Jack Sternberg: A Jewish Oncologist’s Story

by Jack Sternberg | February 01 2018

If the condition spread to my left eye, I would be blind. My medical career would be over, and life as I knew it would cease. I was afraid — afraid and angry. I cursed God, figuring if he existed, he deserved it. I informed him — or was it the air? — that I would never believe in him until I understood his ways. “Who are you? What are you like? Why are you doing this when so many people you have allowed to have cancer depend on me? You must not exist!”

I never imagined that God would answer my angry questions. But then, I didn’t realize that in my anger, I had actually uttered a prayer.

My parents were not “religious” although my mother spoke to God spontaneously, even personally. She spoke as though he heard regardless of where she was or whether she prayed from the siddur (prayer book). My father did not appear to believe in God and had little patience for religious institutions. In fact, he told me how much he disliked going to synagogue services when he was a boy.

Nevertheless, when the High Holy Days came around, we donned new suits and ties, put on new shoes and walked the mile or so to the local Conservative synagogue. We didn’t go because we were religious; we went because we were Jews. Those September days in New York City were sunny and hot, and the new shoes pinched. I particularly remember the Yom Kippur services — by the time we arrived, my stomach was growling from the fast. I told myself that when I grew up, I would not suffer through these rituals.

My favorite tradition was our weekly family get-togethers. Every Sunday we gathered at a restaurant with the aunts, uncles and cousins from my mother’s family. We’d spend the afternoon together and enjoy a big meal — usually Chinese, though occasionally it was Italian. I remember the laughter and how we loved being together, everyone telling the same stories over and over.

Regarding my Jewish identity, a couple of things happened when I was nine. I saw The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston. Suddenly, I was impressed with my heritage. Moses was one of our guys, and he had an amazing relationship with God. I thought I’d try going to the synagogue to see what it was all about. However, as with the High Holy Days, most of the service was in Hebrew, and I could not understand what was said and done. That spark of excitement about God quickly died.

About that time my parents attempted to enroll me in Hebrew school. To their dismay, they could not afford the bar mitzvah training. We had been members of a congregation for three years. Yet when my parents disclosed their financial situation, all they received was a suggestion to defer my lessons until such time as they could pay. Incensed, my parents never sent me back to that synagogue, nor did we ever attend holiday services there again.

Religious or not, when I was twelve I began anticipating my bar mitzvah. My father’s business was doing better, and my parents hired a tutor to help me memorize and learn to sing my Haf Torah portion. He arranged for me to be bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue that I had never been to before nor have I attended since. I did not know the rabbi. I could not translate Hebrew to English. But I knew how to pronounce the words well enough to sing in Hebrew for some forty minutes. Other than the cracking of my puberty-stricken voice, I sounded good. And because I sounded good, everyone congratulated me and told me how proud I’d made them.

I did not know how to respond to all the admiration that was heaped on me that day. I’d felt my performance was hollow. Didn’t anyone care that I did not know the meaning of the words or the importance of the book from which I’d read? I didn’t understand why people were proud of me. Yet I understood that I was Jewish, and I was proud of that.

As a teen, I began to question the existence of God. It wasn’t a pressing question; it’s just that I hadn’t seen much (in my young estimation) to indicate he was real. When I was sixteen, my uncle was quite ill, and I asked God to let him live. Soon after, my uncle died. It struck me that the only time I spoke to God was to ask for something. I was embarrassed by my selfishness, but I didn’t know how else to regard God. I didn’t know who God was or even if God was. I reasoned that it was hypocritical to continue petitioning him and silly to expect an answer. So at the age of sixteen, I stopped communicating with a God I didn’t know or trust.

I was seventeen when I left NYC to be a pre-med student at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I’d wanted to be a dentist from as early as I can remember and was accepted into dental school when I was a college junior. Yet when the door opened, I changed my mind.

Somewhere along the line, I decided what I really wanted was to save lives. To me, that meant being a doctor. I got work as a hospital orderly to make sure that I really wanted to enter the field — and I was hooked.

