Messianic Christian Couple in Israel Accused of Converting Minor
Ultra-Orthodox Jews harass, threaten pair even though 16-year-old has not converted.
By Wayne King
JERUSALEM, July 2 MPBS24/7(A CDN REPORT) â A hard-line Jewish ultra-Orthodox group in Israel that singles out Jewish Christians known as Messianic Jews for harassment and abuse is taking aim at a couple it claims is manipulating minors into becoming Christians.
The group, Yad LâAchim, this week placed leaflets around the home of Serge and Naama Kogen, 37 and 42 respectively, in Mevasseret Zion, a suburban community located just west of Jerusalem. The same week someone took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper giving the coupleâs address and telling residents they were part of a missionary group âtargetingâ the community. The Kogens are native Israelis and hence not part of any missionary group.
The advertisement invited the public to a protest planned against the Kogens, and on Sunday (June 26), about 20 of the groupâs supporters demonstrated outside the coupleâs home, where they denounced them over megaphones for 90 minutes.
The protests came after Yad LâAchim lost a court case against the Kogens and their congregational leader, Asher Intrater. The group had accused them of âproselytizingâ minors.
During the protest, a distraught 16-year-old girl, the alleged target of the coupleâs âmissionaryâ efforts, said all of Yad LâAchimâs claims were false. Donna Lubofsky maintains that she has never converted to Christianity. She wanted to speak at the protest to give her side of what happened, but the organizers wouldnât let her, she said.
âThey are all liars, all liars! Ask them, why wonât they let me speak?â Donna told Compass at the protest. âThey wonât let me speak because what they are saying is untrue. They [the Kogens] never tried to get me to believe. They are just good people.â
âLot of Loveâ
The Kogens met Donna a year ago while they were next-door neighbors. Naama Kogen said Donna, whom she described as a âgenius,â had some issues adjusting to a new school, and her home life seemed problematic. The girl quickly became a regular fixture at the Kogen household and âa close part of the family,â in Kogenâs words.
âShe said she had never seen a family like ours. We have a lot of love in our home,â Kogen said, adding the teenager told her the time she spent in their house was the first time she felt loved. Kogen said that during the course of the friendship, problems persisted in the girlâs home, and at times she was afraid to return there. She also said the teenager began experimenting with alcohol and other potentially self-destructive behaviors from which the Kogens were able to deter her.
âI told her she would be the only one to suffer in the end,â Kogen said. âStep by step, I started to see an improvement.â
Kogen and her husband were emphatic in their claim they never discussed religion with Donna, but that she expressed interest in attending their congregational worship. Kogen said she obtained permission from Donnaâs mother, and she attended Shabbat meetings with the congregation for about two months.
But Donnaâs mother, Bella Lubofsky, told protestors that the Kogens âtookâ the girl âevery Friday.â
Despite the progress Donna was making in some areas of her personal life, her family life was still in tatters, according to Kogen. She said she urged Donna to approach her parents and try to reconcile their relationship, but things remained tense.
The problems came to a head after a disagreement at the Kogen home when Lubofsky allegedly pushed her daughter, and the Kogens had her spend the night until things calmed down. Soon afterward, Lubofsky reported the Kogens to the police for âproselytizing.â
Serge Kogen said police investigated the case, found that they had done nothing illegal and dropped the investigation. Yad LâAchim, not dissuaded by the police finding, went to court and brought charges directly against the couple and against Intrater, leader of the Ahavat Yeshua Congregation.
As with the police, the court found nothing illegal and on June 14 dismissed all charges against Intrater and the Kogens.
The Kogens said they werenât certain how Yad LâAchim became involved with the Lubofskys. They think an Orthodox Jew in their neighborhood approached the extremist group. One day the neighbor began harassing Kogen, she said; when she fled inside her house, the man and others demanded she come outside. On its website, Yad LâAchim claims the parents of the girl approached them for assistance.
Sundayâs protest comes at a time when Yad LâAchim is trying to push new âanti-missionaryâ laws through the Knesset, Israelâs national parliamentary body. Under Israeli law, spreading oneâs faith is legal, but âproselytizingâ to minors and gaining converts through âmaterial incentivesâ is illegal.
According to its website, literature and speeches, Yad LâAchim wants to make âproselytizingâ by all non-Jewish groups illegal. The group does not specify which non-Orthodox groups they consider to be truly Jewish, or how groups with secular viewpoints might be similarly censored.
Started by ultra-Orthodox Jews, Yad LâAchim is known for its aggressive, confrontational style. At other protests, followers of the group have assaulted Messianic Jews. The group also places information in its publications that Messianic Jews say is either unconfirmed, misleading by its incomplete nature or blatantly untrue. They claim that Messianic Jews are enemies of the Jewish people and have no place in Israel. The group makes no distinction between Christianity and cults, or between Christians and âmissionaries.â
Referring to the protest on its website, Yad LâAchim described Naama Kogen as a missionary âwho has been having a devastating impact on local youths.â The group goes on to say that Donna âsoon found herself attending prayer groups and being subjected to brainwashing. Gradually she came to accept J and began to pull away from her parentsâŠâ
The website makes no mention of the ultimate outcome of the failed case that Yad LâAchim filed.
Intrater said Yad LâAchim is a fringe group whose views arenât representative of most in Israel. The group has tried to frame its argument as one of Jews against Christians and has dredged up the specter of hundreds of years of anti-Semitic persecution to lend weight to its argument, he said.
Intrater said he sees the entire issue as a disagreement between two groups of Jews. He said the first generation of Jews who believed in Jesus didnât refer to themselves as âChristians,â and it is a title he avoids. Most âMessianic Jewsâ donât use the term in reference to themselves. Instead, they prefer to be known as Jews who believe in the Messianic claims of âYeshua,â the Hebrew name for Jesus.
