My Journey: Rabbi Jerry Feldman

I want to thank Hashivenu for this assignment. What an unexpected delight and in reality a daunting task. Likewise, this is one tough house to play! After all, in my book you all are the best of the best!

This has required me to dig deeply into memories of life gone by, long forgotten or simply left behind. At the same time it has required me to identify the meaning of my own Messianic Jewish life in the context of the calling and faithfulness of God who allowed me to have such a past and brought me to where I am today. In other words, “So nu? What’s a nice Brooklyn Jewish boy like me doing in a place like Kansas City (KC) and can the Biblical question be answered, ‘Can anything good come out of there?’

I begin with answering the second question just in case you were wondering if anything good can come out of Kansas City. Let me show you the end of the story [showing a slide of the vision of a new structure for Adat Yeshua, the congregation he leads]. What you are looking at are the results and hopeful future of my journey. And if you think you are surprised, you have no idea how surprised I am! This was the furthest thing from my mind when I came to KC.

We had a threefold goal under the marketing umbrella “If I Were A Rich Man” as we hit the itineration fund raising trail. This included a Messianic book and gift shop, a Messianic radio broadcast (called “For Zion’s Sake”), and a Messianic Congregation which came to be called Adat Yeshua. We actually accomplished all three.

Though two of the these “successes” no longer exist − the congregation remains − it does not mean we failed. Rather we have changed. My wife, Susan and I brought with us to Kansas City ten years of distinct Messianic Judaism, Brooklyn accent and all. Well it turned out that the “all” was too much for Kansas City! – resistance, offense, accusation and “What do you think you are doing?” was the common question of the day. Messianic Jewish meant something different in their expectations. You know the expectation, “a little bit of this” (dancing), “a little bit of that” (banners), a Yeshua, a Yochanan. Well you get it. In fact it wasn’t even that complicated. They just wanted. But I had no idea what that was.

But full speed ahead we went anyway. The first year we started the radio broadcast, and then a bookstore which lasted 12 years, during which time we met in various church facilities. Within five years we built out a spectacular sanctuary facility in a large storefront with a congregation of 95 attendees. Well some of you know the story; in short they saw what they wanted and took what they saw. Got what they wanted and it wasn’t what I offered. We went down to 12 congregants with a new $2,300 a month lease.

So Nu? What’s a nice Brooklyn Jewish boy (who is totally committed to an authentic Jewish context) doing in KC? Remember a perfectly fine Messianic Jewish Congregation, Beth HaKerem, Englewood NJ with 80% Jews you left behind?

I would have never guessed. The Gentiles! Oh no you say, not Jerry Feldman! Is he going to make Jewish wannabees, let them wear tallesim, convince them they have arrived, Yeshua instead of Jesus and of course the Feasts of Israel where everybody gets to toot their own shofar Messianic Judaism. “Oy Vey, Jerry, go back to Brooklyn and save yourself!”

I never expected or planned on what unfolded. I found out that there was a vast lost world of Christians that were running around with the answers but did not know what the questions were. As I listened and learned, I found myself creating venues to raise the right questions – supersessionism, theological racism, and unbeknownst, that blatant triumphalism intrinsic to Christian self identity (though they would never know it). Well, the need was there. Instead of creating a Messianic Judaism to solve the gentile identity crisis, and to avoid the Christian inundation that would throw our messianic vision into a kind of two house audience, we created the Messianic Jewish Roots Institute of KC. We are now entering our 19th year. Over one thousand Christians, instead of becoming odd renditions of Jewish life, are better Christians and better people. Jews are no longer just dots on prophecy charts to authenticate the Christian narrative. They are now a chosen people preserved to be the emblem of God’s faithfulness, and the God of Israel alone is the G-d of the nations. They have learned and continue to learn that “God so loved the Gentiles that He created Israel!” They, no longer anti-Semitic and supersessionistic arrogantly dictating the Jewish revival, are serving Israel, in their churches.

