I accepted Yeshua as my Messiah at the age of 15, in Santa Rosa, California. My parents, who had become believers before I was born, were from intermarried and secular Jewish backgrounds, but had come to faith in Yeshua and were members of a local evangelical church. Because of their coming to faith, I had the opportunity to hear about the Good News of Yeshua early in my life, although I did not become a believer until my mid-teens due to the religious confusion within our home and the inconsistent lives my parents led as professing believers. I was religiously frustrated. I was told on one hand to value my own Jewish heritage by my parents, but then on the other hand the Church we attended had very strict views and verbally discouraged us from doing anything Jewish. To add to my confusion, my mother would occasionally, but secretly, attend services at the conservative synagogue in our neighborhood, and my father would go crabbing with his friend Mr. Wolf!
By the time I was 13 years of age I had rejected faith in Yeshua and was contemplating what Judaism might offer as a religious path. However, I was ultimately turned off because my Jewish friends from the neighborhood who attended the same synagogue my mom did were as non-observant as I. They demonstrated no deep interest in God or spiritual truth, something that I was desperate to understand. I wanted to know truth! Fortunately at that time I made friends with a teen about my age who was a new Yeshua believer named Russ; we called him Moose (he had been raised as a Mormon). Moose demonstrated a sincere faith in God and a dynamic testimony. He was real and his faith was real! It was Moose’s witness that led me to reconsider Yeshua faith and drew me ultimately to accept Yeshua as the Messiah.
After becoming a believer in Yeshua my religious frustration faded along with any active interest in my Jewish identity. Instead, I became active in serving as a leader in a church youth group and I became active in doing local outreach. I actually paid my own way to attend a Christian high school starting my sophomore year and gave little thought to my Jewishness anymore, except for two unique experiences: first, a brief encounter with Stuart Dauermann when he played music at a high school sports banquet, and second was a conversation with my uncle who spoke disapprovingly to me of my active faith in Yeshua. Nevertheless, I soon felt G-d calling me to be trained for full time vocational ministry. After graduation from high school in 1984 I headed to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois for a degree in Evangelism. I wanted to become the next Billy Graham; I wanted to preach around the world about Jesus! It was there at Moody that I first met other Jewish people who had come to believe in Yeshua who still felt compelled to actively identify as Jews. Up to this time, all the Jewish believers in Yeshua I knew in Santa Rosa were happy to talk about their Jewish heritage, but I had never met any who actually lived out any kind of Jewish life. The first person like this that I met was Joel Brotman, a senior at Moody at the time. He told me of whole communities of Jewish people who believed in Jesus and lived Jewishly. His challenge to me was, “You’re Jewish and you need to identify as a Jew.” I still remember saying to him, “Who cares?” I could not understand at that time why this would even be important. I was Jewish this is true, but my Jewish identity was really my past, and the Jewish community seemed too small and insignificant to me. I was moving toward the grand ministry future God had for me: to win the World for Christ!
God continued to introduce me to more Jewish believers at Moody, including Dr. Louis Goldberg, to challenge my thinking. I came to understand that being Jewish was not just supposed to be my past family history; it was actually supposed to be my present living reality, as well as some kind of future calling which I did not really understand at the time. I did come to accept that I was confused about Jewish identity and that I needed to learn and adjust my understanding. Even though I was not raised with any deep practice of Jewish life growing up, I had come to see that being Jewish mattered, and that I needed somehow to learn to live Jewish life now. I remember a meeting with Jhan Moskowitz where he encouraged me to hang out with a new Moody student on staff with Jews for Jesus named Noel Rabin (now Rabinowitz) who would help me to learn what it meant to live out Jewish life!
I learned pretty quickly that Jews for Jesus did not have too much to teach me about Jewish living per se, but they did have a lot to teach me about how to talk with other Jewish people about Yeshua, in a Jewish way. I served on the 1986 Summer Witnessing Campaign in New York City and I loved it! I was amazed at the vibrancy of Jewish life in the Big Apple. It was so much more than what I had known growing up in Santa Rosa, or what I remember experiencing with my grandparents in San Francisco. I had clarity about what it meant to be a Jew now. To be a Jew was to be a proclamation machine, a Jews for Jesus missionary!
