Growing up in Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, I had tremendous respect for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community known as the Hasidim. Though they lived in a world apart from the rest of us, they had a tremendous impact on my early desire to know more about the God I prayed to every night, and even—indirectly—on my calling to be a missionary.
Ocean Parkway’s substantial Hasidic community is separated from the area’s more secular/cultural Jewish community by six lanes of traffic. As a child I hung out with my friends in the playground that was, ironically, on the Hasidic side of the dividing line, while the Hasidic kids walked to the yeshiva (religious school) that was, also ironically, on the secular side of the street. While I don’t recall any interaction between the two groups as we passed each other on the street, I grew impressed with, then respectful and appreciative, of these religious boys who studied the Bible rather than going out to play. I thought that they must be very close to God and I secretly longed to be more like them—I wanted to know God the way I imagined they did.
It was that same longing, that desire to know God personally, that eventually led me to interact with Christians years later when I was a college student—and that’s when I came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
In a way, it was the Hasidim who eventually led me to Jews for Jesus! It was only a year after I’d come to Jesus, and I found myself back in the center of one of the largest Hasidic communities in Brooklyn, perhaps one of the largest in the world. One day I struck up a conversation with a Hasidic man sitting next to me. We talked about the Bible, the traditions of the Jewish people, the nuances of the Talmud. Then, this Hasid turned to me and asked a very typical question: Are you Jewish?” Without hesitation I replied that I was, but added that I also believed Jesus is the Messiah.
The friendly conversation immediately soured. His voice rising in horror, the Hasid told me that I should be ashamed of myself, that I had disgraced my family and that if I’d had a proper religious upbringing then I’d never believe such nonsense. Because I’d grown up with such admiration for the Hasidim as “people of the Book,” his words hit hard and caused me to question my beliefs. Fortunately, in God’s providence, that same week I met, for the first time, another Jewish believer in Jesus. After hearing my story, she introduced me to a member of her family who was a staff member at Jews for Jesus. Through my contact with them, I came to understand how I could be confident that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel.
Through my interactions with Jews for Jesus, God placed a burden on my heart to take the gospel message that transformed my life back to the Jewish people. I began volunteering with Jews for Jesus, then joined the staff upon graduation. Over the last ten years, I’ve served in Chicago, San Francisco and New York City. It was great to be back in New York where I met with numerous Jesus-seeking Jews as part of our Manhattan branch. I’d take them through the Bible and show them how they could believe in Yeshua Ha Mashiach and still be Jews.
Then my wife Crystal and I had a great opportunity to tour with the Liberated Wailing Wall (LWW), so we were away from New York for a year and a half. Having recently completed our tour, I decided to look up some of my old contacts, to renew our conversations and reconnect.
I came across Sam the Hasid (not his real name) in my files. He had received a copy of Campus Crusade’s “Jesus” film in Yiddish, during our 2006 “Behold Your God” focused outreach to the Hasidic community (our first ever). As a result, Sam contacted our office seeking more information. Like most Hasidic people to whom we minister, Sam was cautious in talking to me, fearing what would happen if someone in his community found out. Numerous times I tried to arrange a face-to-face meeting, but it never happened. That’s where we’d left off before I departed for the Liberated Wailing Wall, and I was curious to find out what had happened to him. “Why not?” I figured.
To my surprise, Sam was overjoyed to hear from me, and we set up a time to meet. In a procedure that seemed more like a CIA operation than a missionary visit, we met a week later in a discrete neighborhood in Manhattan, in his car, to discuss Jesus. To my utter amazement, Sam was absolutely convinced that Jesus is the Messiah! In the two years since we’d last spoken, he had gotten his hands on a Yiddish translation of the New Testament and read it thoroughly; in fact, he makes sure to read something from the New Testament every day.
That evening, Sam the Hasid shared with me his desire to share the gospel message with others in his community. While his desire to tell others is strong, he’s concerned about losing everything he knows his family, job—his entire community. Moreover, he fears that his faith is not strong enough to endure the overpowering resistance he would face. Sam was asking me to disciple him! I thought back to those days when, as a little boy, face pressed against the chain-link fence, I’d watch those Hasidic boys walking to yeshiva, envious of their faith and dedication … and now I was being asked to teach one of them about Christ.
Sam and I have gotten together three times so far to study the Gospel of John. Please pray that God will use me in a powerful way to help Sam understand the wonderful truths of the Gospels. Over the years, we at Jews for Jesus have had some ministry to those in the Hasidic community, and have even seen a handful of Hasidic people come to believe in Jesus. But, so far, we have not seen any of them declare their faith to others in their community, including their own families. Please pray that God strengthens their faith and works a powerful miracle amongst the Hasidim, and that He will give us wisdom and grace as to our part.