To quote Don McClean, “A long long time ago,” one year after becoming a Yeshua follower in 1974 (I will come back to that), having returned to N.Y. from Erie PA where I spent my first year at an Assembly of God Church along with a “Street Church” which Larry Norman visited often and likewise a branch of the Ann Arbor Catholic Charismatic movement. I looked in the Yellow Pages under Assemblies of God Churches. The only listing was “Assemblies God Jewish Friends Congregation.” Wow, I was home!

Upon entering on a Sunday morning, in this tiny “shul,” on the little stage, was Sister Gertrude Clonce, of blessed memory, the leader of the mission. She was a Pentecostal Jew raised in Enid, Oklahoma, forbidden as a child of Jewish immigrants to tell anyone that she was Jewish and was quickly sent to a Lutheran day school. She was playing a traditional Pentecostal hymn on her guitar, wearing a blue satin smock dress with a rather large embossed Magen David, eyes to heaven and joy from ear to ear. (BTW, we were three blocks from the world renowned Yeshivah of Flatbush and on the same street where the newly established Feinberg Center and Chosen People Headquarters are located.

Those were the days of old we called “Jewish Ministry.” You know, “all in” for Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. And with it came fire bombs, vandalism, tear gas and in one case a death threat. Wow, how did we get from there to Daniel Boyarin?

I remained and served for one year in what I came to call a Jewish soup kitchen with Hebrew Christian worship services. Do not get me wrong; she had a congregation of 40 Jews and only one Gentile, who loved Yeshua and really knew their Bibles. But they truly were the Jews who fell through the cracks. It was there that I read a front page article in the Jewish Press. A Rabbi was discussing (of all things) Jews like us! I wondered, “Who was this “US”? After all, like many new Jewish followers in the time of the great Jesus movement (and other tectonic spiritual forces of its day such as Late Great Planet Earth and who can forget Chick Tracts) I thought I was the only Jew that ever believed in Jesus! Sound familiar?

It was a response to an event at Madison Square Garden called Key ‘73, a major gathering of 22,000 Jesus-ites that included a tremendous number of participants of Jewish ilk. An innumerable number of Jewish speakers were highlighted. Instead of this Rabbi ranting and crying foul, instead of condemning and fear mongering, I was actually comforted by his words! He affirmed and qualified us as still being Jews. And how did he qualify us? We had Bubbies and Zeydies of course! We grew up as immigrant kids with parents and grandparents that bore the memories (and also scars) of 900 years of belonging to the Jewish world. We could not escape our Yiddishkeit. We were imbued with heartfelt family traditions intrinsic to the core and flavor of Jewishness. He warmly said you cannot take away their hamisha ways, nor remove or cancel their Yiddisha neshomas. Of course we were Jews. He even acknowledged that for us the authenticity of our faith commitments and new found understanding as Jews was a separate issue. But then he asked what was for me, a life changing question, “But will their children be Jewish?”

This compelling question reached into my deepest kishkas and has driven me to this day concerning who I am and am to be within the heritage of being a Jew, to my children’s children for his name’s sake. It has been the single most important question revealing my sense of belonging in what came to eventually identify me as a “Messianic” Jew. It meant to live with the same compelling sense of destiny, responsibility and courage of every other Jew that went before me. It meant that bringing Yeshua into and through everything Jewish must be apprehended on all levels, because the issue was not my personal “born again” experience but the ongoing existence of Jews, and especially now the remnant chosen by the faithful God of Israel for the sake of the whole world. So without true Jewish life, then how were we faithful to Messiah, if it is all about making a place for Israel’s redemption and a witness to a hopeless Gentile world for that matter? And this was just 1974!

I remember putting it this way in a Kesher Journal article many years later! I wrote, “Doing Jewish is not being Jewish.” It is intuitive, historical, psychological, emotional and of course gastronomical. For me it has always been an issue of identity and not necessarily convincing a Jew that if they read Isaiah 53 and believed in their heart they would be more Jewish!

