The following frank life story gives the unique perspective of what it is like to come to the Lord out of a Jewish background, with parents who had known the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp firsthand. It is touching, thought-provoking and may challenge you to take another look at what is the real church and how you share your faith.
Because I am Jewish, it is most natural for me to teach by using stories. This particular story is very personal and therefore, I will remain anonymous in its telling. Be slow and patient as you read it. Relive my past with my emotions, not yours.
Allow me to briefly set the stage for you. Both of my parents were in Concentration Camps and my next youngest sister and I were born in Camps at the very end of the war. My father, from the Ukraine, lost his first family to the Nazis. When my grandmother saw an opportunity to escape, she deliberately abandoned my mother, leaving her to fend for herself in the hell of wartime Poland. My mother very, very seldom spoke about the war. My father would get drunk and weep for hours about it. Until the day he died, my father had violent nightmares about the family and friends he couldn't rescue.
Neither of my parents spoke much of their lives before the Holocaust, though my father in particular was an enigma to me. He got stared at frequently because he was a hunchback as a result of an escape from a moving train. He loved opera and smoked cigars, which drove my mother crazy. Although he knew the entire Talmud by heart in Hebrew, he also made cryptic references to the Kabbalah. This learned man spent the final half of his life welding in an iron shop. When he died, he died a self-proclaimed atheist: "There is no God, because if there were a God, He would never have permitted the Holocaust.
It was the Jewish Immigration Society, organized in the U.S. at the end of World War II that secured a job for my father in Washington, D.C., which is what allowed my family to emigrate here from Germany. Prior to coming to the U.S., my parents were among boatloads of people turned away from Israel by the British.
A Stranger Among You - My Journey Begins
The Holocaust made ghosts of six million murdered Jews. But it also made ghosts of untold numbers of those Jews who by God's grace survived. My parents both lived through horrific childhoods, only to be faced with Hitler's "Final Solution". They managed to avoid being "solved", married, started a family, and immigrated to the U.S., all the while consumed with guilt for just being alive. My mother, in addition, carries scars both physical and emotional from an alcoholic step-father and self-absorbed mother.
It has taken me my entire life to begin to understand what my parents accomplished. The title of that grade "B" thriller, "night of the Living Dead", says it all. They did an incredible job and raised six children, the entire time continually reacting to events in their past like an old vinyl record with scratches that make the needle repeat a section, over and over, until the needle is bumped forward, only to get stuck again.
It's ironic that the same American Jewish community that called my parents "heroes" wouldn't have anything to do with them because my family was hopelessly poor. The isolation this created had the unforeseen impact of insuring that I, as a daughter and the oldest surviving child, received no religious training. My father worked on the Sabbath; he had no choice. My mother never learned to speak English clearly enough to be easily understood, and was unable to work outside the house, even though she desperately needed to do so. We never once went to Synagogue as a family. Only one time a year, on Yom Kippur, did my father attend. And when my brothers were old enough, one by one they joined him.
I do remember my mother lighting the Menorah with Sabbath candles that she cut into fourths to save money. She never taught me the prayer she said; I don't recall ever hearing it spoken aloud. For years until I ran away from home my mother laughed at me because I didn't know the Sabbath prayer that she refused to teach me. (In Judaism, it is the mother's duty to teach her daughters this ritual.)
For those of you (Probably most) unaware of how a Synagogue works, there is no collection plate to raise funds. A family pays a membership fee to join. This can amount to thousands of dollars, depending on the Synagogue. My family couldn't afford it and I never found out if the Rabbi allowed my parents a discount, or if my parents never formally joined. Later in the year, a Synagogue sells tickets to the High Holy Day services. Hundreds of dollars all over again that my parents also didn't have. I do know that a ticket for my father was usually obtained, but I have no knowledge of how or at what sacrifice.
I was around eight years old when one day my mother unexpectedly decided to send me to children's Sabbath services for the first time. She told me there was a party every Saturday to welcome the Sabbath. In my mind, a party meant there would be something to eat, so I became excited. My mother gave me directions to the Synagogue and I happily walked the ten blocks there. However, when I arrived, I had no idea what to do next. There were adults on the first floor, all reading backwards from books with writing I couldn't read, who became annoyed when I entered. (They were praying, but I didn't know it. I had never prayed.)
My mother had no idea what time services were held and sent me as soon as I was dressed. It still wasn't early enough. Someone irritatedly told me to go upstairs, do I did. There I found a room with about 25 children of all ages, mostly older than I. The door was open and when the Rabbi saw me, he motioned me in and told me to take a seat. At this point I noticed that everyone else had an empty Dixie cup and plate with crumbs of food on them. I asked the Rabbi, "My mother told me there was a party here?" The Rabbi told me "Yes, there was, but You're too late". Then he proceeded to tell the room several Bible stories about Moses, none of which are in the Bible. I mainly remember that when he described the ten plagues, the Rabbi scratched his back on the doorframe to illustrate the horrible itching that the Egyptians had to endure.
