The dining room table was laden with platters of roast chicken, green beans and potatoes. Our guests, a young Jewish couple, were not believers in Yeshua. There was a lull in the conversation, an almost awkward pause at the point where my family is accustomed to praying. I tried to think how I could lead into the blessing without making our guests too uncomfortable.
The brief pause was broken by Isaac, our eighteen-month-old, who looked at me and blurted, Pray to God, Daddy? Pray to God?” He held out his dimpled hands to be clasped as was our custom, and our guests, smiling, also reached out to clasp hands around the table.
“You pray, Isaac,” I said. With some coaching, he responded in nearly intelligible Hebrew, “Baruch atah Adonai, elohenu melech ha-olam, ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz. God, thank you for food, in Yeshua’s name. Amen.”
What began as an awkward moment became an opportunity for this couple not only to see our faith, but also see our Jewishness expressed in the life of our little boy. What this couple saw in Isaac was not just the passing on of a Jewish identity from one generation to the next, but rather through six generations of messianic believers.
The desire and determination to pass on our heritage from generation to generation is deeply rooted. It is not based on the instinct for mere survival, but for us as Jews it is a deeply ingrained spiritual instinct based upon the command of God:
Only take heed to thyself,and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes saw, unless they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life; but make them known unto thy children and thy children’s children
If we would take heed, we need to ask ourselves some probing questions, and we must be prepared to answer for ourselves how we will maintain and transmit our Jewish identity and heritage from one generation to the next.
Since this is my first opportunity to write to our mishpochah, I would like to tell you a little about myself and my background and how my Jewish identity was transferred to me.
It all began about one hundred years ago in the Kamenky Jewish quarter of Zhitomir, Russia. My great-grandmother, Esther, daughter of Reb Levi Yitzkak Glaser, married Julius Finestone, a Jew who believed in Jesus. We don’t know much about how Julius came to believe, but we do know that my great-grandmother, Esther, was intent on “winning him back to Judaism.” She was convinced that if only Julius could meet the right person, who knew enough about the Bible, he could be talked out of this foolishness of Jesus being the Messiah.
She was pleased when Julius hired Enoch, a very religious man from Jerusalem, to work in his carpentry shop. Enoch knew the Scriptures, and Esther placed her hope in him to dissuade Julius from his belief in Jesus. What happened was just the opposite.
One day Esther walked into the shop and was shocked to see Julius and Enoch praying together. Enoch was asking God to forgive his sins, and asking for faith in Messiah. The impact of Enoch’s decision to follow the Messiah, as well as the patient and loving story of her husband, Julius, eventually brought Esther to faith in Messiah, too. Together they had an extensive ministry to the Jewish community in Odessa, and the Lord used them to lead many to the Savior, including Esther’s mother, my great-great-grandmother. Unfortunately, Julius died of a heart attack before he reached the age of forty.
Three years later, Esther married another Jewish believer named Wolf Kendal. They moved from Russia to London and eventually found their way to Toronto, Canada, where their son, Fred, was born. For seventeen years (1910-1927) my great-grandmother worked to tell our people in Toronto the gospel, sharing her story and talking to all who would listen about Yeshua. My grandfather, Fred, followed in his mother’s footsteps, carrying on a full-time witness as a missionary to our people in Canada.
Fred met and married a woman named Ruth: a Gentile who followed in the footsteps of her biblical namesake, loving and identifying with the Jewish people. My mother was the second of their three children. Eventually the family moved to Detroit, where my grandfather began a ministry called Israel’s Remnant. So my generation is the fifth to believe in Jesus on my mother’s side.
Now my father was raised in a traditional Jewish home in—of all places—Mobile, Alabama. He was in the midst of a landslide majority of Gentiles. They would tease him at school for wearing tsitsit.* Dad still recalls how they used to laugh and say, “Look at Al Brickner! He is so poor that his undershirt is coming to shreds!”
My father’s family moved to Detroit, where they eventually met my mother’s family: my grandfather, his sister, Emma and brother-in-law, Arthur Glass, who were ministering to our people in the Detroit area. They had a large fellowship of Jewish believers and had formed the First Hebrew Christian Church of Detroit.
Different ones witnessed to my father’s family for eight years. My father was the first to make the decision to follow the Messiah. His father, Nathan, was dying of cancer at the time. My father came home and said, “Pa, I believe in Jesus.” My grandfather responded,
“Well son, I am glad you believe in something.’
