Wednesday, April 05, 2006

an article about David Brickner

2006-03-31 -- The Los Angeles Jewish Journal

A Tenuous Claim as a Jew for Jesus

by David Klinghoffer

Here is an interesting tidbit: The world's top "Jew for Jesus" is, by
ancestry, a non-Jew. Fancy that.

You know Jews for Jesus, the lovable San Francisco-based organization that
uses the appeal of Jewish kinship to introduce Jews to "Y'shua ha Mashiach"
(Jesus Christ). Its executive director is a pleasant fellow named David
Brickner. After he critiqued my book, "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus," in a
Jews for Jesus publication and later graciously retracted a prominent
factual error he made, we started e-mailing.

Brickner's bio on the Jews for Jesus Web site emphasizes his distinguished
Jewish lineage, calling him "a fifth-generation Jewish believer in Jesus."
That got my attention, since belief in Jesus is among the most powerful
known acids on the existence of the Jewish people. When Jews accept Jesus,
they marry other Christians or their children do, thus disappearing into
the Christian population.

Did David Brickner's family beat the odds? Actually, no.

According to Jewish law, a Jew is defined as someone who either a) has a
Jewish mother or b) was converted by a rabbinic court. I asked Brickner
about his mother. He replied a few days later with candor:

"She is not halachically Jewish," he wrote, using the term for the body of
Jewish law. "Her father was Jewish, but her mother was not. Both of my
father's parents were Jewish. My parents made aliyah many years ago, and my
mother was accepted as a Jew under the Law of Return. That may not make a
difference to you, but it does to me."

But look, I pointed out, most American Jews maintain that only a Jewish
mother counts in making a Jewish baby. While the Reform movement agrees
with Jews for Jesus in affirming patrilineal descent, Conservative and
Orthodox Jews make up 54 percent of America's affiliated Jewish community
(33 and 21 percent respectively). I wrote to Brickner:

"So when you tell Jews, 'Hey, I'm a Jew just like you, and I believe in
Y'shua!' you are using the word 'Jew,' with its implications of kinship, to
mean something which you know very well that most of your listeners do not
understand it to mean. That's deception."

Brickner replied:

"I think it a bit ironic that the insult comes from you in light of your
own yichus [ancestry]. Maybe there is some pathology behind your rigid

He was referring to the fact that my own birth parents are non-Jews, as I
wrote in my 1998 memoir about adoption and conversion, "The Lord Will
Gather Me In."

In exposing Brickner, am I guilty of pathological rigidity? I don't think
so, for three reasons.

First, truth in advertising: If Brickner were the head of Jews for Saving
the Whales, it wouldn't matter if he is unambiguously a Jew or not. But
because his group's whole pitch is based on the claim that lots of actual
Jews believe in the Christian messiah, Brickner's identity matters.

Second, his story beautifully illustrates the sociological pattern I
mentioned earlier. Brickner points out that he has acknowledged, briefly,
his non-Jewish background in a long sentimental article about his family's
Jewish roots. It's tucked away on the Jews for Jesus Web site, if you know
where to look.

We learn in the article, "It all began about 100 years ago in the Kamenky
Jewish quarter of Zhitomir, Russia. My great-grandmother, Esther, daughter
of Reb Levi Yitzkak Glaser, married Julius Finestone, a Jew who believed in

How the little Jewish girl, presumably with rabbinic approval, married a
professed Christian is left unclear.

Anyway, Esther's son Fred married a non-Jew, Ruth. Ruth's daughter was
David Brickner's mother. Thus at least in this one branch, the Glaser
family has disappeared from the eternal nation. When I asked Brickner about
his own wife, the former Patti Vasaturo, with whom he has two kids, he
joked that Mrs. Brickner is a "Moabite." He was alluding to the non-Jewish
ancestry of the biblical Ruth, who was a Moabite by birth.

So it goes.

Today, interestingly, there are "Messianic Jewish" communities that
encourage "Jewish living." Very nice. When I spoke at the Atlanta Jewish
Community Center recently, a young guy came up afterward, introduced
himself as a Messianic Jew, and told me he'd grown up as I did, in a Reform

"Believing in Y'shua," he said, "I feel more Jewish than ever."

I looked at the wedding ring on his finger and asked if his wife is Jewish.
Take one guess what he replied. For all his "feeling Jewish," I sadly
explained, he had consigned to oblivion any hope that he will have Jewish

Finally, reflecting on Brickner's case allows us to ask why Jews for
thousands of years have cared about matrilineal descent to begin with.
Isn't all this terribly dusty, hidebound, and rabbinic?

In the current issue of the journal Azure, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik explains
the spiritual significance of the legal principle. Far from being "merely"
rabbinic, matrilineal descent is assumed by the Bible itself. In the book
of Ezra (10:2-5), it's given as being "according to the Torah" to treat
children born of non-Jewish women as outsiders to the community.

