Zion's Hope, a nondenominational organization headed by converted Jew, Marvin Rosenthal, opened the doors to its Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla., in early February amid a wave of controversy.
The $16 million replica of ancient Jerusalem captivates park-goers with a huge facade of the Herodian Temple, hand-carved Qumran caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were found and re-enactments of the Messiah. Now a Baptist preacher, Rosenthal says he created the Holy Land Experience as a "living biblical museum" and as a constant reminder of the life and times of Jesus Christ.
Several Jewish leaders, however, protested the opening of central Florida's newest attraction, condemning what they believe is an outright deception of the park's true intention--which they say is to trick Jews to come into see Old Testament historical exhibits. Once inside, they're trapped by overt gospel presentations aimed to convince Jews of Jesus' divinity.
"If [Zion's Hope] is an organization dedicated to celebrating their tradition, then I think [the Holy Land Experience] is a wonderful thing," said Rabbi Dan Wolpe of the Temple Ohalei Rivka. "If it's dedicated to proselytizing those who don't accept their tradition, then I think it's a terrible thing."
On opening day, a few protestors stood outside the attraction with bull horns and posters. They shouted, "Stop the destruction of the Jewish people!" and sometimes referred to park owners as "Nazis."
Rosenthal says his message has never been misleading, and he maintains that the accusations represent an attack on religious freedom. "In all our literature, we made it crystal clear that we point to Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world," he said.
One month later, Rosenthal made headlines again when he revealed that he endorsed anti-charismatic hiring practices. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Rosenthal said charismatics need not apply for any positions at the attraction, not even for jobs as hot dog vendors at the park's Oasis Cafe.
"We are not charismatics," he told the newspaper. "We love them. We appreciate them. But we would not offer them a job."
Applicants must sign a doctrinal statement that excludes Pentecostals and charismatics. And one local Pentecostal pastor complained that members of his church who applied for jobs at the park were told they could not work there because of their doctrinal beliefs.
However, Holy Land Experience spokesman Gregg Halteman told Charisma that charismatic or Pentecostal employees who work at the attraction "will not be fired for their beliefs."
National media attention has boosted the park's already record-breaking attendance. For $17 a ticket, park-goers can travel 3,000 years back in time, where they can see a six-story replica of Herod's Temple--half as big as the original--but spectacular in architectural design.
Visitors also can stroll through a scaled-down version of the Via Dolorosa or reflect on the resurrection of Jesus at a replica of the Garden Tomb.
The bustling Jerusalem Street Marketplace houses quaint gift shops where shoppers purchase clothing, books and souvenirs as first-century soldiers scurry by.
Orlando resident Jean Fleming, who is not Jewish, says the Holy Land Experience was both entertaining and informative for her. "I felt like I was in ancient Jerusalem in Jesus' day," she said.
Holy Land Experience executives are preparing for the opening of more venues on the 14-acre site, which is only minutes away from Orlando's major tourist corridor. Already, thousands of Christian groups are flocking to the park, and its organizers believe it will be another regular stop for Orlando tourists visiting Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World.
"Enthralled by the fascinating exhibits, we believe our guests will find their comprehension of the Bible becoming deeper and more meaningful," Rosenthal said.
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