How a Jew for Jesus Helped Establish Local Synagogue Services

by Joshua Turnil | January 23 2023

I can still recall being invited up for aliyot (Torah readings) at the synagogue my parents attended in New York. It was an honor to do so; it made me feel welcome and included in the worship, and I deeply appreciated it.

Those invitations stopped when I began working with Jews for Jesus. Not only was I no longer welcome to read from the Torah scroll, but the rabbi felt my involvement had desecrated it. He wanted the scroll to be “re-kosherized,” a laborious and expensive process that requires the rereading of each word of the scroll, as well as the accounting of each and every letter.

I understood his position, and figured it was part of the cost of my faith. But while I didn’t blame the rabbi, something inside me was profoundly wounded. It was decades before I would feel truly welcome in a synagogue again.

I braced myself for rejection.

I still loved my people, but I accepted that I was considered an outsider and no longer welcome to participate in synagogue life. I remained open about my convictions while protecting myself from further wounds. My Jews for Jesus T-shirt let others know immediately where I stood. I braced myself for rejection while making myself available to those who were interested.

But years later, as the Jews for Jesus team leader in Paris, France, a radically different way to be part of the community opened up—one that I had never dreamed was possible.

A Near Collision Led to Friendship

I literally bumped into the chazzan (cantor) of a rather large and prestigious synagogue. To be clear, I almost ran over him with my car. He was incredibly gracious, and the encounter marked the beginning of a wonderful association.

His community was starting a new project, and he spoke freely with me about it. In fact, he made it clear that he needed just a little bit of help to get their new worship services off the ground. I let him know early on that I was with Jews for Jesus, and he was initially cautious, cordial, and just a bit curt as he let me know that they would not be conducting Jews for Jesus services. When I let him know that my team and I were happy to help as needed, the relationship began to grow. Before we knew it, we basically entered the long and glorious tradition of the Shamashim (Serving in the synagogue). And in serving, we experienced a mutually warm regard with the congregation and its leaders.

We mostly handled certain necessary logistics behind the proverbial curtain. We organized security because Jewish gatherings have been targeted for violence; we organized food because we’re good at it; we just did whatever was needed and were happy to support the newly forming community of worshipers.

What a surprise it was when we were not only invited to the services, but I was asked to come up for an “aliyah”! I never expected it! Next, I was asked to read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, as well as to chant some of the liturgy. Eventually, I was trusted to lead services on special occasions. All of this has been very healing for me personally, but far more important, it’s such a joy to see how this group that we are so invested in (and now part of) has flourished.

A Growing Synagogue in a Time of Decline

In an area where synagogue attendance is decreasing, we have outgrown our venue and have had to find a bigger building. When it comes to online presence, we register more views, visits, and likes than any other synagogue in the country.

The leadership of the community and many of its members know that we believe in Jesus. They also know that we are not there to press our beliefs on anyone, though we are happy to engage with those who ask. This is so dramatically different from what I experienced those many years ago. Maybe it’s that we’re living in more open-minded times, or maybe it’s that the rampant antisemitism in France has fostered unity between Jewish people of diverse beliefs.

Whatever the case, I cherish what the president of the community told me: “God is one, and He is God of us all—no matter what your convictions are—and I’m grateful He’s put you in our path. Why shouldn’t we pray together?”