I started calling myself a Christian in the fall of 2008 – nearly ten years ago. I accepted a friend’s invitation to check out my school’s chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, fulfilling my long-term fascination with the man who called himself God.
This isn’t an unusual story for a lot of people. Becoming “born again” is nothing scandalous in America. Unless your family is Jewish, as mine is.
In retrospect, this decision to convert was foreshadowed almost my entire life. My tiny Jewish community didn’t have its own building, so I had my Bat Mitzvah in a rented church. It was to the chagrin of some Orthodox guests that crosses reflected light in the stained-glass windows as I chanted my Torah portion. I also developed a fascination with Catholic saints from a young age, and read about them with the same level of devotion that the average little girl reserves for Disney princesses.
My “conversion story” is a triumphant success or a devastating failure, depending on who you talk to. My family felt like they failed me in terms of providing a proper Jewish education, but Christians – evangelical Protestants, in particular – held me up as a shining example of how far God can reach; how He would stop at nothing in order to save "the lost."
Dozens of people from “Cru” – the shorthand form of the evangelism group “Campus Crusade” – wanted to hear my “testimony,” but few of them wanted to hear about my interest in saints that was the seed of my conversion. Instead they pressed for emphasis on when exactly I realized I was lost; when I realized that Judaism was a “false” religion, and Jesus was the only source of Truth.
It was as if I’d failed to market myself properly as a Jew who came to Jesus. I was useless in offering my fellow crusaders advice on how to infiltrate Jewish campus groups and convince the people there – some of whom were my friends – that they, too, could be Jewish and believe in Jesus. They wanted me to spill secrets I just didn’t have.
These memories (which are chronicled in my memoir) came back when it was revealed to the press this week that the Republican candidate for Alabama senator, Roy Moore, doesn’t have a Jewish lawyer like his wife, Kayla, said he did, in a weak effort to combat rumors of their antisemitism. Their lawyer, Martin Wishnatsky, identifies as follows: “I’m a Messianic Jew. That’s the term they use for a Jewish person who has accepted Christ.”
I’m not sure who this “they” is that Wishnatsky is referring to, but if his story is anything like mine, maybe that particular label, “Messianic Jew,” is a result of being pigeonholed by evangelism-minded Christians who want to put him on a pedestal as part of the “saved heathen” narrative. To me, tying my Jewish background in with my Christian faith in that manner makes it sound like I was duped by manipulative missionaries, when in fact the opposite was true.
Yes, there were plenty of conversion attempts by classmates throughout my childhood; yes, my family's mailbox was periodically stuffed with Jews for Jesus literature. What I took from those incidents was a realization that that particular branch of Christianity was one I didn’t want to be part of.
I had Catholic classmates whose faith I deeply admired - friends who never dangled Jesus as a carrot stick before offering their friendship. They had deep, non-cheesy "Jesus is my boyfriend" type love for this God-man called Jesus, and I could ask them about it without fear of getting roped into sermons, or threatened with eternal damnation if I didn’t cooperate.
The story my Catholic friends told was a love story like no other: the story of a God who loved His creation so much, He came down to meet them in person, and did so not with the dramatic fanfare you'd expect, but as an infant born in utmost poverty. I secretly identified with Jesus when it seemed like my own friends betrayed me, as middle school girls tend to do. I identified with him when I felt lonely and misunderstood, and eventually called to him for comfort when suffering the damage of sexual assault.
These Catholic classmates made Jesus much more attractive with their honesty and personal stories than any attempt to "goy-splain" biblical Hebrew ever did. That is what eventually paved the way for my participation in the Episcopal Church: a decision that was completely my own, to express a faith that is uniquely mine, and no one else’s.
So why do Wishnatsky’s words still bother me? If he self-identifies as a Messianic Jew, that’s certainly his right, but his blanket insistence that "this is what they're called" still rubs me the wrong way.
There was a time when I shopped around “Messianic synagogues” to see if I fit in there, and I have to confess that I felt more awkward in those congregations than I ever did as the only Jewish kid in class growing up. While there are plenty of members who do have Jewish background, some sources estimate that this only applies to roughly half the members.