If our kids cannot be comfortable playing racquetball at the JCC, having natural Jewish discourse and deliver a good Jewish joke the way it is funny to us as Jews, then we lose! That is why the first thing I did in KC was to put my kids in the Hebrew Academy. Besides, not only was it the unthinkable to wrench them out of New Jersey and real bagels, I was not going to let them grow up desiring a pickup truck with a rifle rack in the back! It was once said by an “ancient” and “wise” Rabbi, “You cannot go back to a place where you have never been.”

Most of us here understand the intention of this great sage’s words; the struggle reconnects to the genitor that informs Jewish communal, historical and personal identity. These confirming qualities (even tea in a yarhzeit glass) can sometimes be distant, unknown, replaced or ignored when we call ourselves Messianic. I questioned for years, “I know we are Messianic but are we Jewish?” What’s the difference, after all; wasn’t I told that if I believed in Jesus I would be more Jewish anyway? Yeah, easy for them to say!

I grew up with a significantly centered view of my Jewish identity. I really liked being a Jew. I felt safe in a world of Sholom Aleichem stories and the simple wisdom of my father, a self-effacing, never asking anything for himself seeming character from a Sholom Aleichem story, who could see the world differently than others. Jewish religious life was more compelling for me than my two older brothers (Barry and Sidney) and my twin sister Francis (such a Jewish name)? I loved to walk by synagogues, enjoy kasha varnishkas, listen to Jewish radio broadcasts, eating with the family on Sunday mornings bagels and lox (of course it had to be Nova Lox). My grandfather would don tefillin every morning in the kitchen in the back of our baby carriage store under the Elevator subway on 86th St. in Bensonhurst. I would watch. I had a sense of awe and at the same time there was a sense that this was a natural part of life. I liked it. We attended a storefront Orthodox synagogue.

When I moved to Long Island between the ages of 6 and 12, I walked twice a week after elementary school three miles each way for just two and half hours of Hebrew School instruction, and attended Sunday studies as well. I went to synagogue every Shabbat and was cantor of the junior congregation. I had 600 immediate relatives related to our various Jewish Associations doing good, supporting the State of Israel, and planning for the future survival of the Jewish world in this New World called the U.S. It was going to take all that we could if we expected a future as Jews, L’dor v’Dor (from generation to generation).

We moved back to Brooklyn; I worked in my father’s shtetl style shop store and I got mauled in the park every day returning from Jr. High for a nickel to buy a hot pretzel with mustard while being called “Jew” by the Italian intelligentsia! I learned to play the accordion. It was a one man band Jewish love affair from the start. Actually, I could not handle the guilt if I did not play Hava Nagilah at my Bar Mitzvah for my grandparents. My sister and I were the first twins, brother and sister according to the an investigation, to Bar/Bat Mitzvah in known history. Of course we had to switch to the Conservative Synagogue! And what’s more Jewish than growing up being friends with and living on the same block as Harvey Fierstein, and down the street from the Brooklyn Jewish Community House?

My world was mostly internal. I could never figure out the “Why” questions like High School studies. I was not brought up with an expectation to become something, but rather be someone. So, I tended to not understand the world around me and had little input into my own personal destiny. In fact, in many areas, the loneliness and sadness remains deep within me until this day.

It gets better. What is more Jewish than working every summer as a waiter and accordionist in the Catskill Mountains with bungalow colonies, hotels, and station wagons full of shmattas sold out the back tailgate? I am sure I served one million glasses of prune juice and at least one bowl of borscht! But it was the Yiddisha music (Yossel Yossel), Jewish comedians, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom Time cha-chas on the dance floor and lime rickies where I resided externally, along with an anxious longing each year to hear Kol Nidre. So nu, then where is it that I have never been that I cannot return to? This has not been my problem. On the contrary.

