Born in Brooklyn, New York, Herb Opalek was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home which boasts many rabbis in the family tree. He attended Hebrew day school and by age ten was fluent in both modern and ancient Hebrew. He had a near photographic memory and wangled quite a few free dinners by performing his famous pin trick. “I would take a volume of the Talmud and allow a person to push a pin into it,” he explained. “I knew the book so well, I could judge the page, the line, and the letter on which the point of the pin rested.”1
After completing Yeshiva high school a year and a half early, he studied for a year with the renowned Rav Chaim Zimmerman at Hebrew Theological Seminary in Skokie, Illinois. Following the advice of the sages to “exile yourself to a place of Torah,” he traveled to study with two of the finest rabbinic scholars, Rav Aharon Kotler in Lakewood, New Jersey, and Rav Yitzchok Hutner at Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin in New York.
Opalek was ordained as a rabbi at age eighteen and later, while studying for the first of his two PhDs, was ordained as yodin yodin, allowing him to judge matters of civil law.
In his twenties, he married an Orthodox Jewish woman whose father was the recognized expert on medieval Jewish-Christian debate. Opalek was being groomed to take his place. As he recounted, “In line with the rabbinic statement that one gets to know one’s enemy, I did my doctoral work on the New Testament so I could learn how to debunk the Brit Hadashah (New Testament).”2
But Opalek was beginning to doubt the validity of some Orthodox practices. For example, he decided to follow the kosher laws of Dutch Jews because they waited a shorter period of time between the consumption of meat and dairy products. He was also reprimanded for an article he wrote on Jewish law on a specific issue related to women. He realized that thousands of laws governing an Orthodox Jew’s life were man made.
This contributed to the breakup of his marriage after twelve years. But his career continued to flourish. Academically, he began as a teaching assistant in the Mishna at Dropsie University in Philadelphia and continued as an adjunct associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He lectured at many universities, including Harvard. While serving as a pulpit rabbi, Opalek was executive vice president and professor of Jewish Law at Mosdos Bais Isaac Zvi, then the fastest growing institution of rabbinic study, in Brooklyn.
But in late spring of 2000, Opalek’s life took a major turn—all in one night. He had flown into Boston to raise money for a graduate institute he had founded. The airline had lost his luggage, which meant he had little to read, just his prayer book and one volume of the Mishna. Already intimately familiar with both volumes and unable to sleep, at 1 a.m. he opened the drawer of the nightstand and found a Gideon Bible.
“I opened up to John chapter three,” Opalek recalled, “and I started being upset because who would want to read something that I’d done a dissertation on and I thought I knew? As I read and reached Nicodemus and being born again from heaven, even though I had all that book knowledge and even though I had been scrupulous in obeying all of the laws, it was only at that point in my life that the Holy Spirit actually entered in to me and I finally understood who Yeshua (Jesus) was. I spent the rest of the night going through in my mind all of the Hebrew Scriptures and finally understanding how they related [to Yeshua].”3
Upon returning home to New York City, he studied the Scriptures at the public library, and his studies confirmed his new beliefs. He resigned from the Jewish graduate institute he had founded and began a search at the library for where he should go next. He came across an online article about the New York City Rescue Mission, whose goal was to “bring people to faith.”
On July 12, 2000, Opalek knocked on the door of the mission. He explained he was not like any of the other residents: he was not homeless, addicted and had never been in prison. He shared his background and experience and asked to join their program as a resident. He also asked that his background remain confidential. Opalek said that he wanted to observe everything that went on and that after a month, if he felt this were real, he would make a public profession of faith. He entered the mission’s program and, after a month, made that public profession. Under the tutelage of the mission’s director, Rev. Jim VarnHagen, and other staff, Opalek grew in his faith in both knowledge and service.
Opalek found the rescue mission the perfect place for him.
“I’m a little on the prideful side—I was always mindful of how far I had gone and how much I had achieved,” he said. “Coming to the mission humbled me… . Cleaning up vomit on the floor and assisting guests to delouse in the showers further humbled me.”4
But when he shared his newfound faith with the Orthodox community, he was ostracized. They held a funeral and sat shiva for him. People would cross the street and spit on him and slap his face. “People in general,” said Opalek, “when they cannot explain what someone has done, either label that person as demented, crooked or whatever… . If people are not willing to test their belief systems, then they get their backs up and want nothing to do with you.”5
Because of the persecution, in May 2001 Opalek transferred upstate to the Capital City Rescue Mission in Albany and worked as a special projects assistant to the director. In 2003 he went to the Bridgeport (Connecticut) Rescue Mission as assistant director, where he met co-worker and special education teacher, Kathleen James.
“During our brief courtship,” recalled Kathleen, “I got to see him in action firsthand and realized with the gifts God had given him he would eventually want to run his own mission. A month after we were married (in December 2003), he asked about interviewing in California and five months later we moved here, where Herb became the director of the Merced County Rescue Mission. When asked how he got into rescue ministry, he always answered, ‘God has a sense of humor.’ But when he was being serious he would say, ‘Teaching in a university, you may have a small amount of influence in the lives of a few of your students. But in rescue you see lives changed.'”6
In addition to speaking at national conferences, Opalek also was chairman of the Board for Rescue Israel, the first American-style rescue mission in Israel. He continued as director of the Merced mission until his death on April 10, 2011, at the age of 66.
Kathleen noted that Herb continued to follow Jewish dietary laws and celebrate the Jewish holidays. “He objected to the terms ‘converted’ or ‘becoming a Christian,’ she added, “and always called himself a believing Jew, one who believed Yeshua is the Messiah.”
1 Debbie Macomber, “Lost Luggage,” in God’s Guest List: Welcoming Those Who Influence Our Lives (New York: Howard Books, 2010), p. 18.
2 Herb Opalek, interview for Faith Roots Media radio with Thom Berkowitz, April 1, 2011 (nine days before Opalek’s death), transcribed by Pari Johnson.
3 Interview with Thom Berkowitz, op. cit.
4 Macomber, op. cit, p. 19.
5 Op. cit.
6 All quotes from Kathleen Opalek are from personal correspondence with the author.