“Not something,” my father replied, “Someone, Dad. I believe in Someone.”
Within five weeks my father’s brother, Harold, my Grandmother Bernice, and my Grandfather Nathan, on his deathbed, all made decisions to follow Jesus the Messiah. Shortly after, my grandfather died. At Grandpa Nathan’s funeral his mother was crying and wailing in Yiddish, “Oh my Nathan! Oh my Nathan! He’s in the ground! Oh my Nathan! He’s in the ground!”
My father remembers my Grandmother Bernice softly smiling through her tears and telling her mother-in-law, “No mama, he’s not in the ground. He’s in heaven with God.”
Several years after my parents were married, they moved to a suburb of Boston where I was born, the second of three children.
My Jewishness was always a matter of fact and it did not seem to require a great deal of explanation. I knew I was Jewish and I knew that we believed in Jesus. There never seemed in my mind to be a conflict between those two facts. Many people who came to stay with us were also Jewish believers in Jesus; in fact, some of my earliest memories are of the many Jewish believers who were constantly passing through our home.
One man who often stayed in our home, whom I remember with particular fondness, was Barney Litchman, a missionary to the Belgian Congo. Barney was completely bald) but his face and head were covered with freckles and age spots. He was a somewhat roughly hewn character who always had a twinkle in his eyes. He would pull me into his lap and tell me stories about snakes and elephants and exotic tribal peoples. Yet he made a great impression on me as a Jew. He was such a wonderful story-teller and he punctuated his tales of the Congo with Yiddish and Hebrew phrases. I had favorite stories that he would tell me again and again each year that he came to visit.
I also have fond memories of the weekly trip we would make to my grandparents’ home in Brookline, Massachusetts. They lived on the third story of a brownstone in what was then a very Jewish suburb of Boston. One of my favorite things to do with my grandfather was to walk hand-in-hand to the corner bakery. He always sang as we walked along. He loved to sing hymns and sometimes he would sing them in Yiddish. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Grandpa and what he believed, yet it seemed that he was respected and loved by the many people we would meet at the Jewish bakery.
I can still remember the smell of the freshly-baked challah, but we would always buy bagels. Grandpa would let me carry the bag, and it seemed like it took forever from the time we left the bakery till we reached the apartment! I would keep feeling the bag to make sure the bagels were still warm—and they always did stay warm no matter how long the return home seemed to take.
I cherish my grandfather’s influence. In looking back on our own home, if I had the ability to change anything in my upbringing, it would be for us to have had more Jewishness in our home. I have memories of celebrating holidays such as Passover, but I have much stronger memories of Christmas than any other holiday, as we celebrated that with the most consistency.
Most of my friends knew that my father was a minister, so many assumed that we were not Jewish. I remember one day walking in the school playground with some friends and one of them, an Italian boy named Joey, made a disparaging comment about Jewish people. Joey said that if there were ever a Jew near him, he would beat him up. It was apparent that he did not know I was Jewish, and I was so surprised that I kept quiet. Later on, as I walked home by myself, I felt a sense of shame about not speaking up to Joey. For the first time, I registered some uncertainty about how I was to work out my own identity so that others would understand that I was a Jew as well as a Christian. Joey figured out that I was Jewish soon enough. I gravitated towards my Jewish friends and began seeing my other friends less.
The difficulties of being a Jewish believer in Jesus became more apparent after we moved from the Boston area to Detroit. Maybe it was because I was growing more aware as I grew older. But also, all of my unbelieving relatives from my father’s side of the family lived in Detroit, and this was my first opportunity to get to know them.
We were invited to various family functions—bar mitzvahs, weddings, etc.—and I remember from time to time my parents would talk about being shunned by one relative or another because of our faith in Jesus.
The real conflict emerged when I approached the age of twelve and the issue of my bar mitzvah surfaced. Remember, at this time there were few messianic congregations and the idea of a messianic bar mitzvah was virtually unheard of.
We were driving home from a cousin’s bar mitzvah and my father asked me if I wanted to start taking bar mitzvah lessons. I was in the back seat of the car and my parents were in the front seat. My mother began discouraging me from the idea and I was confused. My friend, Greg Fox, who lived across the street from me had just had a bar mitzvah, and his grandmother had taken him on a trip to Israel. He told me all about it after he returned and I was very jealous.
