Josh Leon’s parents did not start out as Orthodox Jews. Like many Jewish boomers in the 1970s, they were anti-establishment seekers after new spiritual experiences. The Leons arrived in Berkeley, California, where they experimented with New Age, Kabbalah, and even attended a Jews for Jesus Bible study. Eventually they discovered Chabad of Berkeley, led by Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, and enthusiastically dove into ultra-Orthodoxy. Eventually they moved to the Fairfax district, the heart of the ultra-Orthodox community in Los Angeles.
Josh attended an Orthodox day school, and the Leons went to shul on Friday nights and Saturdays. They kept glatt kosher and halav Yisrael.1 Meat is certified as glatt kosher when a mashgiach (a rabbi who serves as a spiritual supervisor or guide) conducts an extensive examination of the product to determine if it is kosher. Halav Yisrael is followed by Hassidic Jews; a mashgiach personally travels to a dairy farm to inspect the entire dairy process, from milking to shipping, to insure the kosher status of the product.
Although they spoke English at home, they usually conversed in Yiddish at school, shul and in the marketplace.
The Orthodox Way of Life
At thirteen, Josh celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Kehillat Yitzchok. In Yeshiva High School, half of his studies included the Talmud and the Chumash (Torah) with commentary by Rashi, the medieval rabbi. The Orthodox way of life was predictable, structured and disciplined. It dispelled the ambiguity of urban life for Josh, so that he knew who he was and what was expected of him.
When he graduated high school in 1996, Josh’s parents sent him to Jerusalem to study at a yeshiva for eighteen months. In March 1998, Josh returned to Los Angeles directionless. Upon leaving the intense yeshiva environment, he experienced unexpected decompression. He had no job, no college degree and no direction in life. He entered a world filled with ambiguity, with no boundaries or social rules. He was now out of his parents’ home but felt completely lost in Los Angeles and unmotivated to find a job. Then an acquaintance introduced him to drugs. There was something darkly attractive about them and the partying world that surrounded them. He first tried marijuana, liked the effect, and moved on to cocaine and crystal meth. Those motivated him to work, made him feel creative and gave him a sense of confidence.
The L.A. drug and party experience swallowed him up. He had never before experienced the ecstasy and thrill of this kind of life. But he soon found he was unable to escape the downward spiral into which the drugs were taking him. He tried to keep one foot in the Orthodox community he grew up in, escaping into the dark West Hollywood lifestyle at night.
Orthodox friends of his family became concerned about Josh’s descent. A family friend offered him a sales job at Pacific Spice, a wholesale supplier. From 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Josh sat at a desk in a huge warehouse downtown, phoning existing and potential new clients. Evenings he took the bus back to his tiny West Hollywood apartment.
After three weeks, the monotony began to weigh on him, and he was drawn back to the drug scene. During that third week, Josh spoke on the phone with an intriguing customer named Jay, a member of a marginal Christian sect. The members lived together in their own community, wore uniforms, kept a strict code of discipline, and called themselves The Army that Sheds No Blood. Josh was intrigued by their personal discipline and serious faith, which paralleled his own traditional upbringing.
Jay asked him, “Josh, what do you think about Jesus?” The question put Josh on the spot. He worked for an Orthodox employer and had just started this job. He had no idea if his employer monitored the calls. Josh told Jay that he was an Orthodox Jew and that Jews do not believe in Jesus. But deep down Josh wanted to know more; he gave Jay his home phone number and told him to call him on Sunday.
That Sunday, Jay phoned. They debated, argued and discussed whether Jesus could be the Messiah. While Jay did not know Hebrew or Aramaic and could not quote the Talmud, he knew the Hebrew Scriptures. Josh found himself outgunned with this member of the Army that Sheds No Blood. The debates went on for eight weeks before Josh told Jay to stop calling.
Googling for Jesus
At work, Josh continued to phone clients, but his mind kept returning to Jay. During his lunch break he began Googling for Jews who believe in Jesus and came across the Jews for Jesus website. He found a link titled “Answers,” which led him to a page of questions that he had about Jesus and the Messiah. Josh was anxious. Was his computer monitored? Could anyone see him looking at this website?
Josh tentatively filled out the guest book form and was put in a touch with a staff member, Chad. Chad was much more relaxed than Jay, less forceful, and was able to give thorough and detailed answers from the Hebrew Scriptures to Josh’s questions. Josh began to wonder if the rabbis could be wrong about Jesus.
He felt truly conflicted about believing in Jesus. But he believed that only God could redeem his life from his drug addiction, and if Jesus was the promised Messiah, then faith in him was the answer. Josh decided to go in that direction.
Chad had introduced Josh to a community of Messianic Jews. Two of them, Mike and Nikki, invited Josh to Malibu Beach to confirm his decision to follow Jesus. Orthodox Jews, both men and women, practice the mikveh, a ritual cleansing. Out of this tradition came baptism. It was a clear afternoon on September 8, 2007, with a chilly breeze coming off the ocean. There on the cool sand, Nikki and Mike invited Josh to pray with them to the God of Abraham and receive Yeshua (Jesus) as his Messiah and sin bearer. Josh did so, and was baptized in the Pacific Ocean.
Josh felt the warm rays of the sun on his shoulders and felt that the dark burdens of his life had lifted. He remembered it was the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. In synagogues at that very moment, Jews around the world were reading the Torah portion Nitzavim: “You are standing today… before the Lord your God… so that you may enter the sworn covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is making with you today” (Deuteronomy 29:9–12). Now Josh was standing before the Lord, the King of Kings, and had entered into a new covenant with Him.
I work at Jews for Jesus, and Chad had introduced me to Josh. Josh called me to let me know what he had done, and I began meeting regularly with him. His desire for drugs was gone. We met near his work in East L.A., but Josh tried to conceal his decision as well as the new community of believers in Yeshua he had found. Over time he left behind the anxieties about his employer finding out. One day, he asked me to email him some information at work.
Caught in the Act
At 10 a.m., his supervisor asked him to come into his office. Prominently on his desk was my email from Jews for Jesus. “Josh, can you explain this email?” he asked. “Why are you involved with Jews for J?” (He wouldn’t say Jesus). For half an hour, he drilled Josh with questions about his beliefs, what led him to Jesus, and his involvement with Jews for Jesus. But the supervisor knew that he could not legally fire Josh or penalize him for his beliefs. “Josh, just keep this to yourself, and we’ll just not talk about it,” he said. But before long, Josh’s family and his community found out about his faith. Strangely, however, they just pretended they did not know, and Josh continued circulating in the community. Every now and then, an acquaintance would privately ask him about his beliefs.
Josh continues to work and live in that Orthodox community. He also attends a church, where he plays piano as part of a worship team. Josh celebrates the Jewish holidays with other Messianic Jews and continues to study. One of the things he enjoys most is plowing through the rabbinic texts and discovering what he believes is more evidence that Jesus fulfilled the messianic expectations of his Jewish people.
1. Meat is certified as glatt kosher when a mashgiach (a rabbi who serves as a spiritual supervisor or guide) conducts an extensive examination of the product to determine if it is kosher. Halav Yisrael is followed by Hassidic Jews; a mashgiach personally travels to a dairy farm to inspect the entire dairy process, from milking to shipping, to insure the kosher status of the product.