Ken with Friends in the Negev Desert, Israel, 1970

So What's a Nice Jewish Boy Like Your Doing as Pastor of a Local Church?

Copyright © 1988 Kenneth C. Newberger
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As a young man, I attended a family barbecue at the home of my parents in Long Island, New York. One of my father's friends was there and we talked briefly. By that time I had already left law school and entered seminary. It was a radical break from what nice Jewish boys are supposed to do. But I was still loved by my family even if my new pursuit was not understood. During the course of my conversation with this close family friend, he warmly said to me, "as long as you're happy, that's all that really matters." I nodded my head in polite agreement but inwardly realized how far I had traveled from that premise in just a few short years.
Flashback
"If you were to die today, are you sure you would go to heaven?" asked the minister at the close of the first church service I ever attended. It was the summer of 1975. During the last few months I had reason to study the life of Jesus. Just months earlier, in January of that same year, I met my wife to be. She had asked Jesus to personally come into her life in December, about a month before I met her. Although she had attended Catholic church all her life, she never established a personal relationship with God. It was not until she became involved in a Bible study in the home of a retired Protestant minister that she discovered for herself who Jesus was. In all her years of church attendance, the purpose of His life and the essence of His message were never made personally applicable. Now, through a study of the Scriptures, she felt led to quietly pray to Him as Savior and Lord in the privacy of her own bedroom one calm, Floridian night. Included in her prayer was also a request for a husband. Who would have dreamed that she was praying for a nice Jewish boy like me?

In the fall of 1974 I returned to the United States after spending eight months in Israel, my second trip there. I was still searching for truth and the meaning of life. Growing up in an affluent Jewish community on Long Island, I could afford (at my father's expense) to be idealistic. I entered American University in Washington D.C. in the fall of 1969 at the height of the anti-Vietnam war sentiment. Long hair and pot was in. Respect for the establishment was out. I was a product of a generation in search of its soul. But I would come to learn that this rebellious subculture, of which I was a part, had no enduring answers.

In the summer of 1970 after my first year of college, I went to Israel for eleven weeks with a group of about thirty other Jewish college students. It was truly a Cinderella experience: six weeks working on a Kibbutz, two weeks of guided tours, three weeks on our own. Following hidden trails through the rocks and crevices of the Negev Desert (in the above photo I am the good-looking one... the one on the right!), and swimming to an island where laid the remains of an old castle are just two of the vivid and exciting memories of my trip.

At the end of the eleven weeks, as we boarded the plane back to the U.S., thoughts of the two Israeli girls "left behind" only reinforced my resolve to return after I graduated college with the idea of making my home there. Where else could a Jew expect to find fulfillment in life if not in Israel?

The month after graduating college in January 1974, I was back in Israel. But this time it was different. This time it was for real. In short, I discovered that the grass was really no greener on the other side of the ocean, Jew or no Jew. Disappointed, I returned to New York eight months later. My idealism now became my father's realism. I had to get a job. So I went down to Florida to work for my uncle in his warehouse, unsure of what I really wanted out of life.
Pretty Woman
Unexpectedly, while out on the town one evening in Miami, I caught a glimpse of her. She was very pretty. Her name was Mary. At first, she didn't recognize that I was the one she had prayed for a month earlier. Nonetheless, we were married four months later, in May.

Of interest, was our second date. It was almost cancelled. We had scheduled it for a time when Mary later realized that she had already made a commitment to go on a spiritual retreat with a friend. She explained that being Jewish I might be uncomfortable in such a setting. I told her that I would "suffer" in her company. When we arrived, we were both somewhat shocked. Of the hundred or so believers there, only three were Gentile. The rest were Jewish. They called themselves "completed Jews." In a sense, Mary was more out of place there than I was, although I can't say that I was overly thrilled with the situation. I had never heard of such a thing. If I wasn't "suffering" in Mary's company, I would have left for sure.
Food for Thought
During our courtship, Mary and I did talk about the Bible and spiritual matters. She gave me literature illustrating how the life and ministry of Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. For example, she pointed out how the prophet Isaiah, writing around 700 BC, penned the words (chapter 53), "Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried. Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him. And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way. But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him."

As I studied the Old Testament for myself I was amazed. For me these unexplainable parallels pointed to the fact that Jesus was indeed the awaited Jewish Messiah. Consequently, I was becoming drawn to this Figure who is universally recognized as the world's most influential Jew. To my surprise as well, I discovered that the early church was exclusively made up of Jews. I had much food for thought.
The Turning Point
After Mary and I were married, we moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was to attend law school in the fall of 1975. While at work that summer, a couple invited us to church and we accepted. At the close of the service the minister asked the congregation, "if you were to die today, are you sure you would go to heaven?" It was at that point, after months of reflection, that I wanted to seal my eternal destiny and make my peace with God. I bowed my head and silently put my faith in the Messiah of Israel. I have not regretted it since.

Although I do not personally use the terminology "completed Jew" to describe myself, I do understand the sentiment behind it. When a Jew becomes a follower of Jesus he does not give up his Jewishness. One Jew following another Jew doesn't make him a non-Jew. To the contrary, by following the One who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah and had the credentials to back it up, he discovers what his Jewishness is all about. He becomes "completed" in that sense. It is a fulfillment that I never found in Israel or anywhere else. It is spiritual in nature.
Into the Ministry
After my first year of law school I realized that law was not for me. It bothered me to see how subjective and how changeable case law was. On the other hand, that year I was learning, in a fresh way, that God does not change and His truth does not change. And it was truth I wanted to study.

After the spring semester of 1976 I left law school and entered seminary. Going to school part time and with other of life's interventions, I finally earned the 126 credits required to receive my Master of Theology degree in May, 1985. Was I glad school was over! Three kids and ten years later, Mary and I went to Hawaii for a week to relax, celebrate, and enjoy a second honeymoon. When we returned, we looked for a place to serve God. We first found it in New York, in September 1985, as pastor of a local church.
Two Perspectives
"What matters in life is that you're happy," I was once told by a well intentioned family friend. I respectfully disagree. I pursued happiness and good times only to find them elusive. Rather, what really matters is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to do His will. Here then are two perspectives of life. One self seeking and inward, the other seeking God who is above. My spiritual awakening occurred when, accepting the messianic teachings of Jesus, I exchanged the first perspective for the second. No, I don't have a halo. No, my life is not problem-free. But oddly enough when I stopped asking, "what do I want, what will make me happy?" and began asking, ""what does God want of me?" I found all that I had been searching for: truth, happiness, and the meaning of life.
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