If Messianic Judaism was simply a home for Jews who don’t fit in with traditional synagogues, but don’t fit in with gentile churches, either, I wouldn’t care so much. But similar to Jews for Jesus – which is strictly an evangelical group, not a Christian denomination – there’s a darker side to this movement:
A core component of Messianic Judaism is witnessing and missionizing to other Jews. According to the evangelical theology accepted by Messianic Jews, those who are not saved are destined for eternal damnation. Helping to bring someone to Yeshua and thus to salvation is a responsibility of all Messianic Jews, and many embrace that role, particularly when it comes to Jewish members of their family. This is often at the root of the animosity between Messianic and mainstream Jewish communities. When Messianic Jews try to do outreach within the mainstream Jewish community they are often met with resistance and outrage. Among other things, the Jewish community objects to the title Messianic Judaism, because the messianism practiced by Messianic Jews is Jesus-focused, and thus by definition not Jewish. The use of the term Messianic Judaism strikes many as a subversive way of attracting Jews who do not know enough about their faith to realize that what they are learning about is Christianity.
I visited Messianic synagogues to find people "like me," and I was deeply disappointed. I was just as much of a spectacle there - "Look, a real, live Jew who believes in Jesus!" - as I was in Cru. I felt objectified. And when pressed, yet again, for more details about what it was in the Torah that told me Jesus was the Real Thing, I felt used.
If my story of "coming to the Lord" inspires someone else to do the same, that's great. But I'm simply not interested in seeking converts like notches in a belt, and manipulating Hebrew texts to do it. In my experience, that was what the Messianic movement expected of me, and I couldn't - wouldn't - do it. How could I, when I knew exactly what it felt like to be targeted, just for being born a certain way?
My whole life, all I'd wanted was a relationship with God. If the resources for that existed in the Reform tradition in which I was raised, perhaps I wouldn't have ever felt called to church. My story can be boiled down to the following facts: the Judaism I grew up with just didn't satisfy my spiritual needs. It's likely that this happened because I failed to properly understand it, but that is the truth.
There were no road-to-Damascus moments in which God spoke to me and showed me the error of my ways; there were no burning bushes, nothing dramatic whatsoever. My actual conversion story is duller than what the self-described MJs wanted it to be. I felt chased out of that movement because I wanted my story to remain just that: my story. I didn't want it being used as a tool for evangelism, and I still don't.
But evangelical fascination with Jewish culture continues. There's something almost fetish-like about it, the way I've seen people's expressions change when it comes up that, no, I'm not going home for Christmas because my family doesn't celebrate it. Why? Oh, because they celebrate Hanukkah. There have been moments when the entire conversation redirects, and the "I've always had a heart for Jews!" comments begin. One woman asked if she could touch me, believing I was a direct descendant of Moses. Another man stalked me around campus for months, convinced God "sent" me to him to be his missionary wife in Israel.
I'm not sure what it is that I'm doing to attract these incidents, but they continue to happen, even though the frequency has decreased. It's distressing, it's objectifying, and it needs to stop. It’s an inverse form of antisemitism that presents itself as flattery.
I still claim Judaism as my heritage - how can I not? - but I've never been religiously Jewish, ever. My faith today has certainly been influenced by Judaism, but calling my Christian faith "Jewish," based on the circumstances of my birth, is disingenuous at best. Your background does not necessarily determine where you belong, especially when you get no say in the matter. The Jewish “quirks” I retain today are similar to the tendencies of “cradle Catholics” who still identify with the cultural aspects of their family’s faith, even if they no longer subscribe to the belief system.
Humans are tribal creatures, and not all of us remain with the same one all throughout our lives. In many ways, conversion is a lot like remarriage: the person you were when you married your first spouse does not disappear when you marry another, but you can’t (at least not legally) be married to two people at the same time. At some point, you make a choice.
Judaism is a great religion, and I respect it very much. My beliefs just happened to evolve in a different direction. The Messianic movement, and evangelicals with a "heart" for Jews, miss the rich history of Judaism on its own terms - not simply as Christianity, the Prequel.
See also: Why I’m not a Messianic Jew