“I wasn’t looking for Jesus or God or anything ontological. I kept my nose to the grindstone. My goal in life was nothing big: I wanted to earn a good living and be able to afford a middle-class lifestyle. But even if I wasn’t looking for Jesus, He was looking for me.”
Rosen was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of Ben Rosen and Rose Baker. He was raised in Denver, Colorado. According to Rosen, his mother’s parents were “Reform Jews from Austria” and his paternal grandfather was an Orthodox Jew. Although his father regularly attended an Orthodox synagogue, Rosen describes him as irreligious and viewing religion as a “racket”.
Rosen married Ceil Starr on August 18, 1950, and they became Christians in 1953. After graduating from Northeastern Bible College, Rosen made a commitment to be a missionary to the Jewish people. He was ordained as a Conservative Baptist minister in 1957. He led Hebrew Christian congregations and worked for 17 years for the American Board of Missions to the Jews (ABMJ), (now called Chosen People Ministries), as an evangelist.
Beginning in 1970, he founded Hineni Ministries under the umbrella of ABMJ, later to become Jews for Jesus. In 1973, he left the employment of ABMJ to incorporate Jews for Jesus as a separate mission. In 1986, he received an honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon.
He stepped down from his position as Jews for Jesus’ Executive Director in 1996, and continued to be employed as a staff missionary, remaining one of fifteen board members until his death in May 2010. In 1997, the Conservative Baptist Association named him a “Hero of the Faith.”. Moishe received his home-call on May 19, 2010.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the life and ministry of Moishe Rosen, an often unacknowledged pioneer of the modern day Messianic Jewish movement. We honour his memory and appreciate his controversial challenge to all to consider the Good News of our Messiah. May we, all Israel and all the nations, respond appropriately. In Yeshua’s name we pray, Amen.
It is difficult to overestimate Moishe Rosen’s contribution to modern day Messianic Judaism, although most people, including Moishe himself, would be surprised at this accolade. In addition to being a bold and fearless evangelist, a charismatic personality and a dynamic speaker and leader, he was also a pioneering strategist and masterly tactician. As founder and leader of the organization Jews for Jesus, he raised the image of the Messiah among our people and challenged the Church to consider the call to take the gospel “to the Jew first” in a way that few in the past century—even in the previous twenty centuries—had attempted and achieved to such powerful effect. (Havurah vol. 13:2 Fall 2010)
Of course, as he acknowledged, and those of us who knew him would concur, he made plenty of mistakes in thought, feelings and actions. Nevertheless, he made a significant contribution that deserves to be remembered and celebrated. The concept of “Jews for Jesus”—in the early days just a slogan on the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley—communicated a message bigger than anyone organization. For perhaps the first time since the days of the early Jewish believers, it was recognized as a Jewish option to believe in Yeshua as Messiah. Through Moishe’s gifts as communicator and leader, the existence of Jews who believed in Jesus was visible on the radar of both Church and Synagogue in ways that could not be avoided or ignored.
Moishe also had a significant but often unacknowledged role in the growth of the modern movement of Messianic congregations and ministries. One of the distinctives of the Messianic movement is the claim that Jewish people who believe in Yeshua remain Jewish and are encouraged to live out their Jewish identity. And according to Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain of the U.K., Moishe could be credited with inventing this notion:
His “crime” was not that he attempted to convert Jews to Christianity—the church had been doing that for centuries—but that he added a new and subversive element to the missionary campaign by asserting that those who did so were not reneging on their Jewishness but fulfilling it. (1)
Benyamin Cohen, the son of an Orthodox rabbi and author of the book
My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith,
similarly claimed Moishe as the founder of a group known as “Messianic Judaism”:
His group, often referred to as Messianic Judaism, attempts to merge Jewish and Christian beliefs by convincing Jews to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ while still remaining Jewish.(2)
Moishe himself would never have made such bold claims, and in fact some in the Messianic movement would strongly disassociate themselves from the ministry of Jews for Jesus. Yet Moishe did have a significant influence on the modern movement known as Messianic Judaism, and it is this writer’s conviction that his influence should not go unacknowledged, and that honor should be given where it is due. Five aspects of his influence are worth considering.