Before I get to the unfinished finale of my journey paper, I need to say something about my transformative encounter with Yeshua. I was playing piano in a Miami Beach night Club in 1973. There were three clarinets and two saxophones with piano accompanist playing the most unusual music I had ever heard. Who are you I asked? We are competing for the national Teen Talent competition for the General Council of the Assemblies of God. (“Thanks for clearing that up.”) Responding to an invitation to attend the award ceremonies the following evening, and still thinking I was going to at least hear Hayden or Beethoven, I entered the ballroom (with six thousand Pentecostals praising the Lord just waiting for Feldman) and sat down by the woman piano accompanist. I thought she was going to tell me to take a hike and stay away from the young ladies. Instead she asked me a question that rocked my world. With a smile ear to ear she asked, “Jerry, what was it like to keep Passover in your home?” All kinds of emotion and confusion consumed me. What was I going to say? After years as a hippie, changing majors faster than I could flunk out of them, a short stint in the army avoiding Viet Nam, returning lost, depressed and unsure, and now finding myself having all my circle of friends being homosexuals, prostitutes, drug runners, mafia, and an old Black Blues guitarist and a scat singing cunga player from Jamaica, and now she (a gentile, and the pastor’s wife) asking me with longing eyes, what was it like to keep the Passover in your home? I had nothing to say, got up and walked away, with the flooding of lost treasured memories of Pesach par excellence with Bronx grandpa, kittle, mitre and all.

Seven months and 2000 miles later I am standing in their home Church in Belleville Illinois, after thousands of questions and letting the beautiful richness of these righteous people compel me, while hearing an angelic voice behind me (80 yr old woman) singing “softly and tenderly, “Jesus is calling.” One of the clarinet players came alongside me. At this point I had closed my eyes for the first time. I prayed, God if this is real I want you to show me. I angrily asked again. And then she spoke, and her words also rocked my world. “Jerry, God loves you and wants you to accept Jesus ass your Messiah.” Messiah? I thought. Is that what you have been trying to say all this time. Personal savior simply did not register. But Messiah, this belongs to me. And I cried out to God, fists to heaven wrestling for 20 minutes until he touched the sinew of my thigh, struck me down in my seat, and struck me dumb for 24 hours!

So nu? What’s a nice Brooklyn Jewish boy doing in a place like Kansas City bringing my past and the past of every other Jew that came before me to an unreceptive and unknowing people? I apparently left my home, to bring them home. Not to being Jews but being redeemed through the incarnational, crucified, resurrected and ascended Messiah, who is the King of the Jews. And when they get it and know who they are, then they will in turn provoke the Jew to jealousy. So, what a deal, they get Jerry and we get the nations.

I guess God had another plan. Perhaps I had a debt to pay Christians that were more in love with my God than I was at that time in my life. And since God so loved the Gentiles he created Israel; I am here to answer those questions, and many more.

Two short epilogues. One is that I married one of the clarinet players from Miami Beach and Belleville Illinois and secondly, my calling as a maturing Messianic Jew has made it impossible for me to go back to where I did come from. These many years have brought with them more hardship and trials than I can tell you in the remainder of this entire conference, but the greatest is that I guess, imitating Paul. I am a stranger in a foreign land and in turn have become a stranger to myself. Oh, you know Feldman, he will always have a Yiddisha neshoma and a Yiddisha punim, but it seems like he might never return to that place he came from. It is a high price for tikkun olam. It has cost Susan and me everything. I think of my sons and daughter. But could it be that in reality we are truly the remnant of the faithfulness of God, and the center of his purposes, to repair the breach, destroy anti Semitism, create a place for the healing between the Church and the Synagogue and build a center for Jewish/Christian dialogue, study, learning and teaching together until Messiah is revealed.

Finally, please know that with all this, Messianic Judaism is still the center of my world. Adat Yeshua is a thriving Congregation, has services every Friday night and Saturday morning. We have a special gathering for Rosh Chodesh each month, do the entire schedule for the Holy Days (all 5 services for Yom Kippur), Torah Studies, and more. Our Institute will begin its new semester offering courses on the Pharisees, Heresies of the Early Church, Mishnah, Canon of Scripture and a few others.

Finally, really finally, this assignment was good for me. Even if I cannot go back, perhaps I will return to Kansas City, pick up my accordion which I have not played in years, and play a good dose of my Yiddisha Mama! Thanks for helping me go back to a place I had forgotten and remember who I am and how I got here. Thanks for the shpielkis!