The next Saturday I rushed to Synagogue so I wouldn't miss out on the food. I got there in time and was treated to a three ounce cup of grape juice and a piece of matzo. It didn't measure up to my hungry imagination at all, but stayed for the rest of the service since I couldn't sneak out. The Rabbi decided to continue teaching the class how to speak Hebrew. When he asked if anyone knew any Hebrew words, he looked right at me. Now, although my parents spoke seven languages, they never told me which was what and I didn't know what Hebrew was. The Rabbi asked me how to say a particular sentence in Hebrew, and waited and waited for me to say something. I was blushing and whispered the phrase in Yiddish, which I thought was Hebrew since I knew only Jews spoke Hebrew and I'd never heard any of the "others" speak Yiddish. Not only did I answer in Yiddish, I used the familiar form, something else I didn't know about. The entire class including the Rabbi laughed uproariously. When everything was over, I ran home. (I never again went to Sabbath services until I was in my thirties and decided to raise my children Jewish so they wouldn't lose their heritage.)
Looking For Jesus In Bedtime Stories
The only faithful friend during my childhood was Greek Orthodox. She had a collection of books that she let me borrow. You've probably seen the updated versions in waiting rooms all over the country; they're "Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories". Even though I had no idea who or what Jesus was, "Uncle Arthur" made him seem so kind and loving.
I very much wanted Jesus, but I couldn't have him. After all, I was Jewish, not Christian. My parents had repeatedly told me stories of Christians killing Jews, so my desire for Jesus made me feel like a traitor and I kept my mouth shut.
"Uncle Arthur" did, however, make me hound my mother for a Bible to read. She told me I could only have a Masoretic text, the Jewish version, but she had to go buy one. There was no Bible, Jewish or otherwise, in our house. I was greatly surprised when I read the Old Testament to learn that the stories told by the Rabbi were not in the Bible. I couldn't figure out why the Rabbi would lie to me. (It was many years later that I realized he had been relating oral tradition from Commentaries on the Talmud.)
When I was somewhere around the age of 12, our local Safeway supermarket offered a four-volume collection of Bible stories as a reduced-price premium. I plotted for a way to get them. The argument that worked on my mother for the first three books was that they were all stories from the Jewish Bible, so each week for the next three weeks she bought a volume. The money came from food coupons she cashed in or else there would have been no way to buy them. However, it was the fourth volume, the one with the stories about Jesus, that I was really after. My mother steadfastly refused to get it. I was beginning to panic since the store was running out of all the bible story books, including number four.
Finally, I managed to convince her that the fourth volume was part of a set; I told her I wouldn't read it but without that fourth volume, the entire set would remain incomplete. It worked. My family had all kinds of bits and pieces of things; almost nothing was whole in our entire repertoire of lives or possessions. Completeness was very precious. (I read and re-read the Bible story books until I had them memorized; especially volume four, though I could not have told you why.)
When I was in my early teens, I wanted to find out more about my heritage and so for the first time, I went to High Holy Day services. I still didn't know Hebrew and had no idea what was going on when I entered the auditorium. Everyone was standing up, rocking back and forth on their heels, and chanting from a book written only in Hebrew. I had been standing in the back for less than three minutes, listening and trying to "feel" if God was there, when a middle-aged man came up to me and demanded to see my ticket. I politely explained to him, whispering, "I don't need a ticket; I'm just standing". He brusquely answered, "You need a ticket to stand". Humiliated, I replied, "If I need a ticket to pray to God, I'm never coming back here again", and walked out.
What I pieced together on my own was that my family was "different" from families on television, different from families described in the books I read, and different from the families (all three of them) whose daughters would associate with me. I didn't know we were poor until I was around 12 and bought a once-a-week newspaper that all of my sisters and brothers would share for current events in school. There was an article describing families living in poverty. I was utterly shocked by it. "Normal" families had so much food that they could set it out in big bowls on a table and eat all at the same time. They subscribed to magazines. And so it went. After reading the article, my family was no longer the average against which I measured others.
A Spiritual Quest
Since I couldn't have Jesus, and apparently could never get rid of my "Jewishness" ("It's in the blood", my mother drummed into me with bitter resignation), I determined to find something that I could have. Over the next dozen years I delved deeply into the twisted ways of witchcraft and almost every Eastern religion, landing firmly in the loving embrace of New Age.
