A Brooklyn-bred Jews for Jesus co-founder looks back on her journey to faith: “Jesus People,” Larry Norman, Breast Cancer, and Hope in Yeshua
I grew up in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, where I assumed that everyone else was Jewish like me. Schools were closed on the Jewish holidays. We never saw Christmas decorations or Easter bunnies other than on television.
I was aware that non-Jews existed. I even had a Gentile friend who didn’t live in the neighborhood, but who attended my school. One day, she approached me at the school playground with the accusation, “I learned that you killed Jesus!” She was very upset and so was I. I went home and told my mother. She comforted me and let me know that “they” (meaning the Christian world) believe that we killed “their God.” I remember thinking what a crazy religion Christians must have if they taught lies about little Jewish girls killing “their God.”
I knew that being Jewish was a good thing. Yet I didn’t think much about God. Then when I was twelve, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. Our family was in shock. Most young children don’t have to come to grips with the weighty issues of life and death, but I did—and so did my two younger sisters.
After the funeral, our family spent a week sitting shiva (seven-day period of mourning). Relatives and friends came over with food and recalled their fondest memories of my dad. The rabbi also visited. I had a pressing question for him. “Rabbi, is my daddy in heaven?” I asked. He paused, but his deep voice seemed reassuring. “Susan, your father’s memory will live on in the life you lead. You can be his legacy.” It was a nice thought, but it didn’t satisfy me. “Rabbi,” I went on, “you didn’t answer my question. Is my daddy in heaven now?” He was a little more serious and said, “I wish I could give you a definite answer, Susan, but I can’t. We don’t know for sure what is beyond the grave. We can only hope.”
I was bewildered. How could a great, all-powerful God allow this to happen? Didn’t He know that my father was a good man? He was only 36 years old—couldn’t God see that my mother, my two sisters and I needed my dad? I was angry with God, yet paradoxically, I questioned whether or not He was even real.
But my positive feelings about my Jewishness remained strong. I felt Judaism taught people to take responsibility for their actions. I worked hard at doing things “right,” at least according to my own perception of “rightness.”
I was an above-average student and rapidly advanced through junior and senior high. I graduated from high school in a January term and had a one-week “break” before entering college less than a month after my sixteenth birthday. At Hunter College in Manhattan I majored in Communications and then landed a good job writing advertising copy at the corporate offices of J.C. Penney. I was pleased at the direction my life was taking, that I had purpose and great potential.
One day as I was walking in mid-town Manhattan on my lunch hour, I noticed a man with extremely blond, long hair. He was wearing a Day-Glo sticker on his shirt, one that I had been seeing affixed to people’s shirts for days. Being naturally inquisitive, I stopped him with the first thing that came to mind: “Excuse me, is your hair really that color, or do you dye it?” He smiled and assured me that his hair was not dyed. Meanwhile, I was able to read the words printed on the sticker: “Smile. God loves you.”
I had recently read a cover article in Time magazine about the California “Jesus People.” So I asked him, “Are you one of the ‘Jesus People’?” He told me that he was a “Jesus person” and then invited me into a nearby coffee shop, where he told me in more detail what believing in Jesus meant to him. He said that Jesus was the Messiah, that he came to die for the sins of humanity, that he conquered death—and that by accepting his sacrifice I could have my sins forgiven and live for eternity with my Creator.
Well, I let Larry know I was Jewish and that Jews don’t believe in Jesus. But he continued to talk as if Jesus was still relevant to the discussion. Then he invited me to a concert at a church in New Jersey. Later I learned that Larry Norman was a well-known Christian folk-rock singer and that he would be playing guitar and singing at that church.
I went to Larry’s concert and was impressed by what I saw and heard. The people were young and seemed to have an idealism like my own. They also seemed to know the Bible pretty well. My friendship with Larry, my curiosity and my avid interest in reading were enough to convince me to look into the Bible. Now to me, “the Bible” meant “the Jewish Bible.” I began in Genesis.
Once I opened up the Scriptures, I was faced with the fact that a holy and just God created me and had certain expectations of how I should behave and relate to him. I realized that I barely knew God, and all the good and right things I could do seemed inadequate to bridge the divide between this holy God and myself.
