Pastor John Hagee and Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg
by Larry Brook
Sometimes, a simple comment or observation can have ripples far beyond imagination.
In June, Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg died, leaving a legacy that he never could have predicted. In the mid-1970s, he arrived in San Antonio and transformed a small Orthodox synagogue into a vibrant institution that he led for nearly 50 years. Dayenu, right?
Well, how about millions of Christians seeing him as their rabbi, as he became a pivotal figure in reconciliation between Christians and Jews, though his name isn’t particularly well known in Jewish circles?
How did that happen? In 1981, after Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was rumored to be developing a nuclear bomb, a San Antonio pastor was dumbfounded at the vociferous criticism of Israel. They did the right thing, he thought, and decided that his Cornerstone Church should have a night honoring Israel.
So John Hagee invited other churches in the area to join in the tribute. The response was, to put it mildly, underwhelming. It was suggested to him that he invite the Jewish community. He found a listing for the Jewish Federation, which he previously did not know about, contacted them and told them of his plan.
As Hagee is fond of retelling, he found out what Federations do. They formed a committee to discuss this odd proposal, as Christian Zionism wasn’t even on the radar yet. After one lengthy discussion, Scheinberg said that we Jews know how to deal with enemies. What if it turns out that this guy is really a friend?
With that kosher stamp, Hagee went forth and put together the first Night to Honor Israel. After it was announced, he started getting death threats, and very little buy-in from churches in the area.
Despite the threats, Hagee was determined to push forward, and they did have a packed house for the event. But as Scheinberg gave the benediction at the end of the program, the security person told Hagee there was a bomb threat with a five-minute warning.
When Scheinberg finished, Hagee mentioned the threat. Seeing the reality of antisemitism, as Hagee left the stage with his wife and the Israeli Consul General, he vowed to have a similar event every year, until the antisemites got used to it.
The event grew, and Hagee and Scheinberg became close friends.
In 2006, Hagee decided the time was right for him to try again with churches, but this time on a national level. He invited 400 evangelical leaders from across the country, including Pastor Bob Somerville of Huntsville, to San Antonio. He told them that they needed to engage with the Jewish community out of “mutual esteem, love and respect” and envisioned having a Night to Honor Israel in every state within the year.
Hagee says it is a miracle that the 400 were in agreement, and that was the beginning of Christians United for Israel — which now has 10 million supporters, and before Covid, hundreds of pro-Israel events around the country each year.
That initial year, CUFI Nights to Honor Israel were held in Shreveport and Jackson. Around the country, some rabbis took part while others were suspicious of this new group — suspicions that have diminished with time.
The flagship event still takes place every year in San Antonio, and in 40 years, just the San Antonio event has raised well over $100 million for Israeli and Jewish causes.
Though advocacy for Israel is the cornerstone of CUFI’s activities, in recent years the organization has been increasingly outspoken in the fight against antisemitism in the U.S. and worldwide.
When Scheinberg’s congregation was vandalized in 2015, Hagee rushed over to offer support to the Jewish community and condemn the vandalism. A video of Hagee and Scheinberg taken that day has been shown at CUFI pastor’s luncheons, not to self-congratulate, but to tell Christians that if something like that happens in their area, they better show up and speak out.
All of this was possible because a rabbi suggested that this seemingly unlikely partner might in fact be a friend.
To continue the model of genuine relationships between Christians and Jews, CUFI recently established the Rabbi Scheinberg Fellowship, which will consist of 18 pairs of pastors and rabbis in 18 different cities. They will study sacred texts together, have monthly virtual meetings about Israel, hold mutual programs in their cities, advocate for additional genuine relationships in their communities, and travel to Israel as a group.
In this age when antisemitism is on the rise and many traditional allies have been distant, it is essential to look around at who might actually be a friend.
And at a time when there is so much hate and bad news, we figured it was time to reflect on a story of love and respect.
May Rabbi Scheinberg’s memory be a continued blessing for Israel, for the American Jewish community and for the Christian world.
This column appeared as the editorial in the September 2021 issue of Southern Jewish Life.