I lived in Buffalo for eight years. During college and medical school, I more or less floated in a sea of agnosticism. The more I saw, the less I believed in God. The question of suffering — specifically, why bad things happen to good people — distressed me. According to Reform Judaism, death (I was told) ended our existence. There was no heaven, no hell, no judgment. I began to wonder about the meaning of life in general, but I especially wondered why it was supposed to be such a blessing to be born Jewish. What could it mean if nothing awaited us beyond the pain and persecution we endured simply for being Jews?

“Religious” answers made no sense to me. Rabbis exhorted me to be proud of being Jewish but never gave concrete reasons or explanations of what that meant. I was told that we suffered persecution because the goyim (non-Jews) were jealous of us. They were jealous because we tended to strive more and achieve more, and (the rabbis hinted) we had higher standards. I found these answers unacceptable and flatly rejected the Jewish religion. Paradoxically, I was still proud to be a Jew and clung to my Jewish identity in a cultural sense.

After graduating from medical school, I went to Cleveland, Ohio for three years and completed my internship, residency and chief residency at Mt. Sinai Hospital. I also met and married Marilyn Meckler. Marilyn, also Jewish, was like me — we had similar values but were not religious.

Following my chief residency we moved to Houston, Texas, where I did my medical oncology fellowship at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. The two years in Houston affected me radically. I had seen enough suffering to wonder about God before, but specializing in cancer was even more intense. The hospital where I worked had 300 beds — every one of them occupied by a cancer patient.

At one point I decided to empty myself of as much emotion as possible — both professionally and personally. I joked about emulating Spock, a fictional character from the old Star Trek television series. Like him, I exalted logic and deemed emotions a hindrance to clear thinking. I resented feelings as an impediment to my ability to cope. I thought if I could feel only when and what I chose to feel, I would attain a sense of calmness — and control.

Ridiculous as that might sound, you must understand what was happening. The same skills that enabled me to help save lives forced me to watch other lives slip away. The work that enabled me to provide so well for my family was a constant reminder of those patients and families for whom I could do nothing. I did not want to be at the mercy of those painful feelings. I longed to feel in control — even if it was just an illusion.

I saw an opportunity to switch gears, to go into private practice, and I seized it. Soon after I gave notice at the hospital, the new job fell through. Before I even had a moment to despair, I ran into a doctor from Little Rock, Arkansas. He informed me that Little Rock needed a cancer specialist. Would I consider the move? After a quick trip to check things out, Marilyn and I decided that we would make Little Rock our home.

We decided we would take advantage of the move to purchase the kind of home we’d dreamed of having. It was little more than a skeleton of two-by-fours when we first saw it, but it was on a beautiful lot with more than seventy-five trees. We quickly bought the house and made changes to suit our taste (150 in all). When the house was done, it truly was our dream home. We would soon have a swimming pool in the backyard and two new cars in the garage. Our marriage was good, and we had two beautiful children — a girl and a boy.

Marilyn and I had our concerns about how we would fare in a city that probably only had 1,200 Jews at most. The answer turned out to be, “very well.” We soon felt accepted and appreciated in our social circle. Our “success story” seemed complete. All the hard work had paid off, and we were as happy as any couple we knew. So why did we keep asking each other, “Is this all there is?” We could not explain why we were not completely happy, nor could we imagine what could possibly be missing. We only knew we would be forever restless without it, whatever “it” was.

We understood that material things alone would not satisfy us, so we involved ourselves in the social life of the medical community. We joined the Little Rock Medical Society and found friends who felt as we did: that despite every appearance of success, something was missing. For lack of a better word, we called it happiness. Our friends seemed to feel that they would “get happy” by having more fun. They invited us to join them drinking, disco dancing, and in pursuit of “kicks.”

Marilyn and I (always eager to do well at whatever we tried!) took dancing lessons and jumped right into the world of disco along with its associated night life. Several months later we tired of the distraction — for that’s all it was — and felt emptier than ever.

That’s when it occurred to us to “try something spiritual.” We decided to get back to our Jewish roots, reasoning that we might be missing a sense of identity, of belonging to our own people. Marilyn threw herself into volunteer work with the Jewish community, the preschool, the day school — wherever she was needed. She was very active in Hadassah (a Jewish women’s organization).

We joined the Reform temple, but the plethora of organizations and activities had us bouncing back and forth between the Reform and the Conservative synagogue. There was the men’s Sunday brunch, Hadassah, Ati Day Y’Isroel preschools, and many other activities.

