Jews for Bejesus | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Jews for Bejesus

There was no denying it any more: Marty Rapp was dying. Parkinson's disease had taken control of Rapp's muscles, causing the once-nimble ballroom dancer to lie dormant in his sterile hospital bed. His vision was poor, he had zero control over his body, his hands shook and quivered, but the doctors said his hearing was still sharp. His second wife, Edie, her voice hoarse and her eyes red, stood there, murmuring sweet nothings into her husband's ears, as his last moments passed: "I'm here for you, Marty," she wept. "I'm not leaving."

As the monitors continued to beep and hum, Bruce Rapp, Marty's oldest son from his first marriage, arrived from New York. A stern, upright-looking man with a strong jaw, thick graying hair, and cheekbones so defined that they seem mathematically crafted, Bruce was -- physically speaking -- an absolute copy of his father. In fact, the first time Marty's stepdaughter saw Bruce, she gasped. "The resemblance was that startling," says Laurie Rodman, Edie's daughter from another marriage.

Despite their physical likeness, though, the two had had some sharp philosophical differences in recent years. While Marty Rapp, a former restaurateur, had always embraced his Jewish heritage, Bruce Rapp had become a convert to Christianity. Deciding that he wanted to devote the rest of his life to serving Jesus Christ, Bruce had relocated his family from California to New York, where he began serving as a high-ranking administrator in the Northeast headquarters of Jews for Jesus, a 30-year-old, Christian evangelical organization. Even a 1,500-mile separation between Marty and Bruce Rapp did not cool their passionate theological differences. According to Edie, when Bruce would visit his father's Delray Beach home, he would spend hours proselytizing about the goodness of Jesus Christ, leaving pamphlets on the kitchen table and on top of the bathroom toilet.

"I waited until he was gone to trash them," 68-year-old Edie says. "I didn't want to be rude."

Out of such seemingly minor philosophical disagreements, knotty lawsuits can be born. The events that transpired around Marty Rapp's deathbed last October, have now resulted in an unusual dispute that appears to be headed to court -- though the tenor of the debate often sounds more like a bookish rabbinical debate than the kind of dollars-and-cents claims and counterclaims that usually end up in front of civil court judges.

Edie Rapp's suit against her stepson and against the burgeoning Jews for Jesus organization itself was filed in the Palm Beach County Circuit Court last month. It's something of a judicial oddity: the first legal attack on the religious group based almost entirely on doctrine. Instead of simply attacking Bruce's credibility, Edie Rapp and her rabbi/lawyer have decided to go after the underlying principles of the Jews for Jesus organization. No court date has been set.

Open hostilities were slow to arrive in the Rapp family. At first, even with the religious disagreements, the family only seemed to grow closer. "It got to the point," Edie says, "where Bruce would call me Mom."

But on that lamentable day in October, Bruce paused ominously at the entrance to the hospital room where his father lay dying. He fumbled in his carry-on, pulling out a large, dog-eared Bible. He held up the book ("shield-like," Laurie says), and, according to Edie, walked into the hospital room "like a bat out of hell." At the sight of Marty's other friends and family members, Bruce started yelling that everyone in the room needed to leave -- he wanted time alone with his father.

Flabbergasted at Bruce's seeming hostility, Edie did not know how to respond to her stepson's demands, she says. On the one hand, Bruce deserved time alone with Marty; he was his son, after all. On the other hand, Marty was fragile and could not speak for himself. Edie was worried that Bruce would try to attempt a last-minute conversion. "I saw him open that Bible, and I saw stars," she says. "If there's one thing the two of us were definite about, it was our Jewishness."

In the end, Edie and Bruce reached a compromise: Edie would stay in the room while Bruce read a chapter from the Bible to his father. She says she cringed as Bruce cracked open the New Testament and turned to Psalm 23:4. "Though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me," he recited.

When Bruce was done, he closed the book and walked out of the room. Edie says he later apologized for his brashness, and she assumed that any hurt feelings had subsided.

Two months later, though, in December 2003, while Laurie Rodman's husband was surfing the Internet, he came upon a reference to his mother-in-law that almost made his heart stop. There, in plain view, was an article written by Bruce Rapp. In the story, Bruce wrote that he had watched, tearfully, at his father's bedside while his stepmother, Edie Rapp, accepted Jesus into her life. In the article, Bruce wrote that the two of them "prayed the sinners" together and that when Bruce asked whether Edie was ready to accept Jesus into her life, she responded in the affirmative. Bruce concluded the article by asking others to pray for Edie's faith to "grow and be strengthened."