Recently I was on a sortie (tract-passing expedition) with my colleague Shannon Fischer, who works at our headquarters. She mentioned her desire to reach the Jewish neighbors in her apartment complex with the gospel. We thought and prayed about what we could do, and weeks later, my wife Hannah and I came to a dinner hosted by Shannon. Three of her Jewish friends as well as a Christian were also invited, knowing that we would be there, and that we would watch the Survivor Stories DVD and have a discussion afterwards. (Survivor Stories is a compilation of testimonies of Jewish Holocaust survivors who found hope in Jesus.)
What followed was something like what you might experience in a Jewish play on Broadway. No sooner had Rachel** walked into Shannon’s apartment than she said "Oh no, I need to go home."
"Why?" asked Anna.**
"I forgot my blood pressure medicine."
"Well what kind do you take? I can give you one of mine," Anna offered kindly.
"No. I take a lot, I can’t just take one." replied Rachel. Rachel left to get her medicine from her apartment, but soon returned and joined us for dinner.
Rachel is 80 years old and grew up in a Conservative home in Cleveland. She has a strong cultural Jewish identity and typifies the American Jew of her generation with a strong Yiddishkeit, a moderate affiliation with the synagogue and is proud that all her grandsons were bar mitzvah.
We had just started eating when Anna turned to my wife and began the first of many pointed questions: "So Hannah, honey, you’re a Jew for Jesus? Tell me why." Could we have asked for a better opening? Great conversation ensued.
Anna is an Italian Jew in her 70’s, born in Rome in an Orthodox home. "Being both Italian and Jewish," she says, I have a big mouth." Hannah shared her story and how she grew up as a second generation Jewish believer. She explained how her mom is the only one in her family to follow Jesus.
Deborah** was the last person to come. She had rung the doorbell earlier but ended up walking down the hall and getting lost. Deborah is 91 years old and grew up in a Reform home in East Germany (now Poland). Her family left East Germany right before Hitler placed travel restrictions on Jews. They boarded the last ship that could bring them safely to the US – had they waited for the next ship they’d have ended up in the camps like many of her relatives. Deborah seemed to be the most receptive out of the three ladies. "It’s always good to hear alternate opinions," she said. Her comment so reflected her liberal Reform upbringing.
The dinner discussion was lively and entertaining (you can imagine the conversations that would arise from three Jewish grandmas sitting together). There was a lot of laughter. After dinner, we transitioned to the living room. As an introduction to Survivor Stories I shared about my family background. I’m the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. I told about my mom’s miraculous vision of a man who was shining with brilliant light and how she knew, even as a child, that the man was Jesus. Then we watched the first two testimonies of Survivor Stories.
At one point in the video I looked over at Deborah. Head was flopped back, her eyes sealed shut and her mouth wide open. Shannon and I looked at each other simultaneously, both thinking, “Oh no! Is Deborah dead?!” But then her own snore startled her and she woke up. A light moment in the midst of a very serious topic.
As soon as we stopped the film, Anna started firing objections- "I will never forgive those Natzi b*******, NEVER. I’m sorry honey, but too many bad things have been done in the name of religion." We discussed what we had seen, and after much back and forth I asked two questions: "How should we respond to human suffering?" and "What hope is there for us today?"
Anna’s answer was to put her faith in God, although she did express her doubts. No one had a solid answer to where their hope lay. I then opened up to Isaiah 43:1-3 and read:
"But now, this is what the Lord says –
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
"Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior"
"For me" I shared, "my hope lies in the fact that I serve a God who promised to be there with us – even when we walk through the flood, even when we walk through the fires—the trials or literal fires. My hope lies in the fact that God so loves us, He willingly gave up his life for us, so that we could live and not die. God wants to redeem you (as I looked into the eyes of each of those three Jewish souls staring back at me), and He wants to give you hope, too."
I was done talking. I handed each lady a few brochures to take home so that they could think on the subject more if they wanted to. Then my wife and I picked up our guitars and shared a song that she had written called Forget Me Not. I could tell that the music touched a part of these ladies that my words never could have.
After a few hugs and kisses … ok, after many hugs and kisses from these sweet Jewish grandmothers, we parted. What an amazing night of ministry! It all started with the faithful witness of a Christian who loves her Jewish neighbors; and wasn’t afraid to ask for help reaching out to them. As I like to say to anyone who wants to witness to a Jewish friend, "You can do it; we can help."
*Yiddish for grandmothers
** not their real names