Robin Schanker – The Long Road Home
I opened my door to find Holly, a friend I hadn’t seen much that semester. Why did she visit me that October evening? I invited her in and we chatted for about fifteen minutes. Then Holly subtly changed the subject to Jesus Christ and Christianity, asking if I had seen a recent film on death and dying, sponsored by a group she was now involved with called Campus Crusade for Christ. Gradually it became clear that Holly wanted me to accept Jesus as my savior. I insisted that, to Jews, Jesus is not the Messiah. No bibles were opened, we only talked. When Holly left, all I wanted to do was sleep.
At that time I was a junior at Illinois State University, majoring in special education for the visually handicapped. I had grown up a Reform Jew, attending Sunday School until I was ten. To please my mother, I later participated in a few youth group social events, but never enjoyed them. I was looking for something with more meaning. Judaism seemed so empty. I wanted to understand and learn about God, though, at the time, I wasn’t aware of this need.
I didn’t talk again to Holly about Christianity, but the curiosity she sparked led me to another friend, Karen, a “born-again” Christian who grew up attending the Church of Christ. I thought of her as more spiritual than anyone I had ever known. One afternoon I told Karen about my conversation with Holly and asked her why Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah. The pat answers I had received in Jewish circles no longer satisfied me. That conversation began a series of events that changed my life.
In January, I moved to Karen’s residence hall floor. She would stop in often to say hello and gradually directed our conversation to Jesus and the Bible. Eventually Karen invited me to attend a Bible study group for women in the dorm. I turned her down at first, then ran out of excuses. On a Thursday evening in February, I entered the small meeting room, joining a dozen women for a “soul talk.” A table was stocked with paperback New Testaments waiting to be picked up and opened. Next to the table sat Sherry, wife of the “campus minister” representing the Church of Christ. They had no connection with the university approved campus ministry.
Sherry began by talking to us about sin, saying that sin involves not only acts like murder and robbery but also hatred, arguing, and selfishness. The “fruits of the spirit” are love, kindness, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, and selflessness. If one lives by these morals, one will enter heaven; if not, hell is inevitable.
After the Bible study, Linda introduced herself to me, saying, “I’ve heard about you and think I could relate a little better than the others here. My stepfather’s Jewish.” I was surprised by her comment but gave her the benefit of the doubt. We began to discuss the emptiness of Judaism, how few Jews knew what it meant to be Jewish, and how Jewish identity was reduced to social or political activities.
I later learned that my encounters with these women were all orchestrated in advance. Between Tuesday, when I had told Karen I would join her at the Bible study class, and Thursday evening, all the women of this “soul talk” held a meeting to discuss what my major was, where I lived, what I believed in, who should befriend me, who should talk to me before I left, who should meet me for lunch the next week, and who should follow up with thoughtful notes. Sherry admitted months later that she chose the subject of sin specifically to attract me.
The “soul talk,” among other events, followed the missionary guidelines of the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainsville, Florida. Sherry began meeting me once a week for one-on-one Bible study. I began attending Sunday services, Friday night devotionals, Wednesday night Bible studies, and I continued attending the “soul talks.” I met some wonderful, smiling, loving people. In fact, everyone I met was quick to hug me and say “I love you.”
Satisfying all my needs
Knowing that I was attending summer school that year, Sherry asked me if I had a place to live. I hadn’t yet thought about it, but she had. “Well, Linda, Mary Kay, and Shari need a roommate. Why don’t you consider moving in with them?” she suggested. “If you need a summer job, talk to Mike, he’s the director of Campus Recreation and will get you a lifeguard job.” Did I need a car? Someone from the church would lend me theirs. Did I need money? They would satisfy all my needs.
I spent that summer attending classes, working at the pool, and going to Church of Christ events. I felt guilty if I thought of doing anything else. Larry, the campus minister, began to put on the pressure. After four or five months, I still hadn’t accepted Jesus. “Robin, you’re going to be a great Christian,” he insisted. I informed him that as much as I enjoyed being with the members of the church, and as much as I appreciated the way everyone treated each other, I wouldn’t convert unless he could prove that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.
Larry rose to the challenge, using all the usual texts from the Hebrew Bible to prove that the Prophets were talking about Jesus when they spoke of the Messiah. Now I look back at these passages and understand their true meanings, but at that time I had no other “teacher.” Although I didn’t feel that the words of the Prophets meshed with the New Testament, I found myself wanting to accept Christian doctrine. I prayed to God to show me a sign and looked out the window, expecting to see an angel or hear the wind speak. In the stillness, I decided that God would show me in His own way.
The next day, the campus ministry sponsored a picnic. We were running races when someone accidentally knocked me down. When I opened my eyes and looked around, I saw so many loving faces that I began to cry. I thought, “They all love me, a love they say is from Jesus, but I don’t deserve their love because I didn’t believe in him.
From party to prophesy
That night I went to a party. Everyone was getting high on drugs or alcohol. Not a single person said hello to me. I felt like an outcast. When I returned to the apartment, I found all my roommates waiting up for me. They were concerned because I had left the picnic with a headache. They feared that I had a concussion. Their faces showed disappointment that I had gone to a drinking party. As I sat up that night, pondering the “prophecies” Larry had studied with me, all the pieces seemed to fall into place.
The next day I was baptized. Larry spoke movingly, and tears flowed throughout the congregation. He stressed my Jewish heritage and how significant it was that I decided to become a Christian.
My parents were stunned when I called them. My father, who was being kept alive by a dialysis machine, wept and begged me not to go through with it. My mother screamed and swore at me. They said I sounded like a zombie and that I wasn’t their daughter anymore. I stayed calm, assured that the peace of Jesus was within me.
