“No thanks, I’m Jewish.”
In case you’re not already aware, this is the single least effective way to brush off someone eager to trap you into a conversation about Jesus and the good news for your immortal soul. These four cursed words will, in fact, perform the complete opposite of the intended effect and function not as a rejection, but as an invitation.
Something about the prospect of converting a self-described Jew to Christianity mimics the psychological effect of catnip on cats and will undoubtedly cause whoever wants to share the good news with you to redouble their efforts, aggressively invite you to a Bible study, or insist that you really ought to take their pocketbook reader of the New Testament’s greatest highlights.
Sure, your ancestors may have survived centuries of forced conversions and pogroms, but this missionary is convinced that they’ll make the difference and bring you into the Christian fold. After all, what really was the Inquisition compared to the irritation of declining flyers on Bruinwalk? I joke, of course, but it really does get irritating.
If you’re an impressionable first-year, you may even be successfully pressured as I was into giving out your phone number to someone who will text you multiple times a week encouraging you to attend their Christian club’s events until you eventually summon the courage to block their number.
If you pause to reflect for a moment, it’s disconcerting how pervasive conversion efforts are at UCLA. To be fair, I’m sure that most of it comes from a place of deeply held religious conviction and a well-meaning desire to ensure a pleasant afterlife for others. And, lest I be accused of saying otherwise, let me clarify that I am not expressing a generalized grievance with Christianity, Christendom, or Christians.
That being said, in my experience at UCLA, I have come to believe that hobbyist and professional evangelists who target emotionally vulnerable underclassmen, many of whom are desperate for social connection and feeling of belonging after having left the nest egg for the very first time, are fair game for criticism. When those efforts specifically target Jews, a people with a long history of suffering for the right to their own beliefs and practices, I find it especially offensive.
My first year, my roommate and I were eating together at Covel dining hall when a friendly, mid-20s man asked if he could sit with us and struck up a pleasant conversation. Five minutes later, he pivoted to the one subject he was actually interested in – inviting us to attend an event hosted by his organization Acts2Fellowship. Because he had spent the time getting to know us, he had made it much more awkward to outright decline his invitation. Afterwards, my friend and I realized that the entire encounter and conversation, start to finish, had been pre-planned with the end goal of ministry. Suddenly, his interest in our names, majors, and hobbies felt utilitarian, as if he had been simply going through the motions of social interaction for the sake of engineering a personal connection and arriving at the sales pitch as quickly as possible.
Upside Down, a donation-based cafe which opened in March on Le Conte, is actually owned and operated by Jews for Jesus and managed by a literal missionary. Although Upside Down characterized its mission in the Daily Bruin as “provid[ing] a place for students to hang and connect” and “building a community” (a seemingly non-religious goal), that’s not the whole story. A Jews for Jesus newsletter explicitly described the Upside Down cafe in evangelist terms:
“The regulars are not limited to students. One Jewish woman has been coming in after her appointments at the medical center across the street. Her husband, also Jewish, became a Catholic and her brother is a Messianic Jew. We’ve had some gospel conversations with her, so please pray for her. And pray for many more good conversations as we love and serve the people of our community. We hope that people will come for the coffee and the art, and stay for the joy and purpose that comes from knowing Jesus.”
This, of course, raises the question: if the underlying motivation for Jews for Jesus’s Upside Down cafe is, unsurprisingly, a desire to engage Jewish patrons with conversations about Jesus, why not say as much in the Daily Bruin? Why characterize the establishment as ‘community-building’ without the heads-up that they intended to center that community around proselytizing in service of a specific theology? That lack of basic transparency is, in my view, objectionable.
At other times, campus evangelism has not disguised itself under a veneer of motiveless friendliness or even as non-denominational ‘community-building,’ but instead armored itself in brazenness.
Last year, I was approached by a student member of a different Christian organization as I was walking up the final western stretch of Bruinwalk towards the Hill. Out of politeness, I took off my headphones, he asked if I was interested in attending a Bible study that week, and I declined “No, thanks” and put my headphones back on. At this point, the standard response to rejection from people handing out flyers or promoting their club is something along the lines of “No problem” or “Have a good day.” He chose to follow me as I walked past him and ask me “Why?” I honestly didn’t know how to best answer him, so I just ignored him and kept walking until he eventually stopped following me. Since that day, I have seen members of what I believe is his organization sing Christian music outside of the John Wooden Center on weekday evenings, which is completely inoffensive and actually kind of enjoyable, but also aggressively pursue students up and down Bruinwalk, pestering them with questions, and refusing to accept repeated rejections.
If you’re a Jew at UCLA, you’ll eventually experience proselytization, covert or overt, friendly or pushy. Unless you have a penchant for lengthy theological discussions, missionaries that won’t stop texting you, or the Christian faith, get used to keeping your headphones on and eyes forward.
And, if you have to decline a conversation, just say “No thanks.”