Almost nothing was too weird or even idiotic; as long as my eager-to-guide and caring New Age associates accepted it, I did, too. Reincarnation (a truly loving God wouldn't limit our chances to perfect ourselves), aliens from other planets (how arrogant to think that we're special), prior civilizations of telepathic wraith-like beings from Lemuria (the Bible is only a confused history of our particular and very primitive Kali Yuga, or age), Jesus was an ascended master (just one of many), channeling (of course you know everything once you're dead), homosexuality is allowable (it just means you haven't gotten over being the opposite sex in your last life), fortune telling (ala Tarot, horoscopes, crystals, numerology, etc.), and so on.
New Age has a plausible explanation for everything, and I never worried about reconciling any of this with Judaism because I knew nothing about true Judaism. Meanwhile, the only things I knew about Christianity (or thought I knew) were from the twisted perspective of the New Age.
I was probably more lost after my pitiful attempts at find God than I was before I started. Before, I was an almost blank slate. Afterwards, I had a lot to both discard and completely reinterpret, but ignorance was (relatively speaking) bliss. I thought I was happy. I believed that the world was becoming an ever better place, thanks to the efforts of those people working with the ascended masters to prepare the earth for the coming age of enlightenment. So my husband and I decided to start our family.
It was difficult, but we survived the infancy of our first child, a son who was colicky, sleepless, and demanding. Three years later, we felt it was time to have another child. During my second pregnancy, I bragged to everyone that I could handle anything after the terrible infancy of our son. My attitude made me doubly unprepared for the birth defects that presented themselves when our daughter was born. Suffice it to say that the first sets of problems were corrected before she was three. Another set will require two corrective surgeries.
As all the marriage books warn, having children is stressful on a strong marriage, let alone a weak one. My marriage was not strong. Up to this stage in life, my husband defined himself as a hybridized New Age Buddhist. As a child, he had been dragged from church to church by a nominally Methodist mother while his loudly atheist father hooted at them both. My husband's experience made him cynical and hardened. We didn't communicate well about anything of importance, so when the children were still little, I started my own business... or I should more accurately say, buried myself in my own startup service bureau.
At the back of my mind I thought, "If I made us rich, then he'll have to love me".
My company kept claiming more and more of me until it was normal to spend 125 hours at work and be on-call 24/7. I severely short-changed my children. My husband was working just as many hours at his job. Then my health started to fail.
The best solution I saw was to try to sell my company, but that was unsuccessful. Then I found someone to take in as a partner. She immediately began the process of using me up and driving me out of the business. My work life became a nightmare.
At this juncture, my husband was relocated abroad for almost four years. I became in effect a single mother, and although my husband regularly sent money, the company's operating expenses seemed to consume it all.
Things began to fall apart at an ever-accelerating pace. My marriage deteriorated further, but I consoled myself with the thought that at least my business was doing well. Then my company, along with the business relationship between my partner and me became grim, but I consoled myself with the thought that at least I was a good mother. Then my son became depressed and told me that he wanted to kill himself and I had nothing left to console me.
I remember clearly hanging up the telephone after speaking with my son, standing in my kitchen, numb and absolutely empty. I was desperate. Then, and only then, everything my sister had told me came back to me and I turned to God. It may not have been the most orthodox of prayers, but pray I did. I told God that I'd made a mess of life and wasn't fit to make even one more decision on my own. I told God that I wanted to be a robot. "Don't let me make a move or say anything on my own. You move my feet, You move my hands, You give me thoughts to think".
There was no clap of thunder or blinding light, not even a talking ass (other than myself) ... just an overwhelming feeling of relief.
That was a little over seven years ago, and I'm still working out my "salvation in fear and trembling". By God's mercy I've remained married and both my children are saved.
Unknown to me, my youngest sister had been saved years earlier. She and my brother-in-law, then later, my nephew and two nieces, prayed constantly for my salvation. Whenever my sister and I spoke on the phone, she gently witnessed to me. (I will explain here that "gentle" and "sledgehammer" have the same meaning to her.) I firmly believed she was the biggest lunatic I knew, even after all the New Age garbage to which I'd been exposed. I therefore "gently" tried to moderate some of her views but she would not budge. Later she told me those were the times she just prayed harder. For ten years she prayed. Apparently stubbornness runs in my family on all sides.
Where was the Church? - Seeing With New Eyes
Let me pause and ask you some questions, bearing in mind everything you've just read.
How do you define "church"? How do you define "church"? What is the purpose of a "church"? Exactly how does a "church" function? Are un-"churched" and "un-saved" necessarily the same thing? Do the un-"churched" and "unsaved" define "church" the same way? How does a "church" reach the unsaved? What are the differences between "a church" and "the church"? Where was the church when I needed it?