These organizations were very cause oriented and seemed to do a lot of good, but frankly, I found they left me empty and unsatisfied. It bothered me that people I met considered themselves good Jews because of what they did. Somehow, I knew (and I don’t know how I knew) that a good Jew ought to be defined by a relationship with the God of Judaism rather than a position in the Jewish community. It was certainly admirable to do good deeds. But one could do good deeds, tzedacka, without even believing in God.

Most of the activities fell to my wife as I was busy building the practice. Nevertheless, I attended all the fund-raising events, and Marilyn prevailed upon me to attend services at least twice a year. These were no more meaningful to me as an adult than they had been in my childhood. Marilyn had to nudge me occasionally, as I tended to fall asleep. To my annoyance, the only thing our rabbi communicated to me outside of the pulpit was how much I owed for either the building fund or monthly dues. This irritated me to the point that I eventually wrote a letter to the rabbi stating, “We hereby drop our temple membership because it has not met our spiritual needs.”

In fairness to that rabbi, I did not really understand my own complaint. I did not know what my needs were, much less what he could or couldn’t do about them. Frankly, he could not have made Jewish traditions meaningful to me because I felt hypocritical practicing the religion. I didn’t know who or what God was — and could not even say with certainty that he existed. I don’t know what kind of spiritual benefit I expected to receive when I doubted the very source of all things spiritual. My doubt occasionally gave way to resentment; that is, I couldn’t say whether God existed, but if he did, I was angry with him.

I had seen too much pain, suffering and death. I felt elated over each life we helped save, but that elation quickly gave way to depression as I watched other patients suffer and die. I could do nothing to save them, and I had no comfort or hope to offer. I often worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. I was forever making life-changing decisions. Exhausted and drained, I was furious with God for allowing cancer to inflict so much pain, suffering and death.

I was about to take my subspecialty boards in medical oncology when I developed pain behind my right eye. I thought it was sinusitis and treated myself accordingly. Four days after the boards, I was walking down a hospital corridor when I realized the vision in my right eye was blurred. It turned out to be optic neuritis. I lost most of the vision in my right eye overnight. The pain persisted for months.

If the condition spread to my left eye, I would be blind. My medical career would be over, and life as I knew it would cease. I was afraid — afraid and angry. I cursed God, figuring if he existed, he deserved it. I informed him — or was it the air? — that I would never believe in him until I understood his ways. “Who are you? What are you like? Why are you doing this when so many people you have allowed to have cancer depend on me? You must not exist!”

I never imagined that God would answer my angry questions. But then, I didn’t realize that in my anger I had actually uttered a prayer: Who are you?

Life and health stabilized. I did not regain the vision in my right eye, but my left eye remained sound.

As I continued my practice, several patients tried to tell me about Jesus Christ. I simply explained that I was Jewish and that Jews do not believe in Jesus. Most reluctantly accepted that as the end of the conversation. If they didn’t, my immediate reaction was to take offense. I found that quite effective because most Christians seemed to think it was a sin to offend. However, in a few special cases, I felt I had to take out the hard artillery.

I once asked a well-meaning, persistent patient, “Let’s see if I understand Christianity. Do you Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and he is the Jewish Messiah?” The person replied in the affirmative and I continued, “Then if he was the Son of God, or God himself, and if he was the Jewish Messiah, why didn’t he simply get off the cross and bring in the messianic Kingdom?” That person was unable to answer me. She was not accustomed to having to explain her faith — especially to someone whose tone was as hostile as mine.

The head nurse of the oncology unit in one of my major hospitals was also a Christian. I later learned that she had specifically taken that job because she felt that God wanted her to tell me, a Jew, about Jesus. I was surrounded!

I knew how to stop a conversation, and I intimidated more than one person into silence. No one knew it was just bluster. I didn’t know anything about Jesus except that I wasn’t supposed to believe in him. But although I could stop a conversation, I could not stop the love others had for Jesus. And that love seemed somehow to extend to me. I could see that their hearts were pure and that they wished only the best for me, no matter how I rejected their overtures. I couldn’t ignore that love. Nor could I ignore the difference in the way that my Jesus-believing patients handled life’s tragedies.

