Dismantling the Wall

Jesus Christ wasn't for Jews—this is the lesson Sandy learned all her life. But then God changed everything.

“. . . O come let us adore Him, hmm-hmm the Lord.” That’s how I sang it in fourth grade, when public schools still had Christmas concerts with unedited carols. Yes, I knew the words. But we were Jewish, and I had strict instructions not to pronounce that name.

I figured it was because in my world, “Jesus” and “Christ” (which I assumed was His last name) were spoken only as expletives. I wasn’t even aware what the holiday meant, other than having something to do with a baby. And I knew that much only because when we brought our neighbor the annual fruitcake, I’d see the curious little ceramic scene on her coffee table.

That visit next door was the only time I entered a non-Jewish home and the closest I ever got to a real Christmas tree. So while Mom and Mrs. Lovett chatted, I’d sink into the puffy beige couch and get lost wondering about ornaments, tinsel, and the porcelain infant sleeping among animals. Afterward, I would have questions, like who the baby was, and why, if Mrs. Lovett seemed to like him so much, wasn’t I allowed to say his name? The gag order, I learned, was Mom’s way of passing down the lesson that had been drummed into her: Jesus is not for Jews.

In retrospect, I understand where that came from. The 1950s Jew was quite familiar with persecution, from name-calling to the genocidal atrocities of the Second World War. Tragically, certain culprits were people who considered themselves Christians. The community’s reaction to that and the subtler threat of assimilation was to insulate itself against non-Jewish influence. Hoping the next generation would develop an instinct for survival, parents encouraged choosing playmates, dates, and, certainly, a spouse from among our own. But the unintended consequence was a skewed “us versus them” world view.

I was glad we were the “chosen people” but had no clue what we were chosen for.

Other aspects of my religious identity were likewise fuzzy. I was glad we were the “chosen people” but had no clue what we were chosen for. Along with a modicum of superstitious thinking—namely, that things simply went my way—this kept me operating with a seriously flawed foundation until my late 20s.

The head-on collision with reality finally occurred with the death of my month-old baby. Jonathan had arrived 12 weeks prematurely, which certainly didn’t fit my personal paradigm. But right until his heart monitor flatlined, I was convinced he’d miraculously recover, in keeping with lucky Sandra’s life script.

Depression started then and deepened six months later with a subsequent medical disaster. Like Job, I listened but found no comfort from family, friends, or spiritual professionals. My predictable, controllable world had removed its mask, leaving me needy and floundering.

Enter Ellen. Though she was a social worker in the ICU where Jonathan had died, we’d never met during his brief stay. My husband, a hospital resident, knew of Ellen’s reputation as “wise” and asked if she’d talk with me.

I don’t recall much about her first visit except that it was soothing to be with this good listener and I looked forward to her returning. So Ellen stopped by after work the next Tuesday. And the one after that . . .

She had a knack for following my lead: When I didn’t feel like talking, she was comfortable sitting with me in silence; but if I was agonizing over whys or over-flowing with sorrow, she’d sensitively engage in conversation. Looking back, I realize she didn’t manipulate the conversation toward the spiritual—I did.

“How can you stand working where children die?” I remember asking.

“My faith is strong,” she answered.

“What religion are you?”

“Christian. But it’s a relationship, not a religion.”

I couldn’t make sense of that. “What kind of Christian,” I asked, trying to recall names of local churches, “Catholic? Baptist? Gentile?”

“Just Christian.”

In time, our discussions made me question certain “us/them” notions, like my assumption that the Old Testament was for Jews, the New Testament for non-Jews. I wondered why Ellen (clearly a “them”) knew more about the Jewish Bible than I did. It was also mystifying why this rational person treated Scripture like (for lack of a better term) gospel truth; hadn’t modern scholarship proven it’s a collection of myths? Ellen’s naiveté created a disconnect, leaving me curious about her unconventional yet somehow sound wisdom.

I considered making her leave but knew I was drowning and recognized the stupidity of discarding my life jacket.

And so we bumbled along together—me aimlessly groping my way through bereavement and medical uncertainty, and Ellen (I later learned) prayerfully alert for God’s leading. Then one night something I asked changed the dynamic. I’ve forgotten the question but distinctly remember my indignant response to her answer: How dare Ellen tell someone Jewish that the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ!

I considered making her leave but knew I was drowning and recognized the stupidity of discarding my life jacket. Instead, my rebuttal to her narrow-mindedness was that I believed Judaism to be true. Ellen shocked me by agreeing—but added that Christianity must be as well, since so many biblical promises remained unfulfilled until the New Testament. I didn’t know about such things, I said, but trusted Judaism’s sufficiency as a stand-alone religion.

