Father James Bernstein was born in a formerly Hasidic Jewish family, originating from the Old City of Jerusalem. 16 years old, he began to read stealthily the New Testament in a version of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and thus he began his amazing journey to Christ, realizing that Christian Orthodoxy is the most natural continuation and fulfillment of the Jewish Orthodoxy. In the Orthodox Church, Father James has discovered the God of his ancestors.
We have the pleasure of presenting you in this issue the first part of an interview that Father James was willing to grant exclusively to our magazine. (Tatiana Petrache)
– Father James, you wrote an amazing book1 about your spiritual journey in quest of Christ. It is “dedicated to the greatest Jew, Jesus Christ, and to the greatest Jewess, the Virgin Mary”. How do you feel being aware that you belong to the same lineage as Jesus Christ?
– I feel very honored that I would be part of the “people of their flesh.” But also feel a great responsibility to fulfill the high calling that entails. There is unfortunately a perception among some Orthodox Christians that being of the Jewish lineage or race is a negative and something to be ashamed of. Sort of like a curse. This is in contrast to Evangelical Protestants in which being of the Jewish race is generally viewed as a positive and something to be proud of. So in becoming an Orthodox Christian via Protestantism I experienced a culture shock as how I was viewed by certain Orthodox often differed substantially from how I was viewed when a Protestant. Often Orthodox Christians don’t realize how Jewish Our Lord Jesus was as was His mother and the Apostles. In fact I have been asked by a couple of Orthodox in the past “was Jesus Jewish?” It was an honest question. This is a question that would not be asked by non-Orthodox Christians. As many of them love to read and study the Old and New Testaments, the life of Christ, His times, culture and religious up bringing. So I dedicated my book to the greatest Jew and Jewess, Jesus and Mary, in part because I think that it is important for us Orthodox Christians to remember that they were in the flesh – Jews!
– How did you find that the Messiah of the Old Testament prophecies refer to Christ?
– Chapter 4 in my book focuses on “Discovering the Prophecies of Christ.” In that section I detail what prophecies convinced me that Jesus Christ was the Promised Messiah. Ancient Faith Publishing took parts of that chapter and published a booklet just on that subject with the same title. They did that so that people who want to know what the prophecies were could discover them without having to purchase and read the entire book “Surprised by Christ.” (This was incidentally also done with 5 other specific topics in the book.) The booklet shows that the Old Testament Scriptures are indeed inspired by God. How else could they foretell the life and events of Christ in such detail. Additionally I point out in the book and booklet that for the earliest Christians fulfilled prophecy held a place of great importance in convincing them. Much more than today. We see this in so many references in the New Testament of fulfilled prophecies. St. Justin Martyr in the mid-second century wrote a book that is entitled St. Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho. It consists of a conversation between the Christian Justin, who explains why he believes Jesus to be the Messiah, and Trypho the Jew, who explains why he doesn’t. We see here that prophecy fulfilled in Christ was presented by early Christians not as just one proof among many demonstrating the validity of Jesus’ claims; rather it was presented as proof positive as definitive. Fulfilled prophecies in Christ’s life, teaching, death, and Resurrection, was held by the ancients to be conclusive evidence of the authenticity of Jesus’ identity as Messiah. So it was also for me when at 16 years of age I read the New Testament for the first time with a flash light under the covers of my bed so that my family wouldn’t know I was reading it.
What prophecies? Prophecies concerning the time and place that Jesus would be born. The circumstances. His life, teachings, miracles, sufferings, death and resurrection. His rejection by the religious authority and His nation. The spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles. And many more.
– Why does rabbinic Judaism not accept Christ as Messiah?
– There are a number of reasons. First and foremost is that they believe that the Messiah is to come and establish peace on earth and establish the Jewish People/Israel as the head of the nations. Neither of these were accomplished in Jesus’ coming. Second, He clearly claimed Divinity, that He is God Incarnate. Rabbinic Judaism rejects the view that a man can be God or that God Himself would manifest Himself as a man. Third from a historical perspective, the Jews as a People have been fiercely persecuted within traditionally Christian countries and culture – more so than in other cultures like Moslem, Hindu, or Buddhist. This has resulted in many Jews being particularly hostile to Christianity. Even despising the religion.
– As a young man, you were actively involved in the neo-protestant missionary movements; you were going to announce Christ among the Jews, to preach chastity in the night clubs during the hippie epoch and so on. Tell us about this period and about that original jacket with the Star of David with a bright Cross of Christ on it, with the inscription “Jews for Jesus”.
– At the time in the 1970s there were many counter cultural and radical political movements circulating, especially at college campuses. Traditional Christians were on the defensive and somewhat timid in sharing the Gospel with others especially in the youth culture. The pro-Vietnam War establishment was viewed by many as being right wing Christian. So the upsurge of protesting against the war was also strongly anti-traditional Christian. Jews who converted to Christianity were very few and tended to also be timid in sharing their faith with others. Moishe Rosen who was the founder of Jews for Jesus wanted to establish that ministry because he felt that we needed to have a more prominent presence – especially in the media. He was really media conscious and felt that a few of us could if we worked as a tight bold team get into the media and make known that there are Jews who are proud of being Jews and also believe in Jesus Christ. For him the presenting of a public image that Jews could believe in Jesus and still be Jews was paramount. So he came up with the slogan Jews for Jesus and publicized that in the media by doing gutsy things in public and telling the media about it before hand. I came up with the idea of placing the slogan and emblem of a star of David with a cross in the center on a jacket. And it took off and became a popular symbol of Jews for Jesus.
