In May of 2001 we started meeting with two other families on Friday nights at a church in Sandy Springs, Georgia (a near-north suburb of Atlanta). I knew very little about Judaism.
Maybe I should explain what led me to start a Messianic Jewish fellowship (the word we used at that time) and how a guy with so little knowledge of Judaism had the chutzpah to start something Messianic Jewish.
The Way We Were
My wife and I were members of a Southern Baptist Church. Though some people have a negative association with “Baptist” and “Southern Baptist,” I tell you this place was basically wholesome and the people were as good as gold. We were mostly happy.
I say mostly because my wife was not completely happy. While dating and early in our marriage, we had belonged for several years to a Messianic Jewish congregation in Chicago. My Christian wife, daughter of a pastor and Greek professor at a Bible College, had grown to love Passover, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Sukkot, and Hanukkah (Yom Kippur did not fit with our theology at the time).
One of my favorite early marriage memories was my wife baking a gigantic loaf of whole wheat bread for Shavuot (Weeks, Pentecost) one year. I had looked into the measurements of the Bible and estimated the amount of flour that went into the loaves back in Temple days. It was bread four times or more the size of a normal loaf.
And in our tiny Chicago apartment we had a rather small oven. The loaf expanded into the top of our oven and made a mess (and some smoke!).
With memories like that, no wonder my wife said to me at some point in 2000, “I miss having a community to celebrate holidays with.”
The Problem and My Poor Preparation
The problem is, I’d been working for three and a half years for a Christian mission organization “to the Jews.” They frowned on Judaism and Messianic Judaism (hence our membership in a church).
Let me step back a bit and say that I was raised as an atheist. I discovered Judaism about two weeks after discovering Jesus. And that was at age 19 as an engineering student at Georgia Tech.
But very quickly — and it didn’t help that my many Jewish friends were all secular and could offer me no wisdom whatsoever on these matters — my Christian friends had me thinking of Judaism as a “false religion believed in by God’s dearly beloved Chosen People.”
I was able to fit into my Christian environment and still retain some things in connection with my incipient interest in Judaism. I read Jewish history. I watched Jewish movies. I learned some simple things about tradition, though I had a distaste for ritual engendered by the evangelical Christian I was fitting myself into. Most of all, I loved the Hebrew Bible. I studied it for four years in Bible College and then got a Master of Theological Studies degree at Emory with an emphasis on Hebrew Bible.
The trade-off, which I could not yet appreciate, is that I had to think of many of these beliefs, rituals, and insights as “primitive,” “superseded in Christ,” and so on.
So, when my wife asked me to start a brand new Messianic Jewish fellowship, I had the bright idea to at least start attending Jewish worship and learn some things. For about six weeks (a poor education!) I went to three or four different Orthodox synagogues.
My entire knowledge and preparation consisted of a rudimentary knowledge of holidays, and handful of how-to-witness-to-Jews books, and about four years’ experience meeting with Jewish people as part of my work as a missionary.
I remember the first dozen or so services we held at the Hope of David Messianic Fellowship. I am ashamed to say that all I knew of the liturgy was the first part of the Shema and how to sing “Oseh Shalom.”
Two things saved my tuchas. One, I took some advice and crashed the wedding anniversary party of a dear Messianic gentile couple who knew five times as much as I did about the practical side of Messianic Judaism. Two, I had the good sense to join the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC).
Crashing Gary and Cheryl’s wedding anniversary bash was a transparent move to entice them to join our fledgling movement. They brought musical talent, Messianic experience, other families who knew and trusted them, and tons of enthusiasm.
As for the UMJC, that’s a funny story. I went to my first big UMJC meeting with a chip on my shoulder. I still had “missionary” attitudes ingrained in me. So I wore a “Jews for Jesus” t-shirt (knowing this was a politically incorrect thing to do, like wearing a “Baptists and the Best” shirt at a Presbyterian conference).
After check-in at the conference hotel, I went out to the pool and saw Tony Eaton sitting with Paul Saal and Michael Schiffman (all rabbis I knew to some degree, though not well as yet). Tony Eaton is a kindhearted rabbi, but he is big and he looks mean! And his look at my Jews for Jesus t-shirt was less than kind. I thought he might jump off that lounge chair and pound me into the concrete (I wasn’t worried as I knew I could out-run him).
The irony is I thought I needed to teach these rabbis something. I didn’t think these “alta cacas” had anything to teach me. I knew a couple hundred Bible verses and who needed anything else?
Flash Forward and Getting to the Point
A few other things saved my tuchas of these past ten years. Tikvat David is a thriving little community with lots of community and curiosity. I owe that fact to the kinds of things on this list:
(1) My wife, who asked me to start it all, she taught and loved and helped new mothers and helped make us a place for young families.
(2) My eight children, who made easy friends and caused us to overflow with children.
(3) The radical idea that we should be a community and not a weekly production, that we should eat together and hang out and be friends.
(4) The mentoring I received, and still do, from people like Paul Saal, Michael Schiffman, Stuart Dauermann, Mark Kinzer, Carl Kinbar, and John Fischer.
(5) The beauty of Judaism and Christianity, a beauty which constantly lulls me into rapturous glimpses of a better world.
I started as a missionary dedicated to saving Jews from Judaism. I wound up a rabbi helping interfaith families, teaching eager Christians, and helping Jewish people who yearned for something that they did not fully understand but which is what Yeshua is all about.
I meet thousands every year, literally, who share the same love for the beauty of Judaism and Christianity and the intersection of the two.
Hope of David Messianic Fellowship morphed into Tikvat David Messianic Synagogue, a home for Messianic Jews and Judeo-Christians devoted to following Yeshua, living the traditions, and being a Spirit-empowered community of loving deeds.
Happy Tenth Anniversary, Tikvat David. I think we are one of those beautiful places on earth that make the Father smile.