I was camped with my paratrooper unit in the desert surrounding the Dead Sea when I recognized the name Joshua Friedberg on the front page of an Israeli newspaper. Ne’dar, missing. Before I had time to process what was happening, I was on a bus heading back to Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem to join the search for my missing friend.
I grew up in Seattle but my parents, both believers in Jesus, made Aliyah in 1990 when I was 15 years old. We began our new life in an Orthodox Jewish settlement affiliated with the Gush Emunim movement.
Life in the settlement quickly shaped many of my views, particularly those regarding Palestinians. The barrage of stones (sometimes the size of cinderblocks) projected at our vehicle whenever we left the settlement made their mark, and not just on the car. The government provided protective windows for our car and an Uzi for my father but nothing they could provide was able to protect me from feelings of being trapped and helpless. Most of my friends shared those feelings. I once tagged along one Shabbat with several from the settlement to reciprocate, i.e., throw stones at Palestinian vehicles. But that did not drive away our feelings—it simply stirred up trouble for the IDF.
Gripped by the fear of terrorism, I looked for security among my peers and became more and more unwilling to face the alienation that came with believing in Jesus. I was horrified by the thought of my friends discovering my Messianic Jewish upbringing. I began questioning what I believed about God, being Jewish and the land of Israel, formulating political and spiritual views that seemed to serve my best interests. I left the settlement and my Messianic upbringing and headed for a thoroughly Jewish environment where I thought I would feel safe and belong.
I chose to study rabbinic Judaism at Machon Meir Yeshiva, an Orthodox seminary with a strong Zionist perspective in Jerusalem. Most of the teachers were settlers themselves. Although I had spent over a year in an Orthodox settlement, I was still largely unaware of the modern Orthodox Jewish worldview. As I learned more, I realized that I did not agree with many rabbinic ideas concerning the oral Torah, the concept of Messiah or their view of God’s purposes for the Gentiles. It occurred to me that the Jewish people constituted less than 1% of the world population, and that surely God had a plan for the other 5 billion plus people—including Palestinians. The official Orthodox Jewish understanding is that Gentiles have a part in God’s plans as they abide by the Noahide laws (the seven laws given to Noah). In actuality, Gentiles—especially Arabs—were typically viewed as persecutors and enemies of the Jewish people who were never to become partners in God’s redemptive purposes.
One of the more positive aspects of yeshiva life was meeting Joshua, an Orthodox Jew from Montreal, Canada. With shared taste in music and a common love for basketball, we became good friends. One day I was sitting with Joshua and several others discussing the need for a stronger Israeli government that would take a harder line against Palestinian terrorism, when to my dismay several students described their violent intentions towards Arabs and Christians in Jerusalem. I was angry that they would even entertain such ideas. Depressed and withdrawn, I turned to music as my escape. After nearly a year, I left yeshiva disillusioned and disenchanted—not only with my Orthodox Jewish experience but with living in Israel and being Jewish in general.
While my experiences in the Land seemed to pull the threads of my Jewish identity apart, Joshua’s drew him closer to Israeli nationality. We both enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992. I was drafted at the age of 18 and obligated to serve as an Israeli citizen. Joshua enlisted because he believed it was the right thing to do.
Joshua was last seen on his way to an interview for an officer’s training course. I gathered with all my friends from the yeshiva in hopes of discovering his whereabouts. Our search didn’t last long. Joshua’s body was discovered near Abu Gosh. He had been kidnapped, tortured and killed because he was a Jew and an Israeli soldier.
My world was overturned. Up till then, the people who died had been, for me, statistics in newspapers. Now it was real and it hurt. I was overcome with rage. Upon returning to the settlement from Joshua’s funeral with my mother, I asked her to pull over and I jumped out and emptied a clip of bullets from my M-16 into a nearby tree. I returned to my base embittered toward Arabs, the Israeli army, and the God of Israel. I no longer wanted to be Jewish, Israeli or Messianic. I wanted to go as far as possible from this mess. I went AWOL for weeks at a time (not uncommon among my counterculture friends who wanted to be discharged from the army.) I avoided the settlement where my family and friends lived and became estranged from those I loved. It was all to no avail. Overwhelmed and spiritually empty, I was stationed in a unit on the Lebanese border.
