Blessed is he capable of surprising and being surprised. Elie Wiesel
In 1967, I was finishing my first year at the University of California in Santa Cruz, a beach town 70 miles down the coast from the counter-culture glories of San Francisco. I earned my spending money as a dishwasher in the school cafeteria, where one of my fellow workers was a scraggly Jewish kid named Harris. I was a flower child, but Harris was political, an anti-Vietnam militant. One day in early June, he surprised me. Surprises, of course, were more abundant back then, when I was eighteen, but this one I still remember. Invasion was amassing on the horizon of far-off Israel, and Harris the anti-war militant announced that he was going to drop out of school, get to Israel somehow, and enlist in the IDF. Before he could get himself organized, however, the apocalyptic moment passed and the war ended with a huge Israeli victory that still shapes the events of today.
I was surprised by the strength of Harris’ Jewish loyalty, I suppose, because mine was more passive. As a third-generation American Jew, three of my four grandparents were born in the Old Country. Their children, my parents, were born and grew up in New York City, and settled in the suburbs of Southern California. My father’s father, Samuel, landed on the golden shores in the great wave of millions of Jews, mostly poor and uneducated, fleeing the Tsar’s empire after 1881 and on into the twentieth century. Family legend has it that when Samuel landed at Ellis Island, he looked up at the cracked and broken windows of the processing center and saw, not shabbiness and disrepair, but opportunity. He got his start peddling panes of window glass from a rack on his back through the streets of Jewish New York. Soon he met and married my grandmother Nettie, who was born in the USA of German-Jewish parents. Both families questioned the union, because German Jews and Russian Jews represented two entirely different classes in that era, but the young couple stayed together, prospered, and had four daughters and a son, my father, Arnold, was born in 1915.
My mother’s parents, Sam and Ida Mandel, were also part of the great wave of immigration that began in 1881. They also started out on the Lower Eastside and raised five children, including my mother, Gussie (a nice up-to-date adaptation of Gittel), born in 1920. Years later, Sam and Ida followed their married daughters to Southern California, and settled in the Jewish district of Hollywood. Once, when we went to visit them, some neighbors told us they had gone out for a walk. We spotted them walking down Fairfax Avenue, past open-air produce markets and delis with hand-painted signs in Yiddish. I was about to run up and greet them, but my mother stopped me. She was afraid they would be frightened and think it was the police coming after them, as they might have done in the old country.
My family’s move to Southern California was part of another mass migration, not specifically Jewish, that swept millions of Americans out to the West Coast after World War II. My parents were not fleeing poverty and oppression as their parents had, but were seeking an even more golden land of economic opportunity, elbow room, and sunshine. Jewish identity had a place here, as long as it did not become too intrusive. Not long before my bar mitzvah at the Reform Temple Beth Israel, Leon Uris wrote his bestseller Exodus. Israel, the Jewish homeland, had been born out of the ashes of the Holocaust to become a model state. So, being Jewish was a source of pride, but its place in my hearts was soon overshadowed by the heady mix of 60s politics and counter-culture. Like many post-bar mitzvah kids, I began to take Judaism for granted and seek new horizons. My parents belonged to the first generation of eastern European Jews to attain education and financial stability in America, and they valued them accordingly. For many in my generation, however, these concerns meant little. My parents’ ordeal through the Great Depression and World War II was the distant past, and their present lives struck me as too comfortable, too narrow.
I left home in 1966 to begin college in Santa Cruz, where I stayed one more year after my surprising encounter with Harris’ Zionist zeal. Then I dropped out, spent half a year bumming around Europe and North Africa, returned to Santa Cruz more restless than ever, and got swept into another, pretty minor, migration, joining some of my fellow flower children in a remote commune in New Mexico, far from the complexities and corruption of suburban society. We lived without electricity or plumbing, hot water or cold beverages, cultivating our plot of land by hand and irrigating out of ditches we maintained ourselves, all the while experimenting with drugs and alternative religions. It was here that I met Jane, my future wife, a beautiful and engaging young woman who had drifted to New Mexico a couple of years before me with a bus-load of hippies from New York City. In the fall of 1971, Jane and I ran off to an even more remote and beautiful corner of northern New Mexico. There, on a mesa at 8000 feet elevation, I learned from the locals how to drive a team of horses and cut timber, identify various crops by their Spanish names, and plant them at more or less the right time. Andrew and Connie Shishkoff, a couple who shared our vision for peace and simplicity, soon joined us along with their little boy.
