Outreach to Hassidic (extremely Orthodox Jewish) communities is a wonderful mystery. Here in London we’ve been accustomed to initiating conversations without our Jews for Jesus T-shirts, making sure to talk about the gospel, but usually not in the first sentence. But because outreach to these communities is still somewhat new, we have a lot to learn.
In that context, Rowena (one of our faithful, experienced Gentile volunteers) appeared in a Hassidic community for her first time to do what we call "contact evangelism" (speaking to people without handing out literature). She was wearing her ‘Jesus is Messiah’ T shirt. I was uncertain, how would we proceed?
After a short discussion and a moment of prayer, we decided on a change of plans. We would approach based on the fact that Rowena was not Jewish, but wanted to talk to Jewish people about their faith. As a woman was walking in our direction (we’ll call her "Sarah"), Rowena was unsure of how to initiate a conversation. As Sarah was about to pass us, I very gently said,
Excuse me. My friend Rowena is not Jewish, but she is very interested in talking to Jewish people about their faith. Could she speak to you for a couple of minutes?"
Sarah was very open to this, so after the introduction, I walked away. Rowena asked several questions and Sarah’s answers gave her truly interesting insights into this community, including the tremendous authority of the rabbi as well as how the acceptance or disapproval of one’s community is a key factor in maintaining certain standards.
After a few questions, Rowena asked, "Since there is no longer a sacrifice that can be made for sin because the Temple was destroyed, what happens when someone has committed a really serious crime?" Sarah thought about this for a moment and then said, "They would need to go to the rabbi and work it out with him. He will help them to work it out." She explained that wrong actions have consequences, but also hinted that there is a great deal of caution about speaking to people outside the community due to the risk of misunderstanding or how it might reflect on the community.
In response, Rowena shared about a number of Christians who have a real, unconditional love for Jewish people based on the fact that the Torah and Jesus came to the world through the Jewish people.
And then Rowena asked directly,
Who do you think Jesus is?"
Sarah answered that she believed Jesus was a real person. She added, "He was a good man who did good things. I revere him."
I then joined in the conversation and we discussed my belief that Jesus was God. I pointed out that in Genesis 18, when Abraham had three visitors one of them was the Lord God in human form.
Sarah said that that was too deep for her, and she suggested a rabbi’s wife who she thought would be willing and happy to talk to me about this. She gave us her name and address and suggested we contact her.
Our time together lasted about ten minutes. Throughout our talk, I checked my watch so that Sarah would not be discomfited by the passage of time (since she had agreed to speak to Rowena for a couple of minutes), but she was warm and friendly and happy to continue the conversation.
I learned a great deal from this encounter. Our experience can enable us to help non-Jewish Christians connect with Jewish people in ways that they could not have previously imagined. That experience helps them to grow in their faith and we can have a shared experience in, as our core values state: "Stepping out in courageous faith and taking risks for God."
Secondly, by working with a Gentile in the Hassidic community, we reduced the initial conflict of a Jewish person who believes in Jesus approaching a Jewish person who does not. Gentiles are expected to believe in Jesus. Not only that, but people in this community are often taught that Christians hate Jewish people (e.g., that Hitler was a Christian). Rowena’s loving witness to Sarah was powerful and important in changing that mindset.
Having a woman talk to another woman also provided great insight into what it is like to live inside this community. I hope we will be able to partner more with our Gentile volunteers to bring the gospel to the very Orthodox Jewish people in some of our London communities.
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation (Ephesians 2:14).