- Role Model as a Jewish Believer in Jesus
Even apart from Moishe’s commitment to evangelism and his gifts as a leader, strategist and controversialist, his character asa Jew who became a believer in Jesus was an example to many. Moishe’s Jewish identity was not artificial or academic, but real, earthy and authentic. He was a food-loving, humorous,wise and unpretentious son of a scrap metal merchant who made his own way in life, brought up his family and provided for them, went through the knocks and boosts of life in a difficult and demanding ministry, and was an example of character and humanity that spoke as loudly as his writing and teaching. No one would claim that he was perfect, but he offered a personal example of being Jewish, believing in Jesus and living out his faith in ways that demonstrated that one could be fully Jewish and fully Christian.
In the words used to describe Sir Leon Levison, first President of the International Messianic Jewish (formerly Hebrew Christian) Alliance, he was a “Jew by race and a Christian by grace,” and managed to integrate the two. As one of his first broadsides said, “I was born a Jew and I’ll die a Jew.” This matter-of-factness about his Jewishness was more authentic and genuine than many of those in the Messianic movement who have little or no connection with being Jewish.
It goes without saying that the priority of Jewish evangelism was always on Moishe’s heart, and his leadership in and advocacy of Jewish missions is well known. What may be less known is that Moishe advocated appropriate contextualization in the Messianic movement. He encouraged the production of resources such as the Avodat Yeshua congregational hymnbook, liturgies for the High Holidays and Jewish life-cycle events, Messianic Passover haggadahs, and more. He trained his own staff in compiling and leading services. Those liturgies were made available, and became the basis for much congregational worship today. The contextualized Messianic music of the Liberated Wailing Wall continues to be used some thirty years later. (3)
In addition to his work in contextualization, Moishe spoke out in the area of ethics. In a 1985 paper delivered to the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism (LCJE), Moishe spoke to the issues of the use of Jewish symbols, the use of ethical persuasion, the relationship of contextualization to deception, and the integrity of our witness in such areas as invitations to public events and child evangelism. He concluded, “We must see for ourselves that much of the condemnation of our ethical behavior from the Jewish community is defensive. Nevertheless, there are those areas where we need to take heed that we are conducting ourselves honestly and that our behavior is not a reproach to the name of our Lord.”(4)
Moishe stood for integrity and truth in reporting statistics and facts. At one time he threatened another well-known evangelist with the possibility of legal action if he did not substantiate the statistics he was publicizing about his work in Israel. When the post-Soviet era saw a great openness to the gospel in the former Iron Curtain countries, he encouraged those leading campaigns and festivals to ensure the statistics for those responding were accurate. On the other hand, when some rabbis complained that the Messianic movement was just “picking off” people who were poor and uneducated, Jews for Jesus conducted a survey. Beverly Jamison, a statistician, compiled the results indicating that the situation among Jewish believers paralleled that of the larger Jewish community in terms of socioeconomic status, education, and correlation with the branches of Judaism. (5)
- Friend, Trainer and Mentor to Individuals
Moishe saw the ministry of Jews for Jesus as just one part of the greater movement of Jews coming to faith in Jesus. Many of the individuals now in leadership in Messianic congregations and organizations were advised, mentored and trained by Moishe. These include some who at one time served with Jews for Jesus, including Steve Cohen (The Apple of His Eye, St. Louis, MO), Stuart Dauermann (rabbi [now emeritus] at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue in Beverly Hills, CA), Mitch Glaser (President of Chosen People Ministries), Loren Jacobs (Congregation Shema Yisrael, Southfield, MI), Barry Rubin (rabbi at Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation, Clarksville, MD and director of Messianic Jewish Publications), Murray Tilles (Light of Messiah Ministries, Atlanta, GA), and David and Martha Stern (David wrote the Messianic Jewish Manifesto and other books and translated the widely-used Complete Jewish Bible ).
