Rick was raised in a conservative Jewish home in Suburban New York. His parents, both professionals, provided all his needs growing up, including an excellent education. Until his bar mitzvah, Rick attended Hebrew School several afternoons a week as well as on Sunday morning. Rick’s family was very active in his synagogue and his bar mitzvah was attended by several hundred people.
In school, Rick excelled. He wasn’t much of an athlete, but he was among one of the top students in his school, and he had a nice group of friends with whom he spent much of his free time. Looking back, Rick’s childhood is the quintessential American Jewish success story.
After high school, Rick went on to college to study Social Work, and was doing well when all of a sudden he got sick. No big deal, Rick thought, everybody gets sick. But when Rick’s light flu-like symptoms didn’t seem to go away, Rick decided to go to the Doctor. After dozens of tests and many missed classes, the doctors finally diagnosed Rick with Lupus, an immune deficiency that is rare in men and whose symptoms run the gamut from rashes to chest pain to flu-like symptoms.
The diagnosis was devastating. Would he ever be able to have a normal life? Despite frequent periods of intense pain, Rick finished college and even went on to get his Masters degree in Social Work. Although he was not physically able to hold down a regular job, Rick’s degree in Social Work allowed him to do some occasional freelance work that filled in where public assistance funds fell short. In the end, Rick’s life was not where he nor his parents envisioned he’d be, but he persevered and made a life for himself despite the challenges life had thrown his way.
At this point, Rick felt like there had to be more to life than dealing with physical challenges and work. During those times when his disease was in “remission”, Rick would regularly attend the synagogue he had grown up in and to which he had been a member in good standing for many years. But, with long periods of absence from services, when he did attend he often felt invisible, like no one noticed him. He had very few friends at the synagogue and felt that in many ways, he had become disconnected both from the congregation and from any connection he had at one time had to God and spirituality. Maybe he needed to find a different outlet?
Not long after, Rick received a phone call from one of his friends from graduate school. Rick and John hadn’t seen each other in over a year, but John was a nice guy and when he extended an invitation to Rick to come to his house for a barbeque with some of the other guys they had graduated with, he jumped at the opportunity. At the time, Rick was going through one of his healthier periods and thought that some time with old buddies would hit the spot.
Although Rick was a little older than his friends, he was well-liked and found that they were good company. In the evening, after pretty much everyone had left, Rick and John sat down over a cold drink and just began talking. Rick told John about what was going on in his life, his physical disability, and his dissatisfaction with synagogue life. John invited Rick to come visit his congregation.
“It’s a little different from your traditional Conservative synagogue,” John commented.
“What do you mean, by ‘a little different’?” asked Rick.
“Well, it’s a little different because even though it’s a Conservative synagogue and everyone there is either Jewish or married to a Jewish person, our congregation teaches that the messiah has already come. We actually call ourselves Messianic Jews.”
“You mean you are Jews for Jesus?” responded Rick, noticeably uncomfortable.
“Not exactly,” explained John. “Jews for Jesus is an organization of Jews who believe in Jesus and go out handing out leaflets on street corners. Our congregation is a group of Jewish people who have discovered the messiah. We don’t call him Jesus, we call him Yeshua – his Hebrew name, and we worship in a completely Jewish context. You should really check it out.”
“I don’t know…”
“Look, I tell you what, our Friday night services are very informal and we get a lot of visitors. We’ve got a very active singles group and after services we have an oneg – a full spread! It’s a great time to make friends and since there usually so many visitors, you’ll blend right in. What do you say?”
Rick agreed to visit the Messianic congregation on Friday night, with the caveat that it would likely only be one time. John gave him the address and told him he’d see him there.
That Friday night, Rick began to have second thoughts about visiting the Messianic congregation, but he was feeling well and was bored, so he pulled out the piece of paper John had scribbled the address on, called a taxi and went to the congregation.
When Rick walked into the “synagogue”, he was surprised to see that most of the men were not only wearing yarmulkes, but tallits – the prayer shawl that he was used to wearing during services, but usually only on Saturday mornings. Up at the front of the room a band was playing some very lively music, and although the atmosphere seemed a little contrived, everyone there was friendly and appeared to be having a genuinely good time.
Rick enjoyed himself enough to come back several more times. In fact, although he did not yet believe in Jesus, Rick was one of the most regular attendees. Until his illness reared its ugly head again. Saturday afternoon, after having missed both Friday night and Saturday morning services, Rick’s phone rang. It was John, who was concerned about his friend.
Rick explained about his illness and John offered to pray for him. That evening, the doorbell rang and the “rabbi” of the congregation came to pay Rick a visit. Rick was amazed at the care the rabbi showed him. After talking for a little bit, the rabbi prayed for Rick to be healed and to accept “his messiah.”
Rick had never felt more accepted and connected to Judaism than he did at the messianic congregation. During one of the worship services, it struck Rick that such joy and spiritual connection must be true and he decided at that moment to believe in “Yeshua”.