âThey look at us as worse than Christians,â Intrater said. âThey look at us as if weâve betrayed our people and become Gentiles. And they want to annihilate us. We see ourselves as true Jews. We see it as an argument over who is the true Messiah. What we want to say is, âWho is the real Messiah?â They feel hatred toward us and see us as the enemy. We donât look at them that way. These are our people, and we love them.â
The protest went peacefully for the most part. Surrounded by signs saying âmissionariesâ are âtargetingâ Jewish souls, a small group of protestors gave speeches, including Bella Lubofsky. Protestors refused to speak to any media they viewed as being neutral or unsupportive of their demonstration. Asked if a Jew who believes in Jesus is still a Jew, one protestor said, âNo.â
The demonstrators jeered as a camera crew for an international news media outlet left. After the protest was over, a group of six Yad LâAchim sympathizers insulted and menaced a Compass reporter and a friend, then followed the two by foot for about two miles, threatening violence against them along the way. When the reporter tried to get help from passersby, the group frightened off people and shouted that the reporter was a âmissionary.â
When the two reached a local mall, the hard-line sympathizers followed them inside. Mall security and police refused to help and left the two â now surrounded at a distance by the group â stranded for more than 90 minutes. Only after intervention by a group of women declaring that Israel is a free country would mall security escort the reporter and his friend to a taxi. The group of Yad LâAchim supporters, however, was never asked to leave the mall.
The Kogens still have contact with Donna, but her parents donât allow her to go to the congregation. The Kogens, Asher and others agreed that Donna should obey her parentâs wishes as long as she is a minor. They sent her and her parents each a letter to that effect, which according to Kogen was very painful to the girl.
The evening after the protest, the Kogens came home to find Donna with a stack of Yad LâAchim literature that she had collected by hand and ripped to pieces. It was obvious she had been crying, Kogen said.
âThis group doesnât care about this girl at all, they just care about getting to us,â she said about her and her husband.
Kogen said yesterday (July 1) that the response of her community to the protest has been mixed. Before the protest, no one knew about her religious beliefs, she said. But she said now most people in her community have been very supportive. Some of their neighbors, even those who could be considered âtraditional,â have made an effort to send their children over to play with her four children.
But the persecution continues. Supporters from Yad LâAchim continue to plaster her streets with leaflets. They have also started handing out pamphlets at the mall.
More insidiously, on Wednesday (June 29) the Kogensâ landlord asked them to leave their apartment because she was receiving phone threats ordering her to evict them, Kogen said. The man making the threatening call told the landlord that if she didnât remove the couple, âwe will.â
The caller said he would burn down the Kogensâ home. The landlord offered the couple money to move, but the Kogens â who had moved into the apartment only two months ago â refused to move again.
On Sunday (June 26), the landlord talked with the couple again.
At the congregational meeting yesterday (July 1), Serge Kogen told the group the landlord said, âWe could stay as long as we want.â
SIDEBAR: First Person Focus
Harassment in the Holy Land â the Cost of Following Christ
JERUSALEM, July 2 (Compass Direct News) â âThis is a holy land â you have no business being here.â âYouâre a bad man.â âYou are dirty.â âYou are a demon.â
I wish I could say that when I heard these words, my first response was to love the six men who were walking, just feet behind me, spitting the insults. But indignation and anger were welling up inside, and the biblical injunctions to pray for and bless those who persecute you offered only momentary comfort.
The men following me and a friend in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion were supporters of Yad LâAchim, a far right-wing group of ultra-Orthodox Jews who oppose Christians in Israel. The group is known for the aggressive and often questionable tactics they use against people who follow Christ, whom they derisively call âmissionaries.â The six men had all attended a protest outside the home of a Jewish couple the group had so identified.
There the 20 protestors had swarmed 16-year-old Donna Lubofsky, whom they said had converted to Christianity under the tutelage of Naama Kogen, the accused âmissionaryâ along with her husband Serge Kogen. A woman at the protest called the girl a bad daughter for rebelling against her parents and said she was âbreaking their heart.â
It didnât matter that the women didnât know Donna or her parents, and that Kogen said she never tried to convert the girl. It didnât matter that Donna said she was still a traditional Jew, or even that police and a court found no reason to charge the Kogens with trying to convert a minor.
As I was walking away from the men, I was astonished by the reactions of others. When I approached a man in a car to ask for directions, the six men surrounded me and began shouting, then told the driver not to help me. Eventually the man was so terrified he refused to speak to me. My friend and I made it to a mall only to find one of the members of the group waiting for us at the entrance, arms crossed, gloating. My friend and I asked mall security personnel to help us, but they and even men who appeared to be law enforcement officers only backed away.
Every turn we took, the men countered, running up and declaring to whoever would listen that we were âmissionariesâ trying to convert Jewish children to the âcult of Christ.â Hebrew-speaking friends of mine called police several times, but after five calls over 90 minutes, we knew no one was coming.
My friend went into a womanâs store, and the women there became so incensed at what was happening to us that they screamed at the hard-line group. When the women were told we were âmissionaries,â one shouted in English, âI donât care. This is Israel!â
The women, by the force of their indignation, compelled two security guards to do something for us that they might have considered doing instead to the six men â they escorted us out of the mall. We were able to find a taxi and ride back to Jerusalem.
Like many who report on persecuted Christians, as I left I was struck by the âtouristicâ nature of the verbal abuse we had received; as an outsider I can leave the country, but I do so knowing Naama Kogen, her husband and their four children are sleeping in a home that people have threatened to burn down. â Wayne King