Rich Maisel was your typical Jewish teenager growing up on New York's Long Island in the early 1980s. He had a strong Jewish identity, was a supporter of Israel, and was active in many Jewish social causes. Torah observance, though, wasn't really part of the equation.
Like many other Long Island high school graduates, Rich registered at the State University of New York at Albany (SUNYA). Freshman year for Rich at SUNYA passed fairly uneventfully. He was doing well enough in his studies, had part-time jobs at the kosher cafeteria and teaching Hebrew school in the local Reform temple, and he was making new friends. During his sophomore year, Rich was elected president of the university's Reform Jewish student group. At the same time, a messianic Jewish congregation called "the Seed of Abraham" opened in Albany.
DECEPTION AND SLICK MARKETING
The Seed used deception and slick marketing to appeal to uninformed Jews.
The Seed, like all messianic Jewish congregations, used deception and slick marketing to appeal to uninformed Jews, attempting to convince them that it is Jewish to believe in Jesus. The Seed's public functions and services were drawing increasing numbers, and somehow it had even succeeded in having one of its fellow believers hired as a Hebrew school teacher at the local Conservative synagogue.
All of this raised the ire of Chaim Feinberg, z"l, a young, fiery Orthodox Jew living in Albany's small Orthodox community. He brought his concerns to Scott Moskowitz, an active member of the Orthodox Jewish student's group at SUNYA. Scott, in turn, raised the issue with Rich and suggested that they endeavor to find a non-Jewish student to join the Seed to investigate its inner workings and tactics.
But finding a non-Jew willing to take the risks involved in such an endeavor was no easy feat. And so Rich boldly volunteered to accept the job himself. "While I don't know much about Jewish law," he said, "I've heard of the concept of saving lives, pikuach nefesh. Doesn't this job fall into that category?"
Unsure of what to do, Moskowitz asked Rich to speak with Chaim Feinberg about his proposal.
Rich called Feinberg, who immediately expressed his misgivings. After a lengthy discussion, however, Feinberg softened to the idea, but was not willing to make a decision on his own. There were many thorny halachic issues involved in the proposal, such as exposing Rich to apostasy and the attendance of The Seed functions on Shabbos. Feinberg spoke with a renowned rabbi. After clarifying the issues and gaining his support, he called Rich.
"Okay, Rich, we can move forward with the plan. But," Feinberg cautioned, "there will be strict ground rules that you'll have to follow throughout the process." These rules included the instruction that Rich was not to take a single move without Feinberg's approval, and that after each meeting with The Seed, Rich would need to sit and learn with Feinberg as a sort of deprogramming. Rich readily agreed to the rules, hung up, and promptly broke the first rule: he called Pastor Birnbaum, the leader of The Seed, directly.
INFILTRATING THE SEED
During that first phone call, Rich and Pastor Birnbaum spent two hours talking. Rich laid the bait: he was lonely, Albany was so gloomy, everybody was so materialistic, he was a twice-a-year Jew who yearned for more spirituality. Birnbaum did not just take the bait, he gobbled it up voraciously. He told Rich that he knew exactly how he felt since he, too, had attended college in Albany.
Birnbaum asked, "Do you have a Bible?" Rich responded affirmatively and Birnbaum instructed him to open it to the Book of Isaiah. Birnbaum then attempted to "show" Rich how the Tanach speaks of Jesus as the messiah and explained to him that believing in him did not make someone "un-Jewish." In fact, Birnbaum explained, believing in Jesus made a Jew "complete."
After hanging up, Rich excitedly called Feinberg to advise him of the call. Feinberg was irate. After all, Rich had broken his agreement not to take any steps without Feinberg's consent. At the same time, Feinberg saw in Rich a bit of his own passion and, deep down, he knew that they had the right guy for the job.
And so, now fully cognizant of the importance of following Feinberg's rules, Rich began to attend The Seed meetings. He was embraced with warmth by his "fellow members." They were enthused to share their love of Jesus and their common Jewish roots, and they were thrilled by Rich's musical ability.
Before long, he was baptized, anointed with olive oil, and became a "baby believer."
Rich quickly became a stalwart of The Seed community. Before long, he was baptized, anointed with olive oil, and became a "baby believer." Eventually he received "spiritual gifts," and the other members of the group believed that he could heal with his hands and receive prophetic visions. With each "spiritual gift," Rich rose higher in the ranks of The Seed until he became a messianic deacon.
Throughout this time, Rich maintained a full credit load at the university and continued to lead Hillel's Reform group, teaching Hebrew school and working in the campus kosher kitchen. Nearly everyone, including his parents, family, and friends, remained unaware of Rich's double life.
Rich was in constant contact with Feinberg, nearly matching hour for hour the time he spent with The Seed -- deprogramming, learning together, and reporting on the tactics, inner workings, and funding structure of the Seed. At one point Larry Levy, then executive director of Jews for Judaism in Baltimore, was flown in to add his expertise to the deprogramming team working with Rich. On the inside, other than Rich's insistence that Seed members seek medical assistance for serious conditions that they had been told would be healed by religion and belief, Rich pretty much became their poster child.
Months went by. Rich found himself in dozens of situations for which he never could have planned. He and Feinberg found that prior consultation was often not possible. Rich learned to think fast and fly by the seat of his pants -- and debriefing and damage control afterward became critical.