One morning I realized the doubts that had been swimming around in my head had hardened into cold atheism. I was hitchhiking to my new base, and took a ride with an Israeli man whose thoughts on religion resonated with my feelings about God and those who trusted Him. Weak, artificial, needy and absurd were words that came to mind when I thought of such people, including my family. It became apparent to me that people were deluding themselves. They put their trust in God because life was too difficult for them to face alone.
This radical shift in my perspective impacted my entire worldview. Morality, politics, and loyalties all shifted. I lost faith in any political solution. I no longer saw any reason to remain in Israel. I set my mind on getting through the remainder of my time in the army so I could leave Israel altogether. Life in Lebanon and the West Bank was such that I turned to drugs and alcohol in an effort to make myself oblivious to my surroundings. By the time I completed my military service, I didn’t want to hear about terrorism, settlers, Islam, Judaism, Israelis or Palestinians ever again. As for my Messianic roots, they had long since been buried.
I stayed in Israel just long enough to save the necessary cash to fly and live for several months in the U.S. Shortly before my departure, Yitzchak Rabin was shot. I had been hosting a party at my apartment in Jerusalem the night Rabin was assassinated. While the world was in shock, we continued our party. For us, the hope for peace had died long before.
I flew to the U.S. with an Israeli friend and we roamed Jack Kerouac style, living day to day on the road, looking for the next experience. If I heard someone speaking Hebrew I would walk in the other direction. I wanted to blend into a big city somewhere and live out the rest of my life in peace. Yet my life had become a bigger mess than before, and I had even less peace in America than I’d had in Israel. In the midst of all this, I continually encountered people who shared the gospel with me in word and deed. I tried to ignore them or argue like a good atheist. Yet the reality of a spiritual world was pressing in and my disbelief was beginning to ring somewhat insincere. Questions about morality and questions about Jesus kept coming to mind and I began to realize that I was going to have to find the answers to those questions.
I returned to Israel after 11 months of living in various cities throughout California and Washington. I moved back to my parents’ home for the first time since I was 17. They had long since left the settlement and taken residence in Jerusalem. I was glad to see my family, but soon the realities of life in Israel wrapped around me like a cold, wet blanket. The tensions of life in the Middle East were inescapable and the economy was debilitating. As I reconnected with old friends, I discovered that many from my generation were leaving Israel, turning to drugs and seeking alternative spirituality.
As I spent time in Jerusalem, I began to interact with family friends who were Christians. They challenged me to consider the claims of the New Testament and I was ready to take that challenge. As I read, the Gospels captivated me. Jesus’ compassion for those in need and His rejection of false piety—strong, truthful and pure—took me by surprise. Parables such as the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and the lost sheep resonated with my religious experience and demonstrated love beyond measure. In the climax of John’s gospel, Jesus’ most glorious moment culminates in His sacrificial death on a cross. An innocent, compassionate Jew is tortured and killed for the sake of His people. Yet amidst His oppressors, He prays, Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Such great love pierced through the darkness of my bitterness and fear, and for the first time in a long time hope welled up within me. I was well aware of my sin, and I understood the cost of my forgiveness. I called upon God to cleanse me and to be Lord of my life. A joy that surpassed anything I had known grew inside of me and with it came peace.
But that peace was soon challenged.
