LOVELAND, Ohio -- Suppose you’re a Jew by birth who becomes convinced that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the leader promised by God to save his people Israel. That makes you a Christian, doesn’t it?
Most Jews would say yes. But not the congregation of Beth Messiah in Loveland, the Tri-State’s only Messianic Jewish synagogue.
It’s made up of about 200 people, many of them former Jews who want to worship God the way their ancestors did.
Outwardly, Beth Messiah looks like any other synagogue. On the walls of the lobby is an illustrated timeline of the history of the city of Jerusalem. In the sanctuary, there’s a cabinet that holds a scroll printed with the Torah, the five books of Moses, the first books of the Christian Bible, which is read from at worship services on Saturday morning.
Like most synagogues, Beth Messiah has a Saturday school, in which children learn to read Hebrew.
During worship services, some might wear a yarmulke, a head covering male Jews wear during worship. Rabbi Michael Wolf wears a head covering and a tallit, or prayer shawl.
As you might at any American synagogue, you would hear prayers in Hebrew and in English. You would hear music from a praise band, which you might hear in a Reform synagogue. You might also see people dancing to the music, as King David and other ancient Jews are reported to have done.
But you’ll also hear readings from the New Testament, something you’re not likely to hear in most other synagogues.
“We emphasize the whole Bible, the Old and the New (Testaments),” Wolf said. “We unabashedly believe that the atonement, set up in the temple, found its fulfillment in Jesus. We definitely believe he is the Messiah. … He didn’t come to discourage Jewish people from living as Jews.”
When it comes to following the Jewish dietary laws, most members of Beth Messiah don’t keep strictly kosher, as an Orthodox Jew would, Wolf said, but most would at least abstain from eating pork and shellfish. Most wouldn’t wear phylacteries, a small box containing Hebrew scriptures as a reminder to keep the law, but “we understand that it can be done,” he said.
The congregation observes Jewish holidays such as Hanukkah and Yom Kippur, he said, but it takes no official notice of Christian holidays, such as Christmas or Easter. Members don’t commonly call themselves Christians, he said, because the world identifies that term with things that aren’t culturally Jewish.
Many, if not most, of the members grew up Jewish. Wolf himself is the son of Eastern European immigrants. Raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Philadelphia, he met his future wife, Rachel, in a Jewish day school.
He grew up somewhat agnostic, he said, until he met a Messianic Jewish family that shared its faith with him. He was especially impressed by the 53rd chapter of the prophet Isaiah, which speaks of God’s suffering servant, whom Christians have traditionally identified with Jesus.
“That’s when God really became real to me,” he said. Rachel had a similar experience in Kansas City, he said, and they were married in an Orthodox ceremony.
In the mid-‘70s, Wolf began to feel a calling to be a rabbi, and in late 1977, he moved here to become the rabbi of Beth Messiah. It was then a small congregation that met in rented space in Pleasant Ridge, he said, which moved to its own building in Loveland in 1999.
It’s one of about 400 Messianic Jewish congregations in the United States, said Ed Levin, director of partner relations for the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, which calls itself the largest association of Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) in the world. Beth Messiah is a member congregation, and Wolf is a member of the executive board.
Wolf’s a strong supporter of the nation of Israel, and so is the Alliance. There are about 25,000 Messianic Jews in the nation of Israel, Wolf said, where the Alliance provides food and clothes to the poor. The alliance says that in 2015, its Joseph Project was the No. 1 importer of humanitarian aid in that country.
The Alliance is one of several Messianic Jewish organizations active in the United States, including the Union of Conservative Messianic Jewish Synagogues and Chosen People Ministries. There’s also Jews for Jesus, which focuses on “making the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to Jewish people.”
Beth Messiah’s mandate is less confrontational. Like most Messianic Jewish synagogues, his congregation is growing, he said, but slowly.
“We want people to be here because they love each other and the Jewish community,” Wolf said. “I don’t necessarily think the whole world is called to come to Beth Messiah … just the people whom God calls. We’re here to serve the Jewish community in any way we can.”