The following fall, Jane returned to our old commune to stock up on winter supplies. Our two small sons got sick there, and Jane was stranded. Finally a friend offered to take her to a spot on Highway 44 where we often caught rides back up to the mesa. As they neared the spot, Jane asked God – whoever he might be – to just get her home. Then she lifted her eyes and, behold! a made-over Greyhound bus idling by the side of the road, inscribed with the words, JESUS: ONE WAY. The Jesus people inside were from New Jersey, where the Lord had told them to go to the mountains of New Mexico for a year to study the Bible. Before they fired up their bus for the journey, they had laid hands on it, praying that anyone who came into it would accept Jesus before he got off. So they gladly took Jane on board, along with the little boys and hundreds of pounds of winter supplies. When they began to bombard her with Bible verses, Jane felt she should listen; after all, this whole bus ride was an answer to prayer. And so it was that Jane, always the pioneer among us, accepted Jesus on that ride home. Before long Connie accepted him too, and she and Jane invited two guys from the bus to our adobe for dinner. After the meal, Andrew and I sat with them while they pointed out Bible verses by the light of a kerosene lamp. They told us that if we would accept Jesus in our hearts, and say the words “Jesus is Lord”, God would save us and place his Spirit within us.
This was over five years after Santa Cruz and the Six-Day War, and I had experienced losses in the intervening years; lost loves, lost friends, including one murdered just a few weeks before, lost idealism as the flip side of the hippie dream came into focus—drug addiction, ruthless immorality, laziness, and drift. I remembered standing at the edge of our mesa, looking out at the red and gold cliffs of another mesa just before me and the snow-capped San Juans of Southern Colorado far in the distance. Amidst this overpowering beauty, I felt like I was standing on the edge of an abyss, that all of this—our idealistic quest, the return to a simpler, uncorrupted way of life, the mountains and mesas—were all just a distraction from the truth that life was at its core meaningless and headed nowhere. But now by the kerosene lamp I was in for the greatest surprise of my life. As these guys started talking about faith in Jesus, I found myself believing it. Like any good Jewish hippie, I looked down upon Christianity (along with Judaism, I must add), but in recent months, the Bible had begun to draw me—and its picture of Jesus most of all. Now, suddenly, the spirit opened my eyes to see him, who had been altogether foreign to me for most of my life, as the Messiah, as what I had been seeking all along. The road I was traveling had brought me to the edge of the mesa to look out at the void. Now God stepped in and suddenly I was headed in an entirely new direction.
But I could not get myself to say Jesus is Lord, as our mentors had directed. In my polite suburban Jewish home, the name of Jesus was simply not spoken. Our next-door neighbors had an eerie picture of Jesus on their wall with his heart exposed in his chest. In an older part of town I had seen a neon sign that flashed the mysterious words “Jesus Saves.” You could pick up redneck preachers invoking Jesus on the local radio. I remembered all this, along with Crusades and Inquisitions, forced conversions and expulsions. I wanted Jesus, but my long-neglected upbringing held me back. It had let all kinds of exotic religious practices slide through in the past, but now it kept me from saying the words that I already believed in my heart. Finally, after three days, I was able to say it—Jesus is Lord. But then came another surprise: My dormant Jewish identity suddenly revived. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I knew it was important that I was Jewish, and that it was somehow a major part of the plan into which God was drawing me.
Not long afterwards we got discovered by a ministry in Santa Fe that was reaching out to the hippies, many of them Jewish. One evening in a gathering the director stood up and read a passage from the prophet Jeremiah, which he felt applied particularly to us:
I hear voices high upon the windswept mountains, crying, crying. It is the sons of Israel who have turned their backs on God and wandered far away. O my rebellious children, come back to me again and I will heal you from your sins. And they reply, ‘Yes we will come, for you are the Lord our God. We are weary of worshiping idols on the hills and having orgies on the mountains. It is all a farce. Only in the Lord our God can Israel ever find her help and her salvation’ (3:21-23; Living Bible).
It was true; we had wandered far in pursuit of our own ways upon the mountains, and we had grown weary. Now we had returned, not only to the God of Israel, but also to the people of Israel. As a result, we often said that we felt “more Jewish than ever.” Yet, even though we had returned, our search was far from over.
The Christians in Santa Fe loved us. Sometimes when I was introduced as a Jewish believer, they would say, “Oh that’s wonderful. You have the best of both worlds; all the riches of the Jewish heritage and Jesus too!” True enough, but our Christian friends didn’t realize the tension this embrace of both worlds created. Jane and I moved to Albuquerque to live and work at a Christian residential drug treatment center. There our two girls were born, giving us a beautiful family of six. We became immersed in the Christian world, but never felt quite at home there. We soon discovered that Christians did not always feel at home with us either. They didn’t all buy the best-of-both-worlds idea. In fact, some of them told us that we weren’t, or shouldn’t be, Jewish at all anymore, but had converted and left our old religion behind. Paradoxically, from the Jewish world, we heard the same thing: we had converted; we were no longer Jewish; belief in Jesus was completely incompatible with Judaism.
