How I Ended Up in a Messianic Jewish Synagogue

On Friday, I usually post an attempt at humor. (Some times more effective than others.) Today, however, I thought I’d tell the story of how a Gentile pastor’s kid from western Pennsylvania ended up identifying with a Messianic Jewish synagogue.

Firstly, I’m not Jewish. When I was a boy, my father, a pastor, passed on to me (at least in part) his love for the original languages of the Biblical texts along with a healthy respect for Judaism (which at the time I didn’t realize was so unusual or important). He taught me a little Biblical Hebrew (and a bit of Koine Greek).

Then, in my twenties, I married a nice, Jewish girl who believed in Yeshua (which, again, at the time I didn’t realize was so unusual or important). She had been raised Catholic—which is a completely different story that she can tell sometime, if she wants. But she had heard the stories of her family’s nascent Jewish roots.

When we first got married, we attended a local church, pastored by a long-time friend of my family’s. In time, however, my Beloved wanted to reconnect with her Jewish roots. She and our daughters began attending a small Messianic congregation that held a weekly Erev Shabbat service, and she even managed to convince me to visit a Friday or two. In general, however, I refused to go. I wasn’t against it. But I didn’t see the point. Heavily involved in our church, church life took all my spare time, and it was meeting all my spiritual needs.

She started attending Ruach Israel, a more mature synagogue. Every Saturday morning, she would take our kids to Shabbat service, and I did not object. She did manage to convince me to come to the first-night Passover seder that year, 2006. (That’s why I count Passovers to figure out how long we’ve been attending Ruach Israel.) But I still refused to go, even though she asked me—sometimes, even begged me. I still didn’t see the point and didn’t see how I could fit it into my life.

In retrospect, I now realize that I wasn’t really listening to her, paying attention to her spiritual needs. I still thought of us as members of the church where I attended, even though she had gradually stopped going. She had paperwork she had to do for work, and Sunday morning was the most convenient time—and I believe this was legitimate, not just a feeble excuse to opt out of Sunday morning service. But the result was that she was fading out of church life and taking up synagogue life instead.

And then the girls started Hebrew school.

That’s when it suddenly dawned on me that they were serious. The Autumn 2006 school year had just started, and that’s when I started attending Ruach Israel regularly. I did it to support my Beloved and the girls. But I also kept my distance. I still maintained the same level of activity in my church—as did my daughters—and we managed to fit it all in.

For Passover 2007, my Beloved insisted that we clean the house of all chametz and keep kosher for the holiday, and I thought she was kidding with me… until she clarified that, no, she was serious. So we got rid of the chametz and kept kosher for Passover, and I found some way to explain it to my folks—my side of the family—such that it didn’t seem to shock them too much. (Or at least they didn’t stage an intervention.)

Slowly, I began learning of liturgy and halakha, but always from a safe distance, experimenting, observing, trying to understand, wondering how to justify culturally irrelevant tradition left over from times past, searching for personal meaning. (Halakhically, Ruach Israel adopts the Standards of Observance published by the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council, for reasons made obvious from a perusal of the MJRC’s membership list.) I began playing bass in one of the Sabbath-morning bands, because they needed a bassist and I thought it might be fun. By far, the biggest shock to my system was my discovery of Jewish community, at least as shared by the congregation. Healthy community one of the most positive values I think Judaism has to offer, and how to do community—real community—is a skill that the Gentile church has by and large forgotten. And this sense of community was particularly meaningful to me when my church exploded.

I haven’t yet shared the details with anyone outside my close inner circle. The short version of the story: they kicked out the pastor (my personal friend and mentor), and the church split, scattering former members throughout the area. I also stopped attending there, because the church community—such as it was—to which I had been attached, it no longer exists. One of the ironic side effects: I now have personal contacts in a number of Christian congregations in the area. But for this telling of the story, the important side-effect was that my attachment to Ruach Israel grew. Even though I was not Jewish—and therefore, there are some roles I can never fill—I took a more enthusiastic role in the synagogue. I began to see Ruach Israel as my primary spiritual home. And some months later—after I had healed somewhat from the church explosion—I joined my Beloved as a formal member.

Looking back now, I marvel at how much I’ve adopted Judaism and Jewish religious values. I’m not Jewish. But I’m the one in the family who studies the halakhic standards and the liturgy. Because I’ve found personal meaning in Messianic Judaism. This did not happen overnight, but over years. If 6 years ago you had predicted I would be where I am today, I would have laughed politely and chalked you up as a crackpot Nostradamus wanna-be.

Maybe part of the trick is to accept that some of us at any given time will be more observant than others, and that’s okay. But the biggest part of the trick, I’m sure, is to connect with a supportive community that can be there for you as you search for meaning.