Jewish Australians rediscover their spiritual roots through Jesus

John Zeckendorf, a Jewish Australian whose grandfather died in Auschwitz, was abseiling down a waterfall in the bush near Canberra when he was baptised by the Holy Spirit.

“I was at the bottom of the waterfall with many tonnes of water pounding down on me and I remember thinking quite calmly, ‘Oh, I’m going to drown. No point fighting it, there’s no chance I can get out, I just don’t have that kind of strength,’” says John, now 45, and a successful businessman.

A few months earlier John, then aged 19 and in love with a Christian girl, had been convinced by reading Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah and Ezekiel that Jesus truly was the Messiah.

John Zeckendorf with his wife. Joanna

John Zeckendorf with his wife, Joanna

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh well, there’s this Jesus guy and he’s kind of strong and powerful, so maybe he can help.’ So I said ‘OK, Jesus, help!’ And the next thing I knew I was sort of spat out of the water and up on the bank.

“I was just trying to mentally digest what had happened and it suddenly hit me that God isn’t just the God of 2000 years ago and the main character in a book. He’s actually here, he’s now, he wants to be involved in my life – it’s a relationship not just a historical fact.

“And as I was feeling that, it was like somebody had poured a cup of hot water into my heart and then as the blood was pumping around my body I could feel this warmth going over my whole body – which is a great cure for hypothermia!”

John married his Christian sweetheart and they have four children. Now, depending on who is asking and why, he calls himself either a Christian or a Messianic Jew.

“Being Jewish is a necessity – you can’t get rid of it. You’re still Jewish regardless of what your faith is, but you can also have Jewish faith and you can also have Christian faith.”

“You are seeing complete harmony between Jewish believers and Palestinian believers.”

The Hobart-based owner and principal of Mandala Asset Solutions says there has been a huge increase in the modern Messianic Jewish movement in Israel over the past quarter century and a dramatic change in its role in Israeli society.

About 25 years ago there were as few as 250 Messianic Jews in Israel, most of whom had migrated from the US and other countries under the country’s right of return law.

Then a famous court case caused division in Israeli society when the country’s Supreme Court denied a Messianic Jewish couple, the Beresfords, Israeli citizenship on the basis that they followed another religion.

“The overwhelming feeling and what the court ultimately decided was no, they’re not Jewish – they’ve stopped being Jewish and they’re not allowed to return,” John says.

Fast-forward to today and the number of Messianic Jews has ballooned to about 15,000 and with the increased numbers has come greater acceptance.

“You are seeing complete harmony between Jewish believers and Palestinian believers,” says John.

“The Jewish community is regularly writing up articles saying ‘How come these guys can live in peace when we can’t? And, ‘Look, they genuinely love one another and they are living in the exact kind of relationship that we would like to have with our neighbours but we don’t seem to be able to pull it off.’ ”

South African born Lawrence Hirsch has been working as a Messianic missionary in Melbourne with his wife Louise for 25 years.

“Our mission is to travel around the country speaking in churches and sharing about the Jewish roots of the Christian faith,” he says.

Lawrence Hirsch

Lawrence Hirsch

Lawrence, who runs the Celebrate Messiah mission in Melbourne, points out that the Messianic movement in Israel has matured because now there are second-generation Messianic Jews in Israel, whereas 30 years ago most of them had come from overseas to settle in Israel.

“They’ve lived there for 20 or 30 years, they’ve had children who have grown up in Israel who are now going to the army, taking up their places in society and university jobs and the influence the Messianic movement is having now is much greater than ever before,” he says.

John says Israeli Messianic Jews run training courses for recruits beginning their compulsory army service that give them a framework for dealing with the confronting situations they will be exposed to and prevent them from developing post-traumatic stress.

“In 25 years you’ve gone from open … hostility to large numbers of people coming to faith … It’s been an exciting ride.”

“That programme is so well recognised that a lot of secular Jews and even religious Jews – not ultra-orthodox but conservatives – will actually send their kids to do this programme because it’s got such a great track record,” says John.

“So in 25 years you’ve gone from open and thinly disguised hostility to large numbers of people coming to faith, and lots more, I suspect, becoming believers but not yet admitting it … It’s been an exciting ride.”

Lawrence notes, however, that while the general Israeli public is more open to what Messianic Jews believe, that is not the case among orthodox Jews.

“The orthodox minority holds sway, of course, and we’re seeing quite a lot of organised persecution and even violence against Messianic Jews in Israel,” he says.

Lawrence traces what he calls “a new move of God among the Jewish people” back to 1967, the time of the hippy movement in the US and the so-called ‘Jesus freak’ era.