Now, as we returned from my cousin’s bar mitzvah, I was torn. My father was not assertive about my having a bar mitzvah; he brought it up as a suggestion for me to consider. My mother, on the other hand, was quite assertive about my not going to the synagogue for bar mitzvah lessons. My father was in Jewish evangelism and certainly that would come out. She was afraid of the way I might be treated by the melamed or by my fellow students in the classes, and she probably had an inkling that I might even be refused bar mitzvah lessons altogether. I rarely attended synagogue, and her own fears about how I might be treated there became very real to me.
For the first time in my life, I felt like an outsider. I began to feel uncertain about my own Jewishness.
It was eventually decided that I would not have bar mitzvah lessons. My father offered to teach me Hebrew and gave me a primer. We had a few informal lessons, but we didn’t keep up with it, although I kept the primer on my bookshelf for several years.
On my thirteenth birthday we had a celebration in our home. It was a small gathering of my family including some cousins on my father’s side who were also believers in Jesus. My father made a speech about how it was my thirteenth birthday and how the celebration was in some way my bar mitzvah, but there was really no ceremony and I certainly did not get a trip to Israel!
In retrospect, I am disappointed that I didn’t have a bar mitzvah—and not because I did not get a trip to Israel. I feel I missed an important life-cycle event as a Jew, and I wish that my parents had had a clear intention and commitment to transmit that part of my heritage to me.
In all fairness to my parents, I have to point out that this was never an intentional effort to deprive me of something for which I had clearly asked. As I said, messianic congregations, liturgies, ceremonies and events were not burning issues at that time. People had not yet begun to think about developing a Jewish identity which would also glorify Yeshua based upon the celebration of holidays and life-cycle events.
It was also a different time in the evangelical church. There was no encouragement on the part of others to express our Jewish identity. If you’ve noticed a general lack of enthusiasm in some churches today, imagine being a believer back when any interest in the Jewish roots of Christianity was just about non-existent.
My parents did their best to help me come to grips with my Jewishness. They prayed for me faithfully and sought to bring me up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. While my heritage as a Jew is very important, my faith in Jesus is of eternal consequence. My parents labored long and hard to transmit that faith to me, and I will be eternally grateful to them for it.
Unfortunately, in the years following my lack of bar mitzvah, my Jewish identity grew less important to me because, I’m sorry to say, God became less important to me. It is interesting how the two go hand in hand.
In my teen years I turned my back on Jesus, and I guess at the same time my Jewishness went by the wayside as a part of the whole “religious package.” I excelled in rebellion throughout high school and into college. I threw myself into a lifestyle that was a complete and total rejection of all my parents and grandparents had come to believe and stand for. But no amount of parties and friends and drinking and drugs could shatter the foundation that had been laid or deaden the feelings of guilt and shame that I felt inside for the path I was following.
I eventually enrolled in a music performance program at Boston University. I was doing well as a trumpet player I was playing in the Boston University Symphony and studying with the man who held the position of first trumpet in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I was on my way to becoming a virtuoso on my instrument, but with success as my only outlook I was miserable…even though I knew I would achieve the object of my striving.
I was no longer under my parents’ roof or authority, so there seemed no more reason to rebel. I was not finding the kind of satisfaction I had expected in my music and my friendships with music people. The professional world of music is highly competitive. No one holds your hand; there is a lot of backstabbing and perhaps a greater degree of immorality than in many other professions.
I tried to grapple with my unhappiness but I was struggling with the unknown. Why was I so miserable? I guess I had an idea that my problem probably had some thing to do with my lack of a relationship with God, but had become quite adept at burying any thoughts of him, or of what he might want for me and from me. Then one day those thoughts came flooding back to the forefront as I walked down Commonwealth Avenue and passed two people who were wearing Jews for Jesus jackets and handing out literature. It was almost as though a dazzling spotlight from heaven shined down upon me to stop me in my tracks. Distant memories surfaced like colors on a Rubik’s Cube, twisting all around until suddenly, as if by accident (yet it was no accident!), the colors were matched and the puzzle solved.
I must have looked silly standing in the middle of downtown Boston with my mouth hanging open. I quickly lowered my head and walked past those Jews for Jesus. I got a few yards beyond them, stopped and looked back. They were still there, so I walked back to where they were standing, my head still lowered as I passed again. Finally, I turned around for the last time, walked up to the man and introduced myself. His name was Jeff Fritz and he was very warm and friendly. He had heard of my family, knew I was in Boston and told me that he had been hoping to meet me. He introduced me to the other tract-passer: his wife Joanna.
After a few minutes of conversation they invited me to a Bible study. I made a few lame excuses before finally agreeing to come.
