A TREE OF LIFE GROWS IN BROOKLYN
One important lesson that may be drawn from the history of world missions is that it is impossible to predict just how God will work. The Apostle Paul’s Macedonian vision of one man pleading for help eventually brought the Gospel to Europe. In other instances, the will of God is made known through the collective wisdom that He imparts to His chosen servants – “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28).
In some instances, prayer brings guidance. In others, the work of God seems to spring up without any preparation at all. In these cases, it is the task of God’s people to seek the proper response to the marvelous thing that the Spirit of God seems to be birthing in their midst.
The work of Chosen People Ministries in the Russian Jewish community of Brooklyn, New York, appears to belong to this last type. A series of circumstances and people have been brought together in a way orchestrated by God for a purpose. The lives that have been touched number in the hundreds – and perhaps thousands. It is a story that has no ending yet, for it continues to unfold.
THE RUSSIAN JEWISH PEOPLE OF NEW YORK CITY
An unpublished study conducted by the American Jewish Committee in conjunction with the Research Institute for New Americans reports that the New York City metropolitan area is home to an estimated 400,000 Russian Jewish immigrants.
The American Jewish Committee stated that “Russian Jewish immigrants are the most educated immigrant group in American immigration history. They are even more educated than American Jews as a whole.” This statement is supported by statistics, which show that while in the former Soviet Union, 70 percent of the immigrant population received the equivalent of an Associate’s degree or higher, 53 percent had the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree, and 8 percent had the equivalent of an American Doctorate. A large percentage of these immigrants are highly skilled professionals in the fields of medicine, engineering, education, science and accounting.
As with other immigrant communities, the gap between the older settlers and their younger counterparts is sometimes marked by a broad contrast in values and goals. The younger immigrants are often more ambitious for education and material gain. They are more easily assimilated. But the immigration process is difficult for both age groups.
Leslie McMillan, executive director of the Russian Community Life Center in Brooklyn, explained, “For most immigrants, the high expectations they cherished for life in America are depressingly unmet. This disillusionment, however, has produced an amazing openness to the hope found only in Messiah Jesus.”
THE STIRRING OF THE SPIRIT
Israel Cohen, who has worked with Chosen People Ministries since 1978, was serving as a missionary in New York City in the early 1990s. He witnessed the first stirrings of the Spirit that led to the establishment of the work in Brooklyn.
It really started when Sam Nadler and Albert Israeli went to Kiev and were so struck with how receptive the Jewish people there were to the Gospel. Then we brought people like Boris Galinker and Vladimir Pikman to the Summer Training and Evangelism Program in New York, and they made valuable contacts in the Russian Jewish community that was so rapidly expanding in Brooklyn.
We immediately sensed that something special was about to happen – was already, in fact, happening. The Russian Jewish people were coming to America like a tidal wave, and they were incredibly open. We had some encouragement from the Church from the start, because I had a good relationship with Calvary Baptist Church on West 57th Street in Manhattan. But one great drawback was that I didn’t have an interpreter. So I started praying, and the Lord answered by bringing a wonderful young woman who had come to America from St. Petersburg and was attending Calvary Baptist. I was introduced to her. She was fluent in English, and we started offering English as a Second Language classes at a facility at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, and literally hundreds were coming to faith.
My colleague Stewart Weinisch and I took the next step. We had a very well-publicized Messianic Passover at Kings Highway Baptist Church, which was in the heart of Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn, and four hundred people showed up – with an additional four hundred Orthodox Jewish protesters. The police came – it was quite a tumult. This was what energized the ministry to get going.
Opposition from various Jewish groups to the evangelistic work taking place among the Russian people emerged early and sprang from a deep reservoir of mistrust. Centuries of painful history and memories of forced conversion and ill treatment have made even the mention of the name of Jesus distasteful to many Jews. Moreover, the idea that a Jew can embrace the message of the Gospel and continue in a Jewish identity is simply out of the question for most Jewish people. Therefore, Messianic Jews and those who seek to further the cause of bringing Jewish people to the Messiah are often portrayed as either deceivers or dupes. This climate of resistance, to one degree or another, is an ever-present factor in the task of Jewish evangelism.
