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Tucson, Arizona. Published: 04/05/2004

Passover, Easter Mark Week, Messianic Jews will Celebrate Both Holidays   by Stephanie Innes 

Two religions with a rocky history of interfaith relations will each celebrate important biblical events this week - Passover for Jews and Easter for Christians. 

Despite the obvious difference between the two faiths - Christians believe Jesus Is the Messiah and Jews do not - a small and controversial group of Tucsonans will be observing both religious holidays. 

Messianic Jews will celebrate Passover, which begins at sundown tonight. They will refrain from leavened bread for eight days and recount the Exodus story of Jewish liberation from enslavement in Egypt. They will also contemplate the Death and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. 

Mainline Jewish leaders have denounced messianic Judaism, calling it a deceptive form of radical Christianity that evangelizes Jews by inaccurately telling them they can retain their Judaism while taking Jesus as their savior. 

Messianic Jewish leaders, in spite of the criticism, say their faith represents a very real "revival'' of Christianity, from its roots in Judaism - after all, Jesus and his disciples were all Jewish, says Steve Shermett, leader and founder of the 14-year-old Congregation Beth Sar Shalom , 5002 E. Fourth St., and a Board member of the newly-formed Association of Messianic Congregations. 

"We've mixed two cultures and taken what we think is the best of two worlds and combined them. In my frame of reference, I'm still a faithful Jew," Shermett said. 

One of the more well-known messianic Jewish groups is called Jews for Jesus, which began in 1973 with a Baptist minister who was born a Jew. In response to Jews for Jesus, mainline Jewish groups in the mid-1980s created the International Jews for Judaism, which uses education to combat what they say are deceptive tactics to target and convert the Jewish community, particularly College students, seniors and refugees. 

"Theologically the two traditions contradict each other," said Rabbi Robert Eisen of the Conservative Congregation Anshei Israel, 5550 E. Fifth St., Tucson's largest Jewish congregation. "You can't celebrate Passover and Easter and maintain any sense of theology." 

Eisen said normative Judaism would call Shermett a Christian. Christianity and Judaism, while having some similarities, also have truths about them that are distinct, he said. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues in Tucson have sponsored local Workshops hosted by Jews for Judaism to let people know that being Jewish does not mean accepting Jesus as the messiah, even if congregations like Shermett's call themselves synagogues. 

Mainline Jews do believe in a Messiah and a "messianic age," but their Messiah hasn't come yet. Orthodox Jews, for example, hold that Jews are obligated to Accept 13 principles of Jewish faith compiled by the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who wrote of a "complete faith" in the coming of the Messiah. 

Undaunted by mainline definitions of Judaism, Shermett, 38, has a leadership role in both Christian and messianic Jewish worship services. He has been ordained by the Conservative Baptist Association of America and is doing double Duty as an interim teaching pastor at El Camino Baptist Church, 7777 E. Speedway, where he will be preaching on Easter Sunday. 

"Exodus was a fabulous story of deliverance that pointed to a greater deliverance: Jesus," said Shermett, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home and graduated from the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where he majored in Jewish studies. "People are often faithful to the religion in which they were born, but that doesn't speak to the veracity of the religion at all." 

Congregation Beth Sar Shalom has about 100 worshippers for its Saturday Services. It is one of two messianic Jewish congregations in Tucson. The other is Congregation Beit Avanim Chaiot, 3820 E. River Road, which has reported a Congregation of between 25 and 50 people. 

While such small numbers in proportion to the number of mainline Jewish people In Tucson - nearly 23,000 - is troubling to Shermett, he takes it in stride. He remains hopeful that people of all faiths will one day embrace Jesus. 

"From our perspective, he's been once and he'll be back," Shermett said. "The first time he came it was to make peace between God and man. The second time will be to make peace between man and man. Our job now is to be faithful to him and to spread his word." 

Copyright  2004, ARIZONA DAILY STAR. Used by permission.