Rico Cortes, a former minor league baseball player and scout for the Chicago White Sox, was raised in a Christian community in Puerto Rico. But in the 1990s, he began “searching his roots” and found out he was a descendant of medieval Spanish Jews. His reaction was anything but predictable.
“When I kept reading the Bible, [Jesus] kept Shabbat, he ate kosher, he kept the faith,” says Cortes. He found himself thinking, “Wait a minute — what’s going on? How come we don’t do what he did? It’s hypocritical.”
Cortes, 47, decided that the best way to understand the Torah is to “really live it.… It’s the only way.” So he became a self-described “Torah-observant believer in Yeshua,” or member of the Hebrew Roots movement.
They don’t identify as Christian because they see contemporary Christians as heavily influenced by pagan culture.
Now Cortes studies Torah six to seven hours a day and teaches full time. He is also the founder of the popular Wisdom in Torah ministry, which is mainly online. He says he has followers from more than 130 countries, and he is invited to speak to Hebrew Roots communities all over the world. In the next few months he will travel to Colombia, South Africa, Canada, Costa Rica and multiple cities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. He recently lead a prayer session of 500 followers in China, held in a school gym.
“There’s a huge awakening all over the world; it’s growing by leaps and bounds,” he says.
Meet the Hebrew Roots movement. On the surface, many of its followers might look like Conservative or Orthodox Jews. They keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, celebrate Passover, wear Stars of David and speak Hebrew. Some are circumcised, and have beards and peyos. They’re extraordinarily pro-Israel and often place an emphasis on how many times they’ve visited the country.“A lot of the first believers in Jesus were Jewish,” says Caleb Camero, a 21-year-old member of the movement. “For me, getting closer to the lifestyle is getting closer to my Messiah.”
But their religion centers on Jesus, whom they refer to as Yeshua, his Hebrew name. And they believe that the right path to following Jesus is to live as he did, by observing the Torah.
Menachem Kaiser is a journalist who published an in-depth article on Hebrew Roots for Tablet magazine. He reports that while the number of Hebrew Roots members is hard to quantify, there are 200,000 to 300,000 followers worldwide, most of whom joined in the past 15 years.
“This wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago,” he says.“Everything is very, very much Internet-fueled,” says Kaiser. “All of the ministries are mainly online.” He points to an enormous rise of online orthodox institutions like aish.com and Chabad.org. Translations of ancient Aramaic and Hebrew texts have drastically improved. The combination of better translations and the Web has made a lot of very traditional Jewish texts accessible to the masses.Why is this movement growing? It has to do with the Old Testament meeting the magic of the Internet.
The majority of Hebrew Roots followers fellowship practice online, and thus the community aspect of the movement is virtual. Some believers attend nearby messianic or traditional synagogues. Every now and then big events are held, where members come together in person. Last June, for example, more than a thousand people attended Revive 2013, a religious conference in Dallas. This year’s conference will be held June 27-29 in Jacksonville, Fla. Other large gatherings include the Feast of the Tabernacles, hosted by Lion and Lamb Ministries. Missions to Israel are common.
Hebrew Roots shouldn’t be confused with Jews for Jesus, whose followers consider themselves Jewish, are heavily organized, and are known for their intense proselytizing.
Many of the followers Kaiser interviewed were from the American South, although there are believers scattered all over the world. A majority came from highly religious Christian backgrounds, where the Bible is followed very closely. Camero, for instance, belonged to the Church of God and was inspired by his aunt to go to a messianic congregation. He started learning Hebrew and began to observe the Torah more closely. “Nationwide, people are finding the Talmud above the Bible and reading it in Hebrew,” he says.
Hebrew Roots followers emphatically don’t identify as Christian, because they view contemporary Christians as strongly influenced by pagan culture. For example, they don’t celebrate Christmas. On the other hand, Kaiser explains, they see a conversion to Judaism as a renouncement of faith in Jesus, which they view as a travesty.
“It’s a loose identity,” explains Kaiser. “There isn’t a church, there isn’t a leader. It gets very fragmented.”
There are 10 to 15 major ministries and hundreds of smaller ones. Many are subscription-based and charge for their seminars, classes and prayers. If Hebrew Roots continues to grow, one could easily see certain personalities turning their followings into the kind of hefty profits brought in by megachurches, trading sprawling cathedral complexes for vast online ministries fueled by a culture of paying for knowledge.
Legions of well-educated, faithful followers mixed with big personalities and big profits? Sounds like Hebrew Roots, not unlike other ascendant religions, may soon have to deal with some complex challenges.
What would Yeshua do, indeed.
Why you should care
Followers of Jesus who keep kosher, celebrate Passover and observe the Torah? It’s a global phenomenon.