Paul was a cantor—and how he loved to sing. Every time we got together, he would start singing out a nigune (wordless melody) from a portion of the siddur (Jewish prayer book). For a 90-year-old, he had a great voice!
I met Paul when he came to Adat Yeshua—a messianic congregation that began as a Jews for Jesus Bible study.* That congregation now supports us instead of needing our support. Paul was looking for a place to worship. He said that he had been disappointed with various synagogues. No one was willing to give him a ride on Friday night, he said, and besides, the tickets for the High Holidays were far too expensive for his tight budget.
I introduced myself to him and asked if he would like to get together the following week. He was delighted.
I arrived at Paul’s apartment, a bit surprised to find he didn’t live with family. (He did have a younger person living there to care for him.) He showed me a picture of his wife. The photograph had been taken in 1953. It was the last one taken before she passed away. Where are the sons you spoke about?” I asked.
“Oh them. I don’t want to talk about them. They don’t care. They leave me alone, so I leave them alone.” But he went on to talk about them anyway. I wondered what they would say if they knew that he was meeting with a Jew for Jesus.
“So why did you want to come to our services?”
“Well, you have something there that I don’t get elsewhere. Most people don’t care about people like me, alone and not so wealthy. But there’s something in your people’s lives, something in the congregation.” “So do you want to find out what changed their lives?”
“I want better than that. Tell you what I want to do,” he began with great anticipation, “I want to join your synagogue. Now tell me what the dues are.”
“Well, Paul, it’s not quite like that. We aren’t a synagogue, and we don’t have dues. It’s a matter of faith, not membership.”
“Oh I see. Yes. Okay then, I want to convert. I’ll tell you what: you write a letter to your rabbi and sign it, and I’ll sign it showing that I’ve converted, and then I’ll join your synagogue.”
This was not going to be easy. “Paul, we need to deal with a very real issue: is Jesus the Messiah of Israel? If He is, all Jews should believe in Him. If He isn’t, none of us should believe in Him and neither should you. Let me ask you, if the Bible is true and Jesus is the Messiah, then would you be willing to believe in Him?”
“Well, I reckon so. So I’m listening, you prove it to me.” And with that we scheduled a time to meet and study the Scriptures. The following week, we sat down and discussed the basis upon which he would decide if Jesus is the Messiah: the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the Jewish prophets. We opened to Isaiah 53. Paul quickly recognized Jesus in that and understood that the Messiah should die for our sins.
At the end of our meeting, we scheduled a time for the following week.
When I called to confirm, the lady who took care of him was very upset. “They took him away, and I don’t know where he is. He’s down in Los Angeles somewhere.”
“Mary, who took him away?”
“His sons.” Paul had said that he was planning to move into a retirement home, but this was rather sudden. I drove down to Fairfax to visit Bill, Paul’s son. Bill regarded me with a certain amount of suspicion. “Why would he want to see you?”
“Paul and I are friends. We study the Bible together.”
“Well, he doesn’t want to convert anymore. He has a synagogue now and is very happy.”
“He would at least want to say good-bye to me. Here’s a pay phone. Call him and ask if he wants to see me,” I insisted. Bill made the call.
“Hi, Dad. It’s me. There’s some guy here named Stan. Says he wants to see you. Yeah. Okay.” He hung up and gave me the address of the retirement home.
I drove over to the retirement center and was careful to park the Jews for Jesus van a few blocks away so as not to put Paul in an awkward position. It’s a very Jewish neighborhood with an Orthodox synagogue next to the home. I did not want to place any undue pressure on Paul. When I got to his room, his face lit up. He was so happy to see me. “This is just temporary Stan. But this place is great. All these people, I know them. And it’s right by synagogue where I used to cant.” I asked if he still wanted to find out the truth about Jesus. He replied with a definite, “Yes!” We looked at some Scripture, and then it was time for me to go. He was still offering to sign a “letter of conversion” or something like that. I have never seen such a letter, much less asked someone to sign one! I wanted to make sure that he understood that real conversion isn’t a matter of leaving or joining a group of people, but of allowing God to transform every aspect of one’s life.
When I returned the following week, Paul wasn’t smiling. He looked up at me and then picked up his phone. “Bill? Yeah, he’s here. Come on over. Okay I will.” He hung up the phone.
“Was that your son?”
“Yeah, he said I should call him when you came over so he could talk to you. He says he has some things to say.” This situation was smelling as sweet as the Fulton Fish Market in New York.
“Paul, you don’t have to call your son to speak to me. You can tell me whatever you need to tell me.”
“I can’t convert, Stan. I spoke to the rabbi. He said, ‘What are you doing Paul? Have you lost your mind? You are a pillar in our community.'”
“Paul, of course the rabbi doesn’t want you to believe in Jesus. It’s his job to convince you otherwise; he considers it his duty. But that doesn’t make it true. If Jesus is the Messiah, what is the proper Jewish thing to do?”
“I can’t, Stan. There’s just too much pressure here. They see me walking down the hall and I hear someone say, ‘There he is, quick, you talk to him.'”
“One day, Paul, they won’t be around. You know, not long from now you’re going to meet the God of Abraham face to face.” Paul nodded. “And if Jesus is the Messiah, what will He say to you? All your friends and the rabbi won’t be there then.”
Paul was silent for a long time. He looked sad. “Maybe you can talk to my son. He should be here in a few minutes.”
“I’m not here to talk to your son. If he wants to speak to me, here’s my number; he’s welcome to call, and I’ll be glad to talk to him and hear anything he has to say. But you have to decide how you’ll live your life.”
“I guess I already have. Sorry Stan, I consider you a friend.”
I offered to pray for him, and he was very happy for that. As I drove away, I remembered that one of the first things Paul had asked me was, “How much are the dues?” He discovered for himself the “dues” of being a follower of Jesus. And they are much higher than the cost of a High Holiday ticket. Giving God His due often means a willingness to face rejection for the sake of the truth. Please pray for Paul. I don’t know how much time he has left or whether I’ll be able to continue seeing him. I know he’s made a decision, but I also know that as long as he has life and breath, he can repent of that decision. Please pray that he will, before it’s too late.
*In 1991 Adat Yeshua became independent, and it now enjoys the capable oversight of Congregational Leader Michael Brown.