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Whose Holy Land?

At the Holy Land Experience, a new Interstate 4 entertainment attraction, visitors may inspect models of Herod's Temple and Christ's tomb. But the concept has raised some religious tensions.

By SHARON TUBBS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2001


ORLANDO -- Marvin Rosenthal stepped to the mike in his first major press conference for the Holy Land Experience. Behind him stood the 60-foot rendition of Herod's Temple from first-century Israel and the life-size model of the tomb where the crucified Christ was buried. Actors dressed in turbans, robes and sandals greeted visitors with shalom.

Mock Qumran caves lined walkways within the 15 acres developed to look like ancient Jerusalem. Just off I-4 and three minutes from Universal Studios, the attraction is the first of its kind; a "biblical museum," organizers called it.

"What you see and experience here today belongs totally, exclusively, without reservation to our great God," Rosenthal said.

He also had a word for his critics, of whom there are plenty. "If people want to take issue with us, what they will take issue with is God's word," he said.

But Rosenthal's version of God's word in the Holy Land Experience offends some Jews, who say the theme park is a giant proselytizing tool aimed at them.

"This is the beginning of intolerance," said Rabbi Daniel Wolpe, president of the Greater Orlando Board of Rabbis.

Rosenthal himself grew up Jewish. The first time he heard "Jesus Christ," someone used it as a curse on the streets of his native Philadelphia. Later, he says, children taunted him by calling him "Christ killer."

It wasn't long before he was doing all he could to prove them wrong.

Re-creating the Holy Land

The Holy Land Experience opens to the public today. For a $17 ticket ($12 for children), spectators can browse Calvary's Garden Tomb, walk through a stone courtyard called the Plaza of the Nations and peek inside replicas of the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

Gift stores -- the Old Scroll Shop, the Sycamore Tree and Methuselah's Mosaics -- feature Bibles, scriptural knickknacks and mementos imported from the real Holy Land. The Oasis Palms Cafe offers a mix of American and Middle Eastern cuisine.

People in costume sing and act out scenes from the Bible in the marketplace, along the Via Dolorosa and near the temple.

ITEC Entertainment Corp., which has designed rides for Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, worked with Rosenthal and his son, David, to ensure the park's biblical accuracy. They based their models mostly on archaeological and scriptural accounts, Rosenthal said.

For instance, the temple was said to be 12 stories high when it stood on Mount Moriah in the first century A.D., Rosenthal said. The Holy Land Experience rendition is a half-scale model at 60 feet. Inside is a 170-seat theater featuring a 20-minute film, The Seed of Promise. Shot in Israel, the film includes scenes from the Garden of Eden all the way to the second coming.

The Wilderness Tabernacle is said to be three-fourths the size of the actual Old Testament tabernacle. Visitors sit on bleachers and hear from a narrator who calls himself a descendent of Aaron, an Old Testament high priest. As an actor demonstrates certain rituals inside the tabernacle, the narrator hints of the coming of a Messiah.

For about 20 years, Rosenthal had been thinking about building a religious theme park inspired by his extensive tours of Israel. But only in 1989 did he and David get serious. They set their sights on I-4, perhaps the most commercial tourist magnet in the world.

They found a densely wooded 19-acre site that was tangled up in a bankruptcy proceeding. Rosenthal offered a flat $1.2-million -- a fraction of the land's worth. A few weeks later, he got a call from the real estate agent. The offer had been accepted.

There was a problem. Rosenthal ran a nonprofit organization that conducted religious tours to Israel. The organization, Zion's Hope, didn't have $1,000 to put toward the land, let alone $1-million.

Rosenthal was scared, he said. Then he told some friends, millionaire investor Robert Van Kampen and his wife, Judith, about the project.

"Buy it," Rosenthal remembers them saying. "We'll put a check in the mail to cover the cost." The couple's collection of rare Bibles and manuscripts will become part of a museum to open at the Holy Land Experience next year.

When it was time to start design and construction on the project, another backer wrote a $1-million check.

"We had the dream for the Holy Land Experience, and we had no funding," Rosenthal said. "And there were friends of this ministry who said, 'How much is it going to cost?' "

The blessings kept coming, Rosenthal said. About four years ago, state officials needed about four Holy Land acres to build a new interchange from I-4. It would be Exit 31A. The state paid $1.4-million for the 4 acres -- more than the ministry paid for the entire site.

The Holy Land Experience, Rosenthal said, was built "miracle after miracle after miracle."

The road to evangelism

Rosenthal was reared in a Jewish community, had Jewish friends, studied for his bar mitzvah. He was the son of Conservative Jews, the grandson of Orthodox Jews.

