Joe Lee, Clarion-Ledger correspondent 11:08 p.m. CST December 11, 2015
Tucked away on a quiet street in Flowood just off Lakeland Drive, Congregation Beit Lechem is not only a church home to Messianic Jews who drive as far as two hours for Shabbot services each Saturday morning, but a place where people of all denominations gather and look to one source for the many unanswered questions they have about their faith journey.
They’re finding them in the pages of the Torah.
Led by Rabbi Yosef Boleware and his wife, Angie, the small Beit Lechem congregation is largely non-denominational — their backgrounds represent Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist and Catholic faiths. Many attend, the Bolewares say, because what they’ve been taught over the years has left them wanting to know more.
“I have mixed lineage and knew from an early age that I had a Jewish background,” said Yosef, who was raised Methodist while growing up in Crystal Springs. “I met a rabbi about 20 years ago and talked with him, started pursuing the route (to where I am today). Rabbi means teacher, and I’m a rabbi of the Messiah — the Messiah is my teacher.”
Judaism is far from the only faith with divisions among those who practice it, but the differences in beliefs between Reform Jews and Messianic Jews, for example, aren’t likely to go away.
“Our faith in (Jesus) as the Messiah is a huge stumbling block between the two, and the fact that we’re Torah-observant and not Talmudic-observant,” Yosef said. “We have more conflict with Reform Jews than anyone else — that may be because there are so few Orthodox or Conservative Jews in our area. But I have friends that are both, and we’ve met several Reform Jews in the Jackson area and got along with them quite well. We agree to disagree.”
The recognition of Yeshua (Jesus in Hebrew) doesn’t mean that Messianic Jews celebrate Christmas the way Christians do, however.
“(Autumn) is when the Messiah was actually born, so we celebrate his birth then, at the Feast of Tabernacles that you find in Leviticus,” said Angie, a McComb native who was raised Methodist. “All of the feasts actually show our Savior’s life; Christmas isn’t really on our radar.
“We love being with family, but we don’t observe all of the other trappings that go with Christmas. (We’re) just trying to keep it pure on his birth. We do celebrate Hanukkah — a lot of people think it’s the Jewish Christmas — but it has nothing to do with Christmas.”
Beit Lechem will hold its Hanukkah celebration Saturday evening after Shabbot, along with a family game night. The service and fellowship are open to anyone who wants to come.
Not unlike her husband, Angie felt there was more to her Hebraic roots and began studying about keeping the Sabbath holy and learning about Yeshua.
“About 11 years ago I realized I was only focusing on parts of the Bible to live my life, not the whole,” she said. “Keeping the commandments — it’s how you live once you’re saved. I began to deepen my walk. I had an awesome foundation in the church, but I was looking for more fullness from his word.”
Yosef is well aware that Mississippi has lost a huge portion of its Jewish population in the last half century. But he said Messianic Jewish groups are popping up all over the Southeast, and people are looking for them. Devon Gijsbers, a hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, found Beit Lechem (”House of Bread” in English) through a Google search after moving from New Mexico. She lives in Vicksburg and is happy to drive to Flowood each weekend.
“I grew up Baptist and learned a lot there and met a lot of great people, but this is the next step,” Gijsbers said. “My favorite thing about Beit Lechem is that it’s filled with joy. Everyone is so welcoming. And it’s very biblically based — they definitely practice what they preach.”
Michael Stiffler, an artist who has worked at Disney World, stopped in for Shabbot services at Beit Lechem while visiting his roommate, who’d been transferred to Madison County. Not only did Stiffler stay, he even painted the “Watchman on the Wall” mural that adorns the left wall of the sanctuary.
“What really pulled me in was the Torah cycle. I just really liked being connected like that, studying the Bible,” Stiffler said. “I asked a lot of questions (in the past), and there were so many different answers that didn’t add up. When I ask a question here, the Bible is opened and the answer is looked up. I was always aware of a higher power, but just hadn’t found what I was looking for in Christianity.”
And Beit Lechem has an advantage as a small congregation, Yosef said: “On Shabbot mornings, if someone has a question they raise their hand, and we stop and answer that question. It’s our belief that if you don’t understand what we’re saying, we’re not accomplishing our goal.
“We follow the traditional readings from the Torah — we go through the first five books of the Bible in a year. If they see things in their studies that I don’t bring out in the derasha (Hebrew for sermon), they have the opportunity to ask.”
Like people from all faiths, Messianic Jews are faced with the difficult task of passing their beliefs to the next generation.
“We incorporate our children into the service,” Angie said. “They learn very young how to participate and read from the scripture. Our teenagers pretty much know the Bible backward and forward. We let that instill in them a love for God’s word. When they come back (as adults), it will be their faith — not mom and dad’s.
“We have people coming from Shreveport, Bogue Chitto, Meridian and Oxford — driving anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. We have the best of both worlds here: our Hebraic roots, which are phenomenal, and Jesus Christ — or Yeshua — who is our Messiah. You don’t have to pick one or the other.”
IF YOU GO
What: Messianic Jewish Hanukkah celebration & game night
When: Saturday at 6:15 p.m.
Where: Congregation Beit Lechem, 110 Jones Lane, Flowood
Contact/for more info: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.beitlechemofms.com.