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Two GOP politicians tied to Messianic Jews

DETROIT — A candidate for chair of the Michigan Republican Party who faced criticism after inviting a messianic “rabbi” to offer a prayer for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018 has now announced that she is a “messianic” Jew.

Lena Epstein shown as she greets guests during her campaign for Congress, May 5, 2018. (Rachel Woolf for The Washington Post via Getty)

Lena Epstein, who was raised Jewish, made the comments Feb. 7 at a candidate forum hosted by the conservative group Ottawa County Patriots at a Baptist church in Holland, Mich.

She said her running mate for party co-chair, Pastor Donald Eason of Sterling Heights, was the one who had “baptized me into the Christian faith.”

The election for Michigan GOP chair will be held at the state party convention, Feb. 17 and 18 in Lansing.

Epstein is running to replace departing chair Ron Weiser, a Jewish Republican.

Epstein, the general manager of an oil corporation, was the co-chair of President Donald Trump’s successful 2016 campaign in her state.

She then ran for Congress in 2018 and for the University of Michigan Board of Regents last year but lost both races.

During her 2018 congressional race, Epstein initially highlighted her roots in the Detroit area Jewish community.

But a rift emerged after the Pittsburgh shooting, when she appeared onstage with a messianic “rabbi” and then-Vice President Mike Pence, who were offering a prayer for the 11 Jewish victims of the attack.

The event drew heavy criticism from Jews in Michigan and beyond, and the vice president’s office said Epstein was the one who had invited the rabbi.

Epstein defended her decision at the time by tweeting, “I invited the prayer because we must unite as a nation — while embracing our religious differences — in the aftermath of Pennsylvania.”

A group of Jews across different parties, including several whom she grew up with, subsequently took out an advertisement in the Detroit Jewish News urging local Jews not to vote for her in that election.

“Lena Epstein has chosen a side. It’s not ours,” the ad read.

Missionary work is part of messianic practice. A 2021 Pew Research Center study of American Jews estimated that about 200,000 Americans identify as messianic Jews.

“Whatever someone’s religious convictions may be, you don’t attack them for political gain and that’s what is happening here,” Ted Goodman, a political advisor to Epstein, told JTA in a statement on Feb. 9.

Referring to Lena’s critics, Goodman said, “These are liberals, and establishment Republicans who are afraid of Lena Epstein because they know just how effective she will be as leader of the Michigan Republican Party. Religious freedom is under attack in this country, and Lena won’t be intimidated or silenced.”

Online, Epstein has continued to present herself as Jewish. Her Instagram shows that she has visited her daughter’s suburban Detroit private school, Cranbrook, in recent months to read stories about Yom Kippur and Chanukah to students.

Epstein has previously identified herself as “a Jewish millennial female who is supporting Trump.”

Elsewhere in her Ottawa County address, Epstein highlighted her family’s history of experiencing anti-Semitism.

“My family fled religious persecution from Eastern Europe. Today I stand before you as a fourth-generation American with the religious freedom to be a messianic Jewish believer, to have a five-year-old daughter that I’m raising in our faith.”

While Epstein had the full endorsements of the Republican Party for her last two campaigns, as well as that of Trump for her 2018 Congress run, this time she is running against 10 other candidates, all vying to lead a party that lost every major state office race and control of both houses in Michigan’s 2022 midterm elections.

Among them are frontrunners Matthew DePerno, a former attorney general candidate who is under investigation for plotting to seize and tamper with the state’s voting machines, and Kristina Karamo, a former secretary of state candidate who has sued in an attempt to stop absentee ballots in Detroit from being counted in 2022.

Epstein has been endorsed by Rudy Giuliani in her race.

She was also arrested in September, 2021 for suspected domestic assault, though no charges were filed.

Meanwhile, Florida Republican Anna Paulina Luna, who beat a Jewish Democrat to represent her district in Congress last fall, claimed she had Jewish ancestry, too, referring her father being a messianic Jew.

The freshman representative told Jewish Insider during her campaign that she was “a small fraction Ashkenazi,” in addition to having been “raised as a messianic Jew by my father.” Jews do not consider messianic Jews, who believe in the divinity of Jesus, to be Jewish.

Her claim of Ashkenazi heritage appears to be untrue, according to a Washington Post investigation into Luna’s biography published late last week.

After speaking to members of Luna’s extended family and reviewing genealogical records, the Post determined that she does not have any apparent Ashkenazi background — and that her paternal grandfather, in fact, served in the armed forces of Nazi Germany.

Some Democratic groups and liberal columnists have already pounced on drawing comparisons between Luna and George Santos, New York’s freshman Republican, who fabricated large portions of his biography, including claims that he was Jewish and the descendant of a Holocaust survivor.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America tweeted, “Republicans are increasingly using Jewish Americans, our community, and our history as political props.” Both candidates represent districts with significant Jewish populations.

It’s unclear whether Luna was consciously lying about her Jewish background or simply misinformed. Heinrich Mayerhofer, Luna’s grandfather, served in the Wehrmacht, the German army, before immigrating to Canada in 1954, family members told the Post.

He was Roman Catholic and told family members he had had no choice but to serve the Nazis in order to survive.

His son George Mayerhofer, Luna’s father, was raised Catholic, according to members of Luna’s extended family from whom she has become estranged. But Luna said he followed messianic Judaism and raised her with those beliefs.

Her mother Monica Luna also told the Post that George, who struggled with addiction, “started attending a messianic Jewish church in Orange County” after he got clean, and that Luna “buried him to Jewish customs” after he was killed last year in a car accident.

Luna’s office has called the Post’s story “comical” and said she was being targeted because “anyone who is a conservative minority is a threat to Leftist control.”

The Post has already issued two corrections on the story concerning other elements of her biography, but not on her claims of Jewish heritage.

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