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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."

When Laurie Rodman saw the article, she called up her mother right away. "Mom," she asked, "do you remember converting to Christianity?"

Rodman read the article to her mother, and Edie Rapp's face contorted in anger.

"I was furious," Edie says. "More than furious. Stunned. Bruce professed to love me so much. I just couldn't understand how he could turn around and do this to me."

Befuddled, the slim redhead turned to Barry Silver, famed Boca Raton rabbi/lawyer emeritus. Silver, whose father, also a rabbi, had debated one of the organizers of Jews for Jesus before a congregation about 25 years ago, had a personal interest in the case. He immediately suggested that the two of them get together to discuss the issue. At the meeting, Edie says, the two of them went over the ramifications of filing a lawsuit, and Edie decided ultimately to proceed.

"To defame me like that, to tell the entire world a lie about me, I just couldn't let that go," says Edie, who elected to sue her stepson and the entire Jews for Jesus organization for $1 million. What started out as a small libel suit against her stepson has spiraled into a tangled theological debate.

In court papers, Rapp claims that the group's "foundation" is based upon fraudulent doctrines and deceitful practices, with the underlying purpose of seducing unsuspecting Jews into the Christian evangelical-backed organization. Bruce Rapp's claims were not isolated ones but emblematic of the group's calculating mission to convert. "Their conversion slogan is called 'Behold your God,'" Silver says. "We think it should be called 'Behold our fraud. '"

The lawsuit targeted Jews for Jesus just as members were ending an international crusade, said to have focused on 65 cities, each with more than 25,000 Jews. West Palm Beach was the last stop in the "Operation Behold Your God" campaign.

Recently, Barry Silver sat at a booth in the Cheesecake Factory in Boca Raton and ordered a lemonade. He is a semicelebrity here; a server asks him about finding a mohel to circumcise his newborn son, another asks about booking him to perform a marriage ceremony, and another patron tells him that she enjoyed his last sermon. The puffy-haired, fleshy-faced Silver, who obviously enjoys frequent media appearances, acknowledges these statements with a smile as he settles into his seat.

"What you need to understand," Silver says, "is that this case is not an aberration. What it is is just another instance of the Jews for Jesus organization perpetuating a fraud."

Silver pauses to take a sip of lemonade.

"What it is," he says, "is false advertising. These people purposely misrepresent themselves, telling Jews that they can both remain Jewish and believe in Jesus, even though this evangelical belief is inconsistent with all branches of Judaism and with Jewish philosophy. Just as there is no truth in the account that Edie converted to Christianity, there is no truth in the idea that you can be both Jewish and believe in Jesus Christ."

In December, Silver sent off a preliminary letter to the Jews for Jesus headquarters in San Francisco, asking them to retract Bruce's account of Edie's conversion and compensate Edie for the "shame, humiliation, and emotional distress" the article caused. Most of the letter, though, was a studious dissertation on the alleged errors of Jews for Jesus philosophy.

"While Judaism teaches that God is one, you teach that He is three," he wrote. "While Judaism teaches that we are born with a pure soul, and cannot be held accountable for the sins of another, you teach that we are born contaminated with the sin of Adam... Jews for Jesus violates some of the most important teachings of both Judaism and Christianity as reflected in the ten commandments."

He concluded that the Jews for Jesus organization "is based on falsehood, and [its] claims about Edith are equally false and defamatory."

Mathew Staver, an Orlando-based attorney for Jews for Jesus, waves off Silver's arguments.

"The plaintiff has turned this case into a theological debate inappropriate for a lawsuit," he says by phone. "I think this whole suit is not about libel. It's about a theological objection that this specific party has with Jews for Jesus."

Taking up the cudgel for Jews for Jesus was chief counsel Spencer Scheer, who has accused Silver of twisting the Fifth Commandment, "Honor they father and thy mother," to attack his organization.

"You bend over backwards to distort the Ten Commandments by equating a belief in Jesus with a rejection of the parent [Judaism], when this commandment is clearly meant to apply to the relationship between an individual and his parents," Scheer wrote to Silver. "This apparently is not your outlook... Under your view of the religion, Jews who consider the Gospel message, or who believe in the Gospel message, should not be allowed to freely express this opinion and cannot remain members of the Jewish faith or community."

Scheer concluded: "If you are concerned with Edith Rapp's best interests, and not in trying to intimidate JFJ, then I hope you will consider the extreme pain that you would visit on the whole Rapp family by pitting one against the other and forcing Ms. Rapp to recant what is obviously a true story."

For Staver, the issue is even simpler. "Three-fourths of Silver's debate is superfluous and has no business being in court," he says.

For his part, Bruce Rapp, reached by phone at his home in New York, simply wishes the entire thing would go away. "It's a family issue" is all he'll say about it now.

Whatever happens in court, the emotional pain produced by the dispute still hangs in the air like a heavy perfume.

Rapp left a message on his stepmother's machine telling her he wanted to talk. He thought this was one whole big misunderstanding. But Edie didn't return the call.

"I figured if he had something to say, he would call me again and then I'd talk to him," she says, "but he never called me back."

Edie sighs. Sitting in her kitchen under a sign that reads "God Bless the Rapp House," she dabs at her eyes with a tissue.

"I wish Marty was still alive," she says. "He'd know what to do about all of this."

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Rebecca Meiser

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