Called to Controversy: The Unlikely Story of Moishe Rosen and the Founding of Jews for Jesus
by Ruth Rosen
Called to Controversy
The Unlikely Story of Moishe Rosen and the Founding of Jews for Jesus
Another Yom Kippur had passed; the light of the crisp autumn day had given way to the chill of a dark, clear night. Elsewhere families had broken their fast together, but Moishe had gone straight from synagogue services to the sporting goods store. He wasn't required to work that night, but he was still a part-time high school student and welcomed the opportunity for an extra three hours of wages.
Now, waiting for the bus at the end of a very long day, Moishe paused to tuck the velvet bag containing his tallis (prayer shawl) under his arm, freeing his hand to light a cigarette. Inhaling slowly, he briefly mused over the synagogue service. The congregation had confessed a litany of sins, corporate and individual, intentional and unintentional. Then, light-headed, dry mouthed, stomachs growling from hunger, they'd headed for home or some other pleasant respite. But had any spiritual transaction actually occurred?
At seventeen, Moishe's awareness of God had grown vague, but his awareness of himself was sharp enough. He knew that if someone were to draw his spiritual portrait, sin would certainly be part of the picture....
Glancing around, Moishe noticed that the other person at the bus stop was dressed in a suit. He appeared to be about twenty years old, had red hair and was gazing in Moishe's direction.
The stranger looked pointedly at Moishe's shiny shoes, then looked him in the eye and said, "You're all dressed up. Are you coming home from work, or a party?" His voice was rich and full.... He didn't strike Moishe as being Jewish, but...it was uncommon to see men dressed in suits, waiting for a bus at night.
"Work," Moishe replied. "But before that, synagogue." He usually was not so open with strangers but it had slipped out before he realized it. He paused, wondering how the stranger would react to his Jewish identity. [He] looked like a friendly kind of guy. To Moishe's astonishment, he was more than friendly; he was downright enthusiastic as he eagerly extended his hand and announced,
"I'm so pleased to meet you! You know, every Jew I meet increases my faith in God and the Bible."
"Huh?" Moishe wondered if he had heard right.
"Well sure. Every living Jew is evidence that the God of the Bible exists and that He keeps His word.* You know, Genesis 12:1-3." Orville proceeded to quote, by heart, God's promise to Abraham.
Moishe was speechless.
Orville had no problem continuing the conversation. "Do you go to synagogue regularly?"
"No, not so much anymore," Moishe admitted. "Today was Yom Kippur. It's a pretty important holiday for us." His stomach rumbled. "Wow, I'm really hungry.... I haven't really eaten since last night."
"Really? Are you sick?"
"No, I've been fasting. That's what we do for Yom Kippur. Besides going to synagogue."
Orville seemed genuinely interested, "So what does it all mean?"
Moishe shrugged. "It means that my sins are supposed to be forgiven."
"Do you feel your sins are forgiven?"
"Who knows?" Moishe shrugged, and there was something in his tone of voice that touched the stranger.
Seeing the bus coming, Moishe crushed the cigarette with his foot. He looked at Orville and though he thought this guy must be a little nutty, he was still intrigued by what he'd said about Jews increasing his faith in God and the Bible. He wasn't quite ready for the conversation to end, so before getting on the bus he smiled and said, "I'm Martin Rosen."
"Orville Freestone," the other smiled back.
There was plenty of room on the bus, but the two sat near enough to continue their discussion.
"I believe there is a way to know that your sins are forgiven," Orville began, and Moishe could tell he was winding up to say more. Then came the pitch: "I believe that Christ died for my sins and made it possible for me to know God and find eternal life."
This came as no great surprise to Moishe. Since he wasn't Jewish, Moishe figured he must be Christian. The strangest thing was that as Orville explained the Christian religion it sounded as though the whole thing was a Jewish idea. The story of Jesus dying to take the punishment for people's sins, he said, was pictured in the original observances of Yom Kippur in Bible times, when the Jewish High Priest placed his hands on the scapegoat and recited the sins of the people. That goat was then led out into the wilderness, far from the camp of the Israelites. Another goat was sacrificed and its blood sprinkled on the altar as an atonement [covering] for sin. It all sounded very weird and spooky, but Moishe couldn't dismiss it as Christian mumbo-jumbo because clearly Orville was describing things from the Torah.
Moishe changed the subject, generalizing the topic, taking a philosophical bent. Orville listened and interacted with Moishe, but now and then he would mention something from the Bible.
When the bus pulled up to Colfax and Federal Boulevard, it became apparent that they were getting off at the same stop. "Well, Orville," Moishe said, "It's been nice talking to you. But I have to tell you, you've got some one-track mind. No matter what I say, you bring it back to religion. Look, I don't even know whether all those things in the Torah happened or not. But even if they did, it's ancient history. And I'm interested in what goes on today."
With that, Moishe figured, he'd head north to his home on 15th and Federal, and Orville, who lived at 14th and Federal would go south.
"Wait a second," Orville said. "You think the Bible doesn't have anything to do with today? What would you say if I told you that the Bible predicted something that happened just a little over a year ago?"
That stopped Moishe in his tracks. Of all the things Orville had said, the idea that the Bible had something to say about modern life was the most fascinating. "What do you mean?"
"I'm talking about the state of Israel. It's all in the Bible, about how the Jewish people would return to the Land God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."
Suddenly Moishe found his feet were heading toward Orville's house instead of his own. The conversation continued as they reached Orville's front porch....
It was well past midnight when Moishe headed for home, trying not to think about some of the things he'd heard that night. But some of it was not so easy to dismiss.... Moishe found himself thinking, "What Orville says makes sense to me, and that means I must be one dumb Jew, because Jesus couldn't possibly be the Messiah. If I were smarter, I'd be able to see why it can't be true."
It wasn't as though he was particularly interested in God, and he certainly was not waiting around for the Messiah—so there was really no reason to think about the discussion any further. As for the New Testament Orville had given him, Moishe never even thought of reading it. "If I read it, I might be dumb enough to believe it, and that would make me one of them [a Christian or Gentile.] If the rabbis ever get together and decide that Jesus is the Messiah, maybe I'll go along with them. Until then, I'm not having anything to do with this book."
Fortunately, there was a large trashcan outside the tire store next to Moishe's house. He conveniently dropped the New Testament into it before climbing the steps to his house. Inside, he quickly undressed and flopped into bed, utterly exhausted.
*This statement so impressed Moishe that in later years, he came back to it time and time again, including it in many of his sermons and lectures.