I grew up with loving Jewish parents in Ferndale, New York, where we ran a Jewish bungalow colony in the “Borscht Belt” of the Catskill Mountains. We were what I call “Conservative nothing Jews,” meaning that we were part of a Conservative synagogue until I, the youngest of three boys in our family, was bar mitzvah, and then we did nothing. We were not a religious Jewish family, but culturally very much so, especially due to our involvement at the bungalow colony.
I didn’t think much about God at all, but, curiously enough, when asked to write a seventh-grade paper on which person in history we would most like to meet and why, I wrote about Jesus!
Stealing the Bible
I attended college at SUNY Albany, about two hours from my home. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I met a young woman on campus from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who told me about her belief in Jesus. I soon met several of her friends, who also shared with me why they believed he was the Jewish Messiah. I also stole a Bible (which I eventually returned) with the New Testament from the university library!
On Rosh Hashanah weekend, I stayed on campus (most of the students, 70 percent of whom were Jewish, had gone home for the High Holidays). In the privacy of my dorm room, I had an encounter with the living God and acknowledged Jesus as my Messiah. I didn’t comprehend much at the time, but I got plugged into the campus InterVarsity group and grew to understand that Jesus had paid the penalty for my sin through his death, and that he then rose from the dead.
Within the next week or two, I phoned my parents to let them know. I said, “Mom, sit down. I have something important to tell you.” I then told her I had come to believe in Jesus. She erupted, “You did WHAT?!” She was shocked and couldn’t understand, telling me that Jews don’t believe in Jesus.
What will the relatives think?
That weekend my parents drove up to see me on campus. That was very unusual for a couple of reasons. In all my college years, the only time they ever drove up there was to drop me off at the beginning of the school year and bring me home at the end. And my dad was a bar waiter at the Concord Resort Hotel, which did a lot of business on Friday nights.
I further explained to them what I believed. My mom’s main concern was that I was betraying “our people,” as well as what the relatives would think. I gently pointed out that we had never been very religious people anyway, and that I had now come to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom they didn’t even believe in. Over time, I was able to make the point that I was now actually more Jewish than they were!
My dad’s main concern was more practical. He was worried that I had joined a group, and that membership would hurt me down the road. The basis for his fear was that he had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, a decision which had repercussions for him later on. I assured him that I hadn’t joined any group, that this was a personal decision between me and God.
The weekend ended amicably, and, over time, my parents got used to the fact that this is what I now believed. My brothers, when they learned of my new beliefs, just thought, “whatever makes you happy.”
The next jolt in the relationship occurred when I was ready to graduate from college. I told my parents I was going to use my degree in accounting to work for Jews for Jesus at their San Francisco headquarters. Again, there was initial shock and disbelief, the concern that I would be begging on the streets, and worries about what the relatives would think. But again, over time, they became used to it. In fact, during my 41 years of serving with Jews for Jesus, when they saw that I was responsible, successful in my career and had raised a family, they were proud of me.
My father and I had discussions over the years about politics. Specifically, he felt that communism was the best model for government, while I contended that the reason it hasn’t worked is because of people’s sinful nature, their selfishness. Apart from that, my dad wasn’t really interested in discussions of a spiritual nature, even until his death in 2008.
My mom, on the other hand, although a professed atheist, seemed to be searching spiritually throughout her life. She even went to an ashram just to see what it was like, as my brother Rocky has been heavily involved in Eastern religion. However, my mother said it didn’t really do anything for her.
Much later in her life, I introduced my mom, Phyllis, to my friend and colleague, Deb Dubin, whose family is from Liberty, New York, right next to my hometown. In fact, my mom remembered Deb’s mom, who had worked at Grossinger’s and the Concord, two big hotels in the Borscht Belt.
Deb and her husband, Larry, became good friends with Mom. For seven years, Deb visited regularly, bringing her chicken soup, taking her to doctor’s appointments, just getting to know her. Deb remembers that one time after she brought Mom back home from an appointment, Mom held her hand and said, “I often wonder why someone like you would want to spend time with me.” Deb told her that she loved her since the day they met. My mom told Deb that she sees her as her daughter, and Deb was very touched by that.
Mom meets the Messiah
They also studied the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament together. At some point, my mom told me she now believed in God. Then she had to deal with the claims of Jesus, who said he was God become man. Over time, Mom came to believe he was who he said he was, and one day she phoned me.
“David,” she said, “I believe that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the promised Messiah of Israel.” I was thrilled, but I wondered if those were her own words, from her own heart. The next day I called Deb and asked. Deb told me that indeed they were my mom’s own words, that she really had come to understand who Jesus was from her study of the Scriptures and her conversations with Deb and Larry.
My mom was 91 years old at that time. She passed away two years later. I was with her the week before and was happy to be able to pray with her and encourage her with the understanding that Jesus had gone to prepare a place for her for when she left this world.
Although my faith made for some uncomfortable times with my parents, it also led to some thoughtful and fruitful discussions. And, much to their credit, they never allowed it to rupture our relationship.