Dr. Mitch Glaser, current president of Chosen People Ministries, recalled his early contacts with the community of newly arrived Russian Jewish believers:
My own experience with evangelizing Russian Jews began in 1990 when I first arrived in New York City. We had just completed a street evangelism campaign, and it was my responsibility to organize the followup from this outreach. I was struck immediately by the number of names on contact cards that I could not pronounce. It was clear to me that there was a tremendous response to our outreach among Russian Jews. I realized very quickly that some of these Russian Jewish people were recent immigrants who were looking for North American friends, but I also felt, based upon the reports of conversations on the street, that many of them were very interested in Yeshua.
In the fall of 1990, I conducted a Rosh Hashanah service in Brooklyn. It was held at an Episcopal church in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and several dozen people attended. However, what was surprising to me was that just before the service began, a group of about 20 or 25 Russian Jews arrived, and many of them were part of the First Evangelical Slavic Church. I had not expected this contingent of Russian Jews – and believers at that!
I recognized Greg Zhelezny, with whom I had handed out tracts on the Brighton Beach boardwalk. I had not seen him for almost a year. Greg introduced me to his mother, Klaudia, and his father, Vladimir. Since there were so many Russian Jews in attendance, we decided to translate my sermon into Russian. This would be my first message translated into Russian – the first of many!
At the end of the service, I gave an evangelistic invitation, and a few of the Russian Jews raised their hands to receive Yeshua. However, we were not able to follow up on them because we did not have any regular workers who spoke Russian. I asked Klaudia and Vladimir if they might begin a Bible study in their home. Since Greg was now attending university and spoke English quite well, I asked him if he might translate the Bible study. They agreed and we began a Bible study at Klaudia’s home in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn.
GATHERING THE THREADS
Klaudia Zhelezny recalled this story:
My family and I came to Brooklyn in the 1990s. We had received the Lord just months before in a refugee camp in Italy. We were like newborn babies and wanted to find a church. When we came to Brooklyn, the first thing we wanted was to be with people who were believers. Unfortunately, we did not find anything.
We began to pray about how to serve the Lord and how to gather a community of believers. We met many nonbelievers – lost people who came to us for friendship and to hear what we had to say. We attended a church in Manhattan for a time; we tried to bring people to the church, but it was a long trip.
We wanted to serve these seekers, so we prayed and had many ideas. We wanted to have a Bible study in our home. We prayed and just didn’t know what to do to make it happen. Finally, after two years, I was at a loss. I asked God, “Why is this happening? I want to work within my Jewish culture and share Jesus. I am in a church in Manhattan, but I am really separated from my people and I can’t carry out my desire to reach them.”
I heard no Jewish songs, and had no communication with the Jewish community because I didn’t attend synagogue any more. And God miraculously answered my prayer, because I received an invitation from Mitch Glaser to attend a Rosh Hashanah service in Brooklyn. He invited many other Jewish believers as well. So I realized that we were not the only Jewish believers in New York City! That event was the miracle that started the entire process.
I started to organize as many people as I could, Jewish believers in Jesus and those to whom we were witnessing. We needed a couple of vans when we all came together.
Mitch had expected that some Russian people might be coming, because he had sent out invitations. He had some young people there to interpret for us during the service, but they never expected that so many would come! It turned out that our group was half of the total number of people who came to the service, and during the sermon, Mitch was very excited as he saw people respond to his invitation to receive Yeshua.
It was there that we finally met for the first time. Mitch had previously met my son, Greg, on the street. Mitch asked me how things were going, and I said that things were okay, except that we had been praying to be able to do something more for our people.
THE WORK BEGINS
Klaudia Zhelezny continues:
That was the start. Mitch was really encouraged. He said that he and his wife Zhava had come to New York City because they realized that they had a calling from God to work with the Russian Jewish people. They were praying to meet Jewish believers who spoke Russian. He said that we should pray about doing ministry together.
We decided to organize a prayer meeting. We met a couple of times to pray and then began to have evangelistic meetings. That was in January 1992. The first facility was on Ocean Avenue at a Methodist church.
Our first meeting was significant in that we had 62 people in attendance. But we had more than 100 outside in black suits…these were the Orthodox Jewish people who came to protest against us. That’s how we were born – with opposition. We realized then that it was not going to be easy. But we were eager to do something.
We attempted to share the Gospel with the Orthodox Jewish people. The leaders of the protest were very angry with us and spoke harshly; but some of the protestors, who were just followers, were actually interested. We had a chance to follow up with some of them when we met them by themselves in stores or on the street. Some of them even came back to the church like Nicodemus, under cover, to ask questions.
