The sound of the ram’s horn bounced off the walls of the Prospect Community Center and called members of the Assembly of the Children of Israel to worship.
“We delight in your Shabbat,” sang the bearded men as the women and girls, their heads covered in colorful scarves, danced in the center of the room to honor Yahweh – God.
Later, the 16 people attending the recent Saturday service in Waldo County passed a small Torah, or Scripture, around the circle, kissing it gently before handing it to the next worshipper. A boy effortlessly blew the ram’s horn, or shofar, to announce the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Once the Torah was laid upon the podium, however, no member of the Assembly of the Children of Israel, or Kehilat B’nai Ysrael, knew Hebrew well enough to read directly from it. Instead, participants used prayer books that spell the Hebrew words phonetically to read the verses and conduct the service.
They sang in English to taped instrumental music or along with a guitar played by a lay leader. The children joined in with bongo drums or other small percussion instruments. The women performed dances as part of the service and waved colorful flags above their heads.
These worshippers are part of a global movement of Messianic Jews – people who believe in the deity of Yahshua or Jesus as Messiah, but follow the laws of the Torah, including the dietary laws and customs practiced by observant American Jews. They follow the Jewish calendar, celebrate Jewish feasts and support Israel.
Because no members of the group are Jewish by birth, they are called Messianic believers rather than Jews. They liken themselves to the Christians of the first century, but with modern appliances.
“The church walked away from the Torah,” said James Harvey, 36, of Frankfort, who is a founder the congregation. A former member of an Apostolic church, Harvey said that in reading what Christians refer to as the Old Testament, he found “a lot of Scripture being overlooked.”
Harvey and members of the congregation do not believe they found each other by chance.
“Three or four of us were meeting at an abandoned building and started reading Scripture,” said Joshua Sylvester, 25, of Prospect. “I saw that it was one continuous document. It spoke to me as being alive. We all just fell together and found each other, like lost sheep looking for fellowship.”
Harvey said that last year, after reading the teachings of Rabbi Moshe Yoseph Koniuchowsky on his Web site, he and a few others interested in Messianic Judaism held an organizational meeting in Bangor. More than 70 people attended, according to Harvey.
In April, the group affiliated with the Union of Two House Messianic Congregations based in Miami and led by Koniuchowsky. The rabbi has said that worldwide the union has about 260 congregations, averaging 30 believers each.
Affiliated groups and congregations must use the “only true personal names of the Father and the Son” – Yahweh and Yahshua – according to information on the Web site, www.2house.org.
Other principles of the faith include:
. That Yahshua taught his true followers both Jew and non-Jew that all the precepts of written Torah are eternally binding.
. Belief in Yahshua’s death, burial, physical resurrection and subsequent ascension to the right hand of the Father, where he sits as the high priest over the New Covenant of Israel.
. That Yahshua’s physical return to earth will result in the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel.
. Belief that Yahweh is rescuing from the nations and false religions a remnant redeemed through Yahshua’s blood. Renewed Covenant Israel is defined as Judah and Ephraim, the two physical houses becoming one again, through Messiah Yahshua.
While these beliefs may seem to combine Orthodox Judaism and Evangelical Christianity, the congregation’s worship practices come from the Torah. Families observe the Sabbath in their homes after sundown Fridays and meet as a community on Saturdays.
The women wear skirts or dresses and cover their heads with scarves. The men do not shave and many wear a modified tallit katan, or undershirt, with ritual knotted fringes that remind the wearer to observe the biblical injunction to be mindful of God at all times. Some, but not all, wear yarmulkes, or skullcaps, in the synagogue.
They observe Passover but not Easter, Hanukkah but not Christmas, and they practice baptism by immersion in water. They will celebrate the seven-day Feast of the Tabernacles, or Sukkot, as a congregation at a camp in western Maine run by a Baptist minister.
Don Gross, 48, of Belfast moved from Caribou to be closer to like believers more than a year ago. “I had been seeking a group that believed like I did and I found people here [in Waldo County]. One thing just led to another.”
The worship ritual and kosher lifestyle represents a major change for Al Gagne, 63, and his wife, Marcia Gagne, 50, of Guilford. A former Catholic, he taught catechism classes at his parish and was active in other church activities. He turned to Messianic Judaism because he felt that “something there wasn’t right” and came to see Christianity as a “counterfeit” faith.
Living up to the letter of the Torah is not always possible, congregation members have found. Because so many families live far from the synagogue, they must drive rather than walk to services. Harvey said that he has not yet resolved the conflict between his job in the seafood industry and the Torah’s prohibitions on shellfish. Yet, members of Kehilat B’nai Ysrael said they are determined to follow Judaic law.
Maps of the Middle East showing the boundaries of Israel in ancient and modern times remind these Messianic Jews of their collective past and present. These believers look toward the future outlined in Ephesians in the New Covenant Scriptures, called the New Testament by Christians, when all believers in Messiah Yahshua will be united in Yahweh’s Holy Land of Israel.
For information on Kehilat B’nai Ysrael, call James Harvey at 223-5078.
James Harvey blows the shofar marking the beginning of Saturday’s service. Harvey plays the traditional Jewish instrument made from a ram’s horn throughout the service to punctuate the music.
James Harvey holds up the Torah as the congregation, including Don Gross (left), who leads the service, sings. The Messianic Jews read from Torah during every service.