In 1900 in the small shtetl of Zolse (Zelse) not far from Vilno (Vilnius) in Lithuania, the local milkman was not unlike Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof—except that he came to believe that Yeshua (Jesus) was the Messiah of Israel. This is how it all happened.
This Jewish milkman named Johanan Don was married to Sarah. They had a daughter named Hannah who had been injured in a fall. Johanan, being a good father, sought medical help that he hoped would prevent his teenage daughter from being permanently crippled. Reluctantly, he went to a medical mission clinic in Vilnius for help. The doctor in charge was Dr. Paul Frohwein, a man the Jews of the area called “kind of a Jew, and yet not a Jew.” While Hannah was being seen by Dr. Frohwein, Johanan picked up a small black book on the table. It was a Hebrew Brit Hadashah, a New Testament. He read for the first time on the first page that Yeshua was “the son of David, the son of Abraham”! The doctor encouraged Johanan to take the book home with him.
Every day Johanan got up very early to read this book and soon realized he had discovered his Jewish Messiah! In the meantime, pogroms broke out in his small village. Johanan moved his family into Vilnius, where he found a small group of believers in Yeshua near their house. There he was baptized.
Not long after, Johanan died. To make ends meet, his widow Sarah took in a boarder—a nice Yeshiva student of the Vilna Gaon.* His name was Bazyli Jocz, a serious, keen and thoughtful student. One day he was reading in the prophet Isaiah. He came to a passage that he did not understand in chapter 53, so, naturally, he took the matter to his teacher. “Who is the prophet speaking about?” he asked. Bazyli was shocked when his teacher bopped him on the head and called him names. “Don’t ask foolish questions. Just study!” he said.
Everyone in Vilnius knew of the “odd Jew,” Dr. Frohwein, so Bazyli went to ask him about whom the prophet wrote. The good doctor told him. And so Bazyli came to believe also that Yeshua was his Jewish Messiah. But he went on with his studies at the yeshiva and told no one of his new belief—until he realized that he wanted to marry Hannah, his landlady’s little lame daughter. As they spoke one day, Bazyli said to Hannah, “I have a secret.” She asked what it was. He told her, “I am a Jew who believes in Yeshua as the Moshiach of Israel.” Hannah in turn said that she too had the same secret! She told him that her father had been a believer. He had told her never to forget Yeshua. And so Bazyli and Hannah were married. In 1906 their first child was born, a son they named Jakob.
During World War I, Lithuanian Jews suffered terribly. On one occasion a nun denied young Jakob relief food because he was Jewish, even though the family members were believers in Yeshua! Revolution was the order of the day in Russia, with the Bolsheviks gaining the upper hand and borders being challenged in all of the Eastern European countries. Bazyli was drafted to work in the barracks, serving Polish soldiers.
In 1920 Bazyli began as a staff worker with the Church’s Ministry among Jewish People (CMJ) in Warsaw, the unofficial “Jewish center” for Russia’s six million Jews. Later Jakob joined his father to study for three years at the CMJ training center in Warsaw.
In 1932 Bazyli and Hannah moved to Lwow, Poland, to work at the CMJ station there. Jakob had been studying in Germany and England. After his ordination and his marriage in England, he returned in 1935 to Poland to take a post in the Warsaw station his parents had left.
Jakob’s wife, Joan, returned to England in late May 1939 to prepare for the birth of their first child. Jakob remained in Warsaw, but in mid-summer he received an urgent message that called him back to England. The main speaker for a large church conference had become ill, and Jakob was called to fill his place. Before he could return to his post in Warsaw, Germany invaded Poland on September 1. There was no going back.
After the war, Jakob learned that his father Bazyli had been betrayed to the Gestapo and shot. Other members of his family had perished in Hitler’s death camps. Only Jakob, his wife, his younger brother and his mother—all believers in Yeshua—survived Hitler’s Final Solution.
Before the Nazis invaded Poland, Jakob edited the Yiddish journal Der Weg. In 1940, the suffering of his own people prompted him to publish his book, an appeal to the churches, entitled Is It Nothing to You? In all his writing, notes Arthur Glasser, “Jocz never forgets the long history of anti-Semitic hate and contempt that was nourished by the clergy.” Glasser adds, “When the synagogue asks in all seriousness: ‘Yes, you Christians have Jesus, but where is the redeemed world, the kingdom he reputedly inaugurated?’ Jocz then turns to the church and says, ‘You owe the synagogue an answer; where is the evidence of God’s grace to be seen in this generation?’”
During the war years, Jakob headed CMJ’s work in London and also did graduate studies at the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral dissertation, The Jewish People and Jesus Christ, was published in 1949. This was the first of six major works. In 1956 Jakob and his family moved to Toronto, Canada, where he became president of the International Hebrew Christian Alliance (IHCA). He was invited to join the faculty of Wycliffe College, where, from 1960 until his retirement, he occupied its chair of systematic theology. He died in August 1983.
* Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman (1720–1797), known as the Vilna Gaon, was the foremost leader of non-Hasidic Jewry of the past few centuries.