Odyssey of an American Jew
by Jonathan Sacks
Growing Up Kosher
Growing up in a conservative Jewish home in Monroe, Michigan, nothing was impressed more upon my three brothers, my sister and me than one simple fact—we are Jews. We were the only family who kept a kosher home in our city. We observed the major Jewish holidays. My brothers and I each had a Bar Mitzvah, and each of us had twelve years of religious education. My mother’s maiden name was Rabinowitz, as she was from 17 generations of rabbis.
Being Jewish meant that we were different from everyone else. We did not go to church—we went to the synagogue. We did not celebrate Christmas—we celebrated Hanukkah. (I liked this, because I got presents for eight days instead of just for one day.) We did not celebrate Easter—we celebrated Passover. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we missed school and spent those days in synagogue. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we fasted all day and asked God to forgive our sins. I had no way of knowing whether He had done so. Like other Jews, I hoped that my deeds were good enough to earn His pardon.
Who Am I?
As a middle child of five, I often felt “lost in the shuffle.” I felt lonely, inadequate and inferior. I always thought that my parents considered me a burden and a pain. I believed that if I achieved lofty goals, I would feel worthwhile and my parents would be proud of me. So I engulfed myself in working tirelessly to become valedictorian of my high school class and a star tennis player. At my graduation, I received a standing ovation for my valedictory address. However, the day after graduation, I realized that I felt no different than before.
The next fall, I attended the University of Michigan. I soon decided that God was a primitive concept for insecure people who needed a crutch. Trying to find significance, I became involved in radical politics, peace demonstrations, draft counseling, black studies, oriental studies, and Zen Macrobiotics. Zen Macrobiotics is an attempt to find peace through eating foods containing a balance of “yin” and “yang”— concepts from the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. Once, while home for a visit, I announced to my parents, “You are what you eat!” My father asked, “What are you, a rice or a bean?” My mother chimed in, “I think he’s a nut!”
Finding Jesus in the Old Testament!
When home for Thanksgiving during my junior year, I received a call from Maggie Kleine, a friend from high school and a fellow radical. Maggie said that something dramatic had happened that changed her life and that she needed to talk to me about it. When we met, she talked incessantly about Jesus and the New Testament. “Jesus said this, Jesus said that!” She went on and on. I soon became fed up, and, in anger, said, “Look, Maggie, I’m Jewish! I don’t believe in the New Testament. If I believe in anything, I believe in the Old Testament.”
Maggie’s response shocked me. She calmly said, “Jon, it talks about Jesus in the Old Testament too.” I had never heard such a thing in all my years of religious training! She proceeded to show me numerous Old Testament passages that supposedly spoke of Jesus. I easily rationalized them away as either being taken out of context or being so ambiguous that they could apply to anyone—except for two passages. The first was Isaiah 53. I could not rationalize away a whole chapter that provided so many details of Jesus’ life and death. I could not claim that it was a verse taken out of context. The whole passage was the context!
The second passage, Daniel 9:24-26, predicted the time of Messiah’s coming almost 500 years before Jesus came. This passage was not ambiguous. It was as specific as any passage could be. It clearly seemed to state that the Messiah would die around the time Jesus died and before the destruction of the Second Temple, which occurred in A.D. 70. After contemplating all this, I asked God to show me if He really existed and if Jesus was the Messiah—not just for Maggie and others, but for me. I asked God to show me in a way that would leave no doubt.
Adventures on the Road
About this time, my college living situation fell apart. Still a second term junior without a major, I felt that I needed time to “find myself.” I decided to “find myself” by hitchhiking out west in the middle of winter with my backpack, kerosene stove, tent, and a whole lot of brown rice. So in early February, 1972, I headed west.
During this adventure, several things happened that I never expected—all of which pointed to Jesus. For example, one night, I was dropped off in Indiana near the Illinois border. I had been told that hitchhikers could be arrested in Illinois. I had once been arrested for hitchhiking in New Jersey and did not want to be arrested again. Soon a car stopped for me. I asked the driver where he was going. He said he was going to St. Louis. I was thrilled because I would not have to hitchhike in Illinois. He was thrilled because all the time while driving through Illinois he could talk to me about Jesus—and he was more than happy to do so.
Two nights later, due to unforeseen circumstances, I ended up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The next morning, I walked down Canyon Road, a famous arts and crafts street. There I saw Mexican, Spanish, and Native American art. Before long, I came to “The Shalom House.” As a Jew, I knew that shalom was a Hebrew word meaning “peace.” It also meant both “hello” and “goodbye.” I was excited that I would see some Israeli art. However, when I walked in, I immediately noticed that there were no paintings on the wall. It was not an art gallery. Instead, it was a place for sharing Jesus with hippies coming down from the mountains, hippies like me. It was called “Shalom House” because, according to the founder’s study, shalom is the kind of peace that one can have only through a right relationship with God.
Two weeks later, I visited my cousin and his wife in Palmdale, California. Neither were believers in Jesus. One afternoon, out of nowhere, she told me of a woman from an Orthodox Jewish background who believed in Jesus. When she asked me if I would like to meet this lady, I responded, “It’s a different point of view!” Within minutes, I was in the home of Paula Kempler. Paula described the time that God had miraculously restored her voice. She also gave me literature regarding passages in the Hebrew Bible that speak of Jesus. Over the next few days, I realized that the entire Bible had to be true, including the prophecies concerning the Messiah. Because the Bible was true, Jesus had to be the Messiah. When I returned, I told Paula that I was convinced that Jesus is the Messiah. She then asked if I wanted to receive Him as my Messiah. Immediately, it seemed as if there were a great wall between us. It was as if she were in China. When I told her how I felt, she explained that spiritual warfare was being waged over my soul.
A Messiah for All
The decision was agonizing for me. It would be the decision of all decisions—different from getting into radical politics, Zen Macrobiotics, taking drugs, or anything else I had ever done. If I received Jesus, nothing would ever be the same. My relationship with my parents, that I desperately desired, would suffer tremendously. I would likely be on the street, separated from them, having to make a living for myself for the first time. I was terrified.
Ultimately, I realized that if God was big enough to predict events hundreds and thousands of years in advance and bring them to pass, and if He was big enough to reveal Himself to me, then He would also be big enough to take care of me.
On that day in February, 1972, I embraced Jesus as my Messiah. I thank God for the people who took time to tell me about Jesus and to give me literature concerning Him. I thank
God, most of all, for God Himself. He is the One Who spoke of the Messiah hundreds of years in advance and cared enough about me to answer my prayer. Because of Him, I do not have to spend Yom Kippur wondering if He has forgiven my sins. He has forgiven me through the atonement provided by Jesus the Messiah—the Messiah for all who believe in Him.