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Are missionaries targeting the elderly?

July 28, 2009

Are missionaries targeting the elderly?
Jul. 28, 2009
RACHEL GEIZHALS , THE JERUSALEM POST

A Holocaust survivor who was suffering from dementia was deceived by those hired to help her, family members said, because they claimed they converted her to their Messianic Christian religion.

The two women who were hired to play music and speak with 94-year-old Sara told her daughter Goldie Maxwell weeks after Sara died that they were both Messianic Jews, that they had played and sung songs from the New Testament when Maxwell and her husband were not around, and that at the end of her life, Sara had a revelation and acknowledged Jesus as the messiah.

They also recorded these statements in a document they gave to Maxwell after Sara’s death in March.

“I sensed that they had betrayed me, because I let them into the house on certain assumptions, but even more, the betrayal of my mother and of who she was,” Maxwell told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “They knew who she [Sara] was.”

Maxwell requested that her mother’s last name not be revealed to protect her privacy.

Messianic groups believe that Jesus was the messiah. Orthodox Jews maintain that the messiah has not yet come, and his arrival must be anticipated. They often view Messianic missionaries as coercive and cult-like, and they are extremely concerned that missionaries are targeting and exploiting helpless people.

The incidence of missionaries using subterfuge to target the elderly and other subsets within the community is not infrequent, according to anti-missionary groups. However, it is difficult to determine how widespread this phenomenon is.

“It’s probably a lot more common than we know,” said Penina Taylor, executive director of Shomrei Emet Institute for Counter Missionary Studies.

Haredi anti-missionary organization Yad L’Achim (literally, “A Hand to Brethren”) does not have current data on the number of missionaries volunteering in senior facilities and homes. However, Binyamin Klugger, the head of the organization’s Jerusalem chapter, said he knows of many seniors whose aides spoke with them incessantly about Messianism.

Dan Sered, the director of Israel’s Jews for Jesus branch, said Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus are often thought of as interchangeable. In fact, Jews for Jesus is an organization devoted to spreading Messianism. The women whom Maxwell hired were not affiliated with Jews for Jesus, whose emissaries usually stand on the streets wearing identifying T-shirts and handing out information.

“We’re very clear. Everybody knows who we are, what we do,” Sered explained. “This has never been what we do,” he said about the underhanded methods used by these women to gain access into people’s homes and to proselytize.

Anti-missionary organizations say it is hard to keep track of cases like these. Many cases may go unreported because of familial embarrassment, and the sentiment that once someone is dead, there is nothing that can be done, explained Taylor. That is, if the families even find out that such a thing took place.

But Maxwell is speaking out. She is devastated by what happened to her mother, upset that it may be happening to others and scared that Messianic missionaries may use her mother’s story to advertise and proselytize.

Sara lived with Maxwell and her husband in their Jerusalem apartment for about seven years. She was diagnosed with dementia in 1997, became wheelchair-bound and physically dependent after a fall in 2001, and in the past few years, she lost her ability to speak. When Maxwell asked a social worker to refer a pianist who could play music for her mother, the case manager recommended Efrat Gerlich, who played at local old age homes. The case manager, an Orthodox Jew, did not know about Gerlich’s beliefs or activities.

Gerlich told Maxwell she knew a Polish immigrant, Adina Higa, who could talk to Sara in her native Polish and stimulate her. After a while, Maxwell suggested that Higa sing Polish folk songs with Gerlich’s piano accompaniment.

About six weeks after Sara’s death four months ago, Gerlich and Higa came by to speak with Maxwell about what they did with her mother and how she responded. In the course of their conversation, Maxwell discovered something shocking: Gerlich and Higa were talking about their Messianic beliefs and – even more disturbing – what they did to introduce Sara to Messianism.

Gerlich gave Maxwell a three-page document about her work with Sara. Halfway through, Gerlich wrote, “I noticed that whenever Adina began to pray, Sara began to fall asleep, and I began to put my hands on Sara and declare the victory of the messiah on her life and I chased away the demons that were trying to plague her and preventing her from receiving blessing.”

When cataloging what she and Higa sang with Sara, Gerlich included a song from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. At the end, Gerlich concluded, “Sara, indeed merited in her last days to a very personal and special revelation of God. May her memory be blessed!”

Maxwell was aghast, to say the least.

“How I felt inside was stunned. I probably went white,” she remembered.

Maxwell said she had no inkling that this was happening. When she was there, Gerlich and Higa played songs in Yiddish and about Shabbat and Jewish holidays, but when she went out, they played Messianic songs.

Maxwell said she now finds herself wondering whether she missed any signs. She said in retrospect, she can remember instances of disquiet during or after sessions with the women.

“There was a look on my mother’s face one day that looked either highly strained or strain and fright,” Maxwell said. “In hindsight, she may have been trying to register an objection or she may have felt something was very wrong.”

What makes the case even more disturbing is that conversion to Messianism is the complete antithesis of Sara’s life, Maxwell said. Sara was a Holocaust survivor who spent some of the war in a convent pretending to be a Polish gentile. She secretly lit Shabbat candles, and when the nuns recited their prayers, Sara thought of hers.

“Your claim that in the last two weeks of her life my mother came to believe that Jesus is the messiah negates the fundamental religious beliefs she maintained and later instilled in her children,” Maxwell said in a letter to Higa after she discovered what transpired.

“Her silence, and her complete helplessness, left her wide open to everyone else’s subjective interpretations of what she may or may not have be thinking,” Maxwell wrote. “It enabled you to indulge your fantasy. And you have run wild with it.”

Gerlich and Higa could not be reached for comment.

Maxwell charged Gerlich and Higa with a complete lack of transparency and honesty. But she has few if any options in taking legal action, because Israeli law allows the freedom to speak with others about religious views, and missionaries are permitted to proselytize as long as they do not try to work with minors or offer material incentives.

Maxwell said she hopes that the existing law will expand to encompass not just minors, but all who are powerless, like her mother was.

“I felt it was much worse than an act of disrespect to her and to me. But even more, a desecration,” Maxwell said. “Really, the greatest possible offense to her, because she was helpless. She couldn’t have actively fought them.”

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