There were others too who though not serving with Jews for Jesus benefited from Moishe’s friendship and advice. Among these were Jonathan Bernis (Jewish Voice Ministries International), Arnold Fruchtenbaum (Ariel Ministries), Neil and Jamie Lash (Jewish Jewels), Abraham Sandler (Christian and Missionary Alliance), and Robert Specter (Rock of Israel Ministries, Fairfield, OH).
A few comments are worth hearing. Specter noted that “in1995 Moishe Rosen invited me to join their Summer Evangelism Campaign in New York City. He allowed me to receive the training and experience that would shape much of my efforts in Jewish Evangelism.”(6)
Sandler, a longtime missionary to the Jewish people in the C&MA denomination, wrote that “for more than twenty years I have known of and related to the Jews for Jesus organization. I have had their staff speak in my congregation that I pastored … I personally participated in one of their two-week training programs … I have sent some of our staff people to train with Jews for Jesus and to participate in their witnessing campaigns. Their experience was one of the highlights of their ministry.” (7)
Many senior leaders in the Messianic movement such as Yosef Koelner, Paul Liberman and David Sedaca have paid tribute to the influence Moishe had in their lives. Daniel Juster, a founding figure in the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations(UMJC) and currently director of Tikkun International, remarked about the inspiration Moishe gave him in his zeal and passion for evangelism. Paul Liberman, publisher of the Messianic Times , said that “Moishe would speak the truth even though I did not want to hear it—but I needed to hear it, and he usually turned out to be right.” David Sedaca of Chosen People Ministries affectionately reported how “Moishe taught me to drive, and I got my first ticket with him!” (8) Stan Telchin, the late Zola Levitt, and other Messianic leaders valued Moishe’s friendship and support.
- Supporter and Encourager to the Messianic Jewish Movement
In addition to the many individuals that Moishe took an interest in, he also encouraged the larger movement in its congregational and ministry aspects. As to Messianic congregations, Moishe spoke positively of earlier congregational works such as that of David Bronstein in Chicago. Yes, there were aspects to the more recent congregations that he didn’t like, such as the use of the title
rabbi which he felt only belonged to those who had earned semicha
(ordination). Nevertheless, Moishe himself actually led what amounted to two Messianic congregations (though they were not referred to by that name), both called Beth Sar Shalom, when he served with the American Board of Missions to the Jews (ABMJ) (9) in Los Angeles and in Manhattan.
It was not Moishe’s intention to make Jews for Jesus into a congregation-planting ministry; direct evangelism was always to remain the focus. But it happened that congregations came into existence as a result of the evangelism that was being carried out, with the Jews for Jesus staff providing leadership and resources until the new congregation was able to stand independently with its own pastor.
Such congregations included Kehilat Yeshua (New York City); Adat Yeshua Ha Adon (Woodland Hills near Los Angeles); Beit Yeshua (Johannesburg, South Africa); and Tiferet Israel (San Francisco). One congregation (Shema Yisrael in Southfield, MI, outside Detroit) originally began as an outreach by a former staff member with the encouragement of Jews for Jesus. All but the San Francisco congregation remain in existence. Moishe encouraged the staff of Jews for Jesus to beinvolved in congregational life in a number of ways. For example, for their tenure in Chicago, Jhan and Melissa Moskowitz were members at Adat Hatikvah, a UMJC congregation. Jhan was an elder; Melissa was a deacon, head of education, and head of women’s ministries. Both were chavurah group leaders.
Jhan afterwards led KehilatYeshua in New York for a time, as did Efraim Goldstein at Tiferet Israel in San Francisco. Michael Sischy of Jews forJesus’ Johannesburg branch helps to lead Beit Yeshua. Many Jews for Jesus staff continue to participate in the life of Messianic congregations in their own cities, and advocate that new Jewish believers be encouraged to attend either churches or Messianic congregations, depending on what is available, the needs of the person, and the quality of the church/congregation. Moishe frequently spoke at Messianic congregations and aided in such areas as fundraisers for their building programs. Among those congregations were Ruach Israel (Needham, MA, at the invitation of Rabbi Rich Nichol); Roeh Israel(Denver, led by Burt Yellin); and the Messianic Jewish Center (Philadelphia, headed by Herb Links).
