From Generation to Generation: A Jewish Family Finds Their Way Home
My name is Steven Peter Wertheim. I was born August 3, 1951 in the Bronx, New York—but our family actually lived in the upper west side of Manhattan, where it seemed like everyone was either Jewish or Catholic. Regular fights broke out between us neighborhood kids. As things heated up, invariably one of them” would call “one of us” “Christ killer.” I had no idea what “Christ killer” meant, but I knew it meant a fight was imminent.
I asked my parents why those kids were so mean to us. They explained that many Christians hated Jews simply because we were Jews, and reminded me of history, especially the Holocaust.
During Kristallnacht my grandfather’s business was stolen from him along with everything he owned. Then the Nazis took him away and my dad, his sisters and their mother thought they would never see him again.1
Mom and Dad frequently told me about the cruelty they suffered from “the Christians.” As a child, I knew that I had to defend myself for being Jewish. The Hanukkah story always meant a lot to us, because we knew what it was like to have to fight. It was very satisfying to celebrate our people’s victory over those who had tried to assimilate or exterminate us.
When I was eight years old I started going to Hebrew school three times a week and attending synagogue in preparation for my bar mitzvah. If you had asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I probably would have said yes. But I never thought much about what he might expect of me, or vice versa.
My bar mitzvah service was held in a synagogue in Queens, as we had recently moved there from Manhattan. My mother had labored for many months to make sure everything was perfect. I felt embarrassed by all the attention, though I appreciated all the effort and expense.
After my bar mitzvah, my life seemed to take a radical turn. For one thing, having “become a man” made me responsible in new ways. I took on a series of part-time jobs when I was 14. I liked having my own money, but there wasn’t a lot of time for playing or doing “kid” things.
I missed my friends from Manhattan and, as a teenager, I did not find it easy to make new friends. My self-esteem plummeted and what little belief I’d had in God disintegrated as I saw no evidence that he cared.
My relationship with my family grew intolerable. There was constant fighting—a lot of yelling alternated with angry silences. Much of that was probably due to normal generation gap issues, but in addition, we were so close that friction was inevitable. Whereas many families have problems with a lack of communication, I felt like we had more than enough. Everything was a family decision; I was brought into every conversation and expected to participate as an adult.
In retrospect, I’m sure my parents were expressing respect for my adulthood, but in fact I still was, and wanted to be, a kid. My brother, who was seven years younger than I, was even more a kid than I was, and with that age difference came a huge gap in our experience and interests. Yet my parents seemed to expect me to be Rob’s closest companion, an expectation I was not prepared to fulfill.
My parents’ experiences in Germany affected our family dynamic. Many Holocaust survivors were robbed of their childhood, and have a limited idea of what it should be. Plus, knowing so many people who died or lost family members caused those who were more fortunate to be extremely focused on their loved ones. I didn’t appreciate what might be behind the tight grip my family had on me. I just knew that I wanted some distance from all that closeness. I couldn’t wait to be out of school so I could move away.
I was accepted into a school in New Hampshire. After a year, I transferred to C.W. Post College, which is part of Long Island University. I earned my college degree in History and Education. However, I hated being in debt, and decided that paying off my student loan was more important than pursuing my profession.
I worked in the post office alongside my father to pay off that student loan. And then I only wanted one thing: to escape from New York City. My grandfather, a gentle and generous man, laid out a good sum of money enabling me to buy my first car—an orange Volkswagen Beetle—during the summer of 1974.
That September I packed my bags, and my father and I drove west to Southern California—as far away as I could get. We arrived there a week or so later and checked into a motel, where we stayed for about a week while I went job and apartment hunting.
I quickly got a job as a bank teller. My next task was to find a place to live. My father and I happened upon a building with an apartment for rent on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. I looked at the studio and wasn’t overly impressed. The managers, Lily and Burt, were a friendly, middle-aged British couple. Lily and my father established an immediate rapport. Dad confided that he was nervous about my being so far away. Lily assured him that she would “keep an eye out” for me. He obviously enjoyed her and after we left, encouraged me to take the place. I wasn’t too keen on this particular apartment, but I gave in.
I took Dad to the airport the next day, knowing that it would be some time before I saw him or any other family member again.
Within a few weeks, Lily and Burt invited me to their apartment. They also invited a couple about my age who had just moved to Los Angeles. The husband was Jewish and originally from New York. Lily and Burt thought we might have some things in common.
