Joe didn’t know when he called the offices of Shomrei Emet that he was actually calling Israel. It was only late afternoon in the East Coast city of the US where he lived, but it was nearing midnight in Israel. Since my office was in my home, I was there to answer the call even though I ordinarily wouldn’t have still been at work.
Joe began to tell me that he hadn’t started out believing all that “Jesus stuff”; he had simply started going to a messianic congregation because it was a great place to meet people – especially female people. Joe was raised in a Reformed Jewish home, a strong Democrat with very clear political and religious views, but with an equally clear Jewish identity. Despite his lack of belief in God and any sort of faith, Joe knew he was Jewish, was strongly attached to synagogue life and knew that above all else, he had to marry a Jewish woman.
Joe’s strong Reformed background also included an intense push for educational achievement. Joe had been to the best schools and had attained both an MBA and CPA. It didn’t take more than a few minutes of speaking with Joe for me to understand that our discussions would have to be intellectually based.
“So tell me what happened,” I urged him.
Joe proceeded to tell me about how, after accomplishing his academic degrees and launching a very lucrative career, he realized that what he really wanted most was to find a life partner, settle down and begin a family. Joe consulted with his good friend Robbie, who told him that the best place to find a nice Jewish girl to marry was at Temple.
Friday nights, after service, the Temple hosted an Oneg for singles. Good food and lots of nice people – what more could one ask for? So, Joe began attending Friday night services at the Temple. But, Joe found that the crowd that attended wasn’t exactly what he was looking for and everyone seemed somewhat click-ish and aloof. Maybe he needed to go to a different Temple.
Over the next few months, Joe drove miles from his home on Friday nights and Saturday mornings in search of a place where he could feel comfortable and make some friends. When he ran out of Reformed Temples within a reasonable distance from his home (up to an hour away), he began exploring Conservative synagogues. Joe, now getting somewhat desperate, even accepted a couple of invitations to Orthodox synagogues. Nothing seemed a good fit.
One day he was talking to a Jewish co-worker of his named Michael Levy. Michael was also single, but had been seriously dating a nice girl for a few months now and seemed to be really happy. Michael had never hid the fact that he was a “Jew for Jesus”, but since he seldom spoke about his faith with his co-workers, Joe was quite comfortable with their acquaintance.
“So where did you meet Hannah?” asked Joe.
“I met her at congregation,” replied Michael.
Joe stopped for a minute. “If I continue down this road,” Joe thought, “he’s going to start talking to me about Jesus – and that’s really the last thing I want.” But, since Joe figured he knew how to handle the situation, he allowed the conversation to continue.
“Oh.” Joe said, somewhat ambivalently.
“I know you don’t believe in Jesus, Joe, and I’ve never said anything to you before, but you know –“ Joe interrupted Michael in mid-sentence. “Yeah, I know,” interjected Joe, “it’s a great place to meet girls.”
“Well, that’s not exactly what I was going to say, but it’s also true,” Michael chuckled. “Hey, why don’t you come with me to synagogue on Saturday morning and just give it a try?”
Joe agreed to visit the congregation. He wasn’t interested in Jesus, he wasn’t even interested in God, but he was interested in establishing a group of young upwardly-mobile friends and to find a girl to settle down with. He didn’t really care if they believed in Jesus, as long as they were Jewish.
Joe went with Michael to the “Jewish Church” as he called it. He thought it was a little silly – the electric guitars, the PowerPoint presentation with the words to the songs being projected on screens at the front, it felt more like a rock concert than like synagogue, but he decided to stick it out. Afterwards, everyone was very nice to Joe. He was even invited to people’s homes for lunch. Although Joe had no interest in the religious stuff, he really enjoyed spending time with these genuinely happy, friendly people.
It had been about 2 months that Joe had been attending the Messianic congregation. They announced in the morning that after services they would be having a special prayer meeting for anyone who was interested in participating. “I’ll have to make a quick getaway” thought Joe. He certainly didn’t want to get stuck in a Christian prayer service, no matter how Jewish they made it sound. After the service, Joe quietly made his way to the back of the building in an effort to escape unnoticed. Though he was quick, he wasn’t quite quick enough.
As it so happened, Michael had left a few minutes earlier to use the bathroom and he was on his way back to the sanctuary when Joe bumped into him trying to make his escape. Michael put his arm around Joe and encouraged him to stay for the service. Joe felt trapped, but he returned with Michael to the meeting. After a few minutes of people speaking a bunch of gibberish, the Pastor of the congregation came up to the microphone and said, “Joe, would you come up here for a moment?”
Joe couldn’t imagine why the Pastor was calling him up to the front, but what was he supposed to do? There were a couple hundred pairs of eyes watching him. So, Joe slowly made his way up to the front. The Pastor explained to the congregation that Joe was Jewish and that he didn’t believe in Jesus. He turned to Joe and explained to him that the congregation wanted to pray for him to “receive Jesus into his heart.