In evangelism, Moishe’s own strategy was sometimes adopted by others in the Messianic movement, whether as part of their regular ministry or on a short-term basis. Messianic congregations and ministries sometimes sent their younger members to participate on Jews for Jesus evangelism campaigns. When Steve Cohen led the work in Canada, he was encouraged to partner with Messianic groups in Toronto for evangelism, and members of Melech Yisrael would sometimes join campaigns as volunteers. And Moishe lent his support to some who had at one time served with Jews for Jesus but now felt called to Jewish evangelism in a different role.
Already mentioned are Murray Tilles, who founded Light of Messiah Ministries in Atlanta, and Steve Cohen, who went on to establish The Apple of His Eye mission society within the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Loren Jacobs engages in direct evangelism in additionto his congregational ministry. All have continued to partner with Jews for Jesus in evangelistic outreach and Cohen in particular organizes his own evangelism campaigns modelled on those of Jews for Jesus, including producing a steady stream of broadsides for various occasions.
Whether among congregations or missions, Moishe was an advocate of networking and cooperation. In Chicago, the Harvest Committee was a group of leaders of the Messianic congregations and Jewish ministries in the greater Chicagoland area. Jhan Moskowitz acted as the facilitator for some twenty years, with the group meeting at the Jews for Jesus office every six weeks or so. Moishe hoped that this would be a model for other cities, whereby different ministries would meet together for prayer, outreach, picnics and mutual encouragement.
The Harvest Committee continues to meet to this day.The issue of cooperation between congregations and missions came together in a unique way in 1982. That was the year that the “Messiah Has Come” evangelism campaign took place in London, UK. At the time this author was one of the leaders of the fledgling London Messianic Fellowship it was not yet a congregation). It was Moishe who was largely responsible for getting LMF accepted by the Jewish missions in the United Kingdom, and he successfully advocated for us to be involved in the campaign and to receive contacts alongside the various Jewish missions that were participating.
Not least, Moishe’s active involvement with the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism was, in addition to encouraging the networking among missions, often to advocate the place of Messianic congregations before leaders of Jewish missions who had reservations. (See accompanying article on the LCJE.)
- Messianic Theologian
In my recent book, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology (10), I identified eight or nine types of Messianic Jewish theology, but there is one type that is missing. That is “Jews for Jesus/Moishe Rosen” Messianic Jewish theology.
From one perspective, Moishe’s theology could be described as evangelical, Calvinistic and Baptist with a dispensationalist edge. But there is actually more depth and subtlety to his position. He did not formulate it systematically, but Moishe’s “Messianic theology” saw Yeshua as the Messiah and the fulfillment of all that Judaism aspired to. Once a person came to know the Messiah, he or she would find true fulfillment in him—in terms of Jewish identity, in terms of Torah observance and in solidarity with Israel.
His priority was making the Messiah known, and he challenged those with other emphases and concerns to respond to this priority and articulate clearly their own position. Often he had a pivotal influence in causing other Messianic Jews to formulate their own positions, whether in reaction or in response to Moishe’s unsystematic and implicit theological system. At the end of the day, many Messianic Jews were sufficiently challenged to study more diligently and come to greater personal integrity and authenticity of belief and practice through his example.
Moishe was always a provocative and controversial figure. As one of the most significant Jewish mission leaders of the twentieth century, he could not but be given some of the credit for shaping the movement known as Messianic Judaism andalso sometimes taking the blame for its mistakes. Some might say that there has often been a love-hate relationship between Jews for Jesus and the wider Messianic movement. If so, this has only added stimulus to the discussion of the questions, “What does it really mean to share the Messiah with our people?” and “What does it really mean to be a Messianic Jew?” By his advocacy of evangelism, by his mentoring roles, by his encouragement of congregations and ministries, Moishe has left us with critical questions that the Messianic movement dare not ignore as it looks to the future.
- Jonathan Romain, “Did Moishe Rosen Die a Jew or a Christian?”
The Guardian , June 23, 2010. Online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/jun/23/moishe-rosen-jew-jesus . All URLs in this article were last accessed August 25, 2010.
