Article in Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2009
What does a Jew do who suddenly finds himself believing in Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew)? In 1969 I found myself unwittingly caught between two seemingly unbridgeable worlds – Judaism and Christianity. Growing up as a Jew, I felt loyalty and affinity to my roots, and yet my spiritual journey led me to Yeshua. The following year at college I met another “freak” like me, who alleviated my internal conflict by introducing me to the term “Messianic Jew.” As we studied the Scriptures together, I saw that Yeshua was the Jewish Messiah. I had little idea of the Pandora’s box I opened. My newly found faith caused a huge conflict with my family and my Jewish community, sadly continuing to this day.
This year I celebrate my 18th year (the Hebrew number for life) as Rabbi of Tikvat Israel, a Messianic Jewish congregation in Richmond, and I recently completed my sixth year as president of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. In 1989 Tikvat Israel started in a small meeting room of a motel on Rt. 95. Before moving to Richmond in 1990 my young family and I commuted every week from Washington, D.C. Today, the congregation is housed in a historic synagogue building on the corner of Boulevard and Grove, crowded with worshipers on Saturday mornings and Jewish holidays, bustling with life and joy.
Since my discovery of Yeshua in 1969, Messianic Judaism has grown rapidly. The ‘60s hippie movement produced large numbers of Jewish young men and women embracing this Yeshua. Seeking to maintain Jewish identity with this newly found faith, these young people began forming Messianic synagogues. Today, there are close to 1000 such synagogues around the world, including 150 in Israel. As a teacher I have traveled to many of these houses of worship in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Israel. I am still amazed at how what seemed strange almost 40 years ago - a Jew believing in Yeshua and remaining Jewish - has become increasingly normalized.
Tikvat Israel’s beliefs, practices and traditions are similar to those of traditional synagogues, with the obvious exception of belief in Yeshua as Messiah. Not unlike the first few hundred years of Yeshua’s Jewish followers, our Saturday order of service follows the synagogue structure, highlighted by the procession and the reading/chanting of the Torah (the five books of Moses). Traditional and contemporary music is interwoven throughout the service, coupled with tasteful Israeli-style dancing. We celebrate the Jewish holidays, circumcise male infants, and our young teens celebrate their Bar and Bat Mitzvot in the traditional way. We have Hebrew instruction, a Shabbat School and vibrant youth, young-adult and adult programs.
Members include Jews from all backgrounds, interfaith families and those from a variety of Christian backgrounds who seek to understand the Jewish roots of their faith. Many are active in larger Jewish causes. For 15 years our congregation has assisted hundreds of Russian families to successfully immigrate to our city; in fact, we house the largest Russian library in the region. We are currently involved in large humanitarian projects to Israel, recognized and welcomed by the Israeli government.
Despite all this, some people, almost all of whom have not attended our services, still think the name Messianic Jew is a contradiction in terms, largely as a result of the historical divide between Judaism and Christianity. However, many viewed Theodore Herzl (the father of Zionism) as a fool when he proposed a Jewish state be established in the Holy Land. How could ancient Israel be resurrected into a modern nation after almost 2,000 years? Yet, there she stands, and so do we - the spiritual descendants of the original followers of Yeshua, resurrected after almost two millennia.