A Jewish family's turn to faith: Synagogue, Bar Mitzvahs, Bible studies, and a "Christian" Seder
I was excited to be heading to the West Coast to visit my older brother Steve. My dad had been there earlier when Steve moved from our New York home and found an apartment in Los Angeles. My dad had returned to New York with the good news that my brother had found a place with a nice Jewish landlady who would “keep an eye on him.”
However, Steve told us that he’d begun going to Friday night Bible studies. That surprised me, but I expected he would explain more during my spring break visit. So when Steve greeted me at the airport, after saying hello, I immediately asked, “What is this about Friday nights and Bible studies?” He replied briefly that he believed the Messiah had come. Curiosity turned to cold fear. Had my brother gone meshuggah? “Oh … really Steve?” I asked. “Who do you think the Messiah is, anyway?” He responded “Jesus!”
Are You Kidding?
I was horrified! And here I was stuck—on the West Coast, at Passover time with my non-traditional brother, only to discover that my brother’s Jesus-believing friends were having a seder. This was less than ideal, but I did not want to miss Passover, so I agreed to go with him.
I have to say that Jewish celebrations are my favorite childhood memories, and Passover at my grandparents’ house was probably the most memorable. Every year, my grandfather read the Exodus story to us while my grandmother prepared the feast. Her matzah ball soup and brisket were really something! But finding the afikoman was the most exciting part of the evening. If I found it before anyone else did, I’d be rewarded with some pocket change, or candy—it didn’t matter, it was just the fun of looking for it and being filled with anticipation. Passover was not a particularly spiritual experience for me. I grew up knowing about God, but I rarely spoke to God myself. I went to Hebrew school every Tuesday and Thursday after regular school, plus every Sunday morning. I learned to read and write Hebrew and could recite the traditional prayers.
Like my brother, I was bar mitzvah. And as with him, it marked the end of my regular synagogue attendance. Except, of course, on Yom Kippur. That was a family tradition, and as such, I never questioned it.
I was attending high school at the School of Performing Arts at the time I made the trip to see Steve. It was very intense work, and I was looking forward to spring break. Since Steve wasn’t coming home for Passover, I would go to him. And now that he was having Passover with Jesus-believing friends, so would I.
A Very Different Seder
I heard things that night that I had never heard before—not in Hebrew School, not in synagogue, not from my mom or dad, not anywhere! And what I heard was from an amazing source: the Jewish Scriptures—Isaiah, no less. Isaiah predicted a servant who was going to suffer in the place of others, to atone for their sin. At the seder, they compared him to the Passover lamb, whose blood caused death to pass over our ancestors’ houses so many years ago. It felt like I was hearing a Christian belief from the Jewish Bible—yet it made sense.
I kept reminding myself that Jesus is simply not for the Jews! Yet I could not dismiss what I had heard. I had a strong sense that Steve might be right, and I knew I would soon have to declare where I stood, no matter what my parents thought.
Not long after this incident, some of Steve’s Messianic Jewish friends, whom I had met in Los Angeles, came to New York. They wanted to meet our parents, and I encouraged my parents to invite them over, which they did. The visit actually passed very peacefully. Once again, the believers’ words about Jesus seemed to ring true. I watched my parents as I listened, and they seemed interested.
A Family Following Yeshua
Eventually, our family was invited to attend a local Bible study at the Jews for Jesus branch in New York City. My parents and I showed up faithfully every week. It became clear to me that, like Steve, I believed that Jesus was the Messiah. I prayed, asking to have my sins forgiven, and promised to follow Yeshua.
It turned out that my father had received Yeshua too, right around the time I did! Mom was not happy, but clearly she was struggling with the same issues the rest of us had faced. Eventually, she also came to believe in Jesus, and our family became even closer than we had been before.
Six years later I married a Jewish woman, Sandy Cohen, whose upbringing was similar to mine. She had become a believer in Jesus just one year after I did. We have three grown children, Saul, Rose and Joshua. Sandy and I now live in San Francisco. I look forward to celebrating Passover each year with my family, and with renewed appreciation for the freedom our family has, not only to carry on Jewish tradition and heritage, but to worship God, to trust Him and tell others about Him, as I believe we were meant to do.