But after years of Hebrew prayer and teachings from the Torah, his mother, Yetta Camp, began to study the Bible. It was a shock to the Jewish community, which does not believe that Christ was the Messiah.

"She wasn't looking for God. She wasn't searching," he remembered. "She wasn't particularly pious. But she was always one who wanted to know truth, I suspect."

Whatever sparked the change in his mother, her belief in Christ became unwavering -- and contagious. Rosenthal, the middle of three sons, was the first child to convert. Today, his two brothers and their wives also have converted, Rosenthal said.

Back then, Rosenthal was not the evangelist he is today. He shied away from sharing the gospel with his Jewish friends and eventually became disenchanted with religion. He dropped out of high school before reaching the 12th grade and joined the Marine Corps.

"I wasn't living for God in a particularly righteous way while in the service," he said.

In his early twenties, he went into sales and taught ballroom dancing. But then, he said, "I realized I had an itching of the heart I couldn't scratch," he said.

At 25, Rosenthal went to school at the Philadelphia College of Bible and the Dallas Theological Seminary. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1968.

He took his Bible to old Jewish pals in Philly. Some listened, some didn't. For 16 years he was director of Friends of Israel, a worldwide missionary organization.

In 1989, he founded Zion's Hope and gave tours of the streets where theologians say Jesus Christ once walked.

Still, Rosenthal believed, there was more evangelism to be done. And I-4 was just the place.

Hebrew prayers, Christian pitch

What angers Wolpe, the rabbi, is the Jewish feel of the Holy Land Experience.

For instance, visitors hear Hebrew prayers in the Wilderness Tabernacle. The use of the prayers in a Christian context makes the Holy Land Experience deceptive and gives the impression that Christianity superceded Judaism, Wolpe says.

"These are old, old, old proselytizing maneuvers," Wolpe says. "We find proselytizing offensive."

Wolpe fears that some Jews might be duped into coming to the Holy Land Experience -- only to receive an unwelcome lesson in Christianity.

"If they market this as a Holy Land experience," Wolpe said, "I can see Jews saying, 'Oh, it's about Israel' and going to see it."

Rosenthal estimated only 1 percent of visitors will be Jewish. He said every piece of advertising and literature about the Holy Land Experience states its evangelical purpose.

The Bible is referred to throughout a brochure that advertises Holy Land admission prices and maps out scenes within the park: "Inside the Wilderness Tabernacle, join other guests on a remarkable high-tech, multimedia exploration of Israel's ancient priesthood, which points to Jesus Christ -- the Lamb of God."

As for the prevalence of Old Testament doctrine, Rosenthal says the Holy Land Experience teaches the same things a good Baptist preacher would teach on a Sunday morning.

And concerning the Wilderness Tabernacle, Rosenthal said, "The tabernacle was Jewish. The tabernacle comes from the Old Testament. How can you show something from the Old Testament without having a Jewish feel?"

Rosenthal sees nothing wrong with having Hebrew prayers on the site. The narrator is an Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem who was paid to recite the prayers specifically for the theme park, Rosenthal said.

Wolpe has no intention of checking out the Holy Land Experience for himself. His information about what is inside comes from news reports.

"I feel that if the rabbis go, then we legitimize them," Wolpe said. Since being quoted in the papers, he has received some unwelcome correspondence.

"I have had several e-mails telling me that if I don't accept Jesus," Wolpe said, "I'm going to hell."

Theme park with a mission

The controversy over Jewish themes is being blown out of proportion by the press and a few rabbis, Rosenthal believes. The real issue has nothing to do with Hebrew prayers being recited over a sound system.

"(Wolpe's) problem is that he doesn't want any group, any religious group, saying that Jesus Christ is the Messiah and savior of the world," Rosenthal said. "Christians evangelize. Muslims evangelize. Jehovah's Witnesses evangelize. This is a free country . . . He doesn't seem to realize that if you take away this freedom, you take away your own."

Rosenthal hopes the Holy Land Experience will attract 180,000 visitors this year. Profits will be given to Zion's Hope ministries for Bible teaching in Israel, he said.

From the beginning, he has been clear about his intentions for the Holy Land Experience.

Yes, he wants to offer a unique source of Christian entertainment and education. But, as a minister, he has one other thing in mind.

"We make it clear that we are an evangelical Christian ministry," Rosenthal said. "We want to convert everybody."

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this article.

At a glance

The Holy Land Experience

4655 Vineland Road, Orlando

Attractions: Jerusalem Street Market, Calvary's Garden Tomb, Qumran Caves, Wilderness Tabernacle, The Seed of Promise film.

One-day pass: $17 adults, $12 children

For more information: (866) 872-4659 or http://www.zionshope.org.

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