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Religion in the News

January 19, 2001

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ A film depicting the greatest hits of Bible stories and a stage show featuring the Holy Ark are not your typical Orlando theme-park fare.

In fact, The Holy Land Experience, a Christian theme park, is unlike anything Orlando has ever seen. When it opens Feb. 5, visitors will be able to enter a replica of Jesus’ tomb, climb the stairs of a faux Herod’s Temple and travel down a re-creation of the Via Dolorosa, the street that Jesus walked before he was crucified.

But members of Orlando’s Jewish community are raising skeptical eyebrows about the theme park since its founder is a Messianic Jew or Hebrew Christian, a person who considers himself Jewish yet believes Jesus is the Messiah _ in contradiction to traditional Jewish theology.

Some members of the Jewish community fear that there’s an ulterior motive to the $16 million theme park: to convert Jews to Christianity.

``If the purpose of The Holy Land Experience is to celebrate their tradition, then it’s something I applaud,″ said Rabbi Dan Wolpe, chairman of the Greater Orlando Board of Rabbis. ``If the purpose is to proselytize ... then it’s something I condemn.″

There is no hidden agenda other than to share the word of God and exalt the Bible, said the theme park’s founder, Marvin Rosenthal, who was raised Jewish in Philadelphia, became a Christian as a teen-ager and was ordained a Baptist minister at age 33. He has dreamed of building the park for 20 years.

``I’ve come to appreciate how helpful it is for people not only to read about some of the great truths in the Bible, but to see some of the places, the environment, the sounds, the touches, the smells,″ said Rosenthal, 65, who prefers to call the project ``a living biblical museum.″

But The Holy Land Experience, located near Orlando’s tourist strip, is unmistakably a theme park. A woman dressed in robes evoking the Biblical era offers visitors the Hebrew greeting, ``Shalom.″ Men dressed as Roman soldiers, with armor and helmets, stand guard at the entrance. It was designed by ITEC Entertainment Corp., which created rides for the Walt Disney Co. and Universal Studios.

The entrance fee is $17 per person, compared with more than $50 per person charged by the large Orlando theme parks.

The park blends Jewish ritual with Christian theology, in keeping with Hebrew Christian beliefs. That is what troubles the rabbis.

``If you accept Jesus as your savior, you are a Christian,″ Wolpe said. ``Any study of Judaism shows their beliefs are incompatible with Judaism.″

Menorahs and other Jewish religious items are sold in the gift shop.

At the Wilderness Tabernacle show, an actor playing the role of Aaron, the brother of Moses, re-enacts priesthood rituals carried out as the Jews wandered the desert after receiving the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai.

The 20-minute show, combining lasers and pyrotechnics, begins with three Hebrew prayers chanted over a loudspeaker, including the Vay-a-hofta, one of the most important prayers in Jewish liturgy. The show ends with the narrator saying the ancient Jews’ wandering through the desert was a prelude to a greater understanding of their faith. A nativity-scene image of Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph then flashes on the screen.

``I find that offensive,″ Wolpe said after hearing a description of the show. ``When they use our prayers in their exhibit, they’re using a centuries-old device in proselytization, trying to show that Christianity is the legitimate evolution of Judaism.″

Added Rabbi Merrill Shapiro of Congregation Beth Am in Orlando, who like Wolpe has not visited the theme park: ``The connection of that with a scene of the Nativity ... is certainly a perversion of the original intent of those prayers and the ritual of Aaron.″

Rosenthal wants to use the theme park as a way to reach out to people of all faiths and nationalities, but there will be no overt proselytizing.

``When people come in, they’re not buttonholed, nobody’s giving out literature, nobody’s trying to get them in a back room or corner,″ Rosenthal said.

The park has an advertising budget of $350,000 and will be marketed outside traditional Christian media.

The park needs at least 180,000 visitors to break even. By contrast, Orlando’s biggest parks at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando attract 8 million to 15 million visitors a year.

The park’s funding came from donors to Rosenthal’s ministry, Zion’s Hope; subscribers to the ministry’s magazine, ``Zion’s Fire″; and money from selling land so a highway exit ramp could be built off Interstate 4.

Rosenthal moved his nondenominational ministry to Orlando from New Jersey 11 years ago after deciding that he could reach out to more people in a tourist destination visited by 42 million people a year. Orlando is also home to several large Christian institutions such as Campus Crusade for Christ and Wycliffe Bible Translators.

``What better place to build a family-oriented venue than in the No. 1 family destination?″ said Marvin Rosenthal’s son David, who is responsible for day-to-day operations at the theme park.

Despite the frivolity of other theme parks, the message of The Holy Land Experience is serious, Rosenthal said.

``We’re not in the entertainment business. We’re not in the museum business,″ he said. ``This is designed to communicate the truths of the word of God. We do that very publicly and we do that without apology.″

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