The Jews for Jesus Ministry became known via the media throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and then the West Coast and then throughout the U.S. Chapters were eventually established in every major city and it became to be by far the largest and most influential Protestant ministry of evangelism to Jews. Moishe and our small team succeeded far beyond our dreams. Years later when I was an Orthodox Christian priest I discussed the early years of the movement with him. He told me that they had succeeded in making the slogan known not only in the U.S. but throughout the world and yet he was disappointed because they were not able to develop an identity that was cohesive. The movement did not have depth. He also sent me a letter in which he thanked me for my involvement in the early years of the movement. And for having developed the idea of using the slogan and emblem on jackets. Thereafter the slogan was put on shirts, hats, publications, buttons etc.
I sent Moishe my book Surprised by Christ which he read. He then surprised me by calling me after he read it to tell me that he really liked it. That was shocking to me!. He also surprised me by visiting our St. Paul Orthodox Church for a daily Vespers Service. Moishe told me that it was the first time that he had ever been in an Orthodox Church! Then he further shocked me by saying that he liked the service. Not long after he passed on.
– How did your family receive your decision to become a Christian?
– They were very upset. My father much more than my mother. I describe in the book details about some events that took place in which my father tried to convert me back to Judaism. One involved kicking me out of the house – which my mother refused to do. Finally they sent me to Israel in 1967 for a year so that my Orthodox Jewish relatives living in Jerusalem could work on converting me back to Judaism. They hoped that I would gain pride in the Jewish Nation and return to the Jewish faith. While I was there living on the border of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the 6 Day War broke out. Following the war I was one of the first to move into the Old City of Jerusalem from the New City living with Arab Christians in the very area where my father Isaac was born! It was awesome to live near the Mt. of Olives where 3 of my 4 grand parents are buried. My relatives that knew of my decision to become Christian were of course also very upset. But my situation was not as bad as it could have been. I attribute what peace that we had to my mother who was by nature a very loving person. And my relatives in Jerusalem were actually very nice to me as well.
– Your father wanted you to become a Wall Street businessman, but you gave up your future in the world of business. What made you follow another way?
– We lived only half an hour direct train ride to Wall St. in lower Manhattan which was the financial center of the world. Access was really easy. I describe in my book details about life there. Being a young high school student I was drawn to the thrill of the financial world. Its excitement. Fortunes being gained and lost in minutes. Back then it was a very masculine world with lots of glamor, cigar smoke and leather. But as I immersed myself in that life I came to see how spiritually shallow it was.
There was a old American colonial traditional Episcopalian church called Trinity church surrounded by sky scrapers. It was majestic, having an other worldly atmosphere in stark contrast to the bee hive activity and chaos surrounding it. I was more drawn to that quiet peaceful atmosphere than to the madness around us. That influenced me in moving into another direction. Not that they were mutually exclusive. But for me it was a turning point of heart. I began to look increasingly to the spiritual world for answers rather than to the secular, material world.
– Repeating a question from your book, I would like to ask you: “Are the Jews still God’s Chosen People?”
– My answer would be, YES. But chosen for what? Especially chosen to provide an example of holiness to the nations (Gentiles). This includes repentance, faithfulness and love. Admission of failure is the first step. As did the Apostle Paul after having participated in the murder of the first Christian hieromartyr Steven. As did the Apostle Peter who denied Christ three times in the hour of His need. Admission of failure in rejecting the Messiah Jesus Christ. Failure in accepting His Gospel and His Church. Though the Orthodox Church is New Israel, the Body of Christ, St. Paul clearly says in Romans chapter 9, 10 and 11 that God’s special dealings with Old Israel is not done. Though the Gospel went to the Gentiles, the Apostles and disciples of Christ never gave up hope that Israel would repent and that God’s providential relationship with the “people of His flesh” would have an eventual fulfillment in their return. Chapter 6 in my book deals with this issue in detail. Those Christians that say that the Jews are a cursed race doomed to failure, disaster and suffering and devoid of any future hope are mistaken. I have even read that the only purpose of their continued existence is to produce the anti-Christ! Though as a people they are anti-Christian their continued existence as a people in spite of dispersal and persecution for two millennia is NOT an accident of history. There is a certain divine destiny at work that is leading to a goal, a culmination within history. As a people they are prophesied to repent. If they are viewed by some Orthodox as our enemy then we should always be mindful that Our Lord Jesus Christ told us to not hate or persecute our enemies but to love them.
(to be continued)
1James A. Bernstein, Surprised by Christ: My Journey from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity, Conciliar Press 2008.
The article can be found translated in Romanian in June 2019 edition of the Orthodox Family Magazine