I’m an inquisitive person and when I meet new people I normally ask lots of questions. But when I met Baruch and Marcia Goldstein, for some reason I refrained from asking these nice people what they did for a living.
A few weeks later Baruch called and invited me to their home for dinner. When we sat down to eat, Baruch said he hoped I wouldn’t mind, but it was their tradition to pray at mealtimes. I didn’t care if they prayed, but at the close of their prayer I heard three words that shook me up: “IN JESUS’ NAME.”
Afterwards, I asked them to explain that prayer. They told me that they were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. In fact, Baruch and Marcia were working with Jews for Jesus. I blurted out, “You can’t be Jewish and believe in Jesus!” We had a heated discussion at the dinner table. Still, I thought I should be somewhat tolerant for just one evening. They mentioned that they were beginning a Bible study on Friday nights. I turned down the invitation.
But the truth was, if it weren’t for their belief in Jesus, I would like to have been friends with these people. After a while I asked myself, what was the worst that could happen if I went to one of their Bible studies? So one evening in October of 1974 I accepted the invitation. I met a half a dozen or so other people, mostly university students or recent graduates. Some were clean-shaven and conservatively dressed while others were more of the “hippie” genre.
On my way home I couldn’t help thinking that these were nice people, although misguided. I started attending regularly. I found my belief in God resurfacing as I heard these people describe what he had done in their lives. I began to look forward to the Bible study.
I let my parents know I was studying the Bible with a Jewish group. They were quite astonished since I had previously made it clear that I had given up on God and all things religious. Nevertheless, they were pleased that my new friends were Jewish and that I had become interested in God. I didn’t tell them that these people believed in Jesus. How could I explain it to them when I didn’t quite understand it myself?
About three months into the Bible studies, a conflict began growing inside me. Things these Jews for Jesus believed were starting to make sense. Being able to discuss the Bible with others who saw its value and who cared about God—and who were Jewish—meant a lot to me. No one had pressured me about my beliefs, yet I found the Bible to be very convincing.
And that scared me.
All I could think was that my parents would never understand if I came to believe that Jesus was Messiah. I remembered every detail of all the things that, as far as my parents were concerned, had been done to us by “the Christians.” I felt I could not afford to think any further about Jesus.
So, in January of 1975, I started absenting myself from the people I had become close to. But after a few weeks, I found it difficult to stay away from the Bible studies. It wasn’t just the quality of the people, but what they believed that drew me into a relationship, not only with them but with a God I had never really known before. I began to feel that perhaps I couldn’t afford to NOT think any further about Jesus.
I returned to the Bible studies. I remember one Friday night—March 7—I told a friend, “I feel like God is standing at my door, knocking as though he wants to come in and be with me. It seems like all I need to do is let him in, but I don’t know if I’m ready.”
By this time I had gotten into the habit of praying. I asked God to help me be certain if Jesus was true, and to give me the courage to live according to what was right and real, even if it had painful consequences.
After a restless night I was still experiencing tremendous turmoil. I got in the car with no particular plan and found myself near the beach. It was a rare overcast day in March.
I parked and walked around for awhile. Water, sand, sky…all seemed grey, and it fit my mood. When I left the beach I drove to Baruch and Marcia’s house.
I told Baruch I was torn. I knew that Jesus was the Messiah but I wasn’t prepared for what would happen if I believed in Him. I couldn’t give up my family. At the same time I said that I didn’t know what I needed to do in order to follow through on this new belief. He responded that if I really believed Jesus was the Messiah, it would be good if I would confirm that before God through prayer.
I prayed with Baruch, asking God to forgive my sins on the basis of Jesus’ atoning death. And I asked God to help me to follow Yeshua (Jesus) and live a life that would please God. Afterwards, I felt a peace that I had not experienced before. But before long the uppermost thought in my mind was that I had to tell my parents.
It was nearly Passover and my brother Rob, sixteen at the time, came to visit me and accompanied me to a seder at Baruch and Marcia’s home. We got to the third cup of wine after dinner, along with the Afikomen. Baruch told how Jesus had taken this cup and the matzo that traditionally point to the Passover Lamb, and used them to point to his body and blood. Baruch explained that those who believe that Jesus’ sacrifice was an atonement for sin now use the bread and cup to remember what he did for us.
