees Israel as an undeniable and inseparable part of her Jewish identity.

The Minister of the Interior rejected her application for citizenship because she believes that Jesus is the messiah.

According to a 1970 amendment to the Law of Return, Jews who have voluntarily changed their religion are ineligible immigrate under that law. Messianic Jews hold that their belief in Jesus does not make them Christian, and that they remain Jewish despite it.

In December 1989, Israel's Supreme Court set a legal precedent when it denied the right of return to Gary and Shirley Beresford, messianic Jews from South Africa.

The Beresfords wed in an Orthodox synagogue in South Africa, observed the Sabbath and maintained the dietary laws of kashruth.

In rejecting their petition, Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon cited their belief in Jesus.

"In the last two thousand years of history...the Jewish people have decided that messianic Jews do not belong to the Jewish nation...and have no right to force themselves on it," he wrote, concluding that "those who believe in Jesus, are, in fact Christians."

The state's position is backed by all streams of normative Judaism, none of which recognizes messianic Jews as Jews.

The messianic Jews cannot expect support from would-be allies on the other side, either. The Christian Allies Caucus, a Knesset lobby group that aims to further ties between the Israeli government and the Christian world, refuses to work with the messianic Jewish community on the grounds that it actively seeks to convert Jews. "We believe they work against the interests of the State of Israel," caucus director Josh Reinstein explained.

Jewish neo-Nazis

Viewed from another angle, however, Jacobs' story raises questions about the way in which the Law of Return is applied.

In recent weeks, neo-Nazi "skinheads" - some of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came here under the Right of Return - have assaulted ultra-Orthodox Jews in Petah Tikva and defaced the city's Great Synagogue. Jacobs, for her part, spent nearly a year praying at the Western Wall for several hours a day to pray for Israel. She is active in a Jerusalem organization that rescues abused street cats, volunteers regularly at local soup kitchens and has participated in Sar-El, the IDF program for overseas volunteers. Jacobs says that since arriving here two years ago with her husband, she has been hoping to "help Israel" any way she can.

"I have an insatiable love for Israel," she says to explain her desire to obtain citizenship. "It is a deep love of Israel that God has awakened within me. I can't describe it to you intellectually. It's something in my heart and in my spirit."

According to 1997-98 survey of over 80 messianic congregations and prayer groups in Israel, only 60 percent of the 5,000 active members are Jewish by birth, and the vast majority of the community's Jewish leadership found their new faith before coming to Israel.

The study was published by the Caspari Center, a messianic Jewish educational organization housed in a discreet office on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, as "Facts and Myths about the Messianic Jewish Congregation in Israel."

According to activists in Yad L'Achim, an anti-missionary group, the largest numbers of messianic Jews in Israel are Russian-speakers who joined the community after immigrating, followed by Israeli Jews and American-born messianic Jews. They say it is this last group that provides the community's leaders. "They are only a small percentage, but they came as emissaries and they are the leaders," said one Yad L'Achim activist. "Most of them came, made aliyah and are citizens."

Jacobs' parents immigrated from Hungary. Some of their relatives died in the Holocaust. Jacobs was raised in New York in a strictly observant home, and she has a sister who is Chabad-Lubavitch and lives in Crown Heights.

"I am a Jew," she insists. "I am definitely a Jew. I was born a Jew, I will die a Jew. I am a Jew."

But in 1980, after distancing herself from Judaism, Jacobs began reading the controversial Christian Zionist Hal Lindsey, author of bestsellers including "The Late, Great Planet Earth." For several years she attended church and considered herself Christian, but stopped going until she discovered a messianic Jewish congregation. She insists that she never converted to Christianity and no longer considers herself Christian. She celebrates Passover and Shavuot, not Christmas and Easter.

When Jacobs and her non-Jewish husband completed Sar-El they began planning their aliyah. Jacobs decided against applying to the Nefesh B'Nefesh immigrant support program when she was asked to identify herself as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. "I could have said that I was secular, but that wasn't true and I didn't want to be dishonest," she said.

When is a Jew not a Jew

The couple then approached the Jewish Agency in the U.S., which told them that since Sarah was Jewish but her husband was not they were were eligible for a "split aliyah." Jacobs provided documentation to prove that she was Jewish but did not tell the emissary about her messianic beliefs.

In November, 2004 the couple shipped 31 boxes to Jerusalem and even transported their elderly cat and dog. Then, Jacobs recalled, the emissary began asking about her beliefs: Does she believe in Jesus? Had she converted to Christianity? Had she ever proselytized to a Jew?

They were already in Israel when they learned, a few weeks later, that their immigration application had been rejected.

Jacobs' visa expired early last year and requests for another have been denied. A Jewish Agency spokesperson cited the 1989 Supreme Court ruling and Interior Ministry guidelines as the basis for its policies.

Jacobs has met several messianic Jews who came as immigrants from the U.S. She says they must have "snuck in, because why would they have let them in but not me?"

Israeli officials say they have no way of knowing how many messianic Jews have immigrated under the Right of Return. An Interior Ministry spokesperson said that legal steps can be taken against individuals for lying on their citizenship applications, including the concealment of messianic beliefs.

Jacobs, meanwhile, is afraid that she will be forced to return to the U.S. despite her deep commitment to Israel.