Joe really wanted no part in this, but he didn’t know what else to do, so he just stood there. It took them a full 10 minutes to pray for Joe, and when they were done, Joe didn’t return to his seat, he walked straight down the aisle to the back of the building and out the doors to the parking lot where his car awaited him.
Joe got in his car and drove to the beach, where he could sit in solitude and think. What had he done? After two months with these people, he had started to feel like a part of their “family”, but he wasn’t any closer to believing what they believed. Maybe he should just pretend to believe like them? Joe was afraid that if he left this group, there would be nowhere else for him to go.
Joe drove home, with this unresolved situation weighing very heavily on his shoulders. It seemed to him that the only thing to do for the moment was to check his email and do some work from home. After starting up his computer, Joe decided to do some searching on the internet. As he surfed the web, he found some articles about people who were Jewish and had become Christians and then returned to Judaism. One article in particular caught his interest; it was about a woman named Penina Taylor, who now ran a counter-missionary organization. He decided to give me a call.
Just at that moment, there was a knock at the door. “Oh, no,” thought Joe. He knew who was at the door before he ever opened it. As he had guessed, it was Michael.
“I hope we didn’t scare you off!” said Michael.
“Well, maybe just a little,” admitted Joe.
Michael went on to remind Joe that prayer meetings like that were part of being a “believer” and that they had only put him on the spot because they had all grown to love him. It was their way of showing they cared. Joe conceded that he knew this to be the case, but admitted that it made him uncomfortable nonetheless. By the time Michael left, Joe was exhausted and decided to make the phone call the next day.
Sunday morning Joe went to visit his grandmother and then stopped in at the office for a while. By the time he got home it was dinner time, but he decided to go ahead and make the phone call. He had not realized that I was now in Israel, but he didn’t really care, he just wanted to talk to someone who might understand him.
Joe told me all about his background, and his story and how he had ended up at the Messianic congregation. Of the more than 100 cases I had dealt with over the previous 4 years, I had never heard a story quite like his. Here Joe was, a Reformed Jewish atheist, who was caught up in a Messianic congregation, but didn’t believe a word of what they said. He was just there for the friendship. Just as unique as his story, I knew that my approach needed to be equally unique.
I started as I usually do, with some questions.
“So, Joe, you’re a Democrat, right?”
“Yes, I just told you I am.”
“And you consider yourself a liberal?”
“That goes almost without saying.”
“What do you have in common with these people? You don’t believe as they do religiously, you don’t believe as they do politically…”
“What do you mean?”
“You do realize, Joe, that the members of this congregation make President Bush look liberal, right?”
“I suppose you’re right, although I hadn’t really given it much thought.”
“So what do you have in common with them?”
Joe had to admit that other than the fact that they claimed to be Jewish and that they were fun people to be around, he really had nothing in common with them. Then I addressed another concern – marriage. In only two months of being at the congregation, Joe hadn’t really developed any serious relationships with any women yet, but I challenged him on it anyway. What if he fell in love with one of the congregants who wasn’t Jewish? What would he do then? And even if she was Jewish, how was he going to handle the difference in beliefs?
Joe admitted that his attending the Messianic congregation had been an act of desperation, but what was he to do now? I offered to help him find a friendly and accepting congregation that had an active singles program. Joe said he wouldn’t be going back to the congregation, and I told him I’d be in touch with him in a few days.
I got to work emailing all my contacts in the area where Joe lived and came up with several outreach oriented Orthodox Rabbis who had congregations that appeared to fit the bill.
“Orthodox?” Shouted Joe.
“Yes, but very modern Orthodox – very ‘with it’ people who are fun to be around and very accepting. What do you think, why don’t you give it a try. There’s a really good chance you have more in common with them than you did with the Messianics.”
“Okay,” Joe responded. I was pretty sure that he was agreeing more for my sake than for his own. Joe didn’t think he would have anything in common with Orthodox Jews, being the confirmed Atheist Reformed Jew that he was.
The following week I called Joe to check and see how Shabbat was.
“It was the most amazing Shabbat experience I’ve ever had. And you were right – we really did have more in common than I thought.”
I continued to follow up with Joe about once a month for the next few months. Then, out of the blue, Joe called me.
“Penina, you’re not going to believe this! I am dating a really wonderful girl from a religious family, and we are very serious. I think I’m going to ask her to marry me!”
“Wow, Joe, that’s fantastic. How are you doing with being Orthodox?” I inquired.
Joe explained to me that with the help of the Rabbi of his synagogue many of his questions had been answered and most of his doubts had disappeared. He was still modern, to be sure – no black and white for him – but he had just joined a daf yomi shiur (daily Talmud study class) and he was praying every morning with the minyan. He had started keeping Shabbat a couple of months before, which I was already aware of, and he was looking forward to starting a family and a kosher home of his own.
A few months after that phone call, I received an email from Joe. It included an invitation to his wedding. He knew that being in Israel , I wouldn’t be able to attend, but he wanted me to see the invitation and to let me know how grateful he was for the help I had been.