ORLANDO, Florida – The Jerusalem Temple may soon crumble – again. At least the monumental, half-scale, six-story replica of the facade built for the Holy Land Experience biblical theme park in – where else? – Orlando, the kitsch capital of the world.
Trinity Broadcasting Network owns the 15-acre attraction, a recreation of first-century Jerusalem, which sparked controversy in both the Jewish and Christian communities when it opened in 2001.
The worldwide evangelical Christian network recently announced that Holy Land, which has struggled financially almost from the beginning, was laying off most of its staff and ending its live shows, which include a reenactment of the Crucifixion and a dance number on the Temple steps. Earlier, the park cut back to a five-day-a-week schedule.
Trinity said it is exploring plans to sell Holy Land, along with two adjoining parcels, to developers, who could level the park and replace it with apartments, a shopping center or a luxury hotel. Holy Land’s site is considered highly desirable, near an exit off Interstate 4, kitty-corner to the area’s most upscale shopping center and just 15 minutes from the Universal and Sea World theme parks. The total 65-acre package is valued at $70.6 million, of which Holy Land is assessed at $20.2 million.
“The intersection they’re at is one of the strongest retail destinations in the entire market,” Justin Greider, a local developer, told The Orlando Sentinel.
On a recent weekday visit to the Holy Land Experience, even before the coronavirus crisis escalated, you could hurl a Roman legionnaire’s spear into the painstakingly recreated Jerusalem Market without hitting a single paying customer. One of the two gift shops was closed; the other was selling merchandise at fire sale prices (Holy Land T-shirts, $3). At lunchtime, Esther’s Banquet Hall restaurant was nearly empty. There were no tour buses in the parking lot, and most of the cars parked there had Florida or Georgia license plates.
The few visitors hustled in small clusters from one pared-down scheduled performance to another, as a heartfelt version of the Shema prayer, in Hebrew, played on the public address system.
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“This place is a shadow of what it once was,” said Pastor Dorothy Mounts of the Overlook Bible Training Center in Merritt Island, Florida. Mounts was making a repeat visit to the park in part because her church’s trip to Israel had been canceled as a result of the coronavirus. The park, she acknowledged, was looking slightly down-at-the-heels compared to its early years.
When I was religion writer for The Orlando Sentinel, I chronicled Holy Land since before it broke ground. I’ve visited the park more than a dozen times and never found it so dismal.
The Holy Land Experience was the lifelong dream of Marvin Rosenthal, who was born Jewish in the Philadelphia suburbs. When his father abandoned the family, Marvin’s mother was befriended by a kindly Christian missionary who had visited her small diner. Like their mother, Marvin and his two brothers converted to Christianity when Marvin was a teenager.
After a stint in the Marines, and a short career in show business, Marvin became a Baptist minister. He took as his mission converting other Jews to Christianity, and to inform Christians about their faith’s Jewish roots (“the Jewishness of the Gospel”). He described his New Jersey ministry, called Zion’s Hope, as “an evangelical, Bible-believing faith ministry to the Jewish people.”
In 1989, Rosenthal moved to Orlando and began his great mission. He found the land for his attraction, and donors, including investment banking magnate Robert Van Kampen, who in 1974 was named one of the richest men in America. Rosenthal hired a design company that had worked at major theme parks in the area, the ITEC Entertainment Corporation. He was determined that Holy Land, which cost an initial $16 million to build, would never be described as cheesy.
The costuming of the characters was meticulous, as were production values throughout the park. Rosenthal decreed there would be no rides, thus undercutting snarky predictions of a “Holy Rollercoaster.” Instead, there were only “presentations,” all of which pushed the belief that Judaism was an inevitable prelude to Christianity.
A different kind of Jewish war
The park opened with great fanfare in 2001, with 20,000 square feet of exhibits featuring a recreation of the Qumran Caves; a reproduction of Golgotha, where a live-action Crucifixion was reenacted at Easter; Jesus’ Tomb, always empty; and, later, a lake on which an actor playing Jesus walked (with hidden technical assistance). Inside the doors of the Temple facade is a life-sized replica of the Ark of the Covenant, familiar to viewers of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
At the opening, which was hyped with a $350,000 national advertising campaign, developers pledged a multisensory experience in which paying customers would “leave the 21st century behind and embark on a journey that is unequaled anywhere.”
One of the most popular displays was what the park brochures claimed was “the largest indoor replica in the world” of first-century Jerusalem, 45 feet long and 25 feet wide for a cool 1,125 square feet. The only comparable model is the similarly named Holyland Model, a 1,000-square-meter (10,760-square-foot) 1:50 version created by Prof. Michael Avi-Yonah on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Both are based on the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
The Holy Land gift shops were stocked with kippot and prayer shawls, all made in Israel. The wall displays featured shofars and lacquered sections of Torah scrolls. A featured piece of jewelry was a silver Star of David encompassing a cross. Shelves held lavishly illustrated books and maps from the Israel Tourist Board. Serious books on Jewish history, like Josephus’ “The Jewish War,” were intermingled with books and tapes about Christian conversion and Messianic Judaism.
Not surprisingly, when Holy Land opened, area rabbis and Jewish leaders protested that it was designed to convert unwary Jews, and objected to its use of the trappings of Judaism – rabbis like Daniel Wolpe, at the time chairman of the Greater Orlando Board of Rabbis.
“We would have had no problem with an exhibit or park that proudly proclaimed its pride in Christianity,” he recalled. “But the Holy Land Experience did much more. It appropriated Jewish symbolism and artifacts, including a Torah scroll, and used them for their own purposes.”
