by Joel C. Rosenberg
My grandparents and great-grandparents were Orthodox Jews who fled from the pogroms of czarist Russia. As they hid in a hay wagon that was crossing a border into an Eastern European country, czarist soldiers drew their swords and plunged them into the hay, in case any Jews were trying to escape. By God’s grace, none of the children coughed or sneezed or said, “Are we there yet?” By God’s grace, no one was injured. And by God’s grace, my family didn’t succeed in escaping the vicious anti-Semitism of Russia only to say, “Phew, let’s settle in Poland. Or Germany. Or Austria.” They made their way across Europe, got on a ship to the New World, landed at Ellis Island, and like any good Jewish family, set up shop in Brooklyn.
That’s where my father was raised, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section, in a devoutly religious home—religious, but sadly, almost devoid of love. Every meal was kosher but served without the kind of warm and engaging family conversations children should grow up enjoying. Every day my father attended Hebrew school, and every Sabbath he and his family went to synagogue, but he was never taught what the words he recited each week meant or why they mattered. His family celebrated every Jewish holiday, from Passover to Hanukkah, but such times were often spent with arguing relatives, and the holiday meaning was lost.
My father’s father was angry and abusive. His mother was distant toward him. The public schools my father attended were scarred by violence, gangs, and drugs. His was certainly nothing like the healthy, inviting Orthodox families I have come to know here in the United States and in Israel. In fact, for years my father refused to talk much about the days of his youth because there was so much pain and alienation wrapped up in those memories.
My father left home when he was eighteen. He moved as far away as he could, studying architecture in California under John Lloyd Wright (son of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright). He eventually found a job in Syracuse, New York, where he met and fell in love with my non-Jewish mother, further deepening the ever-growing rift with his parents.
How could he even consider marrying a Gentile? It was unthinkable to his parents. But my father had already left behind the religious trappings of his childhood, which held nothing for him but bad memories. He did not feel compelled to marry someone of a faith he did not share.
To make matters worse for my grandparents, my mother wasn’t just a Gentile. She was of English descent—a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. A Methodist, of all things!
My Jewish grandmother couldn’t bear the thought. She actually offered to buy back the engagement ring my father had given to my mother—at a profit to him—if my father would call the wedding off. He refused, and they were married in August of 1965.
Two years later, in April of 1967, I was born. Though agnostic, my parents were both intrigued with the idea of finding God. They would take long walks through the streets of suburban Syracuse and later a little town called Fairport, New York, just outside of Rochester, where they moved in 1969. As they walked they would talk about whether there really was a God and, if there was, how one could know him.
They read the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible. They talked to neighbors and friends about their spiritual journeys. One Sunday they happened to visit a church where a group of visiting laypeople explained how they had found a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ and how becoming followers of Jesus had transformed their lives.
For the first time, someone simply and clearly explained that God loved my parents. They heard the New Testament verse John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son [Jesus Christ], that whoever believes in Him shall not perish [be eternally separated from God] but have eternal life” (NASB). They heard that a person must make a conscious, willful choice to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord in order to experience God’s love and plan for his or her life.
It was all new to my parents, but it resonated instantly with my mother. Suddenly she knew that a personal relationship with God through Jesus—not through some sort of devotion to a religious code—was exactly what she had been looking for. When one of the speakers invited people who wanted to ask Jesus to become their Savior to come to the front of the church and be led through a short prayer, my mother went forward immediately, just assuming my father was right behind her. But he wasn’t.
This was too big a leap, even for an admittedly lapsed Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn. My father wasn’t sure how one got to God, but he couldn’t believe that the path led through Jesus. That was one thing that had been drilled into his head as a kid, and it had stuck.
He agreed, however, to begin attending a Bible study with my mother because he was curious and wanted to support her. The weekly study took a small group of young married couples like themselves through the Gospel of Luke, the third book of the New Testament, and there, week after week, my father began to read and increasingly understand the life and work and person of Jesus of Nazareth.
He began to learn that according to the Hebrew prophet Micah, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. He learned that the Hebrew prophet Isaiah said the Messiah would be born of a virgin, and live and minister in the region of the Sea of Galilee, and that he would suffer and die to pay the penalty for our sins. “We considered him [the Messiah] stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted,” wrote Isaiah in chapter 53, verses 4 and 5. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (NIV). And over time, my father saw that each of these messianic prophecies was fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
Jesus, who was Jewish.
Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem and preached in Galilee and lived in Israel.
Jesus, whose disciples were all Jewish.
One day while riding home from work on a bus, my father read two little booklets published by an organization known as Campus Crusade for Christ. One was called The Four Spiritual Laws. It explained God’s plan of salvation simply and clearly. The second was a little blue pamphlet that explained that when a person chooses to turn away from his own way of living and prays to receive Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and Lord, he or she can experience a new life through the transformational power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Suddenly, it all seemed to make sense. It all rang true.
My father walked into our house, into our kitchen, and announced to my mother that he believed Jesus was in fact the Messiah and that he had prayed to become a follower of this Son of the living God.
I was six years old and didn’t think much of it at first. Then Mom and Dad started dragging my sister and me off to church every Sunday morning. They made us go to Sunday school. Worse, they sent us to something called Vacation Bible School. Ugh. I can’t sing. I hate crafts. And that’s all you do in VBS. That and listen to stories about Jesus. It was horrible. Pretty much. Except those stories . . .