As I walked into the Fritz home and sat down in the small circle of people who had gathered to study the Bible, my discomfort melted away. All the memories of my childhood, all the values that had been instilled in me, the living faith that I had witnessed and experienced came back to me. I’d found a group of Jewish believers in Jesus, most of them my age or older, with whom I could identify and feel comfortable.
That night after I returned home, I spoke to God for the first time in a long time, telling him how sorry I was for the way I had been living. I asked him to forgive me and cleanse me and to fill me with his Spirit. Praise God, he answered that prayer and I began on the road back to being a follower of the Messiah.
My revived faith reawakened my love for my Jewish identity. But I was in the midst of a very Jewish community and it took a couple of months before I was ready to tell anyone at the School of Music at Boston University that I was a Jewish believer in Jesus. As I began volunteering with Jews for Jesus, handing out tracts, going to Bible studies and having discipleship sessions with Jeff Fritz, tension began to mount. I felt I was living in two worlds. God’s Spirit was convicting me about my need to stand up and identify not just as a Jew, but as a Jew who believes in Jesus.
I made a decision that changed the course of my life, although I did not realize it at the time. The Boston University Symphony Orchestra met on Mondays at 1:00 P.M. for rehearsal. Our conductor, Joseph Silverstein, was the assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
One Monday I purposely walked into rehearsal five minutes late, wearing a sweater that had been designed for the Jews for Jesus bicentennial witnessing campaign. It had red, white and blue stripes, with big white stars and letters that said “Jews for Jesus.” As I walked up onto the platform wearing this loud sweater, Silverstein was at the podium tapping his baton to bring the rehearsal to order. He looked at me, his mouth dropped open, the tapping stopped and the room (except for my sweater!) became as silent as a tomb. Everyone watched as I walked back to take my seat in the trumpet section.
As I sat down, he cleared his throat and began the rehearsal. Well, that took care of letting everyone know that I was a Jewish believer in Jesus! No one had told me to do it—and I’m not sure I would take the same approach today but it turned out to be one of the most important steps I took down the path toward full-time service to God and ministry to our people.
I began to notice how important my Jewishness was to me, how it all fit together with my faith in the Lord and how burdened and enthusiastic I was about telling our people about the Messiah. I enrolled in the Jewish studies program at Moody Bible Institute, and upon graduating my wife Patti and I came on staff with Jews for Jesus. We’ve served with the Liberated Wailing Wall, with the Chicago branch, and now I am working at our headquarters.
Now that we have a little boy whom we want to raise as a Jewish believer, I am thinking more carefully about how my identity as the son of Jewish believers developed and is developing—and all the more so as I have the opportunity to write the Mishpochah Message.
Let’s consider together the challenge of encouraging the next generation of messianic Jews.
Make a Decision
Being Jewish is more than a birthright; it is a matter of commitment, a decision to confirm the birthright we received. That decision may include, but goes beyond, a set of observed holidays, preferred foods or even shared values. We must resolve to reach for our heritage, and once we have that resolve we will look for ways to work it out.
Faith Comes First
There will be many ways of working out our Jewish identity, but regardless of personal preferences I believe our Jewish identity must be integrally related to our faith in Jesus. Stop and think. If the rabbis were right and we had to choose between being Jewish or being for Jesus, I don’t think any of us would be Jewish. But isn’t it wonderful that the scriptural faith teaches that believing in Jesus actually enhances, explains and edifies our Jewishness?
Nevertheless, we must put first things first. Just as the survival of the Jewish people depends upon the God of Israel, so the survival of our Jewish identity depends on our faith in the God of Israel and his Messiah.
For me, Jewishness and Jesus went hand in hand; as I turned from the Lord, I turned from my heritage as well. The more I loved the Lord, the more I loved my heritage.
As we teach the next generation to love the Jewish Messiah, we will also be teaching them to love their Jewish heritage. We must keep our priorities straight and let things fall into their proper places.
Pass It On
In order for the next generation to identify as Jewish believers, we must look for specific ways to transmit our Jewishness to them. If they are to be receivers of our heritage, we must be givers. There are two areas where this should occur; the first and more obvious is in the home.
We have more resources today than my parents did thirty years ago to help us communicate the beauty of our heritage as Jews and as believers in Jesus. Many in the messianic community have developed lifecycle observances and family activities which honor Yeshua in a Jewish way. As the High Holiday season approaches, I feel it is especially important to have an awareness and an authentic expression of our connectedness to the people of Israel. I do not think there is a necessarily fight or wrong way to do this. I believe that the only wrong thing is not to do anything.