I continued to read the Bible and to discuss these things with the new acquaintances I’d met through Larry. I couldn’t help but wonder if Jesus might be who they claimed he was—my Messiah. After all, I could see that I was incapable of getting any closer to God on my own. Could Jesus be the bridge, the way into God’s presence?
Within days, I went back to the church where Larry had sung. As I sat in the service, I knew I didn’t belong—not because I was Jewish, but because these people had a relationship with God, and I didn’t. I knew that Jesus just might be the promised Messiah, and I was frightened.
Toward the end of the service, I slipped out and sat on the front lawn. I knew I had a choice to make. I told God that I too, wanted to have a relationship with Him. I found myself tearfully confessing to Him that I believed Jesus was the Messiah and that he had taken the punishment for my sin, just as the prophet Isaiah had written: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned each one to his own way and the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Unlike the rabbi who eight years earlier had told me that, “we can only hope” that there is something beyond this present life, I now had a strong basis for my hope. It was rooted in my Messiah.
I didn’t expect my family to be overjoyed with my decision, but I wasn’t quite prepared for my mother’s reaction. “Susan,” she said, “it would have been better if you had come to tell me you were on drugs or pregnant.” Other family members expressed the gamut of responses—shame, embarrassment, anger, pity and disappointment.
Three months after I had made my decision to believe in Jesus, a Christian couple casually mentioned something about the other Jewish believers they knew. “Others?!” I said. “You mean there are actually other Jewish people who believe the way I do?”
As I met more and more Jewish believers, my understanding of Jesus (Yeshua) as the Jewish Messiah deepened. I studied the promises God made to our people, and I began to see how being Jewish gave me even more reason to trust Jesus.
Then the opportunity came to move to Northern California to be part of a community of Jews who believed in Jesus, and I took the plunge—becoming one of the founders of the Jews for Jesus organization. I wrote street theater, position papers and press releases that helped make known the message on a national, even international, scale that Jews can believe in Jesus.
Then, at age 34, I received a breast cancer diagnosis. The oncologist explained that the tumor was an aggressive one. “So how long do I have?” I asked. She said we can’t know such things, but an aggressive treatment was my best shot at survival. That meant surgery and chemotherapy.
One of the hardest things I had to do was tell my family. I had a future and a hope beyond this world, but I knew my family didn’t share that hope. Like the rabbi at my father’s shiva, they were uncertain and unsettled about life beyond the grave. While I tried to assure them that I would be okay no matter what the outcome, they took little solace. My mother said to me, “Why you, Susan?” I remember replying, “Why not me? Would it be better if it were someone else’s daughter? It’s just the way life is.” She found that hard to accept, yet I believe that my faith made the difference, and I hoped that they could see that.
I won’t say that the next couple of years were easy. The emotional pain of losing a breast was very real, and the physical discomfort of putting poisonous chemicals into my body had its effect. And there was anxiety over every blood test or X-ray until the negative results came through. Yet it was a time in my life when my relationship with God profoundly deepened and I learned how to appreciate each day as a special gift. I can honestly say I experienced the joy of having Yeshua as my personal physician, therapist and friend. His presence can enable us to really transcend our physical circumstances. It did for me. And it does for me to this day.
We all experience trials at various points on our journey. I had a twenty-year cancer-free party. What a joyful event! Yet several months later I felt a lump in my other breast. A new primary tumor was found, and surgery and a more rigorous chemotherapy regimen followed. Did it shake my faith? No. I still would answer, “Would it be better if it were someone else?” We live in a world where disease and suffering are indiscriminately meted out. We don’t choose or desire it. But it’s how we respond to life’s blows that counts. I still acknowledge each day as a special gift from God. I could live another year or another 25 years. No matter what, life really is good. One of Yeshua’s followers quoted him as saying, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33).
The gift of salvation, of a forever future with a loving God, is available to anyone who lets Yeshua be their Messiah. I can’t imagine what living for an eternity will be like. I do know that it will be rich, full and without the injustices, sorrows and randomness of this world. All because Yeshua has made the difference.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.