Instead, said Wolpe, who is now rabbi of the Flushing-Fresh Meadows Jewish Center in New York, “They were disingenuous about their mission, selling themselves to Jewish organizations as an Israel experience when their real purpose was to proselytize. Their goal with regards to the Jewish community was to trick as many Jews as they could into coming so that they could try to convert us. The rabbis in the community were not outraged that a Christian-oriented theme park had opened. We were outraged at the dishonesty they used in selling it, and the appropriation of symbols that were not theirs.”
But, for all the furor, Jews never came in large numbers to Holy Land, and the controversy eventually died down.
Mainstream Christians were also critical, charging that the park trivialized faith by combining religion with popular culture, and attempting to make spirituality concrete and literal.
There were other complaints.
“The issue was always about truth in advertising,” said author and scholar John Dominic Crossan, an expert on first-century Christianity.
“The park was about an evangelical Christian experience but never about a Holy Land Experience, a place which in reality is filled not with evangelicals but with Israelis,” said Crossan, who visited the park shortly after its opening and was highly critical of it then.
At the time, he said he was even more concerned that the underlying premise of Holy Land, through its dramatic presentations, was anti-Semitic. The evangelical Christian view of the Crucifixion, Crossan said, “is that the bad Jews convinced the good Romans to do their dirty work for them.”
The attraction had a complicated and contentious theological history, reflecting Rosenthal’s quirks. For instance, he rejected the term “Messianic Jew” and had major differences with Moishe Rosen, founder of Jews for Jesus. Rosenthal was a Christian, plain and simple. However, he grudgingly allowed Jews for Jesus tapes and literature to be displayed and sold alongside those of Zion’s Hope, his own conversion-ministry material.
Rosenthal was also extremely hostile toward charismatic and Pentecostal evangelicals, who believe in speaking in tongues, faith healing and other forms of ecstatic worship, and many of whom embrace “the prosperity gospel.”
In March 2001, shortly after the park opened, Rosenthal told me, “We are not charismatics. We love them. We appreciate them. But we would not offer them a job” even as a hotdog vendor.
However, the main challenge to Holy Land was the weakness of its business model, the difficulty of a second-tier attraction that had to compete with others, like Gatorland, which features alligators, crocodiles and other beasts. Apart from the spectacular opening year, when it reported 300,000 visitors, and surges at Christmas and Easter, the Holy Land Experience struggled to support its considerable overhead, including payroll at $5 million a year. Plus a spate of hurricanes battered the park.
Finally, in 2005, amid growing financial struggles and operating losses – estimated at $2 million – the park’s backers cast Rosenthal out. With him went his son David and brother Stanley, who were in Holy Land’s senior management.
Neither Marvin Rosenthal, now 85 and in declining health, nor his son and successor, David Rosenthal, would comment on recent events surrounding Holy Land, or the prospects of its demise.
Pentecostals strike back
In 2007, Holy Land’s owners sold the attraction to Trinity Broadcasting Network, whose founders and owners, husband-and-wife televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch, were, ironically, Pentecostals. They paid an estimated $37 million and assumed Holy Land’s debt, then about $8 million. They voiced their ambition to transform Holy Land into a “faith-based Universal Studios.” One of their first investments was to build a 2,000-seat Roman-style auditorium called the Church of All Nations, which they also used as a television studio for taping Trinity broadcasts.
The new owners lost no time in cleaning theological house: They fired a fourth of the employees in the first weeks.
One of those laid off, Keith Wright, the venue’s former security chief, described the new owners as “a cross between the Sopranos and the Beverly Hillbillies.” Today, in the history section of Holy Land’s website, Rosenthal is not mentioned.
Trinity’s infusion of cash and leadership failed to halt the attraction’s hemorrhage of red ink.
From 2012 to 2016, Holy Land’s annual deficits went from $1.4 million to $10.1 million, narrowing to $5.2 million in 2017. From 2013 to 2018, annual ticket sales fell from $9.4 million to $5.5 million. Between 2010 and 2016, contributions to Holy Land plummeted from $42.7 million to $384,000.
Trinity co-founder Paul Crouch died in 2013 amid a scandal involving allegations of sexual abuse of another man. Jan Crouch, who had assumed daily control of Holy Land, had a stroke and died in 2016, leading to a period of drift.
When Jan died, some in the evangelical community believe that the energy and support for the attraction slipped away with her.
Over time, in order to cover operating expenses, Holy Land bumped its adult admission charge to $50, roughly half of what the major theme parks charge, but it came to be seen as a half-day experience. So, area evangelicals might visit the attraction once and then send out-of-town visitors, rather than buy a yearly pass.
Though Marvin and David Rosenthal declined to comment, in a recent interview with The Orlando Sentinel, David, whose formal title was vice president and chief of operations at Holy Land, told a reporter that “he witnessed the spiritual impact the park had on visitors, and it was the reason his family founded the operation. With its scaled-down model of Jerusalem and realistic recreations of biblical scenes, visitors who couldn’t travel to Israel could get a piece of the Holy Land in Orlando.”
David added, “We think that it has tremendous impact on people spiritually so obviously it would be our desire to see that it continue to be able to do that.”
“Many of us are saddened by Holy Land’s demise,” said the Rev. Jim Henry, an Orlando pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Its positive impact on the spiritual landscape will leave a gap that will be greatly missed.”
But not everyone will miss the Holy Land Experience.
“I am not sad to see it go,” said Rabbi Steven Engel of Orlando’s Congregation of Reform Judaism. “It presented a distorted view of history, housed a collection of questionably acquired Jewish sacred objects, was not honest about its purpose, and portrayed Judaism as a caricature. Better there should be a shopping center there. At least people will know what they are paying for.”
Orlando-based writer Mark I. Pinsky is the author of “A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.”