Editor: Tell us a little about what it was like for you while you were growing up.
Jeff: I was born in the Bronx, but grew up in a Jewish community in Nassau County, on Long Island. In my particular neighborhood, which was in a place called Levittown, there were only one or two non-Jewish families. At Christmas time you could tell which was which because out of the two hundred homes in the area, only a few of them were decorated with Christmas lights. They looked very lonely there in my neighborhood. The rest of us were Jewish.
Editor: Who was God to you when you were a child?
Jeff: Frankly, I remember thinking that there really was no God. We learned about Jewish tradition, and I was taught Hebrew, but not much about God Himself, except by inference.
Editor: How did you relate to your Jewishness during college?
Jeff: Well, to be honest, not much. In the college I chose, there were possibly three Jewish students in the entire student body of 1200. Once or twice a few of the Jewish merchants in town asked me if I’d like to go to synagogue with them in Charleston, 27 miles up mountain roads. I never really wanted to go, and so I’d use the distance and my studies as excuses. I listened to the Jewish jokes and kept a straight face. I never objected. Sometimes I even laughed along. Nobody really knew I was Jewish because I didn’t look Jewish. I even went by a different name.
Editor: Wasn’t that a little extreme?
Jeff: Not really, not when you understand the context. You see, about that time I became interested in radio. I was studying electrical engineering and then became involved in the disc jockey end of things as well. So I gave myself a radio name, a pseudonym.
Editor: What was it?
Jeff: Well, what I did was chop off my last name, Fritz, and went by my first name and middle name: I called myself Jeff Neil. Pretty nondescript, huh?
Editor: Well, definitely un-Jewish.
Jeff: Definitely. But you know, when I became involved in radio, the first miracle I ever experienced occurred.
Editor: What miracle?
Jeff: That involves a bit of a story. You see, I actually went to college twice, that is, I had two separate college experiences separated by four years—during which time I worked in an electronics firm. Things got more and more depressing for me, so friends advised me to return to school. They even suggested that I look for a job at the local Montgomery radio station. Fat chance, I thought. So I had a three-part order in: I had to get a job, find a place to stay, and get re-accepted into school all with two weeks to go before the term started! Well, all three fell neatly into place, including the job at the radio station. At the time, I chalked up my good fortune to fate. Ha.
Editor: So God didn’t mean much to you then?
Jeff: No, although I had begun to think about Jesus at that time. My interest, believe it or not, was sparked by the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, which was popular at that time. It definitely has its problems theologically, but it really drew me in. That was my first experience with anything near a New Testament.
Editor: But you’d never read one?
Jeff: Me? No. I wouldn’t even touch it.
Editor: So tell us, how long were you a disc jockey?
Jeff: For about four years. It was during this time that I first met my wife. It’s actually a funny story. I met her when I was dating a friend of hers. They both showed up one night at the radio station. I was the sort of disc jockey who liked to be alone on the air, so I threw them both out. Joanna, who later became my wife, took an instant dislike to me.
Editor: Was she a Christian at the time?
Jeff: Yes, she was a Christian. And me, I was a longhaired rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey. I was miserable. I felt aimless with no real course to my life. I felt that all I had to really look forward to was death. My relationship with this girlfriend of Joanna’s was not working out, either. While I was driving to see her in Charleston one night, I began to cry out, Why do you hate me, God? Why won’t you let me be happy?” And then, suddenly I began to sense that it wasn’t so much a matter of God hating me: maybe everything was going wrong because I didn’t believe in God. I thought, “If I pick up the Jewish prayer book and read it, I can get back what I’ve lost.” But when I read the Siddur, I found it did not help. I cried out once again, but this time I said, “Help me, God.” Soon I met some people from a Baptist church who were classmates of mine. They witnessed to me—it was the first time anyone had told me about a relationship with God. Later, when I saw some Christians I had known while working in the electronics firm, I asked them why they had never shared with me. They said, “Well, we were afraid.” Afraid. Some excuse. Anyway, these Baptists didn’t realize they were witnessing to a Jew. Who knows, maybe if they’d known, they’d have been afraid, too. But they treated me like “just another person.” They told me God was real and that Jesus was the Messiah.
Editor: What was your response?
Jeff: Well, I decided it was just the right time to bring out my Jewishness—as a defense.
Jeff: And they decided it was a good time for me to realize that Jesus was also Jewish. They invited me to go to church, not once, not twice, but five times! To get them off my back, I finally complied. Yet it was genuine interest that brought me back a second time. However, I stubbornly refused to let them use the New Testament to answer my questions. Fortunately, the deacon at the church knew his Old Testament very well. We’d argue. I was committed to thinking of every defense I could muster up. I remember saying some things that now come back to “haunt” me as I face those same excuses on the streets when I witness.