One woman with terminal breast cancer was in her early thirties — with a husband and a young child whom she would soon leave widowed and motherless. Yet she seemed more concerned about my spiritual welfare — in my knowing Jesus Christ — than the fact that she was dying. She saw my lostness, my separation from God as a greater tragedy than her own illness. She trusted this Jesus, then and for eternity. God had allowed illnesses to ravage her, yet she still loved, worshiped and followed him. She seemed confident about her future and genuinely concerned about mine. That overwhelmed me.

When she and others tried to tell me about Jesus, I told myself their beliefs were ridiculous. Yet, over time, I became envious of their faith. I shrugged off those feelings as irrelevant and told myself that Jesus is not for Jews and therefore he is not for me. Case closed.

I suppose a basic belief in God had survived my years of cynicism and grief. I was disappointed that the God my mother had prayed to during my childhood did not seem real to me, yet I truly wanted to believe in God. I never looked into any other religion because I knew that if there was a God, it was the God of Israel. I was open to knowing the truth about him but never supposed it was my responsibility to seek out that truth. I didn’t see how it was possible to understand God. I desperately needed answers but didn’t know the right questions to ask.

My wife was going through a similar process, but I was unaware of her struggle. Who ever talked about such things? Who even knew the words to frame a discussion of holy things? It was going to take something a little closer to home to jar us into action.

One Saturday evening, our eleven-year-old, Jennifer, mentioned that her friend Allison had begun attending church with her family. I knew Allison’s father. He was a physician — and he was Jewish.

I was outraged. From my perspective, the man had turned his back on Judaism. (By this time my family and I had quit the temple and all Jewish organizations — still, I considered myself a loyal Jew.) I immediately called to confront Dr. Barg. I had no difficulty finding words for this discussion. Didn’t he understand that as a Jew he was obligated to resist the Christians? Didn’t he see that we Jews had no business going to churches where we would be swallowed up, assimilated . . . no longer Jews? Didn’t he know that when you are in the minority, every family counts? Didn’t he feel any kind of responsibility to our people?

Dr. Barg kindly told me that he had found his Jewish identity and the God of Israel at this church. He said that for the first time, he was truly proud and excited to be Jewish. I was shocked but intrigued. I happened to know that when Dr. Barg married, his gentile wife went through religious training, went through the mikvah (ritual immersion necessary for conversion to Orthodox Judaism), became an Orthodox Jew and did her best to keep a kosher home. After all that, he had to go to church to understand what being Jewish was all about?

My curiosity outweighed my anger and I asked if we could attend church with him the following day. He gladly extended an invitation for me to meet him at Fellowship Bible Church. “You better be there,” I warned him. “Don’t you dare get there late, because I do not intend for us to be the only Jews in that church.” I remember that Sunday morning, October 19, 1980, vividly. I remember my discomfort as I walked into the worship service. It was a new church, and they were meeting in a school gymnasium, so it didn’t seem as “churchy” as I expected. Charles Barg was as good as his word, and we quickly found each other. Still, I imagined that we would somehow stand out from the crowd — that people would identify us as Jews and would know we did not belong there. As impressed as I’d been with Christians I’d met at work, I suppose deep down I suspected that church somehow made Christians dislike Jews. I was surprised that those who noticed us were delighted that we were visiting.

The service began with a baby dedication. I was startled to hear the words, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” What was the Sh’ma, the holiest of Jewish prayers, doing in a Christian church? When the minister began his sermon, I was even more startled. His text was Psalm 73, which posed the question of why evil seems to triumph over good — and if it does, why bother to keep God’s laws and his ways? The minister explained that a pious Jew, Asaph, was asking God why righteous people suffer while the wicked prosper.

My heart was pounding. How did he know that I wrestled with those very questions? My attention was riveted as the pastor spoke about the seeming paradox. He said that God sees everything from an eternal perspective while we see everything from an immediate, finite viewpoint. He said that those who believe God and put their faith in him will enjoy him for eternity and that knowledge enables them to trust him and to endure present hardships. Those who do not care for God may enjoy whatever they amass for themselves now but will spend eternity without God.

