My path to Judaism began with the question: What would Jesus do?
by Yehudah Ilan
I grew up in a nominally Christian household in Minneapolis. When I was nine years old, my father decided to become more devout. We became very active in the local church and I was exposed to the Bible in a way that went beyond the basic stories I had been told as a small child. I began to read and contemplate both the Old and New Testaments in depth.
As I got deeper into my study of the Bible, I wanted to understand religious thought in a systematic way. To my young mind, it seemed reasonable that since God is perfect, and if the Bible is the word of God, then the Bible must also be perfect – as a holistic system that is rational and verifiable.
Within a few years, I had the majority of the English Bible committed to memory. However, I began to discover contradictions. For example, the Jewish Bible says that God’s commandments will never change (Deut. 4:2) and that the Jewish people will never lose their status as a nation (Jeremiah 31:35-36), yet the New Testament says that God created a new “Israel” out of Christians and canceled the Torah. I found many other similar difficulties between the text of the Jewish Bible and the New Testament, and this bothered me, but I figured that with time, these issues would become resolved.
I became very involved with my youth group and found myself spending a lot of time at church, in youth Bible studies, and reading any books I could get my hands on at the church library in an effort to further understand the Bible. I would wake up in the morning thinking about the Bible, and would constantly consider its meaning throughout the day.
By age 16 I was giving sermons at our church and filling in for the pastor when he was out of town. By then I had decided that being a minister is what I wanted to do with my life.
On Friday night, I was reading the Bible, with religious music playing.
Although I liked rock music and spending time with friends like other American teenagers, I was not so socially active like other young people my age. I remember one Friday night – I was in my bedroom, reading the Bible, with religious music playing. My mother walked by my door and said, “Aren’t there any kids you could go hang out with? Maybe some friends that you could go out with?”
We had a local Christian bookstore, in the style of Barnes & Noble, where I would sit for hours immersed in the books. I got heavily into Christian commentaries on the Bible. I became frustrated, however, that these commentaries weren’t going deep enough, nor providing sources for their assertions. In addition, they offered very little historical information or background. Outside of a few points of relatively minor information about the clothing or the pottery used in that time period, these commentaries lacked the deeper meaning that I was seeking.
After high school, I went to a Bible school associated with my church’s denomination. There were about 250 kids, mostly from the Midwest, but also from places like Norway and Nigeria. After several weeks of doctrine classes – which relate basic beliefs and dogmas of the Christian religion – I quickly realized that I did not believe much of what was being taught, as I had already come to separate conclusions through studying the Bible on my own. When I began to challenge my teachers and ask pointed questions, I was given non-answers and told that the classroom was not the place for such discussion.
Being largely disillusioned with the school, I began to skip the majority of my classes and spent most of the time in the attached seminary library (in Christian circles, seminaries are pastoral training colleges) researching questions on my own. Many times, I would check out literally stacks of books on a particular subject, then go back to my dorm room and consume the information.
At this point, I took a decidedly more rational approach to Christian practices. For example, instead of believing that Baptism actually conferred eternal life, I understood it as merely a symbol. Also the whole idea of the Eucharist, where the body and blood of Jesus “mystically” inhabit the communion wine and wafers, just didn’t sit right with me. I opted to understand these – and many other rites and beliefs in Christianity – as mere symbols.
It was then that I discovered a Christian belief called Five Point Calvinism – a philosophy that claims to weave all parts of Christianity together into an internally consistent, logical system. Unlike most Christian philosophies which reject Jewish law, this theology seemed more consistent in maintaining that the Ten Commandments still apply. But then this led to more questions because of that “pesky” fourth commandment – “Keep the Sabbath” – which clearly refers to Saturday, the seventh day of creation. The Church changed it to Sunday. So where’s the consistency in that? I thought.
Another thing bothered me: When I looked into attending the seminary of my denomination, I found out that nobody was seriously required to learn Hebrew. They were required to take one semester which teaches the Hebrew letters and how to look up words in a concordance. But if the majority of their Bible was written in Hebrew, it didn’t make sense that nobody was reading the original language.
Throughout my year at Bible school, I answered many of my questions and asked many more. Several issues, however, stuck out in the back of my mind, and figured that as I learned more the answers would eventually come.
But they never did.
The best part about Bible school is that I met my wife, and we got married at age 19. She shared many of my religious perspectives, as well as many of my questions and concerns.
We set out to find a home congregation as a new married couple and our singular goal was to find truth. We wanted an authentic religious experience, where the difficult theological ideas were not being whitewashed away.