- Benyamin Cohen, “Death of a Salesman: Moishe Rosen, Jews for Jesus Founder,Is Dead,” Huffington Post , June 3, 2010. Online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/benyamin-cohen/death-of-a-salesman-moish_b_598150.html
- As of summer 2010, the Liberated Wailing Wall has been deliberately disbanded as Jews for Jesus moves towards a new approach to our music ministry, which will involve more direct evangelism than in the past. The new music group is called Blue Mosaic, and you will hear more about them in the months ahead.
- Moishe Rosen, “An Ethical Basis of Witness to the Jewish Community: ACompendium of Thought,” April 1985. Online at: http://www.lcje.net/papers/1985/Rosen.pdf
- Beverly Jamison and Mitchell Glaser, Jewish Believer Survey: A Demographic Profile of Jews Who Believe in Jesus (San Francisco:Jews for Jesus, 1983; out of print).
- “Letter from Robert Specter,” http://www.jewsforjesus.org/about/forjewsforjesus/messianic/specter
- “Letter from Abraham Sandler,” http://www.jewsforjesus.org/about/forjewsforjesus/messianic/sandler
- Daniel Juster and Paul Liberman, in personal conversation with the author; David Sedaca, at the memorial dinner following Moishe’s homegoing, as reported to the author.
- Today Chosen People Ministries.
- Richard Harvey, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2009, reprinted 2014)
I wasn’t looking for Jesus or God or anything ontological. I kept my nose to the grindstone. My goal in life was nothing big: I wanted to earn a good living and be able to afford a middle-class lifestyle. But even if I wasn’t looking for Jesus, He was looking for me.
My Jewishness is something that I took for granted. I grew up in Denver, Colorado in a neighborhood where most of the people were Jewish. If you walked into the grocery store or the shoemaker, or the barber, you expected to hear Yiddish.
In Denver, most people who followed the Jewish religion had few choices: most of us were Orthodox. There was one Conservative Congregation, and one Reformed Temple, but these were for upper-class people. So Orthodoxy was the way that most of us went, even though we didn’t particularly follow doctrines. We didn’t particularly work at being observant.
I was a Depression baby, and not much in Denver changed during my childhood. Most of the boys and girls that I went to grammar school with were the same ones I knew in high school. There was little upward mobility, as we went from the Depression Era to the World War Two Era.
During those years, it was a rare thing for any Jewish family to move to Denver, or to move from Denver. The neighborhood was unchanged, so when Celia Starr moved into my block, and she’d come from Boston, there was a lot of curiosity about this immigrant.” That was what we called people who came from other cities.
Everybody loved to hear her talk because of her accent. Boys would tease her and say, “Tell us that we should park the car.” And in the beginning, being innocent, she would say, “Pahk the cah.” We would giggle among ourselves, because that’s not the way that real people talked. After a while, she wouldn’t talk to any of us. Though she was the prettiest girl in the neighborhood, she got the reputation of being stuck up, when she was only shy.
None of the guys stood a chance of making an impression with her. I worked out a strategy: I made friends with her mother, and sure enough, I got to talk to Ceil. I didn’t make fun of her accent, and she didn’t remind me of my reputation of being a rough neck. We were sweethearts in high school.
She had a better knowledge of the Jewish religion than me. Her parents were “frum,” or strictly observant. When it came time for us to be married, we were married in an Orthodox synagogue. But by then, I was an agnostic and she was a self-proclaimed atheist. God didn’t have a place in our lives. Prayer meant talking to yourself, and miracles were like magic fairy tales.
But it didn’t stay that way long. When Ceil was pregnant with our first child, she began to wonder about God. She realized that much of her “atheism” had been a reaction to her upbringing. She knew there had to be more out there. She had been impressed by singing Christmas carols in high school, particularly “Oh Come, Oh Come Immanuel and ransom captive Israel.” What did Jesus have to do with Israel? Why did Israel need to be ransomed?