I walked into that church an agnostic/atheist/skeptic and left knowing that God is real, good and worthy to be loved and worshiped. I cannot explain how that happened in the course of one church service. It had to be supernatural.

It was as though a light had been switched on. I knew that God was exactly what Marilyn and I had been missing. Not religion, but God. Marilyn knew it, too. We did not want to be without him any longer, in this life or in the life to come. There was no turning back. I had to discover who God was and what I needed to do to have him in my life.

I finally knew the right questions and could only hope that the answers would not lead to Jesus. I wanted to know God and was determined to follow him no matter where he took me. It would just be so much easier if I didn’t have to become a Christian. I wanted desperately to discover that the God I now sought could somehow be found in mainstream Judaism.

After church we spent the next three hours with our Jewish Christian physician friend and his wife. They told us how the Jewish Bible and the “New Testament” fit together. They suggested that if Yeshua (Jesus) fulfilled the Hebrew prophecies concerning the Messiah, then Christians are worshiping the Jewish Messiah.

The Bargs also pointed out a concept we knew nothing about: sin. The only Judaism I knew had long since stopped teaching that sin separates people from God. After all, that’s what Christians believe. The Bargs showed us that throughout the Jewish Bible, God was quite intolerant when it came to sin, yet merciful to the sinners who acknowledged that they had offended God’s righteousness. They showed us from Scripture how God had provided explicit ways and means to cleanse our people from sin.

Separation from God caused a malignant sickness of the soul and the God-given means of atonement alone could reconcile us to God and make us whole. Judaism had survived the loss of the Temple by evolving into a basically humanistic religion. The emphasis on good deeds was noble, but not a solution to our separation from God. The Bargs believed that the Jewish Bible pointed beyond the sacrificial system to one who would personify God’s plan of atonement. They believed that Jesus was that one.

The logic and scriptural basis of Dr. Barg’s presentation astounded us. Marilyn and I continued to visit Fellowship Bible Church weekly for the next five weeks. We took an introductory course called “One to One” so that we could understand what Christianity was about.

It all seemed to make sense — so much sense that I spent three hours at an Orthodox synagogue one Saturday morning trying to counteract what I was learning. I hoped that with my newly acquired belief in God, my eyes would be opened and the service would shed light on my search. I would have been thrilled had that been the case. It was not.

Undaunted, I visited with rabbis, hoping that they could show me the fallacies of the case for Jesus. I went to two local rabbis, one Orthodox and one Reform. Marilyn and I met with each one for hours. Each effort we made to hear something to dissuade us seemed to strengthen the growing belief that Jesus truly was the answer.

I’m not sure if the rabbis we consulted had any particular belief about separation from God or how to be reconciled to him. They did not tell us what they believed. They felt duty bound to prevent us from believing in Jesus without interacting with those beliefs or offering others as superior. They mostly questioned our motives and talked a great deal about Jews who had been persecuted by Christians.

One rabbi opened up a New Testament and poked a finger at the pages, telling me that for every single word in that book there was a Jew who was killed in the name of Christ. I did not doubt the truth of that, but I asked what that had to do with the fact or fallacy of Jesus Christ. I was not looking to minimize the suffering of our people, but I didn’t feel that bringing up those sufferings was an appropriate answer to my questions. This so infuriated the wife of one rabbi that she actually started hitting me. Of course I was much bigger than she was, but I didn’t feel I could defend myself, and the rabbi had to pull her off. I was stunned by this reaction and amazed that no one addressed the issue of God’s plan for the Jewish Messiah and whether it was fulfilled in Jesus.

I knew that I was supposed to feel guilty, and I did feel guilty — but not for the reasons the rabbis had in mind. I felt guilty because I knew that I had sinned and I knew that God was holy. I felt guilty for disappointing my God. I was not going to allow anyone to make me feel guilty for seeking reconciliation. I didn’t want to be considered disloyal to my people — but if my questions and determination to find answers made me appear disloyal, then so be it.

When we heard that an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Memphis, Tennessee was coming to dissuade Dr. Barg from belief in Jesus, Marilyn and I decided we ought to be there as well.

Dr. Barg had been a believer for two or three months when we first started to believe in Jesus, but it had taken a while for him to tell his father. His father’s reaction was to send a chauffeured limousine to pick up this rabbi in Memphis and drive him to Little Rock, two and a half hours away.

