It was Groucho Marx who said, “I wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member.” I feel like I can relate to this. For the Jewish people, identity and community are interconnected. The nature of being part of Kol Israel connects us to the wider Jewish community and backwards in time to the patriarchs and sages. For the body of Messiah, the relationship is parallel; a body is made up of individual parts and organs working together. But what happens when those communities are in tension with each other and the individual identity? The question of who I am cannot be answered apart from who I am in relationship to the broader community.
I grew up in Reform Judaism, which, looking back, gave me a strong sense of Jewish identity and some connectedness to community, if not a strong relationship to Hashem and Torah. While not fully embracing the dual Torah as other modes of Judaism did, Reform Judaism was an opportunity to participate in the broad cycle of Jewish life such as the Passover seder, to participate in the life-cycle events such as my Bar Mitzvah, and to embrace Tikkun Olam as well as the cultural Judaism of lox and whitefish and self-deprecating humor. This broader cultural identity was more strongly emphasized in my upbringing than was being part of a people descended from Israel who were to keep Torah. Sunday school gave me the opportunity to learn the Hebrew letters, to give tzedakah, and to solidify my identity as a Jew. Jewish identity only takes shape in the context of community. Connecting to the broader Jewish community wasn’t necessarily on my radar growing up, but this is reflected in the individualization of Reform Judaism. Nevertheless, I always felt this connection even if I wasn’t a particularly observant Jew. I didn’t keep Kosher or keep Shabbat, but these were not really challenged at shul; I didn’t have a strong desire or reason to observe the Torah, and it was never presented as covenantal. Ironically, this connected me with most of the local Reform community which was also not especially observant.
In college, I felt the pull toward Yeshua, a hounding at every turn. I was drawn to the figure of Yeshua as I sensed the truth of his teachings and a desire to be like this rabbi. At the same time, it was as if God placed Yeshua-followers from the Christian tradition in my life who were able to speak into my heart without my having to explain it. I sensed his presence in the gospel choir I had joined because I enjoyed the music. Random folks I would meet on trains and in the campus center gave me the sense that God was reaching out to me personally, and to ignore this would cause me to be miserable. The sharpest idea that came to me during this time was that God had given me a calling and purpose, which I realized could only be accomplished through Yeshua, because he was the Shepherd that I was trying to find my whole life. Of course, as a Jew, I was hesitant and skeptical. However, reading the book of Romans early on, I had a rudimentary understanding of Paul’s analogy of grafting in. He seemed to be saying that Jews who accept Yeshua are grafted into their own natural olive branch, which meant that Yeshua faith and Jewish identity could be combined, and even that they made sense together. Even if the wider world didn’t agree, I was going with Paul. Like many Messianic Jews, I came to Yeshua faith because of the witness of God’s love through Christians and the church. Also, like many Messianic Jews, my Jewish identity became more defined because of my Yeshua faith.
I studied in Senegal, West Africa, my junior year, and at this point I described myself as a Jewish Christian in a predominantly Muslim country. But there were some American Jewish expats in the foreign service who invited me to a Passover seder, and you would have thought it was my first one. When something you grow up with year after year suddenly becomes full of significance and awe, it’s a beautiful thing. I marveled at the Moses narrative and made connections I never had before. My first realization was that this thing I did every year in my childhood was an actual event in history and shaped the peoplehood of Israel. Secondly, there were all the messianic connections which were apparent to me even among non-messianic Jews at this seder. The blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts enabled my people to be rescued. I had never thought about it!
During and after college, my earliest formation as a Yeshua follower was in the church world; I went to a predominantly African-American church in Mississippi while I was teaching, played keyboard on the worship team, went to Sunday school, and grew up slowly in Yeshua faith. I’m grateful for my formative Yeshua faith years in the church. I wasn’t in regular Jewish fellowship, but started having a conviction to avoid those catfish sandwiches that were so popular down there (catfish being unkosher), and to rest on Saturdays. Moreover, I would visit the messianic synagogue in Richmond, Virginia, on breaks from college and teaching in Mississippi. When I moved back to Richmond permanently, I remember taking the membership class and we all went around the circle explaining why we were joining Tikvat Israel. I simply said, “Where else would I go?” It’s as if someone built a community based around my very peculiar identity.
