It was a year ago this week-May 19, 2010-that our beloved Jews for Jesus founder, Moishe Rosen, died and went to heaven. Hundreds of periodicals and online publications-including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Jerusalem Post-reported this event, often quite colorfully. The Los Angeles Times said, Moishe Rosen, a flamboyant and controversial convert to Christianity who founded the missionary group Jews for Jesus, died Wednesday in San Francisco…”
It happened at sundown on the day of Pentecost, a time for believers to remember the first major harvest of 3000 Jewish souls who entered the kingdom through faith in Christ (Acts 2.) How fitting. Moishe would have appreciated that symmetry; he first publically professed his faith on Pentecost Sunday, less than 24 hours after praying to receive Christ. Seeing the gospel preached was his greatest burden as well as his greatest joy. How he would have delighted in the variety of feature-length newspaper obituaries that explained what he believed and why. He would have rejoiced that, as did his life, so his death proclaimed the gospel all around the world. We rejoice for all of that, but we still miss him terribly.
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It is a Jewish custom to perform certain traditions to mark what is called the Yahrzeit. Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word meaning “year’s time” and it commemorates the anniversary of the death of a loved one. It is customary to light a candle that will burn for 24 hours in their memory. The headstone is often laid at the occasion of the Yahrzeit, and smaller stones placed on the top of it as loved ones visit the graveside. Family members traditionally recite the mourner’s Kaddish, a traditional prayer of praise to God.
Many people refer to the mourner’s Kaddish as a prayer for the dead, but as you read it you’ll see it is a prayer for the living, a prayer that acknowledges God’s sovereignty in life and in death. In fact, almost all traditional Jewish duties and liturgy pertaining to death are to help the living cope with sorrow and loss and to gain strength from God and from the community. So it is with the Yahrzeit. Think about it. For at least a year-often longer-there is a painful series of “firsts.” The first wedding anniversary without the loved one, the first birthday, the first year of holiday celebrations…
Just recently I was privileged to share part of that “first” Mother’s Day with Ceil and Ruth, Moishe’s wife and second daughter. We traded a few memories of Moishe: a story about what he did in the past, a speculation concerning what he might have said about a situation if he were here now. It is a comfort and a blessing to remember our loved ones and that is what the Yahrzeit tradition helps facilitate. Warm memories and the blessing our loved ones brought to our lives can be a genuine comfort to those of us who grieve.
Moishe was conservative in many ways and he respected and upheld certain traditions-yet he was anything but a traditional guy. As he thought about his own Yahrzeit, he decided that as close to a year after his homegoing as possible, we should have a party. He wanted a gathering of family and friends to remember and celebrate that he is now in heaven. And so he set aside funds for that purpose, and didn’t stipulate much other than the fact that we were to have good food, music, dancing, talk about heaven and make it a fun event that he would have enjoyed. That was Moishe.
Moishe took seriously the Scripture that teaches, “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). He saw his promotion to heaven as a cause for celebration, so he asked that those of us who were left behind demonstrate his faith through our actions.
As the one-year anniversary approaches, planning a party hasn’t necessarily been easy for those of us who miss him so much and are feeling his absence so pointedly-but that is what he wanted and we trust that honoring his wish will bring blessing. A good number of his family and friends will gather to remember and rejoice in what God did through Moishe’s life and what He is, in fact, still doing. Moishe’s parting words reminded us of that scripture: “he being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11: 4b) and so will this banquet, as it underscores the hope of heaven. Moishe often reminded us that God in His grace didn’t tell us too much about heaven, because if we knew more our yearning for heaven would make this life unbearable. But for me, heaven seems more real than ever because my dear friend and mentor, Moishe Rosen, has gone there ahead of me. I look forward to our reunion.
But in the meantime, I want the ministry of Jews for Jesus that Moishe loved so much to continue faithfully reflecting those things he cared about and helped us to practice-with Jewish evangelism as our ministry’s number one priority. I know that priority is a major reason why so many have loved and stood with Jews for Jesus and our founder Moishe. As my friend Mark Cahill wrote, “There is one thing you can’t do in heaven and that is witness to the unsaved.” So we will continue to focus our energies on witnessing while we can. And we will endeavor to do it with all the zeal and creativity and fervor that characterized Moishe. That is certainly the best way to remember him and to honor his life.