Days after a neo-Nazi entered a Pittsburgh synagogue, shouting “all Jews must die” before killing 11 people, Vice President Mike Pence invited a rabbi on-stage to offer a prayer for unity. During his remarks, the man invoked Jesus as “the Messiah.”
That rabbi was, in fact, not Jewish.
Loren Jacobs is a leader of a religious sect known as “Jews for Jesus,” or Messianic Judaism, which accepts Jesus Christ as one’s savior—a defining distinction between Judaism and Christianity. As such, it is not considered a denomination of Judaism.
“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God and father of my lord and savior Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, and my God and father, too,” Jacobs, founder of Congregation Shema Yisrael, opened his prayer on Monday night. He ended his remarks with a prayer for Republican candidates hoping to win in next week’s midterm elections.
The sign of spiritual support from Pence—a self-proclaimed born-again evangelical Christian— occurred Monday during a Detroit rally for GOP congressional candidate Lena Epstein and caused immediate outcry from Jewish leaders.
“The Jewish community is offended. Period. They’re allowing their political beliefs to trump their religious sensitivity,” Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi in Detroit, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “Had Lena Epstein or Pence invited half a dozen religious leaders to deliver words of prayer that would have been acceptable and appropriate. The only religious leader present last night was a Christian leader who calls himself a Messianic Jew.”
David Kurzmann, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, told The Daily Beast that immediately following Jacobs’ prayer, his organization has been getting “non-stop calls from people who are deeply offended.”
“He is not a rabbi and to pass him off as one is deeply hurtful,” Kurzmann said. “This whole religion is based off converting Jewish people to a morphed Christianity. You can’t ignore the timing here.”
Shortly before the 20-minute shooting spree, the alleged gunman, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, a neo-Nazi who frequently wrote on a far-right social media website about killing Jews, posted an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory with the words: “Screw your optics. I’m going in.”
The attack is believed to be the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the U.S., according to the the Anti-Defamation League.
“We are focusing on Pittsburgh at the moment but we were shocked to hear last night that the Vice President chose to stand with a Messianic Jew after an attack on the Jewish community,” a spokesperson for the Jewish Federation of North America told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “Our religion does not recognize Messianic Judaism and having him represent us does not spend a good message to our reeling community.”
Followers of Messianic Judaism often claim their beliefs constitute a sect of Judaism. But because they follow the New Testament and preach that Jesus is the Messiah, they are not recognized by any mainstream Jewish movement in the United States. The syncretic group is also not recognized by the chief rabbinate, the spiritual authority for Judaism in Israel.
“If Epstein wanted to evoke a symbol of unity, she should have invited multiple faith leaders to her event last night,” a spokesperson for the American Jewish Congress told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “She missed the mark by just having one faith leader, who is not part of the religion who was just attacked.”
Jacobs, who runs the only Messianic congregation in the Detroit area, graduated from a Jewish studies program at Moody Bible Institute in 1979 before being ordained as a rabbi by the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. In a video on the congregation’s website aimed to prove following Jesus satisfies Jewish law, Jacobs explained that he grew up in a Jewish community in Chicago, but always felt Judaism was “spiritually missing something.”
"The truth is that Jesus is the Messiah, the king of the Jews, and he can fulfill us and complete us in our Jewish identity,” he said, adding that he became devoted to Jesus after reading philosophy books in college.
Jacobs and the Congregation Shema Yisrael did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Epstein, who is running to represent Michigan’s 11th congressional district, defended Pence and Jacobs following the evening. She issued a statement clarifying that she invited the “rabbi” to the event, not the vice president, “because we must unite as a nation—while embracing out religious differences - in the aftermath of Pennsylvania."
“Any media or political competitor who is attacking me or the Vice President is guilty of nothing short of religious intolerance and should be ashamed,” she wrote. “This is an effort of unity, yet some are trying to create a division to suit their political goals.
The Republican Jewish Coalition echoed Epstein’s defense, telling The Daily Beast that “Mike Pence did not invite the rabbi to attend the event. He simply invited Jacobs on stage as a sign of unity.”
Pence’s deputy chief of staff, Jarrod Agen, also issued a statement, saying the vice president heard Jacobs give a prayer at the start of the rally and simply invited him back on stage everyone could hear him.
“He was invited by Lena Epstein to offer a prayer at the event, which he did early in the program,” he said. “The VP invited him back on stage to deliver a message of unity. He was not invited by the VP’s office to speak on behalf of the Jewish community.
Monday night’s rally is just the latest misstep in a series of stumbles from the Trump administration following Saturday’s anti-Semitic attack and a week that saw 14 pipe bombs mailed by a Trump supporter to prominent critics of the president.
Trump, who originally called the Pittsburgh attack “far more devastating than anybody originally thought,” has adamantly refused to admit his rhetoric may have fueled any such political violence. Instead, he has focused the blame on the media and his political opponents.
But for Rabbi Miller, the decision to use a religious leader not affiliated with Judaism as a “sign of unity” is just a form of damage control.
“I think she was backtracking and used the excuse rather than apologizing for lack of sensitivity for having an individual whose mission is to convert Jews to christianity,” the rabbi said. “She backtracked and said it was out of concern for unity.”
Miller believes that Epstein, who is running against Democratic candidate Haley Stevens, chose the Messianic “rabbi” out of desperation, because no actual Jewish rabbis would stand beside Vice President Pence.
“I honestly think Lena Epstein invited him because none of the mainstream local rabbis agreed to give convocation for a rally with Mike Pence,” the father of three said.
Kurzmann said members of his organization are calling for Epstein’s apology, “because the whole thing seems to be a misstep in an effort to pay homage to the tragedy in Pittsburgh.”
“[Jacobs’] religion actively seeks to diminish Judaism and he was invited to represent us. That cuts deep.”