The home is not the only place and parents are not the only people who can help to pass on Jewishness to the next generation of messianic believers. The whole community of Jewish believers can have a part in passing on our heritage from generation to generation. “Community” means people in various stations of life. Those who do not have children should be open to taking an interest in their friends’ children. They will likely have different experiences and insights to share, and in most cases will find the parents happy to see their children receive the extra attention.
It was helpful for me to have an association with other Jewish believers as I was growing up. Just knowing other Jewish believers made a deep impression on me which, at a later date, helped me to sort out my own Jewishness and connectedness to the messianic community, in view of the growth of congregations and fellowship groups around the country and the world.
We all know that the majority of Jewish believers do not attend messianic congregations, and even if there were a messianic congregation in every city, I personally do not believe it is required of every Jewish believer to be a member of one. However, I do believe Jewish believers should have some connection to the rest of the Jewish believing community. This might mean membership in a messianic congregation, it might be regular attendance at a Bible study with one or more other Jewish believers, or it might mean making plans each year to attend one of the several messianic conferences, retreats or ingatherings.
Our messianic identity is not only an individual identity or even a family identity. It is also a community identity: we are the band of Jewish people who know that the Messiah has come. Our faithfulness to the God of Israel as a remnant, a minority of the minority, was predicted in Scripture. To know that we are a part of that group is important, and the next generation must see the significance and importance of continuing that community identity.
And Leave the Rest to God!
Perhaps the Jewishness my parents handed down to me did not include as many experiences as I now wish I had stored in my memory bank. The important thing is they were faithful to do the best they knew how, and now my Jewishness is not just what my parents gave to me. By God’s grace it is a choice I made, a treasure I guard jealously and want my son Isaac to share. Somehow we must lay a foundation upon which the next generation can build.
Isaac and such sisters and brothers who may come after him will need to make their own decisions. They will have to discover their identities for themselves. But I believe with all my heart that if Patti and I live godly lives before Isaac, if we teach him to love the Lord as we do, providing a biblical Jewish home life and exposing him to a messianic community…he will grow to love the Lord. And as Isaac grows to love the Lord, he will grow to love the heritage the Lord has given him as well. His Jewishness will deepen beyond anything Patti and I strive to give him as God takes hold of his life. And, if the Messiah tarries, I hope to see Isaac pass on what he receives from generation to generation.
*a fringed garment worn by Orthodox Jews
Six things You Can Do
There are practical steps you can take to help the “next generation,” steps that any one of us could implement to some degree in our own lives:
- Plan now to attend High Holiday services in your area. Life-cycle events are very important and they demonstrate a connectedness to the community.
- Participate in cultural events when possible. Bring a family member or friend to your local Jewish community center to learn some traditional folk dances, or to hear a lecture by a famous Jewish author. If you don’t live in an area where there is a significant Jewish population this may be more difficult. However, should business, vacation or a family event bring you to a larger metropolitan area, you can seek out a Jewish museum, or an old Yiddish film, or browse through a Jewish bookstore.
- Pick up some books for reference. If you are low on information for the holidays or you would like a good resource for things Jewish in the home, try The Jewish Catalog, which is available at most Jewish bookstores or through the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia. I also recommend the book To Be a Jew, by Hayim Halevy Donin, Basic Books, New York, New York.
- Prepare a special Shabbat meal for your family and/or friends. If your schedule or culinary skills make it difficult, invite others to come and bring various dishes. Have a time of fellowship, read the Scriptures and pray together. Maybe it isn’t practical for you to do this every week, but why not try it on a monthly or bi-monthly basis? Learn and teach the blessings and recite them as part of your grace before the meal. Many Jewish believers use the Hebrew blessings all week long, finding that incorporating the blessings into daily life, especially at mealtimes, is a constant reminder of our heritage.
- Projects that may seem overly-ambitious for one or two (like building a sukkah for the Feast of Tabernacles) are the perfect excuse for involving others. Make a party of it! Prepare a big fruit salad, collect the materials and let everyone enjoy themselves. Again, all the information you would need to build a booth can be found in The Jewish Catalog.
- Pray for the children. Whether or not you are a parent, commit yourself to praying for at least one messianic Jewish child. If you don’t know any children of Jewish believers and would like to pray for one or more children regularly, let us know and we will send you some prayer requests.