But why should the Bible care? Because Jews aspire to have a relationship
with God like the one modeled for us in the intimacy of the relationship
with our mother.

Writes Soloveichik, "It is because of God's maternal relationship with
Israel, Isaiah explains, that the Jewish people will never be abandoned:
'Can a woman forget her child, refrain from having mercy on the son of her

It is hardly surprising, then, that a Jew for Jesus should find himself
unable to accept the Jewish mother as the criterion of Jewish identity. For
our argument with Christianity turns upon the same two focal points that
give meaning to matrilineal descent in the first place: namely, the Torah
and its Author.

Christianity has, for centuries, meant giving up what is unique about the
Jewish relationship with God, the relationship He framed at Mount Sinai in
the eternal grammar of the Torah's 613 commandments. The Torah over and
over again affirms its own eternity as a practical obligation not to be
altered in any way (Deuteronomy 13:1, 29:28, 30:11-14, etc.), a faith
voided by the apostle Paul, who called Torah a "curse" from which we are
"discharged" (Roman 7:6).

In return for giving up Torah, what does a Jew for Jesus get? A Jewish
Christian will say: A relationship with God. Eternal reward. The truth.

But we already had those things. Some bargain.

Hey, I don't mean to be too hard on Brickner. I like the guy.

I even feel warmly toward Jews for Jesus. In 1983, I was a high school
senior taking classes at UCLA. Strolling on Bruin Walk one day I
encountered a Jews for Jesus missionary named Sid who stumped me with
Isaiah 53, a favorite Christian proof text. A typically ignorant product of
a typical bar mitzvah education, I was stunned and scared to realize how
little I understood about Judaism. The experience set me on a path to
living as an Orthodox Jew.

I am convinced that, like Sid, Brickner wants to help. Nor did he set out
to deceive Jews by claiming to be Jewish. It's just that he isn't, in fact,
a Jew for Jesus. Too bad for him that a more accurate name for his
organization, "Gentiles for Jesus," doesn't have the same ring to it.

David Klinghoffer's book, "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point
in Western History" (Doubleday), was issued this month in paperback. He is
a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. His Web site is


Anonymous said...

None other than the esteemed Dr. Stuart Dauermann, Ph.D., (a founder of Jews for Jesus) has rallied to David Brickner's defense and characterizing Mr. Klinghoffer's article as "murder."

Do you, as those openly critical of Mr. Brickner, have any response to Dauermann? Why shouldn't your comments about your former bosses at Jews for Jesus also be characterized as "murder."

Anonymous said...

Klinghoffer's critique of Brickner's Jewishness is far different than our critique of JFJ. Neither one should be called "murder."

Klinghoffer is coming from a strict Orthodox/Conservative understanding of the definition of Jewishness. There is no malevolence in either the content or the tone of his article.

The Ex-Jews for Jesus Blog is coming from the perspective that the Jews for Jesus organization has committed many abuses in the past and continues to be in denial about this. It's that simple.

Unknown said...

I can't claim Jewish decent for the very reason the article states. My father is of Jewish decent, but my mother is not. My father was raised Methodist (and today is no faith), but his given last name (before he changed it) was Noah and he's from New York.

So I can believe his claim that there is Jewishness somewhere back on that side of the family, though trying to get him to talk about his family is like pulling teeth.

I *wish* I could claim I'm Jewish, but I can't.

Anonymous said...


Don't let anyone define your Jewishness or lack thereof.

Anonymous said...

Dear Blogger,

Are you Jewish? Do you want to come to shul with me some time?

~Louisa, a regular non-meshichist Jew, whose father is a Jew and who converted, herself, and is now one also.

Ronnie Schreiber said...

I always figured the leadership of JfJ was made up of some not very nice people. They were always screaming at me and my friends, calling us terrible names - until the video cameras came out, then they'd be nicey nicey.

Back in the day, I compiled some testimonies of former messianics. People had left some of the other ministries, but JfJ seemed solid as a rock. It seemed that if anyone was going to leave, it would be to stake out on their own or get a better job at another ministry. The cultlike aspect was readily apparent, but then destructive cults were one of our interests. The autocratic nature of the group, the cult-leader status of Rosen. I can't say that I was disappointed to hear a friend, a nurse, say when she saw Rosen at UMJC in Anaheim that he had symptoms of congestive heart failure.

I haven't been actively involved in the debate in years, but if I recall correctly, Baruch X was the first high level defector, ironic in light of the fact that he'd been a featured speaker at a session dealing with "anti-missionaries" at one of the two big summer messianic shindigs - UMJC maybe. He wanted to just become stam a yid from what I understand, so he never became active working with Jews For Judaism or one of the other counter-missionary groups.

But it seemed like only a matter of time. I figured Baruch was only the first. The existence of this blog shows that to be the case.