I grew up sharing both a Jewish and a Catholic heritage. My family celebrated Easter and Christmas with my mother’s relatives, and the Jewish holidays with my father’s. I was proud of my mixed heritage. Yet, being raised in a church, I sensed that culturally and religiously I was a Gentile. I had no special sense of identity as a Jew. Consequently, I felt isolated from my Jewish relatives. Though they were likable and enjoyable people, they seemed to live in another world with a bond and cultural identity that I did not share.
Even after I became a committed believer in Jesus, I did not regard my ethnic origins much differently. Any significance that the Jewish people had as the race with whom God first chose to have a covenant relationship seemed remote. Fortunately, though, God intruded upon my apathy and ignorance and began to awaken me to a new outlook.
His instruction first began through the instrumentality of a close college friendship with a believer named Lolita. Though she was not Jewish, Lolita had a love and appreciation for Jewish people that I did not have nor understand. She listened to music by messianic believers, referred to Jesus by his Hebrew name, Yeshua, and spoke in exultant tones whenever she met a newfound friend who was Jewish.
I found Lolita’s enthusiasm both baffling and annoying. Why did she think that God cared so much about the Jews? They were just people like anyone else, I mused.
My perspective broadened some during my last year of college after I heard Bob Mendelsohn, a Jews for Jesus staff member in New York. He spoke at the Christian fellowship meeting I attended. I admired and respected Jews for Jesus for what I knew about their bold story of the gospel. I began to receive the monthly newsletters, and as I read, a desire grew within me to meet and work with those crazy people.”
After graduating from college, I returned home to Chicago. A woman I had just met collected a list for me of some places where I could find Bible study and fellowship. One of them “happened” to be Jews for Jesus, and the weekly meeting was being held that night!
I felt excited and overwhelmed as I walked into the crowded Skokie storefront with my father. There were many Jewish people there clapping and singing songs about Jesus! I was amazed to meet people who had not only retained their Jewish identity after they became believers in Jesus, but spoke of being even more proud of it. I quickly came to love and respect these men and women who had chosen to trust Jesus as their Messiah, sometimes at great personal cost of ostracism from family and friends.
My faith grew stronger as I marvelled over this spectacle which, in the world’s eyes, should not and could not be—Jews believing in Jesus!
Eventually I did volunteer work with Jews for Jesus and participated in such things as “broadsiding” (passing out literature), door-to-door evangelism and phone visitation with Jewish women who wanted to discuss the Bible. This involvement greatly enlarged my understanding of the Jewish worldview and helped me to understand the gospel from its original roots in the Hebrew Scriptures.
For example, I was astounded at how specifically the characteristics of the Messiah were prescribed in the Old Testament, and how precisely Jesus fit them. The New Testament exploded with deeper and stronger significance as I realized that all Christ said and did was in harmony with prophecy dating hundreds of years before. I reread Jesus’ statements that he had first come for the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” and that “salvation comes from the Jews.”
I was astonished to realize how Jewish the gospel message is.
His death and rejection seemed more bitter and ironic as I learned that hundreds of years before, the Jewish prophet Isaiah predicted that one who was without blame would suffer and redeem us from our sin, yet “we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3).
The learning process continued as I began my first awkward attempts to share those newly discovered revelations with Jewish people. In this process I was also surprised and embarrassed to realize that elements of my Christian lifestyle were only cherished religious accoutrements and needed to be shed in order not to put up unnecessary blocks to the gospel message. For instance, on the first day of door-to-door evangelism I was asked with raised eyebrows if I intended to wear my cross as I walked around the Skokie vicinity to talk with Jewish people. I was shocked. Since becoming a Christian, I had faithfully worn that cross as a badge of sorts to attest to my belief in Christ’s resurrection. I did not understand that to most Jews the cross only symbolized persecution and hatred against them by Gentile “Christians” throughout the ages. Though it was often frightening and uncomfortable for me to let go of some of those things, I began to understand better what Paul meant when he wrote in I Corinthians 9:20-22, “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew.…I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
Finally all this learning bore fruit. Approximately one month after attending the Bible study, I was given a job at a preschool that “coincidentally” was run from a Jewish temple.
For several reasons, it did not appear logical for me to accept that position. Yet in seeking God’s will, I could not ignore the “gut feeling” that it was no coincidence that I was being offered a job at a place with primarily Jewish employees and students so soon after I had begun learning more about reaching Jewish people with the gospel. Also, for some ironic reason, I repeatedly misread the message in an Isaiah passage that spoke of God’s intent to use the prophet not only as a story to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles. Through that timely error, God seemed to ask me a question that tested my faith and deepened my awareness of his love for Israel: “Is it too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept?”
God seemed to be saying that if I sought his kingdom first in this matter, the other things I was anxious about would fall into place.
I decided to accept the job, and shortly afterwards a Jewish woman named Pam was hired, too. Pam was an expressive and sensitive person whom I liked immediately. As we shared our daily experiences, especially the frustrations, the opportunity naturally arose to tell her how following Jesus had given me a purpose and the peace and patience I needed to work with preschool children and remain sane! I began to show her Scriptures and literature about the Jewish Messiah. Pam read and listened without comment. After some persistence on my part and much encouragement, Pam attended a Jews for Jesus Bible study.
Janet Chaiet, one of the Jews for Jesus staff members in Chicago, met personally with Pam and taught her God’s plan of salvation from the Scriptures. Surprisingly, all of this made sense to Pam and a few weeks later as we ate breakfast together, she floored me by calmly announcing that if she died the next day, she knew that she would go to heaven because she knew Jesus as her Messiah and had accepted his forgiveness and love!
Since then, Pam and I both have left the school in the Jewish temple and now teach in a Christian school. I am amazed at the newfound confidence, peace and love that are changing my friend Pam and at my own change of heart and perspective toward my Jewish people that God has wrought in me. Pam now has a heartfelt concern for other Jews to know their Messiah, and I have a greater sense of God’s “irrevocable call” on the Jews to enter into the New Covenant he promised and has provided in his son Yeshua.
I have learned that his Word is still powerful and that his love is still strong enough to deepen the faith and love of a believer like me, as well as to draw Jewish people like Pam back to himself.