It was at Moody that I met and married my wife Carla who is also a Jewish believer. Born into a Jewish family in Morton Grove, Illinois, Carla accepted Yeshua as Messiah at the age of 19 through the influence of a Gentile co-worker. She started Moody in the Fall of 1986 and we met there at a Jewish Evangelism prayer focus meeting. I graduated Moody in 1988, with both a bachelor’s degree in Evangelism as well as a second degree in Jewish Studies. We were married two days later in a Hebrew Christian wedding ceremony with Dr. Goldberg officiating, Bob Mendelsohn serving as Chazan, and Moishe Rosen, Susan Perlman, and David Brickner in attendance. Three weeks later we were officially on staff with Jews for Jesus.
We began our ministry with Jews for Jesus in New York City in 1988. What seemed like a good thing at the time turned into quite a nightmare. Yes, the organization in our experience was a bit rough on staff, and yes, we often experienced expectations that were simply not realistic, but the real issue for us was a genuine lack of community. Carla and I had both begun to attend Olive Tree, a messianic congregation in the Chicago area, and we liked very much what seemed to be real Jewish community. Olive Tree was not particularly traditional, but it was heimish, warm, inviting and family-like (as opposed to my family’s dysfunction). At the time we went there, about 100 people attended, including at least 70 Jewish believers, many of them young people like ourselves. I had the privilege of seeing five Jewish men profess faith in Yeshua while I was in New York, but there was no genuinely welcoming Messianic Jewish community within which to grow. We lasted a year with Jews for Jesus and then headed back to Chicago and to the Olive Tree.
Life moves quickly. We became parents. I got a sales job in the printing industry and developed a side business doing computer consulting. Carla and I also both served at the Olive Tree Congregation in various leadership positions for five years, including my own part-time internship under Dan Strull from 1990 to 1992. Our understanding of Jewish life and practice continued to slowly develop as we introduced small but important Jewish traditions and practices into our daily lives, including a traditional bris for our son Matthew, ever more frequent Erev Shabbat dinners, and the end of eating sausage pizza.
In 1992 we became full-time staff missionaries with Chosen People Ministries (CPM)in the Chicago area, serving for almost four years. I also began to pursue a graduate degree at Spertus College in Jewish Studies. It was at Spertus that I really came to understand how little I knew about normal Jewish religious life. I had never prayed through the siddur; I had no personal experience with tallit and tefillin; Rabbinic literature was only talked about at Moody, never taken seriously as a primary source to gain understanding from or, God forbid, spiritual encouragement. I was exposed for the first time to Jewish religious leaders and scholars who demonstrated genuine faith and practice (though not Yeshua faith). Rabbi Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer and Rabbi Dr. Bernard Grossfeld were two such individuals, who knew what I believed, yet still treated me with respect, and also encouraged me to grow my limited understanding of normative Jewish religious life and tradition.
The four years with CPM were effective for our personal ministry development although professionally it was tough. It was the best of times and the worst of times, and CPM was falling apart! There were serious management issues related to local branches and national leadership, and we also were experiencing tremendous financial pressure and loss of staff. The organization at the time could best be described as a “Hebrew Christian Mission,” which meant that they held an old school perspective regarding Jewish believers authentically living out Jewish life, tradition and practice, even as they were strategically committed to planting Messianic Jewish congregations. At the same time, the organization allowed flexibility for staff to mostly pursue their own ministry interests. For me this meant freedom! I experimented with Russian Jewish Outreach through English as second language classes, Bible Studies and general Jewish evangelism, all of which we pursued with great effectiveness. We also were able to organize and plant a new Messianic Jewish congregation in the northern Jewish suburbs of Milwaukee. During our efforts in Milwaukee I came to understand some serious flaws in our own approach to congregational planting. We attracted mostly Christians, our services were really Christian in style and format with some Jewish sprinkles and the Jewish people we attracted were generally disinterested in Jewish life and identity. There was no way we were going to impact the Jewish community of Milwaukee with this crowd! Because of the above mentioned “management” issues with CPM, I was asked to turn over the congregation plant after two years to other CPM personnel, and the congregation dissolved within a year. I became angry and frustrated!
About this time I had become pretty good friends with Barry Budoff who had moved from Los Angeles to lead Adat HaTikvah in Chicago. I was age 29 at the time and Barry was a tremendous encouragement to me and a real mentor. Carla and I made the decision to leave the Olive Tree, and began to attend Adat HaTikvah. We were drawn to, and impacted by, the congregation’s commitment to traditional Jewish forms such as their service, and also to traditional Jewish life and practice in congregants’ homes. I also began to attend a Chabad minion in my neighborhood in Chicago as a way to personally understand and experience the traditional prayers I was learning about at Spertus. It was about this time that I gave up eating cheeseburgers.
