Palm Beach
Battling The Soul Snatchers
A North Miami Beach resident struggles to
combat local missionary groups and cults.

RONNI DREYFUSS - STAFF WRITER

E vette Levine thought she had tried everything.

When her son, Jan, told her he was becoming a born-again Christian, she convinced him to give Judaism one last chance. Frantic, she stopped at the first synagogue she passed on her way home from work and arranged an emergency meeting with its Conservative rabbi.

But to her dismay, he didn't have many answers to her son's probing questions. He told the Levines he would refer them to a knowledgeable friend. But they never heard from him again.

Repeated calls for help to Jewish federations and other synagogues were also to no avail. Soon after, Jan converted to Christianity.

"He told me if we could prove to him that Judaism was the truth, he wouldn't do it," said the 51-year-old Plantation resident sadly. "Now I have a lot of answers, but my son doesn't always want to listen.

"If he had shot me with a gun it would have been easier."

For six months, the situation seemed hopeless, Mrs. Levine said. She refused to speak to her wayward son.

Then a rabbi she met at the flea market where she works told Mrs. Levine about Torah Life and Living, Inc., Aaron Schwarzbaum's not- for- profit anti- missionary organization. She convinced Jan to meet him.

More than a year later, she believes her 27-year-old son is finally coming around. He wears a replica of Moses and the Ten Commandments around his neck and refers to himself as a "Judaic Christian." He is floundering from Baptism to Christianity to Judaism searching for spirituality, she said. Mr. Schwarzbaum refers to his case as a "pending success."

In the process the elder Levines have become observant Jews, attending Judaic classes at a Chabad synagogue. Mr. Schwarzbaum counsels them on their son's rebellion.

"Jan calls Mr. Schwarzbaum the anti-Christ," Mrs. Levine said. "That's a compliment."

Mr. Schwarzbaum believes he is merely a soldier in the war to save Jewish souls from missionary groups, such as Jews for Jesus.

"We are sitting by and watching another Holocaust happen that is worse than the last one," said the 39-year-old North Miami Beach resident. "When Hitler, may he burn in hell, killed my grandparents, they died as proud Jews. These people are not only taking the body, they are taking the soul."

Mr. Schwarzbaum warns families to pay attention to signs that their loved ones are falling victim to a missionary group, such as a sudden interest in spirituality and Bible-quoting, he said.

Those who are the most vulnerable have just experienced a "precipitous change in their lives," he added, such as death of a loved one, divorce, drug rehabilitation or leaving home for the first time. The groups take advantage of Jews' loneliness and depression and "lovebomb them to a spiritual death," Mr. Schwarzbaum said.

"A lot of times these groups get peoples' names out of obituary columns. Or they plant people in college administrative offices to find out who is doing poorly and needs support," Mr. Schwarzbaum said. "That's offensive."

Since he moved to South Florida 20 years ago, Mr. Schwarzbaum said he has prevented more than 3,000 Jews ages 12 to 85 from abandoning Judaism. The tiny organization he started out of his home about 12 years ago has expanded to include a four- member paid staff and several volunteers in a cramped North Miami Beach office building. Replicas of his "Shabbos Challenge" program are starting in Long Island, Boca Raton, Toronto, Fairtown, N.J. and Sharon, Mass.

"Shabbos Challenge" is an open invitation to spend an entire 25-hour Shabbat in a non- threatening, observant environment. Up to 22 people each week enjoy songs, traditional food, discussions and more with Mr. Schwarzbaum's family.

"We don't preach or force you to become observant. We give you reasons to be proud to be Jewish and show you being Jewish isn't something to take lightly or give up," Mr. Schwarzbaum said.

This week, Mr. Schwarzbaum is finalizing plans to acquire an abandoned synagogue in North Miami Beach for about $250,000. The 1.3-acre property includes a 180- seat sanctuary, a separate administrative building and plenty of room for outdoor programs.

So far he has raised about $100,000 for the property.

"This is a dream come true," Mr. Schwarzbaum said.

But he is not the only one excited about his organization's existence. More than 10 local rabbis and two Florida representatives have written letters praising his Jewish continuity efforts.

"Aaron Schwarzbaum and his organization perform an essential function in our community, namely saving the souls of lost youg Jews," wrote Rabbi Barry Konovich of Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center / Beth Jacob. "He has demonstrated time and again his ability to rescue young people from the clutches of various missionary cults."

But Mr. Schwarzbaum, who claims to have a 100 percent success rate when people "have not yet given their minds to the group," says any Jew could do the same. Although he received a degree in psychology from Yeshiva University and has a strong Jewish background, most of his experience is on-the-job, he said.

His biggest challenge is making people aware that help is available, Mr. Scwarzbaum said.

"If it's true that saving one life is saving the world entire," Mr. Schwarzbaum said, "Then at a rate of 250,000 souls in the last 20 years, we are losing galaxies."

Rabbi Tovia Singer, executive director of Outreach Judaism and former New York executive director of Jews for Judaism, emphasized the importance of Mr. Schwarzbaum's efforts. Although there are more than 460 American missions, there are only about five organizations, including Torah Life and Living, Inc., Jews for Judaism and Outreach Judaism, working actively to combat them. Florida, because of its outstanding Jewish population, has the second largest missionary population, Mr. Schwarzbaum added.

"Jewish evangelism is a very, very serious problem," Rabbi Singer said. "Anyone who is doing something to combat them is very, very important."

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