The answers that I came up with based on personal experience turned my perspective inside out.
As a child, a church was just a building, but I still "whistled" my way past it as I did past a graveyard. A church was mysterious and evil at the same time. It touched me by causing feelings of fear and curiosity, but it didn't "reach" me. I remained both unchurched and unsaved.
Later on, from years of television, movies, and eclectic reading, I believed a church was an organization of people who shared the same religious beliefs, but that knowledge didn't compel me to visit. Also, I equated a Buddhist temple or even voodoo rituals with synagogues and churches. The only time my acquaintances went to a church was for weddings and funerals, otherwise a church served no useful purpose.
The "religious" people I personally knew met weekly to meditate and carefully study Edgar Cayce's readings. I faithfully attended those meetings. For me, that New Age study group fulfilled the functions of a church; therefore, although I was no longer unchurched, I was unsaved. Even though we read the Bible, we interpreted it in the "light" of New Age ideology. In essence, I had no concept of what being saved meant, therefore being saved was not something I thought about or wanted.
It should be clear by now that being unchurched and being unsaved are two completely different, and frequently unrelated, conditions. Also, being churched does not necessarily guarantee salvation. If a church simply wishes to reach the unchurched, hire an advertising agency and be done with it. In all honestly, reaching the unchurched is the easiest thing in the world to do, and many churches constantly reach the unchurched. Some of those churches boast rapidly rising membership, but most churches in the U.S. are declining, because reaching the unchurched should not be their goal. If you doubt my analysis, review the history of the Catholic Church in the New World, specifically Central and South America. Why, when something most obviously does not work, does a church feel obligated to do more, with renewed enthusiasm, of exactly the same thing? That's precisely when a church should instead look closely at the assumptions underlying its goals.
Attending a church service for the first time in my life was by itself almost enough to convince me to never return. Just as when I visited my neighborhood synagogue, church was a foreign country with strange customs and its own language.
For those of you who have held a church membership all your lives, try to pretend that the only thing you know about church is how to spell the word.
This Sunday, question everything you see and do at your church's service. It didn't matter to me that the service was in English; it still didn't make any sense without some foundation. What's communion? What's revival? What's homecoming? What's the offertory? What's the difference between a priest, father, pastor, and preacher? What does getting baptized mean and how is it done? Why? (What are people wearing under their baptismal robes, anyway?) Do I sit, stand, bow my head or kneel? I never heard such music! I don't know the words; tell me where to look them up in the hymnal or, even better, project the words on a screen. Oh no! Don't ask all first-time visitors to stand, or introduce themselves, or wave at the ushers to get an information packet. (What's an usher?) What if somebody realizes I'm a visitor and doesn't let me hide in my seat? Is it obvious that I didn't bring a bible with me? Am I the only person who didn't? Where's God? Where are the restrooms?
Here is what I have found.
A Christian church is a group of two or more individuals sharing their search for God. It is not a building, however grand the edifice. It is not a particular denomination or breakaway sect, however many its adherents. It is not any specific preacher or teacher, however well known he or she may be.
THE Church is all the individuals throughout time who allow God to use them to reach the unsaved, sometimes so quietly and indirectly that His hand remains hidden for the lifetimes of both sides involved.
We are told in His word that we walk by faith, not by sight. After I was saved, I was astonished at how God had been working to bring me to Him. A few of those instances can be seen in the brief autobiography which I have given you. Probably none of the people involved, other than my sister and her family, will ever know how they were used to save me and everyone else whom they touched.
Sadly, many churches today are not a part of the church. They have lost their direction, if they ever had it to begin with. Without Jesus, we are all part of the Living Dead. It's just that some of us don't know it. Having read my story, can you think of any church outreach that could have "reached" me? Neither can I. It would have gotten my attention as a child if a church group offered me food because I was always hungry, but I never would have accepted food from them because that would have obligated me to at least listen to them. I am Jewish. I am not allowed to even listen.
It would have gotten my attention if a church group offered to take me with them to an amusement park or camp, but my parents never would have allowed it. Christians kill Jews. It would have gotten my attention if a church group offered me a warm coat, but out of pride my parents never would have accepted second-hand clothing from someone in the neighborhood because I might run into the original owner.
In His wisdom and the knowledge of our frailties, God commands us "not to forsake" coming together to encourage each other as the visible church. Under my definition, the Church includes: my sister and her family; my childhood Greek Orthodox friend; the publishers of the Uncle Arthur books; the Safeway store management who decided to offer a collection of Bible story books; and the publishers of those books, as well. They, and many more, never met each other or visited the same city let alone the same church building.
THE church is not always visible. God doesn't need our buildings, our organizations, our youth programs. He doesn't need anything but our willingness to be used.