On the drive back to my apartment, Rob asked me if I believed in Jesus as the Messiah. I told him that I did, but that I had not yet told our parents. And I asked him to not tell them either. I explained that I wanted to do that myself.
The next time I spoke with my parents, I felt a strain in our conversation. I asked my parents if Rob had “told them.” My mother asked, “Told us what?” I said, “About my believing in Jesus,” My mother said that she didn’t know what I was talking about. What I perceived as a strain was simply my own feelings of guilt for not telling them what I believed. We didn’t talk much more at the time. But that didn’t mean the subject was closed.
Two weeks later we had an hour-long fight over the phone. The accusation that I was no longer Jewish alternated with cries of, “Where did we go wrong?” I later found out that following the phone call, my parents wrote me a letter, which basically said that they wanted nothing more to do with me and that they preferred that I not contact them until I came to my senses and stopped the narishkeit of believing in Jesus. Even though they never sent the letter the relationship was stressed at best.
That summer, Baruch and Marcia Goldstein were going to be in New York and they offered to meet my parents. I mentioned this to Mom and Dad, and at first the offer was refused. Later they reluctantly acquiesced. My father told me prior to their coming that he wanted to “throw Baruch off the terrace.”
The evening came and the four of them actually had a pleasant evening together. My family even called to let me know how much they enjoyed the Goldsteins’ visit.
Within a few weeks my parents and Rob came to visit me in California. We were together for three weeks. It became quite evident to my family that I took my belief in Jesus seriously. They allowed me to tell them what I believed and why I believed it.
During our last week together, my family joined me at the Bible study. After everyone else had left, we sat having coffee with Baruch and Marcia. My father suddenly turned to my mother and said, “Laura, what would you do if I believed in Jesus?” After a moment of contemplation my mother responded, “I’d probably leave you.” The discussion didn’t last much longer, and neither did our visit. My parents and Rob returned to New York.
By this time, unknown to the family, Rob had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. However, he didn’t feel he could voice his decision without risking being thrown out of my parents’ home.
In 1975 Jews for Jesus opened its branch office in New York City. In September my family was invited to Bible studies in Manhattan. My father was eager to go and my brother went with him. My mother was not interested but went because of my father.
Eventually, Dad told Mom that he believed in Jesus. Mom did not leave him, but tensions began to heat up. Now that my father believed, Rob no longer feared the consequences of his own faith and confessed that he, too, believed in Jesus.
Up until this point my mother had endured the Bible studies and the “Jesus talk.” Now that the whole family had “turned,” she let us all know that she didn’t want to hear anything more about Jesus.
One Tuesday night my father planned to meet my mother after work, to take her to dinner before Bible study. My mother informed him that she would make her own way home. She went to the subway only to find that the trains were indefinitely delayed. She went back upstairs to take alternate means of transportation home and found that it would be impossible to get home in a reasonable amount of time. She then called my dad, had him pick her up and they proceeded with the original plan for the evening.
That night my mother saw a film about Corrie ten Boom, a Christian who hid Jews during the Holocaust, and it deeply touched her. She realized that her reasons for holding out from what the rest of the family believed didn’t have so much to do with who Jesus was as who she thought Christians were. The film helped her to see that people who truly love Jesus also love the Jewish people. Within a couple of weeks, my mother embraced Jesus as Messiah.
Who would have believed that our entire family would be reunited as Jews who all believe in Jesus? Or that I would one day meet and marry another Jewish believer in Jesus?
One day a friend of mine was sent an audition tape from a young woman on the East Coast who was applying to Jews for Jesus. He played the tape for me and I thought, “That’s the best voice I’ve heard since Joni Mitchell. I’ve got to meet this girl…”
If you would like you can correspond with Steve here.
Executive Assistant to the Director, Missionary
Steve Wertheim is a missionary and executive assistant to the executive director of Jews for Jesus. Steve’s father is a Holocaust survivor, originally from Germany. Many of the Wertheim family have come to faith in the Lord and have had a part in the Jews for Jesus ministry. Steve’s wife Janie, who is also a Jewish believer, has written some of the children’s materials used by Jews for Jesus. His son-in-law, Toby, heads up the group’s IT department and his brother, Rob, is a missionary in the San Francisco branch of Jews for Jesus.