In a kind way, she urged me to substantiate my claim and asked if I had a Bible. I did though wasn’t sure where. When I located it, I had no inkling what to look for, so Ellen offered to help. Thus began our little research project, for which my sole ground rule was: Old Testament only.

Over the next six months, as Ellen methodically took me through prophecies in my Bat Mitzvah Bible, the haze began to lift and a portrait of the Messiah emerged: He would be born of a virgin; He’d come from Bethlehem; His hands and feet would be pierced. It was thrilling to discover truth, yet unsettling—the Promised One unquestionably would be Jewish, but He was sounding like a “them”!

The clincher was Isaiah 53. When I read, “He was crushed for our iniquities” (v. 5), my mind’s eye saw the banner displayed every Easter at the church on North Main Street: Beneath a picture of Jesus was the proclamation, “He died for our sins.” For the first time, those words made sense. So I pronounced a cautious but sincere confession of faith—“Well, I guess I can’t deny this any longer”—and got born to real life, right there at my kitchen table.

Jewish friends tell me, “You’re no longer one of us.” That’s understandable—I, too, once thought faith was an “either/or” proposition. But now, knowing it is “both/and,” I can lift my Jewish voice to my Jewish Messiah and sing, “O, come  let us adore Him, CHRIST THE LORD!”

Ever since that time, I’ve considered Ellen one of my life’s MVPs. Soon after we met, I detected both her strong Christian faith and profound concern for the Jewish people—and have always assumed she saw me as an exciting quest, especially once I finally connected a few dots. Not so, she told me last August, over breakfast on my porch. In fact, her biggest hesitation had been that I would ask about faith, in which case answering honestly could cost her the job she loved.

Early in her professional life, social work had seemed a good fit for Ellen’s empathetic nature. But over time, growing bureaucracy left her with few opportunities for personal connections. Frustrated, she quit and took assembly line work.

Unexpectedly, her factory stint became a time of exponential spiritual growth. Ellen was a believer who’d stagnated soon after conversion at 13 and now had no use for Christianity. But things changed one morning as she drove her orange VW Bug, twirling the radio dial for a good song. It was a voice that stopped her—though not a singer’s. Something about the way preacher John DeBrine spoke   made her unable to change the station.

Ellen found herself tuning in day after day, and as her foundation solidified, hunger for Scripture developed. She wrote DeBrine, hoping to find a nearby Bible study, and he connected her with his friend Fred Richardson (whom I’d later inherit as mentor and spiritual dad). “God had set me aside for two years in this job that required no brain work,” Ellen said. “I’d come home thinking, I’ve got to exercise my mind!” So every night she studied, unwittingly in training for the discipleship I’d soon need.

Feeling ready to reconnect with social work, Ellen applied for a rare vacancy in pediatrics. But her interview at Rhode Island Hospital wasn’t exactly promising: Noting her two-year hiatus, the supervisor said, “You’ve probably forgotten everything you learned. If I’d seen your résumé before granting an interview, I never would have bothered.”

“I’m not sure what happened,” Ellen said, “but a few days later, I got the job.”

Though hired to work with patients’ families, Ellen also sensed deep need among staff: Nurses and residents had no training or emotional support for the situations they encountered, and she offered a listening ear. “I started staying over,” she said. “I mean, people didn’t die from 9 to 5. They died on weekends; they died at night.”

Ellen loved her work and knew the staff appreciated her “extracurricular” encouragement. But realizing management might disapprove, she avoided doing anything that could jeopardize her position.

So when our baby died and my husband asked Ellen to visit me, she felt torn. “It was scary,” she said, “because Elliot was a resident, and I knew you were Jewish.” Handling the grief aspect posed no problem. “But,” she told me as I refilled her coffee, “you were intense, withdrawn, and angry. You were thinking more on the intellectual level than the emotional, and I knew you’d eventually ask something I wasn’t sure I wanted to answer. If it got back to the hospital that ‘she’s trying to proselytize,’ my career there was done for."

It had taken Ellen years to find her “sweet spot” in work that was not only personally fulfilling but also a blessing to others. My need was a test of sorts, where logic said, Protect the job; Sandy will find consolation elsewhere. Thankfully, Ellen chose trust over fear. And God did the safeguarding—of both her position and His new daughter.

Related Topics:  Becoming a Christian

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5 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.

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