With our counter-culture background, we didn’t view such marginalization as the end of the world. If this Jesus-Jewish identity was from God, we could handle the rejection. But we weren’t sure it was from God, or how it would actually work. During that period, we met Eliezer Urbach, may his memory be for a blessing, who was a mentor and father-figure to many young Messianic Jews. Eliezer started visiting Albuquerque every month and soon took me under his wing. One day he said, “Russell, one tuchas cannot dance at two weddings. You’ll have to decide—will your children take part in the Christmas pageant, or the Chanukah play?”
The choice seemed obvious enough, but how to do it was not so clear. By 1980 I had become an elder (at age 32) of a charismatic, pro-Israel church with a sizeable Jewish contingent. We led a Friday-night home group of about two dozen, mostly Jews and intermarried couples. Some of our friends in other parts of the country were leaving their churches and joining Messianic Jewish congregations, but Jane and I were not so sure about that move. As a recovering hippie, I was not eager to join another rebellion, even one taking the form of a religious movement. Besides, some of what I saw of emerging Messianic Judaism was not too inspiring, with a Jewishness that often seemed contrived or superficial. Then there were the inevitable theological questions; was it really OK to form our own explicitly Jewish congregations? Didn’t faith in Jesus transcend Jewish-Gentile distinctions? At the same time, our closest friends were joining such congregations. Even Eliezer, who initially opposed the whole idea, dropped his reservations and helped start a messianic congregation in Denver. These were the people I trusted most in the world; shouldn’t I go with them on this issue?
In the summer of 1983, things came to a head. One of our commune friends, Ed, had joined a messianic synagogue in Philadelphia. Tired of arguing with us about Messianic Judaism, he offered to fly Jane and me to Messiah ‘83, a major conference where we could see things for ourselves. There we were re-united with Andrew and Connie Shishkoff, who had moved east to join Beth Messiah congregation in Maryland. We were thrilled to hear so many Jewish voices praising the Lord in various east coast accents. The vision was drawing us in, but we still wondered—was it really from God, or just the bright idea of some creative Jewish believers?
One night Messianic Jews from all over the world were giving their testimonies. The stories were similar: “When I came to faith in Yeshua, I thought I was the only Jew in the world who believed the way I did. Then I found some other Jewish believers and we started to meet for Erev Shabbat to pray and eat together. Before long, this grew into our messianic congregation in France (or England or Australia).” Somewhere amidst these testimonies, Jane and I looked at each other and knew. Here was another great surprise: this was from God! Messianic Judaism had not been invented in Philadelphia or Chicago, but was springing up at a grass-roots level all over the world, as the Spirit moved upon Jewish believers. That night we received our most powerful sense of God’s direction since we had accepted Messiah. We were to give ourselves to the messianic movement.
We returned to Albuquerque ready to transform our home group into a messianic congregation. But first Eliezer sent me to another conference, of a new group called the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. There I encountered the same vision, but with more focus on the actual work of establishing congregations, building community, and connecting leaders. Our home-group-in-transition joined as an associate member, and by the next year, with help and encouragement from the UMJC, we qualified for full membership, and I led that congregation for nearly twenty years. In recent years I left local leadership to serve the UMJC full-time, and people sometimes ask whether I miss it. The truth is that I do. Serving in the UMJC has been a great blessing, and I’m still part of a supportive local community, but I miss the rhythm of worship and involvement in people’s lives, and especially the weekly exposition and teaching of Scripture. Writing has become more of a necessity for me in recent years.
Life holds fewer surprises with the passing years, but God forbid it should be without any. Some, of course, are not so sweet. I was surprised that Jews did not flock to us in droves as soon as we developed our authentically Jewish, spiritually vibrant services. I’m surprised at how much work we still have to do to unify our vision and our community so we can hand off something coherent to those coming behind us. I’m surprised as I move into my sixties that Yeshua hasn’t returned yet, and my retirement package might involve Social Security and Medicare instead of millennial repose under my own vine and fig tree.
There are good surprises too: I’ve visited Israel many times in the past 15-20 years. The apocalypse briefly glimpsed in June 1967 hasn’t arrived, and life goes on in Eretz Yisrael despite all the challenges, with—surprise!—growing visibility and even grudging acceptance of Messianic Jews. Every Jew who turns to Yeshua, despite centuries of alienation, is still a great surprise. So is the bond of friendship and regard within our community despite all our differences and dysfunction. I am surprised by the steadfast commitment to Yeshua among my colleagues, and especially my younger colleagues, who seem to bridge the Jewish-Jesus divide with such grace and energy. And I hope I am still capable of surprising others at times as well.
My journey from assimilated Jewish suburbia, through a remote corner of the American counter-culture, and on to our decidedly Jewish experiment in following Yeshua, will end in a great surprise, not just for me but for all—when Messiah’s feet stand on the Mount of Olives, and living waters flow out from Jerusalem, and the Lord becomes king over all the earth (Zech. 14:5, 8-9).