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'Messianic' Newspaperman Comes Home

Sparks Fly as Publisher of Apostate Tabloid Converts Back to Judaism

(From Forward, December 27, 1996)

When George Belloni was milling around outside the Messiah '96 conference this summer, he noticed one booth that was being avoided by the parley's numerous "messianic" Jews and Christian missionaries. The booth was run by Jews for Judaism, a counter-missionary group that opposes just about everything the Messiah '96 conference was promoting, most notably, converting Jews to Christianity.

As Mr. Belloni, the publisher of one of the largest "messianic" newspapers in the country, The Messianic Times, sauntered over to the table with his wife, he thought, "I am going to convert this guy." Mark Powers, the national director of Jews for Judaism, had the same idea.

That first encounter triggered a tale of conversion that has left the "messianic" movement stunned, while sparking a religious discrimination suit alleging that a group that sought to convert Jews to Christianity fired two employees who converted from Christianity to Judaism.

No sooner had Mr. Belloni opened his mouth than Mr. Powers realized that he was standing across from one of his most powerful enemies, the man who controlled a major mouthpiece of the "messianic" movement that targets Jews for conversion. Nonetheless, the conversation continued. Mr. Belloni had many questions -- about scripture, about history, about faith. They were questions Mr. Powers had heard before, and he had the answers.

The conversation lasted three hours. They exchanged pamphlets and literature. "I'll be back," said Mr. Belloni as the two parted. Sure enough, a few days later Mr. Belloni came back to the booth. "Well, I came back," Mr. Belloni said.

"Yes, I see," replied Mr. Powers.

"No, no," Mr. Belloni responded. "You don't understand. I'm back."

What the newspaper publisher meant was that in the few short days since their first meeting he had decided to return to a Judaism he never knew.

Confusing Background

By his own admission, Mr. Belloni's religious background is a bit confusing. He was raised as a Catholic in New Jersey and Florida, the son of an Italian father and Polish mother. His mother's family members, however, were Jews who converted to Catholicism before leaving Poland in the 1930's; Mr. Belloni is still trying to understand whether they converted for religious reasons or for safety. His planned conversion to Judaism won't be the first time he has changed his religious colors. At

the age of 12, he left Catholicism for the Baptists, then the Assemblies of God and event he Seventh-day Adventists.

"We gave away a lot of money. It was in the seven digits once, he says. His giving earned him the honor of "major donor" from Pat Robertson's "700 Club. While being interviewed in the "700 Club" studios, he got his first whiff of "messianic" Judaism.

When an opening turned up at The Messianic Times, the owner Zev Isaacs, a longtimer in the "messianic" movement, hired him as publisher early this [1996] year, reviving what had been a flagging operation. Mr. Isaacs' role as a missionary to the Jews has landed him in trouble before, resulting in a failed attempt to emigrate to Israel. Now, his testy relationship with the Jewish community is figuring in another chapter of Mr. Isaacs' life, resulting not only in the loss of his publisher, but also landing him in legal morass.

When Mr. Belloni took over the paper, he hoped to answer some questions of his own. "I had a lot of questions about the New Testament," he said by telephone from his office in Hagerstown, MD. "When I worked for The Messianic Times, I had the top Bible scholars at my fingertips. But the answers they would tell me were not very good."

The news of hi conversion did not go over well with his former colleagues. In a fundraising letter sent out [in November 1996] , The Messianic Times wrote: "We never expected to find our business manager , a trusted staff member of the ministry, persuaded away from the faith by Jews for Judaism. They succeeded, and our grief has been unimaginable."

The grief did not end there. Following their decision to convert, Mr. and Mrs. Belloni were fired from The Messianic Times' staff. In firing them, however, Mr. Isaacs may have stepped on a legal land mine. His newspaper is a for-profit company -- not a religious organization, and he now stands accused of discriminating against the very people he wanted to convert. Mrs. Belloni has filed a complaint alleging religious discrimination against her former employer. Mr. Belloni says he plans to file a complaint shortly.

A staff member at The Messianic Times, Faye Wicks, had no comment, and Mr. Isaacs did not return repeated phone calls for comment.

The Bellonis, who live in Maryland, are planning to move to an Orthodox community, perhaps joining the Powers in Harrisburg, PA.

Though Mr. Powers is thrilled by Mr. Belloni's intention to convert (the Bellonis are frequent Shabbat guests at Mr. Powers' Harrisburg home), as a counter-missionary professional, he says he regrets the potential demise of The Messianic Times: "It was my best source of information."

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