Once I began to live consistently in messianic Jewish space, I started having regular experiences like that seder in Senegal. Living out the cycle of festivals and orienting my life around Shabbat in community revived something inside me that I didn’t know was asleep. Messianic Jewish space on the local level and at conferences provided a sense of belonging, an affirmation that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t meshugah. Meeting and building relationships with Messianic Jews who pioneered this movement made me feel even more secure and grounded in my identity and community.
When I first moved back to Richmond, I tried to continue to be a part of the Jewish community, with varied success. I participated in community theater and played piano at the JCC, where I built relationships and trust that proved to be helpful later on. Many of those I knew were able to advocate for me once my identity was exposed and there was some backlash. I experienced some difficulty in joining the Jewish Community Federation with other young adults. When my Yeshua faith became known, I was asked not to come back to federation events (but not because of any actions on my part). Nevertheless, I still have good relationships in the wider Jewish community and participate as I am able. Last year I approached a local conservative rabbi asking if I could daven with them in the mornings. He told me he would have to think about it. That was about a year ago, and I haven’t pressed the issue since. However, my mother and I went to a luncheon event at the synagogue and were treated warmly, and I asked to take pictures of their oneg area to get ideas for our own synagogue building’s basement and was treated warmly then as well.
This brings me to my relationship with my parents. Of course, the family is perhaps the first community unit that provides us a sense of identity and belonging. My parents’ reaction to my choice to follow Yeshua back in college was quite visceral. They were understandably upset at first. There were feelings that I had rejected my heritage and also them. There was the sense that if they had only given me a better Jewish education, I wouldn’t have fallen for this Yeshua faith. There was a sense that perhaps they had lost their only son to brainwashing. But the story doesn’t end there, Baruch Hashem. Over time, they have been able to witness three things: first, how I incorporate a Jewish understanding of Yeshua into my life, second, how I incorporate my own Jewish identity into my faith, and third, how my Yeshua faith has contributed to my growth as a human being. Nowadays, my parents are extremely supportive of Messianic Judaism, as evidenced by semi-regular attendance at Tikvat Israel where I now serve and preach. I think their view of Yeshua is largely positive as well. As my dad says, “I like this Jesus guy you talk about. He sounds like a socialist.”
If family is the primary unit of identity and community, then I should mention the next natural shift in this journey: leaving my parents and cleaving to my wife almost five years ago. Knowing I was called to Messianic Jewish ministry, I found it daunting as a bachelor to think about potential marriage partners. Who would sign up for a life like that? Well as it turns out, there was one young woman who would. Just as I had felt Hashem’s leading to receive Messiah in college, so my wife and I both sensed the hand of God drawing us together. Most significant to this new union was the commitment to the joint calling we had to serve in Messianic Jewish space and to have a Messianic Jewish home.
This parallel calling was important, because my wife, Sonya, grew up in the Church. My wife’s transition into our community has granted me valuable insight into what it feels like for someone who did not grow up Jewish. A number of years ago an elder gave a sermon on the calling of Abraham, and Sonya told me afterward that she could totally relate; there’s surrender to the call to an unknown land (Virginia), leaving her family and homeland (New Jersey), and even down to the change in name (Wein). Abraham gave up a lot for the sake of the call, but for him, and for my wife, it was a joy. The first challenge that Sonya experienced was the amount of Hebrew in the liturgical and musical worship. Even though much of it was translated, the language created a kind of barrier to understanding the meaning of the prayers and songs. Not that all American Jews are so literate with Hebrew, but at least it is culturally and religiously comfortable and familiar. Interpreting Hebrew was just one example of the adjustments Sonya had to make on her Abrahamic journey with me. Intermarried couples are quite normative in Messianic Jewish space, perhaps because it is a fairly decent compromise that affirms both the Yeshua faith of the one spouse, and affirms the Jewish identity of the other spouse. But my own marriage and communication journey with my wife has given me a window into gentile experience at the congregation where I serve.
