Editor’s note: Cebastian Hilton has been identified in a tip as a previous visitor to the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion Cincinnati campus, where he allegedly tried to proselytize to Jews there.
In the mid-2010s, Cebastian Hilton, a member of the Madison Place Community Church in Cincinnati, traveled to Kibbutz Ginegar in Israel to meet with a retired couple making and selling specialty chocolate.
Hilton met the couple, Ilan and Merav Rosenblit, on a trip organized through Hope for Israel, a group run by Ilan’s Messianic Jewish brother, Moran Rosenblit. (Most Jews don’t consider Messianic Jews, who believe Jesus is the messiah, to be part of the Jewish community.)
Hope for Israel aims “to bring the hope of Messiah back to Israel,” and positions itself as a pro-Israel advocacy organization.
Hilton, who runs several local businesses, was so impressed by the chocolate that he pitched the Rosenblits on expanding to Cincinnati.
“Cebastian, who is an entrepreneur and loves business, thought, ‘What if we got this in the states and try to grow the business in Cincinnati and beyond,’” said Chelsie Standeford, who is the sales manager for what the Hilton-Rosenblit partnership would become: Ilan’s Raw Chocolate, a high-end chocolate shop in Cincinnati.
With Hebrew on the label, and certified kosher by Cincinnati Kosher – the central certification agency in the city – Ilan’s Raw Chocolate attracted plenty of interest from local Jews. The business participated in events like the Ish Festival in 2021 and partnered with some Jewish organizations.
But an alleged incident of proselytization by a Madison Place Church member at the Mayerson JCC – and the fact that Ilan’s did not disclose their church affiliation to Jewish organizations – has sparked concern over the business and its intentions.
“Because proselytization has been used as a tool against Jews for so much of our history, we take it very seriously,” said Rabbi Ari Jun, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, in a statement.
“I cannot attest firsthand knowledge that members of the Madison Place Church [tried to convert] members of our community,” he said. “However, if there are reports that it – or any other group – has done so, especially within Jewish spaces, that elicits concerns and merits investigation.”
Standeford, Ilan’s Raw Chocolate’s sale manager, says that neither the business, nor the church, aims to convert Jews.
“Our mission is not to go and use our chocolate to try to proselytize to Jews,” she said. “As a chocolate business, that is not our mission at all.”
The church and the chocolates business
Madison Place Community Church, formerly known as the Gladstone Community Church, is a controversial fixture of Cincinnati. Members are part of a tight-knit community that former church members, and some family and friends of members, go so far as to describe as a cult.
The church’s practices include operating with a common purse, where members put their earnings into a communal fund that the church then disburses back to the community.
So why, as a church, get into the kosher Israeli chocolates business? Church members run several businesses, including The Madison Place cafe in the same building where Ilan’s Raw Chocolate operates.
Standeford said that church members were truly impressed with the Rosenblit’s raw chocolate, which is made from pressing cacao beans, rather than roasting them, as is the process with most chocolate.
But bringing the Israeli chocolates to Cincinnati also felt like a way to support Jews and Israel, particularly in the face of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel.
“We obviously support Israel and the Jewish people, we love them, we see they’re special…genuinely,” Standeford said. “To me, it’s not political. We don’t want to be a part of [the BDS] movement.”
To Standeford, Ilan’s Raw Chocolate and the church might be associated, but are completely separate. That’s why Ilan’s didn’t tell Jewish organizations about the relationship with the church – to Standeford, it’s not relevant. Ilan’s doesn’t include any religious language, pamphlets, or other presentation as part of the business, nor does the website mention the church in any way.
“The church doesn’t own the business,” she said. “It’s associated, because, yes, I go to a church, but I don’t stamp that on my business. My business is to grow the chocolate business to get it into the customers hands.”
Standeford recognizes that from the Jewish community’s perspective, things don’t look so simple. The church owns the building that houses Ilan’s Raw Chocolate; the business’ employees are church members; the volunteers that help sell chocolate are church members; and the paychecks from the business are in turn given to the church’s communal fund.
But talking about the money feels invasive, as Standeford described joining the church’s common purse as a personal decision.
“It’s weird if I were to say [to you], ‘Hey, what do you do with your money when you get paid?’” Standeford said. “I understand that it gets convoluted and gets kind of muddy but…we’re making chocolate and people want to get started talking about what I do with my money.”
Meanwhile, the decision to get kosher certification for the chocolate just made business sense, Standeford said, when they saw the quality of other kosher chocolate. Ilan’s Raw Chocolate is also certified kosher in Israel.
When called for comment and asked if they knew Ilan’s Raw Chocolate was associated with a church when it was certified kosher in 2020, the rabbinic administrator of Cincinnati Kosher hung up on this reporter. Several follow up calls and an email went unanswered.
“Sensitive” to proselytizing concerns
Standeford said she is proactive about telling church members that Ilan’s Raw Chocolates is not an avenue for trying to convert Jews, and to avoid talking about church or faith. She recognizes that Jews are extremely wary of proselytization.
“We actually say be very, very careful and sensitive to that and don’t talk about it,” she said. “Not because we’re ashamed or anything like that. We don’t want our business to become connected to something that can be so” offensive and disrespectful.
Neither she nor the church proselytize to Ilan and Merav Rosenblit, who are not Messianic Jews, she said, though the Rosenblits are aware of the church’s beliefs.
“I don’t think Ilan or Merav would want someone to sell their chocolate in the United States if [proselytizing] was the mission,” Standeford said. “I couldn’t get behind that.”
At the same time, if church members have conversations with Jews about faith in their personal time, she can’t stop them, Standeford said.
That’s why Standeford was confused when she got a call earlier this year from Marc Fisher, the CEO of the Mayerson JCC, that Ilan’s Raw Chocolates was no longer welcome on the campus. An alleged incident of proselytizing by one of the Madison Place church members sparked the call.
“When Marc called me, I was shocked,” Standeford said. “I don’t even know what happened or who did what.”
Standeford said she asked around with other church members, and couldn’t find out who was involved in the JCC incident.
In an email, she characterized the incident as “a conversation between a young Jewish man, who is a member of my congregation (but has no connection with Ilan’s Raw Chocolate) and another young Jewish man in our city about the Messiah.”
As far as Standeford knows, maybe the Jewish person unaffiliated with the church was the one who brought up the topic of faith.
“I don’t know the situation,” she said. “But I do know that people that really love talking to Jewish people, they don’t ever do it in a forceful way. It just comes up.”
Fisher and the Mayerson JCC declined to comment on the proselytizing incident or the call with Ilan’s Raw Chocolate.
“Mayerson JCC has many vendors from across the community that serve our business,” Fisher said in an emailed statement. “From time to time, these business relationships have ups and downs. Many are long standing relationships that we deeply value and for this reason, we prefer to keep all interactions private.”
Standeford is sad that Ilan’s Raw Chocolate is being negatively perceived because of the JCC incident. But she understands that because of it, some Jews might decide not to buy from the shop.
“If I was a Jewish person, and this happened, sure, it would make sense that that would be something you want to reject, or disassociate with, and not support the business,” Standeford said.
“But it’s kind of funny…we want to be against anyone that boycotts Israel, but then we’re being boycotted, you know, it’s sad, but kind of funny at the same time.”