We tried out dozens of churches and found most of them to be feel-good, but not serious. I recall one that advertised: “Study The Book of Joshua With Us” That’s exactly what I was looking for! I showed up on Sunday morning ready to study – with my Greek Bible, my interlinear Hebrew Bible, and a stack of notebooks and pens. The Book of Joshua begins with the Jews crossing the Jordan River into Israel, and at the first class the pastor stood up and said, “We all have crossover moments in our lives.” Ughh! I thought. Here I am, looking for deep textual study, and he’s going on and on like Dr. Phil. My wife and I got out of there.
Many times, after leaving a church we found to be disappointing, we would go to a local bagel shop and study the Bible together over a bagel and a shmear – a fact that we find today to be an ironic foreshadowing of our eventual conversion.
We wound up settling in with a congregation where I became the youth director. Soon after, the minister had to step down due to health issues and I was asked to fill the position. So at age 21, I became minister of my own congregation.
I needed to prepare an Easter sermon, and I wanted something a bit out of the box. I had a book called Christ and Passover (ironically published by the missionary organization Jews for Jesus). The book explained how the majority of early Christians had been Jewish, and how until the fourth century all Christians celebrated Passover (at which time the Council of Nicea changed the name to Easter and moved the date to the Roman calendar).
Since Jesus put on tefillin every day, I started putting on tefillin.
This was my first exposure to the idea that Christianity was rooted in Jewish practice. I had always been taught that Jesus himself had formulated Christian theology. But in fact, the majority of Christian doctrine and practice was developed centuries later. When I found this out, I became angry and said to my wife: “We’ve been lied to.”
We didn’t know much about Passover, but we decided: If this is what the original Christians did, and this is what Jesus did, then from now on this is what we’re going to do, too.
The next day I went to a supermarket to buy matzah, and went to a Judaica store near my job to buy a Haggadah and a beautiful Seder plate (which we still use today).
The more I studied early Christian history, the more I found one recurring theme: an attempt by Christian leaders to rid the religion of anything Jewish. This bothered me tremendously. To me, Jesus was the original. Whatever he did, that’s what we’re supposed to do.
Since Jesus put on tefillin every day, I started putting on tefillin. Jesus did not eat shellfish, so I stopped eating shellfish. Jesus knew Hebrew and Aramaic, so I learned Hebrew and Aramaic. The more that I studied the New Testament from a historical perspective, especially the elements of the life of Jesus, the more Judaism I began to practice and the more Christianity I began to doubt or reject.
We were living in mid-central Minnesota in the boondocks, with no Jews for miles, and I would walk around town wearing a kippah and tzitzit. We built a kosher sukkah in our back lot and lit a Chanukah menorah in the front window.
Around this time I rejected the concept of God being a trinity. It became clear to me logically and philosophically that God is One. That was a huge milestone in my journey, because I’d been taught as a child that if you don’t believe in Jesus as a deity, you are condemned to burn in Hell forever. Getting past the psychological effects of that dogma can be difficult.
Slowly, slowly, we were phasing out Christianity. At each stage, as I dropped another of my Christian beliefs, I would take a step back and ask: Where do I now fit into the structured religious world? I knew I was on a path, but who shared my vision?
We discovered that the vast majority of the Messianic movement was a fraud.
After formally leaving Christianity proper, we began trying various Messianic congregations in an attempt to find others like us, but were quickly disappointed. In fact, we discovered that the vast majority of the movement was a fraud. They dress up like Jews, apply Hebrew terminology to Christian symbols, and even sprinkle in some Yiddish phrases to give it “Jewish” flavor. But it’s really a front to trick Jews into becoming Christians.
We tried one Messianic congregation that referred to itself as a “Sabbath Fellowship” and found a lot of positive there. Many were sincere seekers – they met on Saturday, they tried to understand Christianity from a Jewish perspective, they didn’t missionize Jews, they valued rabbis.
Several like-minded families eventually decided to begin their own community by all moving into the same neighborhood and meeting for prayers in someone’s home. We joined them. The holistic, verifiable system that my 9-year-old mind had intuited was gaining expression in our Hebrew prayers, celebrating the Jewish holidays, and observance of Shabbat (saying Kiddush, not turning on lights, not driving, not carrying, etc.). Almost unintentionally, we had slowly drifted toward traditional Judaism.
If you follow all religions back to their historical source, you end up in one of two places: either ancient polytheism, or in Judeo monotheism. The revelation at Mount Sinai turned the world to monotheism, because it is a verifiable historical event that all subsequent monotheistic religions are compelled to accept. So in my quest for authenticity, it’s only natural that I would be drawn to the original source.
Further, I was amazed to discover that the Talmud – the main repository of Jewish discourse – is characterized by hair-splitting analysis to ensure that the Torah system is 100 percent accurate and consistent.
In the meantime, we maintained a real respect for this historical person named Jesus, who had an Orthodox Jewish upbringing and inspired a whole movement. So although my religious beliefs did not resemble what had developed into modern-day Christianity, completely rejecting Jesus was a very big step that we did not feel ready to take.
