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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Being Here: Preaching Jesus to Russia's Jews

For someone who is the head of a Moscow group whose very name -- "Jews for Jesus" -- can be incendiary, Avi Snyder is a surprisingly humorous, softspoken man.

A short, wiry New Yorker with a neatly trimmed beard and big, brown eyes, Snyder speaks quietly, somberly about his occasional trials since coming to the former Soviet Union three years ago to convince Jews, secular and religious alike, to become Christians.

"It is never easy being Jewish. It is not supposed to be easy being Christian," Snyder said with smile. "So why should it be easy being a Jewish Christian?"

As the head of Moscow's seven-member Jews for Jesus office, Snyder's mission is to spread the word that Christ was indeed the messiah prophesied in Jewish scripture. Primarily by distributing up to 35,000 flyers a week on Moscow streets, Jews for Jesus workers publicize their existence and invite questions with provocative and often humorous literature.

Since they opened offices in 1991 in Odessa and Moscow, Snyder said some 2,000 Russian gentiles and 1,000 Jews have converted to Christianity through the group's efforts. Because Jews for Jesus does not have its own congregations, converts are steered toward existing Christian denominations, most often Protestant.

The former Soviet Union, with a mostly secular Jewish population estimated at 970,000 in 1992 by the "American Jewish Year Book 1994," is fertile ground for the organization whose focus is on Jews as an ethnic rather than a religious group.

"People here are not afraid to hear what I have to say," said Snyder, who finds Russians generally more open-minded about spiritual matters than Americans. "To me the strongest difference is that here many of our people are willing to listen with an open mind."

In the United States, where Snyder previously worked for Jews for Jesus, the reaction to the group from many Jewish organizations has been quite hostile. The group, which started in San Francisco in the early 1970s, is perceived by some Jewish leaders as contributing to the steady erosion of the Jewish religious community.

In Russia, Jews for Jesus is more likely to provoke an angry reaction from anti-Semites who hate Jews of any stripe. Others in Moscow react with astonishment to the group's mixture of Christian theology and Jewish ritual. One of the most common questions asked of Snyder is: "How can you be both Jewish and believe in Christ?"

"If I said I was an atheist or agnostic and I'm Jewish, nobody would find that jarring," he said. "The night I made the decision to repent of my sins and believe in Jesus, the next morning I didn't wake up and discover that I was a Norwegian or an Eskimo." Snyder, a 43-year-old former playwright, grew up on New York's Upper West Side as a Conservative Jew. In 1977, after moving to California and having wrestled for years with spiritual questions, Snyder converted to Christianity and then became a full-time staff member for Jews for Jesus in California.

The decision to become a Christian has perplexed and sometimes angered his family and friends, said Snyder, who lives in Moscow with his wife and two children.