Nearly six months in, Feinberg decided to test the waters: how would The Seed treat a fellow believer who began expressing doubts? And so Rich began leaving meetings early, quietly expressing skepticism, and skipping meetings altogether. Before long, Rich was picked up by Pastor Birnbaum and a few friends, who invited him for coffee. As it turned out, coffee was not what Birnbaum had in mind.
Rich was taken to an abandoned farmhouse with a wooden table and chairs and a single swinging light bulb.
The ride was nearly two hours long through unknown, labyrinthine roads in upstate New York. It ended at an abandoned farmhouse with a wooden table and chairs and a single swinging light bulb. After sitting down, Rich was warned, "You can never leave from beneath the umbrella of Jesus." If he did, Birnbaum threatened, the devil would rip out his heart. While Rich didn't believe such nonsense, as the hours rolled on through the night -- there in the middle of nowhere -- and the gruesome stories built to a fever pitch, the fact that he was hours away from civilization with potentially violent strangers frightened him more and more.
Rich was not returned to his dorm for over ten hours. Shaking and terrified, he didn't even bother to go to his room. He phoned Feinberg and demanded, "Come get me... now!"
Rich spent the next three days recovering at the Feinberg home. Before he left, Feinberg told Rich, "That's it. It's time to plot our exit strategy."
Suddenly, Rich was a "believer" again and a faithful Seed meeting attendee. The Seed had been planning a grand, community-wide Purim play, followed by a speech by a Holocaust revisionist. Rich had already been cast in the role of Achashveirosh. It was decided that Rich would take advantage of the public forum to expose and denounce Pastor Birnbaum and The Seed of Abraham.
On the night of the play, dozens of Rich's fellow students were in attendance, secretly aware of Rich's intent. For some strange reason, Pastor Birnbaum and his wife remained close to the stage during the presentation of the play. Just as Haman's plot was revealed to Achashveriosh, who was about to order that Haman be hanged on the gallows that he had built for Mordechai, Rich broke character and began his denunciation:
Turning to Birnbaum he said, "This is the modern-day Haman in new colors!"
"Guard, guards, seize him! He shall be hanged on the same gallows that he has built for the Jews." Turning to Birnbaum he said, "This is the modern-day Haman in new colors!
"This man, this missionary, systematically deceives Jews into believing they can remain Jewish when The Seed of Abraham is so obviously and painfully a Christian conversion group. This is the new Haman, my friends. I have been here, personally evaluating The Seed of Abraham for six months, and I can honestly say to every person in this room that there is not a single drop of Judaism here, only a sad, sad pretense. What happens after a Jew is lured here by phony Jewish stars and sweet-sounding Hebrew words? Like me, he will be called a baby believer, not a Jew but a baby believer in Jesus.
"Yet Mr. Birnbaum has the nerve, the audacity, to call this group ‘Hebrew Christians.' This is a ridiculous contradiction, because a Jew is a Jew and never a Christian.
"I feel very sad tonight. This is Purim, a holy night, when the Jews were saved from soul-destroyers like The Seed of Abraham. I pray that each and every Jew in this room will turn immediately to a true Judaism, a Judaism that has no room for Christian messiahs and that celebrates Purim as it was meant to be celebrated -- as a true Jewish holy day when the Jews were saved from these Hamans, who would destroy them either in body or in spirit, by converting their souls to Christianity."
Pastor Birnbaum, who was standing nearby, rushed toward Rich and tried to push him off the stage. But Rich stood his ground. Rich's fellow SUNYA students shouted in support, and the crowd split into two factions. Pushing and shoving broke out. In the videotape of the play, a representative of the Assemblies of God (the world's largest Christian denomination, which funds projects to ensnare Jews) looks on dourly, and a pistol can clearly be seen being drawn from someone's waistband. Thankfully, no one was injured, and the police eventually broke up the fracas and forced Rich and his supporters to leave the building.
THE SEED EXPOSED
The denunciation was successful. It publicly exposed The Seed for what it was, and reports run by local newspapers helped spread the story. Birnbaum pressed criminal charges against Rich, and many of Rich's former friends from The Seed began to make large contributions to evangelical, Pentecostal Christian radio stations and other organizations in his name in order to save his soul. But these were the least of Rich's problems. Many Seed members believed that Rich was the devil incarnate, and so Rich began receiving repeated telephone death threats. It was evident that he needed to be out of the public eye.
Rich had always toyed with the idea of spending junior year abroad and now the idea seemed perfect. He enrolled in Hebrew University. After a few weeks at Hebrew U, the seed of Torah that had been planted in Albany and watered by Chaim Feinberg began sprouting. Why did I travel halfway around the world to study the same things I had been studying in Albany? Rich wondered. What am I doing in the spiritual capital of the world without tapping into anything spiritual?
By the end of September, Rich had enrolled in Aish HaTorah.
King Solomon teaches us "There is a time to plant and a time to uproot that which has been planted." Sometimes, it seems, by uprooting what has been planted, a person also plants anew. While The Seed of Abraham has been relegated to the dustbin of history, Rich Maisel and his family are living a blossoming Torah life.
This article is dedicated in memory of Chaim Feinberg, z"l. It originally appeared in Horizons magazine.