Editor: So when did you finally accept Jesus?
Jeff: When I finally stopped fighting. On Palm Sunday, in 1972, with my knees shaking I walked down the aisle of that church knowing little more than it was right for me to accept Him. I asked Jesus into my life. It was as if God was telling me Himself that it was right—not audibly, but very definitely, nevertheless.
Editor: I know this isn’t an easy question, but I’m sure people will be curious to know your parents’ reaction.
Jeff: Yes, of course. It’s funny, I had never exactly been a hippie, but I had been on peace marches. Suddenly, I had found real peace in my own heart, so naturally I called home. Now, you need to understand something about my parents. At the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, let’s just say that my parents are frugal. For instance, if we’re on the phone, they’ll be sure to inform me that we’ve-been-speaking-for-2-minutes-and-40-seconds -and-soon-it’ll-be-3-minutes-so-we’d-better-get-off. You know what I mean? So when I called to tell them about Jesus, I naturally got right to the point: “Hello, Mom, Dad? Guess what? The most WONDERFUL thing has happened. I’ve accepted Jesus; I’ve become a Christian.” After that followed five minutes of silence on the other end. Finally, “What have we done to deserve this? How could you do this to us? We rue the day we ever sent you down to West Virginia. That’s what you get for hanging around with Gentiles. We should have given you a better Jewish education. Maybe Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvah weren’t enough” And on and on. I suppose I should have been prepared for this reaction, but I was absolutely floored.
Editor: Jews for Jesus could have helped you break the news a little more gently.
Jeff: Jews for Jesus hadn’t exactly hit Montgomery, West Virginia, at that time. I hadn’t even heard of the group so I just did the only thing I knew: I became the “Baptist’s Baptist.” The people in the church were very encouraging. They had never known a Jew who’d come to Christ; in fact, they informed me that a Jew had never attended their church before! They told me I was no longer Jewish, that the law was sin, that in Christ, I had died to being Jewish…at least that was strongly implied.
Editor: How did you take that?
Jeff: It made me uncomfortable. But since they were the spiritual giants, and I was the spiritual midget, who was I to argue? I figured that now I was a Gentile. I had acted like one for a long time…but being one was a different story. It discouraged me inwardly, and I stopped growing, stopped witnessing, even stopped reading the Bible after awhile. Something inside of me insisted “That’s not right. You are still a Jew!” One Sunday, a brother in church handed me a pamphlet and said, ‘Here, I think this’ll interest you.” It was called “If Being Born Hasn’t Given You Much Satisfaction, Try Being Born Again.”
Editor: A Jews for Jesus broadside.
Jeff: Right. I read it through quickly, and when I came to the end, my eyes grew wide as God affirmed His voice within me. It read, “WE are Jews for Jesus.” There were others!!! I wrote to Jews for Jesus and received answers. Soon Moishe Rosen began to work along with my church to disciple me personally by sending tapes.
Editor: Well, it sounds as if you had some difficult, but important, experiences. What would you recommend to a church if a Jewish person in their midst becomes a believer?
Jeff: Let me start out with some “negative” advice. First, the church people should not assume that everyone who is a Christian has to come with the same cultural accoutrements. People from different cultures can express, within that culture, their faith in Christ. Another piece of advice I’d offer is that the people in the church should be careful not to trot out “our Jewish convert” at every turn. I had begun to feel like a conversation piece. On the other hand, I know that every Jewish believer has something to give the church. Even if he does not have a Yeshiva* background, because he has grown up in a traditional Jewish home, the new Jewish believer can shed some helpful light on the holidays and traditions.
Editor: Jeff, how long have you been working with Jews for Jesus?
Jeff: I’ve been a staff member since 1974, when my wife, Joanna, (who has, by the way, since come to like me) and I were stationed at our Los Angeles branch. Later we were moved to Boston where we started our outreach there. Since January of 1979, I’ve served here at Headquarters as the Office Manager of Jews for Jesus. You know, there is a funny thing about the satisfaction of working with a ministry that’s really effective in reaching the lives of both Jews and Gentiles: I used to be the world’s best clock-watcher when I worked at the electronics firm in Cincinnati. Now I don’t watch the clock.
Editor: That’s good to hear.
Jeff: Well, Melissa, we’d better finish this interview.
Editor: Oh, how come?
Jeff: It’s five o’clock.
Editor: And to think, Jeff, everybody says you don’t have a sense of humor.
* A Jewish academy for training rabbis.