Thursday, May 07, 2009

"Health Expo" Exposed: Undercover Missionaries

I picked up a flyer last week at the Haifa Cinematheque advertising a "Health Expo" at the Auditorium, to take place from May 3-8. The expo promised free medical checks such as blood pressure, body fat percentage, and best of all, free massages. Yesterday I finally had some free time to check it out, but the experience turned into something completely different from what I had expected. It's interesting to see how missionary groups operate in Israel.

I had the choice of doing registration in English, Russian, or Romanian, oddly enough. The young man who took my details told me he had moved to Israel two weeks ago with his wife. I was then ushered to the first "station," where I was measured and weighed. Each of the attendants manning the stations wore a white overcoat and was either Romanian or Russian, with limited Hebrew. All of the attendants were either from abroad or fairly new to Israel, and were exceptionally nice.

The next stations were blood pressure and the peak flow metre. After doing the lung capacity test, I was encouraged to leave my contact information on a form and tick off the "courses" in which I was interested (cardiovascular disease, stop smoking, new start, happy life seminar, etc.). The form was titled 'Folow Up Interest' [sic], and the logo included the slogan "Association promoting activities on education, health, and family." My registration form also included the following invitation:
If you want to continue to learn more on how you can prevent and treat disease, learn practical solution for a healthier life, and share your experience with other people interested in same area:

I was also given an assortment of brochures with the following titles (translated from Hebrew): Rest, Moderation, (Fresh) Air, Physical Activity, Sunlight, Water, Proper Nutrition, and Faith.

I didn't have a chance to look at the brochures until the exercise pulse and pulse recovery rate station when I had to sit quietly for five minutes. I noticed that the pamphlet on faith, even though written in Hebrew, used a lot of the key words and phrases that I've come across in Christian literature. It stressed "a personal connection with G-d" and that in order to trust G-d, we must get to know Him, which can be done by reading Holy Scriptures. These pamphlets, by the way, were also available in Russian and Romanian (but not English). After the "biological age" station, the Swedish massage, and the cholesterol and glucose station, I sat down to wait my turn for the last station, a personal meeting with a doctor. While waiting, I told the young woman next to me that I thought this event may actually be a missionary Christian event. She expressed complete surprise and doubt, but said, in Russian-accented Hebrew, that now she would 'davka' go in order to see what this was all about. I afterwards saw her speaking with her (boy?)friend, who I understood worked at the event. When I asked him about his involvement, he said he only handed out flyers. I also saw her speak to another attendant, who then came straight over to me and told me that I had nothing to worry about. The doctor told me I should change my lifestyle.

I was becoming more and more curious if my theory was correct when I finally came across the sentence,
"המנוחה האולטימטיבית נמצאת בישוע. תנו לאלוהים את הקשיים והצרות שלכם ותקבלו את מחילתו ואת שלומו"
The ultimate respite lies in Jesus. Give G-d your difficulties and burdens and receive His absolution and peace.
almost at the very end of the Rest pamphlet.

On my way out, I saw the manager and one of the attendants who had told me my "biological age." I started asking a few questions, but found them to be extremely evasive. For example, I asked to know more about the "faith" which they were advocating in the Faith pamphlet. The manager told me it's just about belief in general - hoping and trusting. I asked to know what exactly that means, but the manager, who was from Romania and didn't know Hebrew, wouldn't really elaborate. He told me that this expo was only about health and feeling good. I asked some more questions, but again, he was very evasive. When I pointed out that a very specific faith, Christianity, was being advocated, the (boy)friend of the woman I spoke to earlier flatly denied it. When I showed them the brochure with the Jesus citation, the manager said he couldn't read Hebrew and didn't know what it said. After the attendant translated for him, the manager told me that this was a (mis?)translation from America. Then the manager went on to tell me that he keeps the Sabbath, eats "kosher vegetarian" food, and reads the Torah.

The attendant, who actually spoke (accented) Hebrew told me that it's about helping people and making them feel good. When I asked him who was finacing the expo, he told me "we're a charity organization," but wouldn't tell me which organization that was. The money apparently comes from donation. Okay, but who would donate money to this? He said many of the donations were from abroad from people who want others to "feel good." He also said, "who else will take care of these people? I see people here who are so unhappy. The woman behind you is 65 and just lost her husband. Who's going to help her, the government?" By now I had understood that this attendant, as some of the others, was an Russian immigrant, probably with some Jewish background, who had been living in Israel for some time.

I also commented that I found it strange that many of the visitors to this expo seemed to actually be friends with the attendants and not random Haifans who had come to check out the Health Expo. It was now after closing hours, and many of the "visitors" had actually stayed on and were chatting with the attendants. The (boy)friend then said, "Yes, we're a small community." At this point, the three finally admitted that they were Adventists. They conceded that part of their "total health" plan included spreading the gospel, but they hurried to reassure me that nothing was being forced on anyone.

After I arrived at home, I started doing my online research to complete the picture. Apparently, the Health Expo is a strategy that the Adventist group uses to evangelicalize around the world, but they seem to be much more open in other places regarding their true message.

The flyers which the group had used to advertise the expo had been printed in Hebrew, Russian, and Romanian. On the flyer, it was mentioned that the fair was being co-sponsored with the non-profit HOR organization, which is a Romanian Jewish association in Israel. I wonder if they realized that Jesus was part of what they were sponsoring.


Critiker said...

Hello this is Critiker:
This reminds me of scientology 'health stations' that I've seen in NY promotion free "health" and stress tests. I watched people try these tests out and the organizers always told them that they are in poor health and have too much stress, and therefore they have to come again, and join scientology. This seems to be a very pernicious tactic, which uses fear as a motivator and coercive mechanism. The missionaries you wrote about seem slightly more tactical. After all, you wrote that the “doctor” did tell you to change your lifestyle.

Carmia said...

Hi Critiker,
I've seen those as well, in San Francisco. I actually even did one of those stress tests. But the Scientologists were very clear about who they were.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

This is very interesting. I'm not sure that basic missionary tactics are so different anywhere else in the world though. My impression of modern missionaries is that they go into "the field" and establish schools and hospitals looking to bring in people looking for basic care and gradually ingratiate themselves. Granted, Israel doesn’t need hospitals in the way that many developing countries may, but the tactic of luring people in for a health assessment and a free massage seems par for the course.

J. said...

The lack of transparency in this picture is a real concern, though.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if this lack of transparency would work in the U.S. There must be (I hope) some law advising full disclosure in the United States.

Anna said...

Wow, I can't believe it! Great article Carmia. It's so important to expose these things.