After Rick, now referred to by his Hebrew name, Chaim, declared his belief in Yeshua, he became a full-fledged member of the congregation. He began teaching “Shabbat School” and was regarded in the congregation as a leader. Even the rabbi would come to Rick for advice, or clarification on some aspect of traditional Jewish belief and practice.
That last part actually began to bother Rick quite a lot. Sure, he had been raised in an active Conservative synagogue, had gone to Hebrew school, etc. But how is it that he could know more about being “Jewish” than the rabbi of their congregation? For the moment, Rick but his concerns on the back-burner; he had more important details to attend to.
Not long after Rick became Messianic, certain members of the congregation set out to finding him a wife, and they succeeded. Rick was “matched” with a young woman from a sister congregation in another state. They had only spoken a few times on the phone, but the congregational leaders insisted that this was all that was necessary and the date for the wedding was set. The first time Rick laid eyes on his new bride was while he was standing under the tallit-cum-chuppa in the congregation’s sanctuary. As in most things in the congregation, the ceremony was an odd mix of Orthodox, secular and Christian customs. After the wedding, Rick and Sylvia went on their honeymoon – the first step in starting their new life together.
Unfortunately for Rick, the honeymoon wasn’t even over before he realized that he didn’t like Sylvia. She was several years older than him and had been married once before, but her husband had died at a young age. After the first 3 days together, Rick was convinced that it was Sylvia’s constant complaining that had driven the poor guy to an early grave.
After returning to NY, Rick and Sylvia settled into Rick’s apartment and began their new life, but it didn’t take long for them both to realize that it was not a good match. Rick went to the rabbi to seek counseling and he was told to pray and to give it time. As time wore on and Rick’s patience began to wear out, he started to become disillusioned with the Messianic congregation. He had been a member for several years at this point, but his marriage situation and continuous requests to the rabbi for help in the matter put a strain on his relationship with the congregation. It seemed as if nobody had the patience for a member in need.
One day, after a particularly long and severe bout with his illness, Rick received a phone call. It was Sylvia. She told Rick that she was tired of their marriage and she was leaving him. She removed all the money from their joint bank account and disappeared. Rick sat down to pray and seek God’s assistance to help him figure out what was going on in his life and what he needed to do about it.
Since Rick was still ill with this particular recurrence of the lupus, he had a lot of time to sit and think about things. Yes, he spent a lot of time in prayer, but he also started reviewing his life and trying to figure out where things had gone wrong. How had he allowed his congregation to get so much control over his own life? Was this really what God wanted? And what was with the rabbi who didn’t even know enough Hebrew to read from the Torah? Was Messianic Judaism really what God wanted Judaism to look like? Rick began to have his doubts.
Since Rick felt that he couldn’t really call his old rabbi from the Conservative congregation, he decided to contact an Orthodox rabbi in his community who was known for his outreach activities. Rick sat down with the Rabbi and began to tell him about what he believed. All of a sudden the rabbi stopped him and said, “you don’t actually believe that garbage, do you?” Rick was so taken aback by the question and the tone of voice with which it was posed that he just sat there stunned. When he had regained his composure, Rick thanked the rabbi for his time and took his leave.
Rick went home more upset than he was before he had gone. Was this Rabbi the best that Judaism had to offer in response to Messianic Judaism? “It couldn’t be,” thought Rick. After about a week of processing what had happened, Rick decided to give it one more try. He picked up the phone and called the Baltimore office of a counter-missionary organization called “Jews for Judaism”, where I was working at the time. I answered the phone answered the phone and Rick began to explain to me that he wanted to speak to someone who could discuss Messianic Judaism with him. He was both pleased and surprised to find out that I was a former Messianic myself and Rick later admitted that even over the phone he could tell that my attitude towards him was very different from that of the Rabbi he had spoken to the week before.
I assured Rick that he wasn’t crazy or stupid, but that he was a spiritual person who was seeking a connection with God. Over the next few weeks, Rick and I spoke several times on the phone. Each time, He shared his concerns but also presented me with a new set of questions about verses from the bible or differences between Christian and Jewish theology. I attempted to answer each question thoroughly and with patience, helping Rick to see that the answers to all his questions were contained within Judaism. Although Orthodox Judaism was not a path that Rick had ever thought he would even consider, my manner and commitment to God apparently impressed him and he decided to begin to explore Orthodox Judaism.
I arranged for Rick to come to Baltimore to spend a Shabbat in the Orthodox community and even arranged for him to spend some time talking with other former Messianics. After a few more weeks and a second visit to Baltimore, Rick realized that his decision to become a Christian was mostly emotional and that any logic he thought he had used in determining that Jesus was the messiah was faulty, at best. That evening, motzei Shabbat, Rick asked me to arrange for him to speak with a Rabbi in the community who could give him some wise counsel. After their talk, the Rabbi invited Rick to go to the mikveh both for spiritual cleansing and as a sign that he had forsaken Christianity and committed himself to being a Torah Observant Jew.
In the fall following his return to Judaism, Rick – now Chaim once again, enrolled in a program at a local Yeshivah where he is studying to become a Rabbi.
*Rick’s story is a composite of two people with very similar stories.