And as she puzzled, she fell back into a habit of her childhood: she prayed. She had stopped praying when she was five years old: her Mickey Mouse balloon popped, and she prayed and prayed that God would fix it, but the balloon was still popped. So now, except for the formal prayers said in the synagogue, she didn’t ask God for anything.
But now she was asking that God would show Himself to her. No one has ever earnestly prayed that prayer that the Almighty has failed to answer. She had a sudden urge to read the New Testament, a book scorned by Jews as being goyisch, and not for our people. So, quietly, she began to read and discovered that the New Testament was also a Jewish book involving Jewish people, but most of all about the Jewish Messiah. But she couldn’t put it all together, so she prayed again that God would help her. And help was on the way in the form of a missionary from the American Board of Missions to the Jews.
Now, I had heard the Gospel earlier. I was just seventeen years old, and someone on a street corner started talking to me. His name was Orville Freestone. He got into the Gospel (this was 1947) and told me to look for Israel to become a state. I was fascinated with what he said. We both took the same bus; we were going the same direction, but we both got off at Federal Boulevard, except he was supposed to go south, and I was supposed to go north. But I became so fascinated with what he was saying, I walked and stood on his front porch for a while, and took it all in. He went in the house and got a New Testament, and asked me to read it.
Well, as I walked home, I started thinking: “What he says makes sense. So that means that I must be one dumbJew, because Jesus couldn’t possibly be the Messiah. And I’m not going to read this book, because if I read it, I might believe it. And I don’t trust my own judgment. No, I’m not going to have anything to do with this. If the rabbis ever get together and decide that Jesus is the Messiah, maybe I’ll go along with them.”
But here, four years later, my wife was groping to know how to follow Christ. The Lord answered her prayer. Then I found out how hostile and angry I could be. But, in her new-found faith, she had the patience to endure my anger and hostility.
Up until that time, I thought there was a good case that could be made against believing in Jesus, and that the rabbis had good reason. So I visited the rabbi that had married us, and asked him for the intellectual ammunition that would convince her. He sat down and made explanations to me that seemed no more than a quibbling about the possible variant meanings of Hebrew words. I looked at him and said, “Rabbi Bryks, these things will not convince her, and frankly, they don’t even convince me. There’s got to be better reasons.”
Then he thought for a moment, and smiled. He said, “Well, think on this. It takes two to tango.” I replied, “Huh?” Then he explained that when it came to the virgin birth, it was just not a possibility, that there would have had to have been a human father.
What he didn’t know was that in that one notion, he completely undermined the case not only for Christianity, but for Judaism and any other kind of theism. If God can’t perform miracles, and the basic documents say that He did perform miracles, then the documents must be wrong.
I was cut adrift. But I started reading atheist writers, and I tried those arguments on my wife. Nothing could shake her in her faith, and I couldn’t argue with her changed life. I wish I could say that there was some big convincing argument that persuaded me. It didn’t’ happen that way. It’s just that the more I fought against the Gospel, there was something in me that knew that it was true.
One Saturday night, I sat down to read one of the many pamphlets that my wife left around the house. If they were serious, I would throw those pamphlets away. If it was something that I could ridicule, then I read it, and I read it out loud with a “ha, ha” tone of voice so that Ceil would know that I was making fun of it.
This particular pamphlet was titled, “What Is Heaven Like?” As I began to read the hyper-literalist interpretation of Heaven, I didn’t read it out loud, I got part way-and in my heart, I said, “Heaven’s not like this at all…oops!” The oops was because I didn’t believe up until that time that such a thing as Heaven existed, and now, within myself, I had some idea of what it must be like.
So I did some unpacking of my thinking, and discovered that faith was there. I really did believe in Heaven, believed in the Bible, believed in Christ, and was ready to say so.
When I first heard the Gospel, I didn’t want to know that it was true, because it would have meant that my family would disown me; my friends would desert me, that if I let myself believe in Jesus, I would be an outcast. What I didn’t realize was that I had no choice in the matter, because if I said that Jesus wasn’t the promised Messiah or the Bible wasn’t true, I would know that I was a liar.
Since that time, God has answered prayer in my life over and over again, and has reassured me of His presence in my life and the lives of others in this world. But then, that’s another story.