Saturday, June 21, 2008

Savannah Postcard: Shalom Y'All

By Stephen Glass

Every Sunday evening, after a long and trying day of missionary work here, Jim Johansen drives 300 miles to Atlanta, where he lives. Along the way, he applies to himself the regimen he has developed over the years to restore body and soul after a tough stint on the conversion trail. He drives first to one of Savannah's Krispy Chic restaurants and orders the Better Deal Bucket, which consists of ten deep-fried drumsticks, plus a large side of mashed potatoes, although Johansen skips the potatoes. He puts the bucket on the car seat next to him, and, as he drives, he works his way through it, drumstick by drumstick. He doesn't gollup his food. He doesn't even allow himself the first drumstick until he has merged onto I-16, the road that connects Savannah to Macon, halfway to Atlanta. In between drumsticks and throughout the day, he smokes non-filtered Camel cigarettes, a great many of them.

In 1991, when Johansen was trying to convert Buddhists, he averaged two packs of cigarettes each Sunday and five drumsticks on the drive home from Savannah to Atlanta. In 1992 and 1993, when he was trying to convert the "miscellaneous," as he calls members of the smaller and more exotic sects, he increased his intake to seven drumsticks and a wing, and four packs. Now he is trying to convert Savannah's Jews, and, on each Sunday drive, he goes through a full Better Deal load of ten drumsticks. As for Camels, he claims to be up to a terrifying six and a half packs a day. The effects show. Johansen looks like Orville Redenbacher gone portly, and his white beard is stained nicotine yellow all around the rim of his mouth.

"It's hard work converting Jews, and that makes me hungry," Johansen says. He speaks in staccato bursts between puffs on his cigarette. Lighting a fresh cigarette off the butt of one that is guttering to its last gasp, he ruminates on the challenge. "Yep, they may be the hardest [puff]. They're harder than anyone [puff]. Harder than the Chinese [puff]. And the Chinese were hard." He shakes his head. "After these ten legs [puff] ten legs! [puff] I'm still [puff] still hungry."

Eight years ago, Johansen retired from his job as a bookkeeper at a car dealership and turned his attention to God's work--converting the heathen to his Baptist faith. Every weekend for three years he has traveled throughout Georgia, looking for convertible souls. He has tried his hand at apostates of all stripes; once he even took a shot at a family of Zoroastrians. It was all tough work, but not impossible. Then, in June, the Southern Baptist Convention--the executive body of the largest branch of American Protestantism--voted to proselytize among Jews, making national headlines. The resolution rejected the approach of other Christian denominations that had decided to seek a dialogue with Jews rather than trying to convert them. Breaking with this, the Baptists mounted the most aggressive effort to convert Southern Jews that anybody can remember in years.

"Even if they don't want to hear it, we have to tell them about Jesus," says Savannah's Southside Baptist Church pastor Allan Bosson, in comments laced with New Testament citations. "They are going to Hell, and we have to stop that." Thus did Jim Johansen find himself obliged to give up his Buddhists and atheists for Jews, and thus did he become a ten-drumstick, six-pack-a-day man. "My doctor tells me this and that are not good for my health," Johansen says while exhaling smoke through his nose. "But at least my soul is cleaner."

It has been a long time since American Christianity has tried, in any organized way, to convert American Jews. Ever since 1928, when the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr declared what amounted to a detente with Judaism, the major Protestant denominations have mostly adopted a live-and-let-live approach. Perhaps the reason is that Jews have proven themselves to be such difficult converts. The last serious Southern Baptist attempt at mass conversions of Jews petered out in the late 1980s when the man in charge of it basically gave up. He began teaching dual-covenant theology, which argues that Jews are not heathen at all, but are the only population that may reject belief in Christ as the Messiah and still be saved, because they enjoy a special, pre-Jesus covenant with God.