Although the idea of becoming Jewish was somewhere in the back of my mind, we didn’t even speak with a rabbi until seven years into this process. After such a long journey, not fitting into so many places, we developed a sensitivity to rejection. Subconsciously I avoided meeting with any rabbi because deep down I knew that Judaism was the only place we’d eventually fit in. If they’d reject us, where else would we go?
On to Milwaukee
Around this time I got a job managing a warehouse for a chassidic man in St. Paul, Minnesota. He told me that my religious observances – only kosher food, observing Shabbat, kippah and tzitzit, etc. – was inappropriate for a non-Jew, and even somewhat arrogant. “You were born a non-Jew and who are you to second-guess God?” he said. He suggested that instead I observe the Seven Noahide Laws that Judaism prescribes for non-Jews.
I loved the Torah and the Jewish way of life very much – our whole family did – but the last thing I wanted to be was arrogant. I was on a mission for truth, after all! I reasoned that since I was only practicing Judaism because I thought that’s what Jesus did, then maybe being a Noahide was the answer to my internal conflict.
I took this man’s words to heart and began to divest all my Jewish affectations. We took down our mezuzahs, gave away many of our Jewish books, stopped wearing kippot and tzitzit, and I gave my tefillin away to a Jew.
Emotionally this was very difficult. I had been so invigorated with my Jewish expression, so to have it all come to a grinding halt was quite traumatic. But I was willing to give this a try.
Although I had given away all my Jewish stuff, I kept one old pair of tzitzit in the back of the closet. One day I went into the closet, picked up the tzitzit and began to cry. I had fully rejected Jesus, and I yearned to be Torah observant – but how could I do so as a non-Jew?
All this came to a head a few months later at Chanukah time. My family was sitting around the living room, trying to enjoy the holiday as much as this group of non-Jews could. My wife made latkes to try to infuse some spirit of celebration. But this was simply not enough. I stood up and announced: “We will not live like this any longer. We’re becoming Jewish!”
Our kids were so excited, they started cheering. We put the mezuzahs back on the doors, bought new sets of dishes, and I got another pair of tefillin.
We needed to begin the conversion process, but where?
We were determined to become Jewish but did not know exactly what move to make, so we moved to a small community in Wisconsin and I got a job nearby. At this time we were living in a totally non-Jewish area – no synagogue, nothing. I knew that we needed to make a move, to find a Jewish community and begin the conversion process. But where should we go?
One day we were at the grocery store and my wife noticed a black man standing on the other side of the store –– dressed as an Orthodox Jew. I immediately went over and introduced myself. He said he’s from Milwaukee, a former police officer who had once responded to a call at the synagogue where he met Rabbi Michel Twerski. This sparked an interest that led to his conversion.
When I told him about my desire to convert, he encouraged me to go straight to Milwaukee: “Just show up and don’t worry if they try to push you away.”
So after making an appointment with the Milwaukee Beit Din, we drove to Milwaukee one Friday, with no place to stay and knowing nobody. We went to the kosher grocery store to buy food, and the owner of the store graciously invited us to spend Shabbat at his home.
Shabbat was awesome, and the next day, Sunday, we met with the Beit Din. They checked us out very carefully, to make sure we weren’t some kind of secret missionaries with an agenda. There is unfortunately some of that going on, and I apparently aroused suspicion having come in knowing so much halacha, Midrash, Maimonides, etc.
Thankfully, we were accepted as conversion candidates. We immediately found an apartment to rent, and within three weeks pulled into Milwaukee with all our worldly possessions in tow.
A few months later, we were all dunking in the mikveh, emerging as Jews.
We spent two years in Milwaukee and I had the opportunity to get involved in counter-missionary work. But then we realized – we’ve come this far in our path, why stop here? Let’s take it to the ultimate and move to Israel. So we did that in the summer of 2011 and we love it. The kids enjoy the freedom to go around town by themselves and feel safe. After such a long, long road, we are truly home.
Maimonides writes in Guide to the Perplexed that it’s very difficult to change one’s life course in a direct way. That explains why God led the Jewish people out of Egypt in a roundabout route; otherwise they’d have been discouraged and wanted to go back (Exodus 13:17). So too, God led me on a very roundabout way. Some converts have a very short process of discovering Judaism and changing their life. For me, it was years of gradually phasing out Christianity and phasing in Judaism.
I didn’t choose Judaism out of any dogma – “do this or else!” – but rather out of education and rational thought. I’d like to think this is growing trend and that the days of dogma are over. In the Dark Ages, information could be suppressed. But now with Google, the truth is out there for anyone who wants it.
As taken from aish.com, October 6, 2015