I listened to those stories. I was curious about Jesus. He seemed so loving, so kind, and he could do the coolest miracles. It began to sink in that he was more than a man; he was and is the Messiah. I came to know this not just because of what I heard in VBS, but over the years as I saw the lives of my parents changing before my eyes. My mother was no longer racked with anxiety and fear or stricken with constant migraine headaches. She had a peace that I couldn’t explain. My father was no longer the bitter man with a quick temper that I had long feared. He was becoming gentle and kind, a man who loved to study the Bible—and to teach it, especially to kids.
Who were these people? They were followers of Jesus. That was the only explanation I could come up with. God was real to them. They knew him, and he was changing their lives.
As a teenager I began to hope that he could change my life too. Perhaps Jesus could give me the purpose and direction I so desperately wanted and needed.
In January of 1984, the winter of my junior year of high school, I became a deeply convinced and devoted follower of Jesus. And yes, my life began to change in ways I never dreamed possible, and I began to see my place in God’s plan and purpose for his chosen people.
One of the most welcome but least expected changes God made in me was a sudden and growing interest in all things Jewish. With a name as distinct as Joel Rosenberg everybody I knew in my little town knew that I was Jewish. But I’d had little idea what that really meant. I hadn’t been raised going to Hebrew school or synagogue or celebrating the Jewish holidays. I never had a bar mitzvah. But the more I read the Bible, the more intrigued I became by the fact that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish. I began asking my father a thousand questions, and to my surprise, he began answering them. We began celebrating Passover as a family. We began studying the Jewish Scriptures together, especially the Hebrew prophets, with whom I became intrigued.
In 1987, I had the opportunity to study for six months in Israel at Tel Aviv University, and I jumped at the chance to see the Holy Land for myself. It is hard to describe the deep sense of connection I felt when I arrived in the land of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. It was as if I had come home—studying Hebrew (six hours a day!), eating falafel, and visiting the ancient sites where the Bible was written and passed down through the ages.
I had a powerful sense that Israel was the epicenter of human history—a land chosen by God for the most important event of human history (the death and resurrection of the Messiah); a land reborn in modern times, as foretold by the prophets; and the stage upon which the cataclysmic final events of history would be acted out. I knew then and there that I wanted to write. And not just about Israel, but about her enemies, about the forces of freedom and tyranny in the Middle East. And I wanted to write about the clues the prophets told us to watch for so that we would know beyond the shadow of a doubt when the final chapter of history was about to be unveiled.
It was exciting, but a little lonely. To my knowledge, I was the only Jewish believer in Jesus on the Tel Aviv campus. My American roommates insisted I was no longer Jewish because I had “converted” to Christianity.
“Nonsense,” I said. “I didn’t convert to anything. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. I’ve simply believed in the Anointed One God sent to us.”
When they still insisted I wasn’t Jewish, I’d shoot back, “What are you talking about? You guys barely believe God exists, much less follow the Jewish Scriptures.” It was true. They were good guys, but they didn’t read the Bible and weren’t interested in living lives of faith.
It has been almost twenty years since my first visit to Israel, and I still remember that semester so vividly. When I go back these days, I am amazed that people are still asking me the same question that dogged my roommates: “How can you be Jewish and believe in Jesus?” Some ask because it’s a theme woven through my novels. They also ask, I think, because they sense I am willing to answer. And I am. It’s an important question, and one that deserves a thoughtful, honest reply.
When my father became a follower of Jesus in 1973, he thought he was the only Jewish person on the planet since the apostle Paul to believe Jesus is the Messiah. Besides my father, I certainly don’t remember knowing any Jewish believers in Jesus in my childhood. But in the past few decades, the number of Jewish believers has spiked dramatically—as Jesus said it would.
Just before his crucifixion, Jesus told his Jewish followers, “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:39, NIV). In other words, Jesus is coming back—at a time when lots of Jewish people will not only believe in him, but will be ready and waiting with excitement.
Not long ago I was in Israel doing research for my fourth novel, The Copper Scroll. I was having coffee at the King David Hotel with the head of a messianic Jewish congregation. As we looked out over the Old City and the Mount of Olives, I asked him, “In 1967, when I was born, how many Israeli Jews believed in Jesus?”
“Maybe a handful,” he said.
“How many Jews worldwide in 1967 believed Jesus was the Messiah?” I asked.
“Based on my research, less than 2,000,” he said.
How much has changed since then. Today there are some 10,000 Israeli Jewish believers in Jesus. Worldwide, conservative estimates put the number around 100,000. Some believe the number is closer to 300,000. What a startling increase—and my father and I and my sons are part of those numbers, part of that dramatic trend. Jews are turning to Jesus in record numbers, and they are getting excited about his Second Coming.
So I write my books and I answer the question of how a Jew can believe in Jesus. And no, I’m not a psychic and I don’t have access to secret government information. But I do have access to the Jewish prophets—and so do you. God has told us what the future holds for Israel, for the world, and for you as biblical events continue to unfold. It’s all in the book . . . not mine, but his.
He is coming back soon. Maybe sooner than you think.
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