Although we had served quite effectively with other organizations, Carla and I felt for some time a need for a new approach in Jewish outreach, which is why we left CPM and founded Devar Emet Messianic Jewish Outreach in 1996. Devar Emet’s focus is on meeting the spiritual needs of Jewish young adults, teens and children, first through our own personal active outreach and mentoring, and then through developing our expertise into programs and materials made available for others to use. Because of my own childhood confusion regarding both Yeshua faith and Jewish identity, we soon developed Club Maccabee which is a specially designed program to assist in the efforts of congregations and outreaches to teach Jewish children the truths of Scripture in a fun Jewish environment. A few years later we developed our HaDerekh Youth outreach and aliyot programming as well for Jewish teens. Our goal was clear teaching about Yeshua faith combined with clear teaching about Jewish identity. As a result of these works we began to see Jewish children and teens make professions of faith in Yeshua and by 2002 a small chavurah had formed with nine adults and seven children, all but one of them born Jewish.
By 2005 it became clear that we needed to do two things: buy a building and formalize the chavurah into a congregation. By this time we had 39 adults and children associated with our group, all but three born Jewish. These individuals came from a cross-section of the Jewish community, with the largest minority being immigrants from the former Soviet Union; we also had a very young community, with half of our “adults” just barely past age 18. In consistency with our vision for being a public testimony in the midst of our Jewish community, we purchased our building in Skokie in May of 2005 and by Rosh Hashanah we had made the official change over from chavurah to synagogue.
Having such a young community, comprised of mostly new Jewish believers was great, but it had a downside as well: we did not have a common tradition or approach to Jewish life and Messianic faith. Many of those attending had a connection to Jewish life and tradition much like my own. The good old days of every Jewish kid going to Hebrew school were gone even in Skokie; general Jewish education had given way to general Jewish ignorance. It became our responsibility to establish for our community a clear standard of Jewish practice within our synagogue facility as well as to encourage a basic understanding of the role and value of Jewish tradition, both inside and outside the synagogue. We already were clear in our desire to be a relevant testimony within our greater Jewish community, but how did we want our own Jewish community to look to the rest of the Jewish community around us, including our non-Messianic Jewish family and friends? We decided to join the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC).
Our first real experience with the UMJC was the annual summer conference in Columbus. This was when Rabbi Cohen-Sherbok, an unbeliever spoke and the UMJC membership from what we saw at that conference seemed to be splintered and at war with one another! Over the years though I have come to see that the strength of the Union is in its variety of perspectives. Rabbi Russ Resnik as Executive Director was instrumental in helping me to not just understand this, but also to appreciate it. For someone who initially came into the UMJC as being still very “Moody Bible Institute” in my perspective, I have grown to be grateful for the diversity of thought, as well as thankful for the personal encouragement, patience and understanding the Union membership has provided to me so that I might grow and mature in my understanding of Jewish life and practice. My experience with the UMJC, and specifically with men like Rabbi Barry Budoff, Rabbi Russ Resnik, Rabbi Mark Kinzer, Rabbi Stuart Dauermann and Rabbi Howard Silverman, has helped me to mature into the congregational leader and Jew that I am today.
My Messianic Jewish journey from the confusion, frustration and ignorance of my youth to what I would describe as my desire for sincere openness, honest contemplation, and the humble pursuit of clarity today has been transformational. I have watched for over 25 years the yo-yo approach to Messianic Jewish exploration, where “messianic” individuals’ pendulums swing wildly from one paradigm to another, all at the expense of the community they lead, and of course their own families. I am not the same person I was when I came to accept Yeshua back in Santa Rosa. Certainly God has worked hard at changing me more and more into the image of my Messiah Yeshua, for which many are grateful. God has also worked hard at changing my appreciation of who he made me to be as a Jew, and my attitude toward what God has continued to do in and through our Jewish community over the past two thousand years. To some I am still seen as a “Moodyite;” by others, I am seen as prejudiced against Gentiles. A few might accuse me of being Orthodox, but those who know me and my work realize my minhag is just classic Conservative. What I really am is passionate for our Jewish people, beginning with the children, and committed to the success of our Jewish communal gatherings of Yeshua followers. I desire today to see us as Messianic Jews living out both a radical faith for Yeshua as well as a clearly committed Jewish identity, consistent with the traditional observances and practices of our larger Jewish community.