For the past four years, I have served in some capacity in local leadership at the congregation I joined twelve years ago. This service has caused me to interact with many gentiles drawn to Messianic Judaism for various reasons. This question has been the topic of many a debate within the movement, and I have had to navigate many situations on the ground floor related to this question. My heart’s goal in these interactions is to encourage the sense of calling of gentiles in the movement (as opposed to one-law theology or the elevation of Messianic Judaism as the “ideal” faith expression), establish distinction and mutual blessing as guideposts for thinking about Scripture, and affirm the continuing covenantal relationship of Hashem with the Jewish people. Sometimes, through shepherding and discipleship, I am able to win over non-Jews from a one-law orientation to a more nuanced sense of calling, which has been very gratifying.
I did not anticipate the unique challenges of leaving the world of teaching elementary school and entering ministry full-time, as I did about two years ago. When you meet someone for the first time, after learning their name, the most frequent question is: “So, what do you do for a living?” For the first time, I was forced to enter into a conversation about Messianic Judaism much earlier than I previously had to, and I was not prepared. I went to my cousin’s wedding the summer after I stopped teaching and encountered this new and unique awkwardness. Eventually, I settled on, “I’m studying to be a rabbi,” or “I work in education.” The first would often lead to the next logical question: “Oh, what denomination?” At play were a few factors in my own thought processes. There was a fear of rejection, as well as a trepidation about my status as a Messianic Jew and as a rabbinic student. But presenting myself as a rabbinic student was valuable because it allowed me to enter into the conversation as a learner.
I also learned a lesson in humility, which is not the same as self-deprecation. I was taking a very practical class at MJTI at the time entitled, “The Personal Life of the Spiritual Leader.” Through processing this problem in the course and with mentors, I was able to pinpoint my own discomfort and come to terms with my marginal status and identity. I wasn’t totally comfortable being an almost-rabbi, and I wasn’t totally comfortable being a Messianic Jew, but becoming more aware of that was the key to my growth. I learned that following after Messiah means taking up the right amount of space in social situations. Practicing genuine humility, releasing shame, and putting others at ease can go a long way to being winsome in the Jewish community. Occasionally, it also leads to opportunities to “give a reasoned answer to anyone who asks me to explain the hope I have in me, yet with humility and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, personalized).
It’s been easier for me to connect to the wider body of Messiah for a few reasons: I have experienced less resistance to my dual-identity, I grew up within Yeshua faith in a church context, and part of my calling is to be a blessing to the wider body of Messiah from the nations. For the past two years I’ve been praying together monthly with local pastors and ministry leaders, as well as sharing Messianic Jewish teachings with local Christian groups and adult Sunday schools. Ironically, these opportunities often lead to connections in the Jewish community or with “Jews in the pews.” My mom came to a talk I did on “Toward a Messianic Jewish Theological Narrative” at a local university Christian group and said she got a lot out of it and enjoyed it!
In Christian space and Jewish space, I’ve found myself becoming more and more comfortable because I’m learning self-definition in terms of my own values, heart, and calling. We cannot find identity and community through negative means (e.g., fear of rejection), or by saying, “I don’t know what I am but I’m not that.” Yeshua faith seems to go beyond the pale for acceptance within some of Judaism, but I can still go to the JCC and stand in solidarity with my community when we are mourning and grieving from antisemitic attacks. Jewish identity is not always welcomed or affirmed in the body of Messiah, but I can still bless and pray and connect to the Church of the nations. I believe that identity and community are dynamic, and develop together over time with the ingredients of humility and connectedness. Now serving in leadership, I sense the burden to create Messianic Jewish space involving boundaries and definition with one hand, and kindness and inclusion with the other. After all, I know what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land; I know what it’s like to be rejected and to belong.
May Hashem guide us to find hope between and among the communities of faith that give us belonging and shape our sense of self.
David Wein grew up in Richmond and came to follow Yeshua the Messiah in college at Wesleyan University. In 2015 he became the happiest man and married his bride, Sonya. A few months later, he joined the staff of Tikvat Israel as rabbi-in-training under the mentorship of Rabbi David Rudolph, where he now serves as Associate Rabbi. He also started taking classes at Messianic Jewish Theological Institute and is currently pursuing smicha (ordination) with the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations.