Pastor Hagee and Rabbi Scheinberg: A Friendship Made in Heaven
Residents of a predominately Jewish neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas, were recently reminded that hatred toward Jews isn’t confined to Europe. It rears its ugly head far too often at home in America.
More than 30 homes and cars were spray-painted sometime after midnight on the morning of August 12, 2015 with swastikas, Ku Klux Klan references, and other antisemitic graffiti.
At the corner of Sholom Drive and Sholom Place, the epicenter of the rampage, sits Congregation Rodfei Sholom. This Orthodox synagogue is the spiritual home for more than 300 families, led by Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg. When news surfaced that Scheinberg’s community was the target of antisemitism, the rabbi immediately received a visit from one of his closest friends.
“As soon as I heard this had happened,” recalled Pastor John Hagee, “my wife and I came down immediately to express our solidarity with the rabbi, with his congregation and the Jewish community of San Antonio. I want to say to all of the Christians in America, we stand with the Jewish people. An attack against this synagogue is an attack against Christians everywhere. If a line has to be drawn, draw it around both Christians and Jews. We are united.”
Hagee is a man who needs little introduction. A world-renowned Evangelical pastor, Hagee’s telecasts on Global Evangelism Television (GETV) reach more than 150 million homes in the United States. These days, Hagee may be equally well known for his support of Israel and the Jewish people.
Nearly ten years ago, Hagee founded Christian United for Israel (CUFI). A decade later, CUFI is the largest pro-Israel organization in the world with 2.5 million members. But I recently learned that without Rabbi Scheinberg, there would never have been a CUFI and the nearly $100 million it has raised to help the people of Israel.
Last month I went to San Antonio to sit down with Pastor Hagee and Rabbi Scheinberg. For nearly a decade, I have heard stories about this friendship. Having covered the annual CUFI Summit for various publications in recent years, I have seen firsthand CUFI’s dedication to the peace and security of Israel. But still, many in the Jewish community and pro-Israel movement have reservations about Hagee’s intentions — his “true” agenda.
Before I left Chicago for Texas, one rabbi told me, “I don’t trust him,” and another warned me to “be careful with Hagee.” At the same time, friends involved in pro-Israel activism praised Hagee as a “righteous gentile” and “wished that more Jews loved Israel and the Jewish people as much as Hagee does.”
As the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.”
As I sat down with the pastor and rabbi, joined by CUFI Communications Director Ari Morgenstern, the love and joy in the room were undeniable. Hagee and Scheinberg can be described as giddy-like, beaming with smiles as the two friends greet each other and embrace with a hug that could break a rib.
The pastor and rabbi first met in 1981. At the time, Hagee approached the Jewish Federation in San Antonio about his desire to host a Night to Honor Israel.
“The Jewish community was quite concerned what my agenda would be and they were vetting me to see if I was sincere in my intentions,” Hagee explained.
Scheinberg met Hagee in his office after the initial conversations with the Federation.
“I met Pastor Hagee and was convinced that it was worthwhile to give this person an opportunity,” said Scheinberg. “I told the Federation that I was very impressed with the pastor and we should give his idea a shot. At that point I think the community was ready to participate in a Night to Honor Israel.”
I asked what would have happened if that conversation had never taken place and Scheinberg hadn’t given his blessing to Hagee’s idea. How would CUFI’s work be impacted today?
“There would never have been a Night to Honor Israel, and if we had never done the first one, there would never have been a Christians United For Israel, that now has over 2.5 million members. And if we hadn’t been successful in that first meeting, the $95 million given to Israel for humanitarian causes would never have been given,” said Hagee.
Rabbi Scheinberg quickly jumped in after the pastor’s comments, determined to make it clear that his faith, “G-d’s plan for us,” is what brought these men together.
“In Jewish thought, we believe that you connect with people with your heart and soul and then your mind kicks in to process that relationship,” explained Scheinberg. “When I met Pastor, it wasn’t me saying let’s give it a chance. There there was something about him. I knew we were going places — I felt it. This Night to Honor Israel was something that had never happened before, and I was moved.”
