A Jewish Christmas
Bob Mendelsohn remembers when he started to celebrate Jesus’ birthday
For American-born Bob Mendelsohn, who has led Jews for Jesus in Sydney for 20 years, Christmas is the perfect time to declare the message of Yeshua to the world.
“These are the times that are great for us as believers to broadcast the name of Messiah. Look, Channel 7, Channel 9 are going to put on Carols in the Domain [in Sydney], Carols at the Myer Music Bowl [in Melbourne]. Now they’re not just singing ‘fa-la-la-la-la;’ they’re singing Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Holy Night, Silent Night – beautiful hymns of praise to the living God whose son was born on these days.”
Speaking to Eternity in the Jews for Jesus bookshop in Bondi Junction, Mendelsohn says some people in the Messianic world don’t celebrate Christmas because they contend that Jesus wasn’t born at Christmas – they say he was born at the end of September on the Feast of Tabernacles.
“There’s no general ways it works – the old phrase ‘two Jews, three opinions’, is still true,” he says, of how Messianic Jews celebrate Christmas.
“There are Messianic Jews who keep only Jewish holidays, so they’re anti-Christmas, anti-Easter, anti-Sunday. Then there are Messianic Jews who are more comfortable in the church and will celebrate whatever the church does.
“I’m a Jewish, believing Anglican.” – Bob Mendelsohn
“At my house, in my own family, I’m the daddy – I set the direction – and I’m a Jewish, believing Anglican, so we go to carols in the park and we sing – and we follow an Advent calendar … we love traditions!”
Equally, Mendelsohn’s family loves celebrating Jewish festivals, seeing them as appointments with God.
“I love them for what they say to me about God. The primary purpose is to have an appointment with God. The first one is Sabbath. Two through eight are the Feast of the Lamb, Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of First Fruits, the Feast of Pentecost, the Day of the Blowing of Trumpets, Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement and the last is the Feast of Tabernacles.”
Mendelsohn is embarrassed by Hannumas – a blending of the Christian and Jewish holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah, which is celebrated by interfaith families with a tree and a menorah from sundown on December 24 to January 1.
“They’re neither when they try to be both,” he says decisively.
“I was looking for love in all the wrong places …” – Bob Mendelsohn
“Hannukah is the story of a military victory in 165BC, so 200 years before the crucifixion. It has nothing to do with the birth of the Messiah, except this – if Hannukah did not happen, then the Jews might not have existed, so there couldn’t have been a Messiah through whom redemption has come to the world.
“Without Hannukah, there wouldn’t be a Christmas – we can say that.”
Mendelsohn, 67, first met his saviour Jesus in 1971 when he was a hippy and university drop-out.
“I was looking for love in all the wrong places, dropped out of university, hitch-hiked around the country, and encountered any number of weird groups and cults. And then here were these Jesus people and the encounter was real,” he recalls.
“God was kind, so kind, to get me on board at the right time, in the right place. It was in Kansas City, May of ’71, when I met two young people – I was 19 and they, 18 and 19 years old, a boy and a girl, later husband-wife.
“They said, ‘You know, the Lord is with you,’ and I stopped, sat down and said, ‘I’m Jewish, go ahead.’ I knew they wanted to convert me to their blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus.
“During that conversation the girl said to me, ‘When you accept Christ, the blue sky will be bluer and the green grass will be greener.’ Now where’s that in the Bible – it’s not, is it? But it spoke to my heart and those words were pearls. It made me think – who are these people?
“God was kind, so kind, to get me on board at the right time, in the right place.” – Bob Mendelsohn
“So I went back where I was staying and there was a gal there who had just come to believe a week earlier … and she said ‘Well, let’s read.’ So we started reading the Bible, the New Testament. I knew the Old – I was Orthodox. The [start of the] Gospel According to St Matthew: Abraham begat Isaac – ‘these are my people’ – Isaac begat Jacob … [Jacob fathered Judah] and his brothers – ‘wait a minute!’
“So I’m reading along and I think, ‘How did Catholics understand this? – these are all Jews.’ And then the birth of Jesus is like this – and by Chapter 5 I’m convinced this thing is something with which I’ve got to deal.
‘But wait a minute, I’m Jewish, and Jews don’t believe in Jesus!’”
For 19-year-old Mendelsohn, confronting Jesus was a battle for identity.
“It was all emotion – drugs, sex and rock’n’roll – so I had a lot of things splashing up against me. It was turbulent; I was in a rip.”
But he was captivated and after he had read the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Revelation, he went to the house of a Christian friend.
“I said ‘I want this Jesus stuff, but I don’t want your Jesus.’ She said, ‘You don’t get this Jesus stuff – love, joy, meaning, relevance – unless you take Jesus as your saviour.’
“May of ’71, I said ‘yes,’ prayed, sang Amazing Grace and went home and told Mum and Dad that Jesus was the Messiah.
“They threw me out of the house and it was tough.”
Mendelsohn eventually reconciled with his parents.
“There were people for anything and we were Jews for Jesus – that’s us.” – Bob Mendelsohn
He recalls that the name “Jews for Jesus” was coined by a San Francisco State University paper in the early ’70s.
“We thought it was cool. There were people for Save the Whales in ’73 and there were people for anything and we were Jews for Jesus – that’s us.”
In October 1994, the founder of Jews for Jesus, Moishe Rosen, asked for a volunteer to go over and and suss things out in Australia. It took Mendelsohn a few months to organise his first visit, although it wasn’t until 1998 when he and his family decided to commit to coming here.
“I think everybody took one step back, so I think I was in front,” he says, deadpan.
“No, I put up my hand. I was living in [Washington] DC at the time – I was running our branch there. I’m a pioneer; I opened our DC branch.”
Mendelsohn reckons that in the 14 years since he opened the Jews for Jesus bookshop in Bondi Junction (The shop was a major shift of ministry focus after he had been working without noticeable office space for six years), he and the staff have spoken at length about Jesus to eight to 12 Jewish people each week who don’t yet believe. He has a stack of Bibles which he gives away to anyone who will take one.
“I give them away left, right and centre. We give Bibles to anyone who comes in.”