Early one Sunday morning, my mother and I made our way through the graffiti-riddled streets of the Armenian Quarter in the Old City in Jerusalem. It was my first time attending church since I made my decision. We stepped through a door and into a short corridor that emptied into a large room where I suddenly found myself in the midst of a Palestinian church. It was packed with people singing worship songs in Arabic. Immediately, feelings of suspicion and uncertainty crept into my heart. Why had I come? I felt like an intruder. But then a distinctly Arab man with a tender voice embraced me and welcomed me into the church. He introduced himself as Pastor Issam. I took my seat and was uplifted by the fervent and expressive worship. Issam’s message (translated from English into Arabic) focused on the power of the gospel. But the fellowship of Jews and Arabs together in worship spoke even more eloquently of that power. My fear and bitterness toward these people faded as I realized there was nowhere I would rather be. I was finally able to release my anger over the death of my friend. This was true and lasting peace.
That peace brought along with it an appreciation of all those things I’d tried to run from as an unbeliever. I thank God that I was able to serve my country. I am glad to be Jewish, an Israeli and most of all I am glad to know my Messiah. It was a gift from God that I began my journey as a believer in an Arab church; He used their love to heal many wounds.
I wish I could say my experience at Pastor Issam’s church typified relationships between Palestinian and Israeli believers. But as I attended other congregations throughout the Land I realized that the body of Messiah in Israel was fragmented. Issues that seemed too deep to solve kept most Israeli and Palestinian believers at a cold distance from one another. As I encountered Palestinian Christians I was horrified to hear of personal experiences that had left them feeling even more trapped and helpless than I had felt living on the settlement. As a believer, I found myself wondering, how can we who have received unbridled grace remain embittered and callused toward others? Wouldn’t the power of the gospel be most effectively demonstrated through unity and love between Arabs and Jews?
Pastor Issam remains a good family friend. He counseled my wife Victoria and me, and eventually officiated over our wedding in 1999. He encouraged me when I told him that God was calling me into the ministry of Jews for Jesus and wrote a recommendation for me. While my ministry is focused on Jewish evangelism, I have kept all these experiences in my heart and ponder what steps would be necessary to see more good will and unity in the Body of Messiah, even between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. Jesus said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Aaron Abramson has been on staff with Jews for Jesus since 1999. He received his theological education at All Nations Christian College, where he received a B.A. (Honors) in biblical and intercultural studies. He and his wife Victoria have three children and reside in San Francisco where Aaron works closely with David Brickner.
Aaron also plays a key role in Jews for Jesus as the “go-to” man for anyone interested in short or long-term missions with Jews for Jesus. (Take a look at the bulletin board on p. 8; when you see what is happening in New York this summer you may find yourself contacting Aaron today!)
Aaron will be bringing his perspectives to the next several editions of Havurah. We hope that you will want to interact with some of these ideas. Please remember that all of our publications are also posted on the web. If you go to www.jewsforjesus.org/publications/havurah/09_01, you’ll find this edition of Havurah online. Click on any article for an opportunity to leave comments.
Aaron’s story touches on some questions that have been asked in the Messianic community. Questions like:
- As Jews who know Yeshua, how can we show grace and compassion to Palestinians while upholding Israeli’s right to survive in the Promised Land?
- What are some practical ways that we can pursue the kind of peace made possible through the grace of Messiah?
- How do we respond to Palestinian believers who are seeking common ground with Israeli believers, yet believe that the Church has replaced Israel?
- How can we avoid a defensive attitude when Israel is constantly under attack and maligned in the media?
- How do we avoid the trap of polarization: idealizing one group of people while demonizing the other? (This problem cuts both ways, even among Jewish people, some of whom are anti-Arab, but some of whom are actually anti-Israel.) Can we help others to avoid that trap?
As we ask ourselves and one another these kinds of questions, it’s good to know what others have thought and written on the subject. A few years ago, Mishkan had a special edition on the subject of reconciliation. You can find the entire edition online at http://caspari.com/mishkan/. The articles represent diverse viewpoints of interest to the Messianic community.
Aaron Abramson is the leader of the New York branch of Jews for Jesus. Aaron brings a global experience to us. He was born in the US but grew up in Israel. He has a bachelor of arts degree in Biblical and Intercultural Studies from All Nations Christian College in England. Aaron is currently in a graduate program at New York University. He is married and has three children.