The rabbi continued, “When I went back to the Federation it wasn’t just to recommend that we give it a try. I told them that this person was going to do something wonderful for our people.”
I asked Scheinberg if the phone call he first received from Pastor Hagee was bashert, the Yiddish term for divine providence. “I think it was,” he said. “G-d has a plan for all of us.” The rabbi believes that is why he, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, ended up in San Antonio, and that his relationship and work with the pastor are part of that plan.
Just a few years after that first Night to Honor Israel and decades before Hagee founded Christians United For Israel in 2005, Rabbi Scheinberg began accompanying the pastor and his congregation on trips to Israel.
“We’d take about five or six hundred people each time. At night at the hotel, rabbi teaches. And then on the Sabbath, minus the microphone, he walks the audience and teaches,” said Hagee. “My favorite thing with the rabbi in Israel is going to the Western Wall. We’ve had some wonderful prayer time there together, and I knew G-d was listening and would answer that prayer.”
At this point, Pastor Hagee and Rabbi Scheinberg pointed out a picture that sits on the pastor’s desk. As it was handed to me, the rabbi let me know that he also displays this photo of the two of them, deep in prayer, arm in arm, at the Western Wall.
“That photo was not posed; it was taken by someone we don’t even know. These are some of my most precious moments,” added Scheinberg. “I started going to Israel with the pastor almost 30 years ago. Some of our most memorable trips were during the intifadas when the pastor went, 500-strong, 600-strong.”
Scheinberg continued, “Jewish groups weren’t going as regularly as before, but there was Pastor leading, as we marched together. And the Israeli people were so appreciative because so many tourists had stopped coming.”
It was at this moment that eyes began welling up with tears.
The pastor and rabbi recalled a more recent trip to Israel, with hundreds of people walking down the streets of Jerusalem, led by the rabbi and pastor.
“I have to say, I was there,” chimed in CUFI Communications Director Ari Morgenstern. “There is a moment when the rabbi and pastor are walking arm in arm with hundreds behind them in the streets of Jerusalem, and a shopkeeper comes down, he’s in tears, and he throws rose petals! You couldn’t have painted a more pristine picture. There have been some amazing moments.”
The relationship between Hagee and Scheinberg has profoundly impacted their respective worshipers. “There has been an historic unity between our congregations,” said Hagee. The rabbi has addressed the pastor’s Cornerstone Church, with a membership of more than 20,000, on numerous occasions. The rabbi also teaches the 600-strong women’s study group and is “their teacher of choice” according to Hagee.
Hagee’s motives have been questioned ever since his first outreach to the Jewish community nearly 35 years ago. Recently, Evangelical Christians were attacked by the National Jewish Democratic Council. Greg Rosenbaum, board chair of the NJDC, accused Evangelical Republicans of “supporting Israel because they are building a stairway to heaven on the backs of the Jews in Israel.” Rosenbaum and other detractors of Christian support for Israel would perhaps sing a different tune if they understood the acts of loving-kindness flowing from this relationship.
“When we first started construction on our current building, times were good,” said Rabbi Scheinberg. “Then there was a downturn and we were not making much headway. The pastor came to me and said, ‘I’m going to give you a donation’ — which was half a million dollars. This allowed us to move forward with our building.”
Realizing that his support may be regarded as “controversial,” Hagee reassured Scheinberg that “this can be just between the two of us,” recalls Scheinberg. “Of course this is the one time I did not listen to the pastor because I recognized the historic consequence of that moment,” Scheinberg explained. “That donation was a sign for everyone to see because it was more than just a donation to a synagogue. It was part of a movement — a reconciliation of love between Christians and Jews. That is what Pastor is all about.”