The new Baptist effort in Savannah began with what some hoped would prove to be quiet, modern efficiency--a telemarketing program. One day this July, many Jews in Savannah whose last names began with a "C" received phone calls inviting them to a speech about "the Chosen People and Jesus, their Messiah." The calls produced few tangible gains, however. Only about ten Jews even turned up for the speech. Soon after, "S"'s were invited to a "spiritual, cultural fair." Similar results: few Jews showed and none seemed interested in converting.

But worse lay in store for the Baptist effort. As the conversion-by-phone-book drive continued, it produced an unanticipated and, to the Baptists, distressing consequence. The city's small and suddenly beleaguered Jewish population decided to break with an anti-proselytizing tradition dating back millennia. Four months ago, Savannah's Jews launched a convert-to-Judaism counter-campaign against Savannah's Baptists.

Rabbi Bernie Elzer of Temple Mickve Israel, America's third-oldest synagogue, is the quarterback for this new offense. During the summer, Elzer holds Friday night services at a congregant's home. Wide-eyed and wide-mouthed, Elzer--who used to lead a New Jersey synagogue--is a blend of the North and South: efficient hospitality. He rapidly greets all newcomers with a cheery "Shalom, y'all," inquires about their background and introduces them to the group. Half Northern transplants, half native Savannians, they share a potluck dinner of bagels and fried chicken, rugalah and cobbler.

After a strong sermon warning that too many Jews have been leaving the faith, Elzer explains his strategy for fighting back. First, he called Bosson to ask for a list of his congregants and to suggest that Southside's members might be interested in hearing the Jewish "side of the story." Not surprisingly, Bosson refused. So Elzer proposed Plan B: buying ad space in The Savannah Morning News. "There are people out there who are hungry for spiritual understanding," the rabbi explains. "We should reach out to them. I promise you it will be a tasteful ad. Let's just call it an invitation."

Many of Elzer's congregants are skeptical of Plan B, and the question of whether it is right and wise to mount a serious counter-missionary effort remains a matter of hot debate among Savannah's Jews. Some fear opening up a "free agency system" of religion. Potential converts, they say, will simply choose the faith that offers the sweetest deal--the most perks and the easiest entry. These objectors fear Jewish missionaries will debase Judaism in trying to boost the faith, in what one congregrant calls "a race to the bottom." "For the Baptists, you only have to say you believe in Christ and, poof, you're in," says Jerome, an elderly Jew who refused to give his last name, lest he provoke evangelicals to call him at home. "If we want to get the unreligious, we're going to have to drop a lot of the prerequisites."

"I believe in truth in advertising," adds a dour older man who also won't give his name. "So what's the ad going to say? That it takes a lot of studying to convert, and when you finally become Jewish, your kids will have no friends and you'll be miserable? That's not going to work very well." Elzer insists the synagogue will run only vague ads that invite people to attend a ceremony or a class, or to meet with a rabbi. Those who seem serious about converting will be made aware of the risks involved. In the meantime, Elzer hasn't yet taken out any ads--he's still building support.

Now, the entire situation seems to be pretty close to a stalemate. While neither side speaks in hard data, the actual numbers of converts won by Baptists or Jews appears to be close to nil. James Sibley, who leads the Baptist conversion effort from Dallas, acknowledges that Jewish backlash nationwide has so far frustrated the attempt. What is more, the experience has not been pleasant. Sibley claims he has received death threats and refuses to have his picture taken by newspapers.

In Savannah, there is some muttering of escalation. The potential counter-campaign has some evanglicals worried. Billy Carthen, a Baptist who lives in a neighboring county, says just hearing about the ad makes his "ears burn." If Mickve Israel advertises, Carthen says, he and his friends will up the ante: they'll begin leafleting outside synagogues during Shabbot. And, certainly, Jim Johansen is not about to back down. When I asked him about the concept of dual-covenant theology, he was in a rush, anxious to get on the road and back to his chicken, but he stopped long enough to dismiss the idea. "Dual bullology," he said. "That's what I call it. God doesn't talk [puff] out of two sides [puff] of his mouth [puff, cough, wave cigarette in the air]. What's that mean? Right and wrong are both right? Go ahead, tell that to God. I dare you."

(Copyright 1996, The New Republic)

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