WASHINGTON - A rabbi at a Florida messianic temple was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Friday for his role in the Capitol riots earlier this month.
Michael Stepakoff, who leads the congregation of Temple New Jerusalem in the Tampa Bay area, was charged with knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority; knowingly engaging in disorderly or disruptive conduct in any restricted building or grounds; and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.
According to the Department of Justice, Stepakoff was captured on security footage entering the building and was later identified by a witness who has known him for 20 years.
The department added that Stepakoff later posted photos of himself participating in the riots on social media, and that a second witness told the FBI that Stepakoff confirmed he entered the Capitol. Stepakoff was released on bond with conditions, and is scheduled to virtually appear in D.C. federal court on Thursday.
“I’m not sure to what extent his presence there makes him guilty of any crime,” Stepakoff’s attorney, Rick Terrana, told NBC News. “He just followed the crowd over to the capital just intending to be nothing more than a spectator and ended up going into the capital after it was opened up, an hour or so after this incident that we all saw on TV.”
According to Temple New Jerusalem's website Stepakoff is a member of the Executive Committee of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA), has served on the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues Steering Committee, and is "a significant figure in the affairs of the worldwide messianic Jewish movement."
The Messianic Jewish movement – people who hold to central tenets of Christianity but maintain they retain their Jewishness despite their belief in Jesus as the messiah – is small. They number between 175,000 and 200,000 people in the United States, and roughly 20,000 in Israel, where religious authorities recognize them as Christians rather than Jews.
Akin in many ways to evangelical Christians, they interpret the Bible literally, and in the United States tend to be conservative and vote Republican. In their congregations they loosely follow the Jewish biblical calendar, but infuse Jewish observance with Christian meaning. Three pieces of matza used in the Passover seder, for instance, represent not the Jewish categories of Cohen, Levi and Yisrael, but Jesus, God and the holy spirit.