“A lot of those hippies were Jewish hippies who came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah and that generation are now the senior leaders of the messianic movement around the world,” he notes.

More recently, growth in the Messianic movement has been concentrated among Russian Jews, not only in Russia but in Israel, the US and Australia.

“We have a large number of Russian-speaking Jews here in Melbourne, about 25,000. And we’ve seen quite a strong move of God among them for the last 20 years of our ministry here. Currently we have outreaches among Russian Jews here and across our Russian-speaking congregation. And we also do work among Russian Jews in the
far east of Russia.”

Lawrence directs two separate entities – Celebrate Messiah, a mission organisation with five missionaries working full-time in Australia and two in Russia – and two local congregations, English-speaking and Russian-speaking.

During his time in Melbourne, he has seen about 300 Russian-speaking Jews come to faith in the Messiah and a few dozen English-speaking Jews. The English-speaking congregation averages about 150 people a week, but it’s a multi-ethnic congregation and only about 40 per cent Jewish. There are about 80 in the Russian congregation, mostly elderly, and 99 per cent Jewish.

“Over the last three or four years I’ve baptised over 30 Iranians of Muslim background.”

One of the most surprising groups Lawrence has reached is Iranian Muslims.

“Over the last three or four years I’ve baptised over 30 Iranians of Muslim background,” he says.

There have been failed attempts to start congregations in other major cities across Australia. “At present, there is a fortnightly fellowship in St Ives, Sydney, that we are praying will one day become a congregation. There are regular outreaches in Sydney run by our missionaries. There is a small congregation in Canberra – and that’s about all at the moment.

“We hope to able to plant more Messianic congregations in each of the major cities, well-established and led well, but we need to have the right people.”

Lawrence acknowledges that it is a challenge to maintain the right balance between Christian and Jewish traditions in a Messianic worship service.

“We negotiate through that and there are always going to be people who have other visions for what they would like you to do, but you have to have a very clear mandate and vision from God as to what he’s called you to do.

“So our ministry has always been focused on our call to share the gospel with Jewish people first and foremost. Our mission statement is bringing the message to the original messengers.

“So we are trying to present the gospel to Jewish people in a culturally sensitive and relevant way to them. That means Christians may sometimes feel uncomfortable, but that’s OK as long as they also feel called to bring the gospel to Jewish people.”

At the same time, he believes that one of the keys that has kept his ministry on the right path is that it is still very connected with the wider body of the Messiah or the church, with a board of reference made up of pastors and Bible College professors.

“We are not a separate entity or a different church – that’s important because Messianic groups become very separate and alienated from the rest of the church. We purposely try to avoid that and we declare very openly that we are part of the body of Messiah.”

Lawrence first heard the gospel from his brother Alec when the family still lived in South Africa. After they migrated to Australia, Alec continued to study the Bible and came to a strong belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Despite the upset this caused in the family, he opened up the Scriptures to Lawrence, discussing how the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled through Jesus.

“For just over a year he was talking to me and praying for me. And I finally came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah in 1984,” Lawrence says.

“They reignite their passions about their Jewish identity and faith and embrace that more than ever before.”

“But the miracle of it is not only did I come to know the Lord at that time but so did my girlfriend Louise, who I’d left behind in South Africa. She was my childhood sweetheart and she was going to convert to Judaism when we got married. I hadn’t seen her for a year, but her brother back in South Africa was witnessing to her. So on the very same night that I came to faith in Yeshua she too came to faith in Yeshua as the Messiah.”

With many of his Russian-speaking congregation having suffered under the Nazis, Lawrence says the overriding issue they have to deal is that how can you believe in Jesus when so many Jews were persecuted throughout the centuries in the name of Jesus?

“Many Jews who have gone through the Holocaust may be atheists and not want to believe that there is a God after what they went through and witnessed,” he says.

“So that does permeate the Jewish psyche a lot throughout the world but Melbourne in particular. Melbourne has the highest number of Holocaust survivors per capita than any other city in the world, plus their children and grandchildren. So the Holocaust is never far away from people’s minds.

“And then after the war they were living in Russia with a lot of anti-Semitism latent in the Russian culture. But this generation of Russian Jews were never really religious Jews because religion was banned in Russia, and that has made them now quite open to faith in God and discovering faith in Yeshua, the Messiah.”

Lawrence says that many people actually rediscover their Jewishness through faith in Jesus.

“It’s ironic but they reignite their passions about their Jewish identity and faith and embrace that more than ever before. It becomes real. That’s what happened with me. It became real, it became relevant it became infused with God in a personal way rather than just simply tradition.”