All four of us (husbands and wives) met with him from 8 at night till 2 in the morning. Most of his arguments centered around guilt and why we should feel ashamed for betraying our people, but we refused this approach. We kept bringing him back to the Bible and asked him not only to dispute Jesus from there but also to explain modern Judaism as it pertains to written Scripture. He became very frustrated because these were not the issues he had come to discuss. In response to some rather direct questions from me, he admitted that he found us all to be sane, intelligent people with good marriages, fine children, and success in business. He went on to add that we were different from other Jewish Christian converts he had met. The irony was that although Marilyn and I had argued the case for Christianity, neither of us had made up our minds yet about Jesus.

Meanwhile, we continued attending the five-week course where we spent many hours with a pastor going through the “Old” and “New” Testaments. We questioned him into the wee hours of the morning, and his answers were always based on what the Bible said.

The more we studied, the more we read and the more we spoke to Christians, the more we wanted the fellowship with God that they had. They told us that what we were seeking was only possible through Jesus Christ. They told us that God had taken the form of a man, Jesus, had lived a perfect life and was therefore able to offer his blood as an atonement for our sin. If we recognized the truth of that, we needed to ask Jesus to be the center of our lives. We needed to ask that he change us, by the power of his spirit, into the men and women he wanted us to be. It meant entrusting our lives to him — forever.

After much reading, prayer and internal turmoil, I finally came to believe in Jesus as my Jewish Messiah. I was unable to actually articulate my decision until a visit with a very sweet patient by the name of Mildred. Mildred was dying. As I was talking to her during her examination, she suddenly looked up at me and said, “Dr. Sternberg, there is something different about you over the last month. What is it?” Her simple observation brought me face to face with the fact that God had already begun to change me, and I found myself explaining to Mildred that I had become a believer in Jesus Christ as my Jewish Messiah, Lord, and Savior. She simply nodded and said, “I thought so.”

In December 1980, Marilyn and I finally (and separately) made our personal decisions to follow Jesus.

News travels fast in the Jewish community of a small city like Little Rock. I won’t minimize the pain of being rejected by the community and especially by my fellow Jewish physicians. Nevertheless, I remembered my own outrage on first hearing of Dr. Barg’s beliefs, and I understood how others felt. My anger was overcome by a profound desire to understand what he claimed to have discovered. I can only pray that the same might prove true for some of my colleagues.

Nevertheless, the Christian community has accepted us wholeheartedly, and has welcomed opportunities to learn more about the Jewish roots of their faith. Instead of losing my Jewishness in a sea of Christianity, I’ve met with respect and appreciation for my heritage and my identity as a Jew. Today, I feel more Jewish than ever.

Knowing Jesus has changed every area of our lives, not the least of which is my professional life. I am a full-time private practicing medical oncologist, board certified in both internal medicine and medical oncology. My average day begins at 5:15, which is when I wake up so that I can leave the house at 6:30 and start rounds at the hospital at 7. I arrive at my office at about 10 and see patients until 6 at night, diagnosing their problems and giving them different therapies, including chemotherapy.

When I tried to keep that kind of schedule before, I was continually exhausted — physically and emotionally — and felt I had less and less to give to my patients and my family. I had entered the field because I wanted to save lives and help people. The field had shown me my limitations. Knowing that life and death are not in my hands but in the hands of my God, who is entirely trustworthy, has changed everything. It has freed me to be more sensitive, loving and compassionate, which was not part of my basic personality. God is continuing to work on these areas of my life.

My relationship with the living God gives my life meaning and fulfillment. It brings contentment, despite the painful realities of life and death. Faith does not anesthetize me to the pain and suffering I encounter in my practice, but now I can pray for my patients — even as many prayed for me — that they will find peace and rest in Jesus.

I am grateful for opportunities to tell cancer patients the good news of Jesus Christ and his offer of eternal life. I can give patients who are willing to hear life-giving hope for eternity when there seems to be no hope for the present. Even my Christian patients have benefited, knowing that their physician believes as they do and can pray with them and for them.

Jesus filled the void that possessions, position and power never could and never would fill.