I was born into a Messianic Jewish family. My mom is halachically Jewish, raised Conservative and my dad was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a convert to Messianic Judaism. Mom became a Christian in College where she met my Dad at a Campus Crusade for Christ event. Both of them had just become Christians and were very passionate about their new faith and about sharing it with everyone they met. After college, Mom and Dad got married and settled down in a lovely suburban community outside Philadelphia.
One day Mom and Dad were manning a table at a fair when a guy came up to them and started talking to them. He was a Christian, too, he told them, but he called himself a “Messianic Jew”. My dad told the guy that my mom was Jewish and the guy invited my parents to the local messianic congregation. Mom was pregnant with me at the time. Shortly after joining the messianic congregation, I was born. Over time, my parents became very active in the congregation, but with homeschooling eight children, they were very busy at home.
I was homeschooled through high school. Being part of a close-knit family with a strong faith, I didn’t struggle with my beliefs like some of my friends did. I knew from the time I was old enough to understand, that there was a God, that I was a Jew, and that Jesus (we called him Yeshua) had died to save me and mankind from our sins. I accepted Yeshua into my heart officially when I was five years old. I never questioned anything I read in the bible, everything fit perfectly, like a skillfully crafted puzzle.
After finishing my high school program, I was accepted to Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland. Even before I arrived at the school, I discovered that there was a large Jewish student population. I had done a lot of internet research about the school during the summer before I arrived at Hopkins and while on one of the websites, I discovered that there was not only a Hillel organization, but that there was a kosher kitchen at the school and students could purchase a kosher food plan. Since I had been raised to eat “biblically kosher,” I decided to purchase the kosher food plan as well as Hillel’s Shabbat and holiday plan.
Since I had never been to a formal school, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had seen enough television to have an idea of what things might be like, but I also wasn’t sure where I would fit in. As a Messianic Jew, I was in the habit of wearing a yarmulke on my head and tzitzit, but I had run into problems interacting with Orthodox Jews on the occasions I had encountered them in Philadelphia. Although I looked like an Orthodox Jew, I didn’t know how to behave like one and I certainly didn’t think like one. When I got to college, I figured I’d have two choices, either pretend to be Orthodox and “fit in” or be honest with everyone about who I was and what I believed. I asked myself what God would want me to do and determined that from the beginning I would be honest about who I was. Easier said than done.
On the first day of school, I was headed towards the dining hall when I was stopped by another freshman who needed directions. She didn’t know I didn’t have a clue, but seeing my kippa and tzitzit, I guess she figured I was a safe person to ask. We started talking and Laya and I hit it off immediately. She was Orthodox, and it was clear that she thought I was, too. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t. Everything kind of went downhill from there. It seems as though that chance meeting with Laya had determined my entire future in one split second.
As the year progressed, I began attending Hillel events as well as some off-campus events. One day a friend of mine told me that he was going to hear an anti-missionary speak at a local synagogue. He wanted to know if I wanted to come along. At hearing the term “anti-missionary” I bristled, concerned that he had found me out. But to my surprise, he hadn’t, he was simply inviting as many people as possible to go with him to the talk. The anti-missionary was a woman named Penina Taylor, who was born Jewish and had been a Christian for 17 years before coming back to Judaism. It was an interesting sounding story, to be sure, but it also happened to be that she was friends with Yitzi’s mom. I really didn’t want to go, but I figured maybe I would be able to learn something about why the Orthodox seemed to hate Messianics so much, so I agreed.
The night of the talk came and I was trying to figure out how to back out without seeming suspicious. But when Yitzi called on my cell phone to tell me he was in his car waiting for me, I resigned myself to the fact that I was going. The talk was held at an Orthodox synagogue, but there were a lot of obviously non-orthodox people there, including a Messianic Rabbi and a couple of other Christians I didn’t know. All Penina talked about was her story, and then afterwards people asked questions. It kind of surprised me that the Messianic Rabbi and the Christians didn’t say anything, but I figured they were just being polite. Penina was a good speaker and seemed like a really sincere and nice person, she didn’t come across as violent and hateful the way other anti-missionaries had come across.
I stood around Penina along with a group of about 15 people who were all excitedly asking questions. I just listened. Some of the questions were good and some seemed really stupid to me, these people really didn’t know much about Christianity, did they? After what seemed like a very long time, Penina said she needed to go but first she wanted everyone to have her business card. “You never know,” she said, “when you might need to contact me.” I took one of her cards.
The next day I decided to look her up on the internet. I found her articles intriguing and challenging. They started to make me think. At Penina’s talk she had said that she had discovered that the core beliefs she had held for so long had been based on mistranslations of scriptures, or verses taken completely out of context. That was the catalyst for her to reject her belief in Yeshua. How could someone give up their faith so easily? I wondered. I began to pray that God would give me some insight into what could make a person with such a strong faith turn away. I wasn’t searching for a new “Truth”; I wanted to understand Penina’s decision.
A few days later I began emailing Penina and we started talking. She asked me if I was Jewish and I told her that I was, and I explained my background. I don’t know what it was I was expecting, but whatever it was, Penina was not it. She asked me what it would take for her to prove to me that Jesus wasn’t the messiah. I thought for a minute. My first response was to say that it was impossible. I wanted to tell her that no amount of refutation could convince me that he wasn’t the messiah, it was something I knew in my heart, in the very depth of my soul. Instead, though, I told her that I didn’t think it was possible, because in order to prove that he wasn’t the messiah, you’d have to prove that he wasn’t divine, that he didn’t die for our sins, that he wasn’t resurrected and he didn’t fulfill all those prophecies. That, I reasoned, was impossible.
Next thing I knew I had agreed to delve into an in-depth study with Penina. We went through all the major proofs for the messiahship of Jesus, we also explored a few of the less major ones. I didn’t want to believe what she was telling me. If Penina was correct, then everything I had been raised to believe was a lie. What would I tell my parents? How could I reject what I had known and believed with all my hear t for my whole life?
During this time I spent nearly as much time in Bible commentaries and Christian and Messianic online forums as I did in my medical textbooks. I was disturbed by what Penina had shown me and I wanted answers. In the end, though I didn’t want to admit it, she was right. Penina connected me with a Rabbi and after graduation I decided to take some time off to learn in a Yeshiva before continuing with my post-graduate education. Now I’m learning about Judaism – real Judaism, and I’m amazed at how many things I had been taught in the Messianic movement that just weren’t right; not only about Jesus, but about Judaism in general. I have been so amazed to discover the depth and beauty in Judaism, as well as the joy and the emphasis on a relationship with God – something I had thought that Jews didn’t have.