After summer school I went home and, at my mother’s request, agreed to see a rabbi. Toward the end of our meeting he yelled at me, accusing me of being worse than Hitler, a disgrace to the Jewish people. He reconfirmed my opinion that Jews were not spiritual and did not have “the truth.” To my mind he was just like the Pharisees who, I was taught, had killed Jesus.
Humble and happy
I became repulsive to my old friends. I carried my Bible everywhere, reading to them in the hope of “saving” them. During this period, while assuming the role of a modest woman, I began to look and act like my church friends. Like clones, we would all pull our bodies inward to appear humble. We kept our heads down and smiled constantly to convince everyone of our happy state.
In January, while I was student teaching, my parents entered therapy, and I went along to please my mother. In one of the sessions my mother asked me to see a rabbi in New York who had experience working with kids in cults. She said that the rabbi could help her understand my situation, if only he could talk to me. I flatly refused her request, confident that my church was not a cult. He was probably a deprogrammer. I had been warned that the devil might use my parents or a deprogrammer to make me “fall away.”
Then, suddenly, I felt that I wasn’t displaying the “attitude of Jesus.” If I wanted to convert my mother and the rest of the family, I had to do as they requested. I was certain that I was strong enough to hold onto my faith. So I proposed to my mother that, if she would speak to my minister, I would see the rabbi. She agreed, catching me off guard. I prayed to God for guidance.
Four days after graduation, I flew to New York with my Bible and notebook in hand. Larry and my “brothers and sisters” had advised me not to see this rabbi, but I convinced them that the ordeal would make me a stronger Christian. With their help, I read scripture to reinforce my thinking and perhaps even persuade the rabbi to convert.
Rabbi Yehudah Fine, carrying his two-year-old daughter, met me at JFK Airport. Dressed in a dark suit and yarmulke, the bearded rabbi smiled warmly as he greeted me. During the drive to Brooklyn, the conversation was light. I met his wife, Ellie and their eighteen-month-old son at their modest, two bedroom apartment. Then we all headed down Avenue J for some kosher pizza.
Giving Judaism a chance
Later on that night, I told my story to Yehudah and his wife. They impressed me by listening without arguing or trying to persuade me. They wanted to get to know me and to understand my situation. I was very much on guard but agreed to meet with their friends and give Judaism a chance to prove itself. I spent many hours conversing with Ellie, who had once been a devotee of the Guru Maharaji, the leader of the Divine Light Mission. I learned from her how cults use subtle methods to lure unsuspecting people, such as “love-bombing” new members and employing special jargon. Mostly, we talked about God. Ellie was the first Jewish person I had ever met who had a spiritual approach to Judaism.
In the days that followed, I spoke with Yehudah’s rebbe and his friends Zalman and Nussan, among many others. On Friday night I lit my first Shabbos candles and experienced my first complete Shabbos. Zalman and I took a long walk Saturday afternoon, talking about God, Jesus, Judaism, and Christianity. Then at one point he turned to me and asked, “Do you think Ellie is living her life in a way that would be pleasing to God?” I answered, “Yes.” Then he asked me, “Is she going to heaven or hell?” I could only cry. If God was as loving and forgiving as I had claimed, then Ellie would certainly go to heaven. This conclusion conflicted with my belief that hell awaited anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus, wasn’t baptized, and didn’t live a Christian life.
Forever means forever
Saturday night I met Nussan. He listened to my story but, half way through, he began to tell me his story. He had been involved in Campus Crusade for Christ while at college in Iowa. He left the group and stopped believing in Jesus when his mother proved to him that the word “forever” in the Torah meant just that: forever. God’s laws are forever, not just until someone else comes along and gives you new laws. Nussan encouraged me to look deeper into the passages of the Jewish Bible, to read the messages of the Prophets more thoroughly. I was stubborn and disagreed with him, yet somehow he reached deep into my soul. He was the first Jew I met that had left Christianity, and that impressed me just as much as Zalman’s powerful question the previous day.
After spending the following week in New Jersey with a friend. I returned to Brooklyn for one more day before heading home to begin training as a “soul talk” leader. I was planning to move to Cape Giradeau with a campus minister to help start a new ministry. But, somehow, this plan no longer felt right. Instead of one more day in New York, I decided to spend another week, then the rest of the summer. I wanted to study Torah and give Judaism one last chance. I phoned one of the “sisters” and informed her of my plans. Yehudah warned me that if Larry were truly an ethical Christian, he would not fuss about my decision to study with Jews. Larry proved Yehudah’s point. The following evening, I received a phone call from Larry and four other people who, for the next hour and a half, combined love-bombing and coercion in an effort to convince me to quit New York. After that ordeal, I began to dislike Larry and the whole group.
Theories shot down
I continued to study, delving into books on the Messiah and Jesus. I spent hours with Zalman reading Gerald Sigal’s book The Jew and the Christian Missionary: A Jewish Response to Missionary Christianity. Each time I chose a chapter which I was certain would prove to Zalman that Jesus was the Messiah, my theories were shot down. Nothing I read confirmed that Jesus actually fulfilled any of the messianic prophecies. Although it was tremendously difficult to admit, for fear that I would go to hell, I realized that I could no longer believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Finally, without fanfare, I announced my decision to my new friends. Yehudah called my parents and came back with the message from my father that he now felt he had a reason to live.
It took almost a year for me to break the missionary hold. On occasion, I felt the need to be with my old church friends. But the illumination of that first Shabbos candle helped me affirm my Judaism. Experiencing the discussions, the singing, the learning, and the warmth of Shabbos was my first step in realizing the spirituality of Judaism. I learned that there really are Jewish people who believe in a loving God and live their lives accordingly. The more I learn, the more I realize that Judaism is filled with love, forgiveness and the omnipresence of God.
Since this story was written, Robin, now known as Raizel (her Yiddish name) has become an observant Jew and was recently married.