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One by one, Buenos Aires Jews seek Jesus

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (BP)–David*, a young Jewish businessman, was walking down a busy street in Buenos Aires one day when he spotted a book lying atop an overflowing trash can.

It was open. It seemed to beckon to him. Out of the corner of his eye, he read the chapter title on the open page: “Jesus Found in Old Testament Scriptures.”

“What are the Christians trying to do now, saying Jesus is in our Scriptures?” David indignantly asked himself. He knew the holy books well; he had studied Judaism and Hebrew in Israel. He snatched the book out of the trash and took it home, intending to study it and disprove its claims.

He read the book. Then he read the New Testament. Through his own quest for truth, he became a believer in Jesus the Messiah. Later he encountered Andrew*, a Southern Baptist worker, at a Messianic Jewish meeting.

“I want to talk to you,” David told Andrew. “I have some Bible questions.”

They met at a restaurant for dinner and conversation. When Andrew arrived, he found David with the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament), the New Testament and multiple Bible commentaries open on the table — along with a detailed list of written questions.

“We spent from 9 at night until about 4 in the morning talking,” Andrew recalls. “I remember the waitress coming over and saying, ‘Guys, I’m sorry, we’re going to close.’ I turned toward her and mouthed the words ‘Thank you’ because I was so tired. He just had an insatiable desire to know more about who Jesus is.”

David has since shared his faith with his family and become a worship leader in a Messianic congregation — all because of the book in the trash can.

“That seems to be the norm” among Jews in Buenos Aires who become followers of Jesus, observes Andrew, who focuses on reaching the Jewish community. “God raises up people who find Him on their own. And we come in at one point or another.”

The common thread in most stories of personal discovery: the Word. That’s why Andrew is seeking to distribute New Testaments — specifically tailored for Jewish readers — to as many Jewish homes as possible in Buenos Aires.

“I don’t want them to open the door; as soon as they know what’s in the book, they won’t take it,” Andrew explains. “It goes in the mail slot or to the doorman, because 80 percent of the people here live in apartments. They won’t go into a Christian bookstore to get it. They won’t take it from someone’s hand on the street. They’re not going to answer the door. They’re not going to talk to you on the phone.

“But if they get a Bible on their own and start to read it, they’re always amazed at how Jewish the New Testament is and how it is not anti-Semitic. Then they begin to consider if Jesus is the Son of God — if we can just get the Word of God into their hands.”

It’s a difficult proposition, but a strategic one.

Buenos Aires has by far the largest Jewish community in South America, encompassing up to 250,000 people. An estimated 80 percent of all Jews on the continent live in a band stretching from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, south to Buenos Aires. Their parents and grandparents arrived beginning early in the 20th century, fleeing pogroms in Europe and the fall of the Ottoman Empire farther east. The last big wave of Jewish immigrants followed the catastrophe of the Holocaust during World War II.

Jews have played key roles in the nation’s cultural and economic life ever since. They also have faced far less hostility in Argentina than in Europe, despite two deadly terror attacks on the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in the 1990s. Modern urban life, secularization and assimilation, however, have taken a toll on Jewish religious identity.

“Probably less than 20 percent go to synagogue regularly,” Andrew says. “Every poll I’ve read says 50 percent of Argentine Jews don’t even believe in God. You talk to someone and ask, ‘Are you Jewish?’ and they say, ‘No. My parents were, but I’m not.'”

But that doesn’t make it any easier for an Argentine Jew to tell his family he has decided to follow Jesus. Some Christian groups have focused exclusively on Jewish ministry for decades without winning more than a handful of new believers. And converts still pay a heavy personal price.

“One gentleman in his 50s, the moment he accepted the Lord, his wife divorced him and he lost access to his two kids, one of whom was about to get married,” Andrew recounts. “They had a funeral for him. He is no longer. They removed his name from the birth certificate at the Jewish hospital.”

Yet Jews continue to embrace Jesus. Some remain secret believers. Some seek out Messianic congregations. Some join traditional Christian churches. Some stay in their synagogues, looking for opportunities to share the Messiah.

Pray that the Word will reach Jewish seekers in Buenos Aires — and that Jewish believers will multiply.

“It’s a huge, huge challenge,” Andrew admits. “We’re just trying to create as many avenues as possible to get the Gospel to Jews so they will respond.”
*Names changed for security reasons. Erich Bridges is a global correspondent for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. View a multimedia presentation about Buenos Aires — including video, sound and additional photos — here.

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  • Erich Bridges