We started our regular meetings on Saturdays. I visited a lot of people at home and saw that many of them were very open [to the Gospel]. Many prayed to receive Jesus. Many said they were very busy studying English, and I realized that we had to start offering English classes to bring them to us. I didn’t know that many missionaries had already used this approach!
We invited people to the English classes, and at this time we also rented a Center in Coney Island where we offered many activities. There were Bible studies and a library. We worked with children as well. At around the same time, many of the other English-teaching schools in Brooklyn were closed due to an administrative detail, and many of the people in our area began to come to our classes. We even had 100 people on a waiting list! Suddenly, the Center was filled with people – as many as 250 during the week. Many were very open, and a good number of them received Jesus as a result.
I think that God deals with each person uniquely. What was very interesting, for example, was when we were having a practice for the worship team at the Coney Island Center, a young man named Alex came by. He had come from the city of Kharkov in Ukraine a couple of months earlier. He was passing by, saw our sign and came in. We were rehearsing, and it wasn’t exactly the right time for appointments, but we met with him. During our conversation, I asked if he was a believer. His answer was a little vague, and I realized that he was not. He had been seeking, had attended some different groups, and God was working in his heart.
He began to come to the practices to hear our music, then went to the Bible studies, and he finally began to attend the services. Alex became one of the elders of our church. He and his family were in a very hard situation, and God helped them out of a deep depression. His sister also received the Lord and is now doing well.
From the beginning, believers suggested we reach people through home groups. Experienced pastors thought this was a good way to establish a congregation. It was very successful – we had eleven home groups in different areas. Sometimes [the number of groups] changes because it is not so easy for us – starting a new group is almost like starting a new church. It is well worth it, however, because people really grow in a home group. Many who became leaders in the home groups went on to lead in the local congregation.
HOPE OF ISRAEL CONGREGATION AND THE RUSSIAN COMMUNITY LIFE CENTER
Klaudia continues her story:
My son Greg was the founding pastor of Hope of Israel, the Russian Messianic congregation we founded in Brooklyn, and is now on staff with Chosen People Ministries. I appreciate how the Lord uses Greg. As believers, we want our children to follow God, but we have to understand that they will undergo trials. Greg and his family have had trials, but it is a joy to see that they stay faithful. Greg was deeply grieved by the death of his father; and since he was young when he started as a pastor, he found it hard to bear the burdens that other people brought to him. He matured as a pastor and later began to serve as the chairman of the board of directors of the Russian Community Life Center (RCLC), which made the connection between Hope of Israel and the RCLC even stronger.
The worship services at Hope of Israel average about 80 people. They observe all the Jewish feasts because these are great evangelistic events that many people are familiar with and attend. People love to celebrate the Jewish holidays in the congregation. They invite relatives with great eagerness and prepare many kinds of Jewish food. It’s really great, but we always have opposition. Mainly it’s the Lubavitcher Hasidim, members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish group who are quite well established here in Brooklyn. They are very aggressive, and they tell us that we are not Jews any more and we should not call ourselves Jews.
Hope of Israel congregation has also coordinated some events with Chosen People Ministries. We were involved in the Summer Training and Evangelism Program (STEP), and one summer we arranged a concert together. That was a very good event – and very well attended – but the Lubavitchers blocked all the streets to the concert. They did not want people to come to the concert; some people were afraid of them because they were very aggressive. But most of the people were already in the park, and a lot of them came and sat around listening to us. All the benches were packed with people, so our STEP workers witnessed to them. That was a joy to see. All the people, including the Lubavitchers, heard the music and the preaching!
There were some decisions for the Lord that day. We met a lot of believers from Russia who were looking for a congregation as well as relationships and fellowship with like-minded believers. Some of them were in a Messianic congregation that was spread out in different cities of Ukraine. These were recent believers who felt pressure against their faith from those in the various Ukrainian communities they had left. It has been very important for them to see that there is a Messianic congregation in the area that is willing to stand up for their faith in public.
Chosen People Ministries’ work in Brooklyn is becoming better known in the Russian community. The Russian Community Life Center is in the heart of Brooklyn in the Coney Island area. People stop all the time to read the signs in Russian proclaiming that Yeshua is the “Light of the World.”
A lot of things go on at the Russian Community Life Center. There are about fifteen ESL classes, which all together meet about 20 times a week. There, students hear the Gospel and read the Bible and many times put their hope in Jesus.