A (perhaps) counterintuitive journey.
by Rich Robinson | September 27 2023
When a Jewish person comes to believe in Jesus, sometimes they get a response something like this: “Why did you switch teams?” In other words, you were doing such a great job with Team Jewish—what made you go over to Team Gentile?
It’s a common perception that if a Jew comes to faith in Jesus, they’ve moved out of the Jewish ballpark. It’s not just the surface-level stereotypes, as if now he or she has traded kugel for fruitcake and brisket for bacon. It runs deeper:
Why did you abandon a people who have lived through thousands of years of antisemitism and near-destruction as well as who have a beautiful heritage for a bowl of stew, like Esau in the Bible? Are you some kind of self-hating Jew?
In fact, you’re no longer really Jewish. Go away now. You don’t belong here.
As it turned out, my faith in Jesus was exactly the opposite of switching teams—it moved me closer to Judaism than ever before.
A quick backstory. My family was Reform Jewish from Brooklyn, New York. I often say, a bit tongue-in-cheek, that we weren’t too Reform. The only family member who still retained any degree of tradition was my maternal grandfather, who walked with me (not drove) to the Temple and who taught me the ha-motzi at our dining room table. Kippot were generally required and offered at the synagogue entrance (we called them yarmulkas, Ashkenazi-style, which due to our New York accents, I thought for years was spelled yomicas).
So, I had a Jewish upbringing both cultural and religious. I had my bar mitzvah (or for those who object to that phrasing, I became bar mitzvah). I went to Jewish summer camp, Camp Shomria in Liberty, New York, part of the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair (Young Guardians) movement. My high school had a relatively high percentage of Jewish students, as did my college, Syracuse University, where I joined Hillel. So my “Judaism,” as for many, consisted of Passover, Hanukkah, Jewish camp memories, and lots of Jewish people around. It was a safe time to be Jewish.
Enter Jesus. Actually, I spent a lot of my high school and college years checking out all kinds of spiritual stuff. It was almost a rite of passage for Jewish boomers: instead of taking a year in Israel, we took a year (or more) in the company of Eastern gurus and assorted spiritual guides.
The most infamous, in my memory, was hearing in college from Guru Maharaji, “the 16-year-old spiritual master of the universe.” I can’t remember how seriously I took that claim, but he was interesting enough. After his talk, we probably forgot what he said and concentrated on getting lunch.
Jesus was one of the religious figures I checked out along the way.
The thing I wondered was: was Jesus who people said he was? What if he was the way to God? To my mind, there could only be one truth about it, and if he was the pathway to God, then that had to be true for Jews and Gentiles alike. Truth was truth. In my thinking, the identity of Jesus would not affect my being Jewish, which I took as a given, limited though my Jewish life might have been.
Long story short, after checking out many spiritual options and considering them all, in about 1973 I came to believe that Jesus was the way to God, the “Messiah,” as Judaism called it, and the way of “salvation,” to use a distinctly non-Jewish term.
And then I began to experience being Jewish in a deeper way.
What did that mean? I think I realized for the first time the deep significance of being Jewish. For someone who now started going by the Bible, being Jewish was no longer just about having Jewish relatives, eating in Jewish restaurants, or even attending synagogue services and Hillel meetings. It meant that I was part of a people God had brought into being with a history, a role in the world, and a destiny ahead. That could be pretty heady stuff for a college sophomore.
But I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture. There were bumps in the road. Around that time, Rabbi Elefant (he had a big picture of an elephant plastered to his office door), our campus Hillel rabbi, began offering classes weekly that he called, “Answers to Jesus Freaks.”
It seems that part of his motivation was a nationwide Christian evangelism effort called “Key ’73.” There was a slogan attached to the effort: “We Found It!” This was plastered everywhere, including on bumper stickers. In response, I seem to remember the Jewish community fired back with its own slogan: “We Never Lost It!” (Which is actually pretty funny. Was there a third response with the slogan, “Oh, yeah?”)
The first week of “Answers to Jesus Freaks,” a healthy contingent of students turned out, mostly Jewish I suppose. The second week, most lost interest except for me and the rabbi. It’s like when after your bar mitzvah, you drop out of Hebrew school. So Rabbi Elefant and I met each week in his office. I don’t think we accomplished much except to sometimes yell at one another. We were entrenched in our own foxholes, and we both talked more than we listened. In retrospect, we could have had a much more respectful discussion.
My connection to Jesus made me want to learn more and more about Judaism. At Syracuse and an ensuing year at SUNY Binghamton (today Binghamton University), I started taking classes on Jewish subjects.
There was the class in American Jewish Literature during which the teacher memorably called out one student for spelling Martin Buber as “Boober.”
There was the class in Kabbalah featuring the works of the well-known scholar Gershom Scholem. That one began with the professor telling us in no uncertain terms that we were there to study about Kabbalah, not to practice it. I’m sure he didn’t have to tell us that—it’s not like we were expecting to make a golem.
I also found myself more interested in Jewish history than ever before. In Hebrew school as a pre-bar-mitzvah boy, I couldn’t wait for the classes to end, but now I wanted to learn all I could: about the holidays, about our history, and about Judaism.
And not just to learn but to do. Granted, I didn’t start to lay tefillin or keep kosher. But I did buy The Jewish Catalog, that 1970s do-it-yourself guide to all things Jewish, and contemplated what I might undertake. My seders became more personally significant, my Hanukkahs were done with a better knowledge of the life and times of the Maccabees, and my High Holidays became more infused with meaning. At the center of it all for me was Jesus. Because of him, I drew closer to my Jewishness, even feeling a kind of Jewish pride that I hadn’t experienced before.
Jesus brought me closer to Judaism.
As it turned out, I didn’t switch teams. Not even when, at Syracuse University, I learned the New Testament for the first time from a Catholic priest (my roommate was Catholic and probably made the introduction). Not even when, as a new believer in Jesus, I started worshiping at a congregation that met in the living room of the international chaplain at Syracuse U., a man from India who was simply known as Koshy and hosted Asians, Africans, refugees from Eastern European Communism, and Jews like me in his home each Sunday, complete with a lunch afterward of Indian food (choice of spicy or not spicy).
Not even then. My connection to Judaism is far more than it was growing up. And I owe that to Jesus. Who knew?