Leon Rosenberg: the Tragedy of the Beth El Congregation
Leon Rosenberg was born in 1875 in Czarist Russia, the first child of Rabbi Eleazar Rosenberg and his wife, Gali. Leon was educated to follow in his father’s rabbinical footsteps. He was a zealous and brilliant student. His father, Eleazar, was strict and austere, telling Leon, “Never forget whose son you are or the high calling to which you were assigned and dedicated.” His mother was sweet and more tactful, encouraging Leon in his studies of the Holy Scriptures.
While Leon was in his teens at rabbinical seminary, he received in the mail a package from a friend containing a book in Hebrew, the Brit Hadashah—the New Testament. Leon began to read it in secret but was found out and persecuted by some zealous fellow rabbinical students. His parents were more understanding of his insatiable curiosity. But Leon had to move to another town to study under different rabbis.
Over the next two years, Leon met a few Jews who were either secret or open followers of Yeshua (Jesus). At the age of twenty, Leon came to believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and he made a public profession of his faith. He was expelled from the Jewish community and had to flee across the border, eventually ending up in Hamburg, Germany. Because of the reproach brought upon them by Leon’s new faith, the parents of Leon’s wife, Fanny, who was pregnant with their first child, took her away to another province. But within the year, she and their new daughter, Gail Eugenia, reunited with Leon in Hamburg. Soon afterwards, Fanny also came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.
The Rosenbergs had six children. Their only son, Philip, died at age one and a half. Their daughter Lydia died of the flu at age twelve.
The Rosenbergs wanted to tell their Jewish people about Yeshua. They first worked as missionaries in Krakow, next in Warsaw, then in Odessa, where they stood with their Jewish people during the pogroms of 1904-1905. Many of Odessa’s Jews came to the Rosenberg home, expecting that Leon would mark his house with Christian icons and crosses as protection from the massacre, as other non-Jewish residents had. When they saw none, they urged Leon to put them up for his own protection. But Rosenberg refused, saying he would trust in God. Some of the Jews remained in his house; others returned home. Rosenberg and the other Jewish believers in Jesus who gathered in his home read Psalm 91 and prayed. The frenzied mobs passed the Rosenberg home many times during the next three days, but never touched it. On the fourth day, the pogrom suddenly stopped.
In 1928 the Rosenbergs moved to Poland, a new country emerging from the devastation of World War I and home to four million Jews. They rebuilt a bombed-out factory in Lodz as a mission and congregation. They erected a sign with the name Beth El (the House of God), reminiscent of the renaming of Luz by Jacob after he saw the angels of God ascending and descending the ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:10–19). The Rosenbergs added a medical clinic, day school and orphanage.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Leon wrote:
We began to prepare bomb shelters, but soon realized that in our case, with so many workers and children, it would be wiser to claim the 91st Psalm and rest in the shadow of the Almighty. Though death and destruction reigned in many places, we were spared for the time-being, and God in His infinite mercy concealed from us the not so distant future.
The congregation grew, as Jews, including Jewish believers in Jesus, fled to major cities, including Lodz. To support his growing flock, Leon traveled to America to seek financial support. He would be separated from his wife for nearly seven years.
Fanny Rosenberg, her daughter Helen and Helen’s husband, Samuel Ostrer, remained with the Beth El congregation and the orphans. Although Fanny survived the war, she had to live through days and nights of horrors—the concentration camp deaths of Samuel and Helen, six of the mission workers, most of the orphanage workers, and most (about 300) of the congregation. In addition, the Nazis killed over 200 children from the orphanage.
Though my deep consolation was in the Lord, the Good Shepherd of those dear little lambs, whom we were privileged to nurse for Him, preparing them for life and death—for time and eternity—yet, I suffered unprecedented agony for their sake. I then understood the cry of Naomi—I rather say, “Thy will be done.”
Fanny also wrote of her rescue in 1945:
On the 17th of January of this year, the enemy planned to destroy all Jewish men, women and children in our community who were still alive, but early in the morning of the same date, the Russians came and the enemy fled. This was a miracle. If they had come but two hours later, none of us would have survived.
In August 1946, Fanny was able to immigrate to America and reunite with Leon. She wrote:
After all the tragic and irreplaceable losses, what a blessing and joy it was to be reunited not only with my husband, but also with two of my still living three daughters and their families, for whom the Lord also opened the doors into this country and our open arms.
The work the Rosenbergs began in Eastern Europe continued after World War II until the Communists stopped it. Today their legacy continues through the American-European Bethel Mission, with outreaches in Germany, Ukraine, Israel and Britain.
In May 1967 Leon Rosenberg quietly died in his sleep at the age of 92. His wife, Fanny, followed him one year later.
1 Vera Kuschnir, Only One Life: Biography of Leon Rosenberg (Santa Barbara, CA: American European Bethel Mission, 1996), p. 43.
2 Ibid., p. 272.
3 Ibid., pp. 299–300.
4 Ibid., p. 301.
6 Ibid., p. 310.