A Jew for Jesus
WORLD MAGAZINE | Religion | Moishe Rosen put Christian belief on the map for American Jews | by Edward E. Plowman
I was a pastor and religion journalist in San Francisco in 1970 when Martin “Marty” Meyer Rosen, sporting a signature mustache, hit town. He would become a friend for the next 40 years, known all over the United States as Moishe Rosen, founder of Jews for Jesus, a colorful, headline-grabbing evangelical outreach group. Following his death on May 19 at age 78, The Jewish Chronicle described him as the world’s “most famous Jewish evangelist.”
“More than any other single person,” said megachurch pastor and broadcaster Lon Solomon of McLean, Va., “Moishe was responsible for putting the idea of being Jewish and believing in Jesus on the map.”
As I observed and reported over the years, no other single person brought down on his head as much angry condemnation by the Jewish religious establishment as Rosen (Moishe was his Yiddish name from growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Colorado) did—simply by being active and forthright in calling on Jewish young people to become followers of Yeshua.
In one of our first conversations, against a backdrop of protest demonstrations in the streets, he said, “You can be a radical Jewish Marxist and atheist, and they will not question your Jewishness. But if you are a Jewish believer in Jesus, they will. I won’t let them do that to me. They can’t take away my Jewish identity.”
Rosen came to San Francisco from New York City, where he was a missionary and administrator with the American Board of Missions to the Jews (ABMJ—renamed in 1984 as Chosen People Ministries), a ministry whose history dates from the late 1800s.
He married his high-school sweetheart, Ceil Starr, in 1950 in an Orthodox synagogue. Soon after they wed, influenced by a Christian friend, Ceil became a Christian. In order to understand better and rebut Ceil’s new faith, Rosen began reading the New Testament and tracts the friend had left for her. But, he recalled, “I discovered that what I was reading was true.” He, too, became what he would call “a completed Jew.”
Estranged from his parents after declaring his faith, and wanting to share his discovery with other Jewish people, he traveled east and enrolled in Northeastern Bible Institute in northern New Jersey, was ordained a Baptist minister in Colorado in 1957, and then moved to New York to be a missionary with the ABMJ. He trained other workers with a quick wit and dry humor but grew restless at what he felt was the slow pace and soft low-key style of traditional Jewish missionary work. The youth culture was changing—and unreached. He began mingling among hippies, many of them Jewish, in Greenwich Village. The action was in the streets, he discovered. He wrote his first “broadside,” a tract deliberately designed to look crude, a cross between an outrageous greeting card cartoon and an underground-press handout. It was titled, “A Message from Squares.” It summoned: “Hey you with the beard on your face. We think you are beautiful. God likes beards, too.”
Now he was ready for the move to San Francisco. The late 1960s and early 1970s in San Francisco were years of social upheaval, huge anti-war demonstrations, and spiritual awakenings—among young people in the counterculture and in “straight” churches alike, a collective phenomenon known popularly as the “Jesus movement.”
“When I came out here, the people doing the best communicating were the anti-war activists,” Rosen told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996. “All you needed was a guy with a mimeograph machine at 8 a.m. and you could get 5,000 people to People’s Park by the afternoon.”
He and a band of young recruits set up shop on Haight Street. They trained and sent teams of workers into cities across the country and to 10 countries abroad, including Israel and Russia. They produced and distributed tons of broadsides (“Jesus Made Me Kosher” was one title). Their street-theater presentations attracted large crowds, and their popular music group, The Liberated Wailing Wall, traveled to many cities.
The visibility, activism, and direct person-to-person evangelistic witness generated controversy among ecumenical and Jewish leadership groups. But the rotund Rosen, who came across as a lovable teddy bear, could rise up like a grizzly when challenged. He would insist on observance of equal rights and go to court to secure permission to hand out literature. He would go toe-to-toe with Jewish religious leaders who contended that by becoming Christians, Jewish converts forfeit their Jewishness.
Internally, discomfort with Rosen’s activism grew within ABMJ. The two parted company in 1973, and Rosen formally chartered Jews for Jesus as an independent ministry.
More recently, Rosen cautioned messianic Jews against promoting Jewishness and Judaism as a priority. In a farewell letter he asked to be read following his death, he wrote: “I hope I can count on you to show love and respect for the Jewish people, but Jewishness never saved anybody. Judaism never saved anybody no matter how sincere.”
Rosen acknowledged personal flaws that would interfere with his ministry but he could be self-deprecating: “God has a great sense of humor letting an over-aged, overweight, and overbearing person like me lead a youth movement.” But longtime Jews for Jesus associate executive director Susan Perlman said he instilled pride among Jewish Christians for their heritage. That made him an antagonist to many Jewish leaders. The late Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee called it “a theological impossibility” to be a messianic Jew because “Judaism is incompatible with any belief in the divinity of a human being.”
Among the books Rosen authored were Christ in Passover (1956); Share the New Life with a Jew (Moody Press, 1976, written with his wife); Jews for Jesus (Revell, 1974, with William Proctor); and The Sayings of Chairman Moishe (Creation Press, 1974). Rosen stepped down as executive director of Jews for Jesus in 1996 but continued to serve as a board member until his death. He died from prostate cancer at his home near San Francisco’s Twin Peaks neighborhood. In a final farewell posted on the Jews for Jesus website following his death, he said he probably left many things undone, but noted that “anything done for Christ will last.”
“Being born in a Christian home doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being born in a bakery makes you a bagel.”
“Careless Christians vaccinate their friends against the gospel. They give them just enough of a dose that they never catch a case.”
“The man who knows he’s going to live for eternity can afford to be patient.”
Rosen often told Jews for Jesus editors and writers: “Apart from God, everyone is subject to rewrite.” —
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June 19, 2010, Vol. 25, No. 12