The following interview was conducted by Lex Rofes and originally appeared in Jewschool. It was titled “Barred from Birthright, Sons Accepted for B’rit Milah: A Conversation with Jews for Jesus’s Aaron Trank” and is reprinted here by permission.
Lex Rofes: Recently I wrote an article entitled “Are Messianic Jews Really ‘Just Trying to Convert Us’?” (http://jewschool.com/2015/05/37056/messianic-jews-just-trying-convert-us). There were a variety of very strong responses to it in the comments section and which I received via email and Facebook message. Some were supportive and others wrote to critique what I wrote. I thought about whether a follow-up piece might be helpful, clarifying some of my thoughts and defending my arguments, but I realized that might not be the best path forward. Instead, I believed that hearing thoughts from someone identifying as a Jewish believer in Jesus would be far more beneficial than any piece I might write, which would run the risk of merely paraphrasing the first op-ed. Fortunately, Aaron Trank, Director of Digital at Jews for Jesus, had contacted Jewschool a few months ago, and I was able to connect with him via email. We scheduled a phone call, and our dialogue is included below.
LR: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
AT: I’m a second-generation Messianic Jew. My dad is Jewish, my mom is not. I was raised with a very strong Jewish identity. My parents sent me to the Jewish school in Sacramento, and I prepared for bar mitzvah at the Reform temple. My great-grandmother was a victim of the Holocaust, so identifying with anti-Semitism and specifically the Holocaust, and learning about it at a very young age was just a part of my upbringing. At the same time that I was going to Jewish school, we were going to a church. It was interesting. For the first couple years, whether you’re in Sunday school or at the Jewish elementary school, you’re basically just learning Bible stories. They’re basically the same stories. At Sunday school, I’d just also be learning about Jesus.
LR: Is there a term that you prefer to use to identify your religious beliefs and/or practices?
AT: I would describe myself, if I was choosing the terminology, as “a Jewish believer in Jesus as Messiah.” I would even specifically say as the Jewish messiah. If I am trying to explain my religious identity, I’m usually trying to communicate clearly what I believe and the implications of it. I find that people, when they hear I’m ethnically Jewish and that I am also basically an evangelical Christian in my beliefs, people will try to put a very simplistic label on it, which loses some of the nuance. What I am is not a simple thing for me to just answer.
LR: Do people ever refer to you with terms that bother you?
AT: There are non-Jewish people who say, “It’s amazing that we have a converted Jew with us,” as if there is something wrong with the fact that I was born Jewish. That word [converted] is sort of a trigger word for me. If Jesus really was the Messiah, this idea that Jewish believers in Jesus would need to “convert” is really not true. In another sense, the word “converted,” in Christian theology, is something everyone has to do in terms of repentance or turning inward. If someone is using it in the general sense—that we ‘converted from our sinful ways’—then that’s fine. If someone is using it as if I were Jewish, but then converted, then I find that offensive. I didn’t convert.
LR: What is your relationship like with San Francisco’s normative Jewish community?
AT: Particularly in San Francisco now, I’ve had a very healthy relationship with the Jewish community. My daughter attends the Shalom School; my wife and I attend classes at the Jewish Community Center (JCC). We spent five summers in Israel and actually back in 2011 we almost made aliyah! Then we got pregnant with kids, so we didn’t do that. In general, we have a very respectful relationship with the leaders in the community, and they know that we believe in Jesus. They know that I work for the Jews for Jesus organization.
LR: Have you experienced any particularly memorable positive experiences with the normative Jewish community in San Francisco?
AT: I have two sons and both of them had b’rit milah (circumcision) performed by an Orthodox mohel. It was just a traditional b’rit milah ceremony. All of this was done with transparency. We had a conversation before he performed the circumcision, and it wasn’t an issue for him, so it was a blessing for us. My wife is from a similar background from me; only her mother was born Jewish. So the Orthodox mohel was fine with the circumcision (note: when a child’s maternal grandmother is Jewish, the child is halachically Jewish).
