ARIEL, West Bank — After their teenage son was nearly killed
last year by a bomb disguised as a
holiday gift basket, few people were as eager for Ya’acov Teitel to see justice
as Leah and David Ortiz.
Teitel, an Orthodox Jewish loner who confessed to placing
the package in the family’s stairwell said he targeted the Ortiz family because
they are Messianic Jews — Jews who believe in Jesus as the Messiah.
“We want justice, not revenge,” said Leah Ortiz, who has
lived in this religiously mixed city of 30,000 since the late 1980s. “This
happened because Teitel had hate in his heart. He needs to be in prison.”
The attack, which left 15-year-old Ami with shrapnel wounds
and burns over much of his body, has highlighted the vulnerability facing
Israel’s small and increasingly beleaguered Messianic Jewish community.
Community members say the decades-old harassment has
intensified in recent years, as ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups dedicated to
stopping missionary activity have grown stronger and more confident.
Anti-missionary activists hold protests outside Messianic
places of worship and post photos and the addresses of believers on lampposts.
They tell the Ministry of the Interior that Messianic Jews
are converts to Christianity, something that would make them ineligible to
immigrate to Israel.
Although Israeli law permits missionary activity — provided
the evangelizer does not offer any material incentive to a potential convert —
the persecution and forced conversion of countless Jews for generations has
made Jews extremely wary of proselytizing.
Messianic Jews, who publish and distribute the New Testament
in Hebrew, say they are eager to share the “good news” with anyone willing to
listen, but insist that they do so within the parameters of the law.
Aaron Rubin, who heads the anti-missionary department at Yad
L’Achim, Israel’s leading anti-Messianic organization, insists that Messianic
Jews lure unsuspecting Jews by speaking Hebrew and quoting Jewish texts.
“They lie. They try to convert people but say they’re not
Christians. They’re fundamentalist Christians who call themselves Jews,” Rubin
Barry Segal, a Messianic leader who co-founded the Joseph’s
Storehouse Humanitarian Aid Center with his wife outside Jerusalem, attributes
the recent rash of high-profile incidents to his movement’s growing popularity.
“The number of believers in Israel was roughly 300 in 1981,
and today it’s over 12,000,” he said. “I’m talking about those of us who are
Jewish born, who were married in Jewish weddings.”
Thousands more Israelis, primarily Russian and Ethiopian
immigrants whose Jewish status is questionable, combine Jewish and Christian
ritual in their daily lives.
“In times past, the harassment mostly consisted of mail
tampering and phone calls with vicious intent,” Segal said.
But in recent
years, “there has been a rising tide from harassment into violent acts.”
Segal is quick to point out that Sudanese and Pakistani
Christians face more deadly threats than Messianic believers in Israel.
violence, actual or threatened, is unacceptable.”
Pnina Comforti, the bakery owner, says anyone who wants to
understand the fear she faces should watch a YouTube video that re-enacts a
phone call in which a man tells her, “I am coming to take your soul. How do you
feel knowing you are about to die?”
The man in the video proceeds to recite her address.
will know my name when I write it on the wall with your blood.”
Comforti said business has been down 50 percent since her
bakery’s kosher certification was torn off the wall.
“People come and say, ‘We
heard you do something to the cakes’” that renders them unkosher. “What the
rabbis say, people do.”
Still, she is undaunted.
“What those who threaten us don’t
understand is that they strengthen our determination and our faith.”
Leah and David Ortiz say much the same thing.
Seated in the apartment that was badly damaged by the blast
that nearly killed the youngest of their six children, Leah said half the town
came to visit their son in the hospital.
“They said prayers, they cooked us
meals. We’ve lived here so long, people know us to be good people.”
David, who serves as the spiritual leader of this town’s
50-family Messianic Jewish congregation, produces grim photos of Ami taken
about a month after he opened the package at the kitchen table.
“It blew off three of his toes, the muscle from his thighs,
and caused second- and third-degree burns on his chest and thighs,” he said.
“Bolts and screws tore through his eye and it’s a true miracle
he wasn’t blinded.”
Ami, now 16, has undergone 12 operations and has at least
four more to go. After spending five months in the hospital, he returned to
school and now plays on two basketball teams.
As grateful as they for Ami’s recovery and community
support, the Ortiz family is still upset by how Israeli authorities handled
“There was a condescending attitude, almost like they were
saying, ‘What did you think would happen if you live as Messianic Jews?’” Leah
said. “Government officials told us privately, ‘You don’t have many fans.’”
A police spokesman said the Ortiz attack “was investigated
thoroughly for months and Teitel was ultimately apprehended. We act on every
complaint that is filed.”
Mostly, though, the family is looking forward, not back.
“I’m doing great, but I have to see what my physical
abilities will be,” said Ami, who at 6 feet 6 inches tall, would normally be
drafted into the military at age 18. “I hope to play basketball professionally.”
Ami says the bombing strengthened his spirituality.
“I’ve seen a lot. I’ve been through a lot. I’ve seen what
God can do and it makes me feel safe.”
His parents say they have forgiven the bomber, who was
recently indicted in the March 2008 attack.
“Otherwise he would have control over us, and we would be
victims twice,” Leah said, stroking the family’s 15-year-old dog, who became
deaf due to the bombing. “Forgiveness frees you and frees God to work his