College’s hiring of missionary to teach religion irks rabbis

By August 11, 2006

A northwest suburban community college has hired an evangelical missionary to teach doctrines of Judaism and Christianity, irking local rabbis who fear the instructor’s “subtle evangelism” will creep into the classroom.

Jhan Moskowitz, head of Chicago’s chapter of Jews for Jesus, a missionary group that seeks to convert Jews to Christianity, will teach a one-time comparative religion class at Harper College in Palatine on Sept. 21.

College administrators say Moskowitz, 57, has assured them he will teach the basics, not preach the Gospel. To Moskowitz, his academic credentials are more relevant than his full-time job running the evangelical group.

“If I tell you I don’t want to increase my sphere of influence in the lives of others in order to make what I believe clear to them, I’d be lying to you,” he said. “But the classroom is not the venue in which I do that.”

Rabbi Max Weiss of Beth Tikvah Congregation in Hoffman Estates said he was taken aback when, while flipping through the college catalog, he ran across the course description for “Basic Doctrines: Judaism and Christianity,” which identifies Moskowitz.

“The Jews for Jesus organization often resorts to less than straight-forward or honest tactics to accomplish their goals,” Weiss wrote in a letter addressed to the college president.

“I fear that this is exactly what he is doing with the class at Harper College,” he said in an interview. “They have other people capable of teaching the class from a scholarly perspective.”

The objection of Weiss and other area rabbis reflects the longstanding tension between the Jewish community and missionary organizations that aim to convert Jews to Christianity. They worry that Moskowitz may not convey the historic separation between Judaism and Christianity objectively or may present the information with bias an unsophisticated audience would not detect.

“Mr. Moskowitz is an expert at subtle evangelism,” Weiss said.

Doug Grier, personal enrichment coordinator for Harper’s continuing education program, said he would address the concern by monitoring the class personally.

“I don’t exclude people on their religious beliefs or their affiliations, but like anything else we have certain policies about what can go on in the classroom,” he said. “if I have proof that they’re [proselytizing[ in the class, they would not be teaching here again.”

Moskowitz said he has been anything but subtle about his faith and mission. In addition to advertising his affiliation in the course catalog, he says he will introduce himself as a Jew for Jesus at the beginning of the class. That way, he said, students can listen for and object to bias if it surfaces. The disclosure also opens a door for people to inquire about his belief system after class.

“I am a born-again evangelical Bible-believing Christian, [and] I’m the child of survivors of the Holocaust raised in a …Jewish home. These are two elements I can’t help but bring into a classroom,” Moskowitz said. “I’m as honest as I can be in a classroom setting.”

The doctrine class is the second course he will teach at Harper College. For the 1½-hour seminar, Moskowitz will earn $75.

Raised Jewish, Moskowitz said he accepted Jesus as the Messiah in 1971 and began preaching the Gospel to Jews, even before Jews for Jesus incorporated in 1973.

He received a master’s degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in mission work focused on Judaic studies and evangelism to Jews and was ordained through the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1979. He is completing doctoral work at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield.

Moskowitz has led the local branch of Jews for Jesus for more than 20 years. He considers himself a Messianic Jew, a label most Jews consider to be an oxymoron as they do not believe Jesus is the Messiah.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit group that defends academic freedom, said he has never heard concerns about missionaries teaching religion classes. But as long as Moskowitz is qualified, the college has a right to hire him, Lukianoff said.

“To simply presume that someone will abuse their power over students because they happen to have a strong point of view is frankly unfair,” he said.

Moskowitz said the rabbis have nothing to fear:

“I’m not preaching the Gospel. I’m teaching a class in history. I’m living the Gospel.”

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