The Shalom School where my daughter goes is run in conjunction with Chabad. They also know that our family are Messianic Jews and that I work for Jews for Jesus. It really wasn’t an issue for them. They asked. They said it’s fine for your daughter to go here as long as you don’t proselytize here. I responded that I have no intention of proselytizing at a pre-school (laughs).
LR: Has anybody else been upset by your involvement in the Jewish community?
AT: These positive events were recent and in San Francisco. When I grew up in Sacramento, it was a different story. In the middle of when I was in third grade, my family was basically outed as being believers in Jesus. And so there was a lot of pressure put on the administration of the school to force us out. It was a pretty traumatic thing as a child, where we were outed and ousted in some sense from the Jewish community in Sacramento. My parents had publicly identified as believers in Jesus, and it had ramifications on our relationships with everybody in the community.
That was just as a child. Back in 2002, I applied to go on Birthright. Under “affiliation” I put “Messianic Jew”—I’m a compulsively candid person. Back then, they weren’t actively asking if you believed in Jesus or not when you applied. But I didn’t want to go on a trip on false pretenses. Surprisingly, I was accepted! But then two weeks before the trip, I was called by one of the Birthright reps in the U.S. office who said, “Sorry, you’ve been disqualified.” This was infuriating to me. Birthright contracts with Israeli tour companies—so I was already talking with these tour companies and told them too that I was a Messianic believer. They had already purchased tickets for me that were non-transferable and non-refundable.
This tour company was trying to overturn the U.S. decision [because they didn’t want to lose the money that they had already spent on my ticket]. The Israeli company said that if I were willing not to talk about my faith, it should be fine. But then Birthright threatened to not use this particular Israeli tour company anymore if they were to let me on the trip. So they ate the price of the ticket, but I still wasn’t allowed to go.
One other thing. You asked before about terminology. Whenever somebody asks, “Are you a Jew for Jesus,” I try to stop and explain that Jews for Jesus is an organization. It’s not a denomination; it’s not a movement. It’s an organization. Theologically it is evangelical Christians. It is made up of Jewish people, who are missionaries, who bring this message that Jesus is the Messiah. Jews for Jesus is part of this much larger movement—the Messianic movement—which is made up of many organizations.
LR: What does the spectrum of Messianic belief look like?
AT: The spectrum of halakhah in the Messianic movement is actually just as broad as the spectrum of halakhah in normative Judaism. There are Messianic Jews who you would look at and think that they were Lubavitch! There are Messianic Jews on the other end. My Jewish family, who are normatively Jewish, are Reform. They eat treyfe, just not in the house. I don’t follow halakhah any more than the rest of my Reform family does, but I have Messianic friends who want to convince me that I should! The question of orthopraxis is a spectrum just as wide as in the normative Jewish community.
LR: Are there any other thoughts or anecdotes you’d like to share?
AT: My wife and I, when we were preparing to make aliyah, we were taking Hebrew classes at the JCC. Eventually in the conversation, everyone knows you’re going to reach the point where everyone says what you do for a living. We were gearing up for this! What was I going to say? Is it going to be awkward?
AT: When we were in this class, and it came to this point, I didn’t hide it. I just said what I do— that I work for Y’hudim L’ma’an Yeshua (Hebrew for “Jews for Jesus”). I waited for a response. I said this in front of the class and waited for somebody to cringe. But the teacher actually thought this fact was interesting! She gave me the opportunity to explain what I believe and who I was in front of the class, at the JCC. After the class was over, and we didn’t get kicked out and nothing horrible happened, my wife and I went to get coffee. We were both perplexed by it. We believed this narrative that was true decades ago, but it hasn’t been challenged since then. It’s this narrative that Messianic Jews are not welcome in any Jewish community. From then on, I’ve been very interested in challenging this idea. My hypothesis is that it’s not true anymore.
Lex Rofes is a Jewish educator and organizer. He graduated from Brown University in 2013 with a degree in Judaic Studies, lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and is a first-year rabbinical student studying with ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.