I asked both clergymen what they have learned from each other. Scheinberg launched into a story about a past CUFI event during which he saw Senator Joseph Lieberman leave the room with tears in his eyes:
“Lieberman says to the pastor, ‘If you would have been here in the late 1930s, how many millions of Jews would not have perished.’ That is what he said to the pastor with tears in his eyes. You asked me what I’ve learned. Coming from Brooklyn, I didn’t have much contact with Christians. Everything I know about Christianity I learned from the pastor. There are so many things I’ve learned from him, whether about politics or Bible. I knew history, but the present is destiny. The pastor is shaping history. I admire him greatly and consider him not only a brother but also a teacher.”
Hagee responds, “What the rabbi has taught me has been everything. I knew absolutely nothing about the Jewish faith. I didn’t know that there were Orthodox, Conservative, and liberal divisions in the Jewish community. But I immediately perceived that there was an instant attraction to what I was trying to do with those who believed in the Torah. So we had a very strong commonality based on the Torah. The thing I instantly recognized about the rabbi is that he is really one of a kind. He is a very loving man, a man of great compassion; he is a man of great scriptural scholarship, and he is a person of impeccable integrity. He has a love for the word of G-d, and everywhere he goes in this city he is well received by all people because of the very presence of the Lord in his life. That is not a common feature whether you are a gentile or a Jewish person.”
Pastor Hagee’s work supporting Israel and the Jewish people has at times been met with contempt and mistrust. He describes the beginning of his pro-Israel work as “a constant barrage of religious artillery designed to obliterate everything I was trying to do.” He described the grief he received from both sides: Christians would ask him impatiently, “When are you going to convert the Jewish people?” And Jews wanted to know when Hagee was going to try and convert them.
He laughs when he recalls the “razor’s edge” he had to walk for well over a year and tells me that to this day Christians haven’t given up their criticism and “many to this day will not participate in a Night to Honor Israel event when it comes to their town because we are very vocal about treating the Jewish people with mutual respect when they come to an event to honor Israel and we do not target Jews for conversion. And there are people who just will not tolerate you if you don’t do that.”
Rabbi Scheinberg remembered the time he got a call from Pastor Hagee’s wife, Diana, asking him to pray for them. At the time, Reverend Jerry Falwell was “going after” the pastor for not targeting Jews for conversion. In his national newsletter, Falwell actually accused Hagee of being a “heretic.”
Years later, the two men met and Hagee explained “why and what I was doing and the Biblical basis for it, and he became reconciled that it was properly motivated, and he immediately said, ‘I want to help you.’”
Falwell would eventually become a CUFI board member and “to his dying day was a strong supporter of what we were doing.”
Rabbi Scheinberg acknowledged that not all Jews would be ready to embrace “the altruistic love.” But each year, as people have come to know Pastor Hagee, fewer and fewer rabbis and Federation directors have needed convincing that there isn’t a “hidden agenda.”
Scheinberg believes the “defining moment” in Jewish-Christian relations was when Hagee spoke at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in 2007. Describing the atmosphere as “a revival meeting,” Scheinberg counted maybe 30 standing ovations, calling Hagee’s speech an “electrifying moment because the establishment got to hear him.”
Hagee has accepted the fact that he will always have detractors, and no matter what he does for Israel and the Jewish people, there will be people who will never trust him.
“After 34 years of doing what we do for Israel with Nights to Honor Israel, Christians United For Israel, with 2.5 million people who are ready to stand up, speak up, and stand with Israel, after the giving of tens of millions of dollars, and you don’t think we are sincere, there is no common ground.”
Hagee has learned to grow a thick skin over the years. He has withstood threats against his life, a bomb scare at that first Night to Honor Israel, and his car windows being shot out.
Rabbi Scheinberg believes G-d placed him in San Antonio to be part of something special. Giving Pastor Hagee all the credit for being the visionary of their work together, Rabbi Scheinberg believes “to the depth of my soul that the Pastor has been touched by the hand of G-d.”
Paul Miller is president and executive director of the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought. Follow him on twitter @pauliespoint.
A version of this article appeared in The Washington Times.