Missionary-Turned-Jew Speaks Out

Former missionary Yoel Keren, now an Orthodox Jew living east of Jerusalem, speaks about his turnabout.

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Hillel Fendel,

Former Messianic missionary Yoel Keren, originally from Oklahoma City and now living in Maaleh Adumim, contacted IsraelNationalRadio's Yishai Fleisher in order to share his story.

Yoel's story [paraphrased in places]:

"First of all, I would like to start off by saying that when I tell my story and how I got to where I am, there could be some things that I say here that could be hurtful to some of your listeners.  So I'd just like to preface what I say with this. I think we just have to make sure who we're talking to. So I'd just like to ask all our Christian friends out there to ask themselves: Who are you? ... If you're someone who loves the truth no matter how much it hurts, someone like Abraham who wants the truth at all costs, then I'm talking to you.

"...As a kid, I was given a very strict Christian upbringing, though non-denominational.  But I was always a little different, I always felt a pull towards Judaism.  For instance, I would always look forward to Easter - not because of the eggs and the rabbits, but because that was when they would always show the Ten Commandments on television.  And when we would pass by the synagogue, I would be drawn to the huge Tablets [of the Law] I saw hanging outside. But I struggled as to how to fit Jesus in there. 

"When I would read the Bible, I would ask my father questions. One time, I showed him that it says, right in the beginning of the Bible, that it's the 7th day of the week that was sanctified, and not Sunday.  I asked him, 'Why don't we do that?' And he said, 'Really you're right, but this is just the way we do things now.'  So when I got older and married and had a family of my own, I decided that's not the way I do things now; I want to do things the way they did things then. I wanted to do it more the Biblical way - and that's how I was led to Messianic Judaism... In general, many real Bible-believers have questions about things, such as why we put up this tree every year...

"In any event, the Messianic congregations are similar to Jews for Jesus; Jewish and non-Jewish believers in the Nazarene, who practice not a form of Christianity, but a form of Judaism, which is what original Christianity was.  And so I felt that I had found what I was looking for.  I bought a kippah (skullcap) and a tallis (prayer shawl), and began learning Hebrew, and I was in!  I quickly became one of the speakers and teachers. 

"Now when I talk about their missionary activity, you have to understand how it works. It's not overt or active; rather they will conduct Passover seders - and I've conducted many of them - and they're really designed, without telling you, to teach Gentiles how to find allusions in the Passover rituals to Jesus. Because Passover, of all holidays, is the most familiar to Jews, even if they're not religious; they're fairly familiar with Passover and its rituals.  So these Baptists and others have these seders and then they go back to work and talk to their Jewish friends and say, 'Hey, you know I heard this really fascinating thing last night - there are three matzas on Passover, symbolizing the trinity, and the middle one is broken, just like Jesus was broken for our sins - and these Jews who don't know so much about their religion are taken in by these things... So it's very subtle, not knocking door to door or going to shuls [synagogues] and starting trouble. The real work is done not by active missionaries, but by normal, Gentile Christians.

"But my 'downfall' began when I started learning Hebrew.  I was soon able to read the Bible in Hebrew, and then I began realizing that virtually every prophesy that the New Testament quotes as being a messianic prophecy was mistranslated, misattributed, chopped up, or sometimes even invented out of thin air!  But if you don’t understand Hebrew, there's no way you can see these things."

"So you went back to the source," interviewer Fleisher interjected. "If I may, I would say that as someone who also came to spirituality, I always found that in the original Hebrew, the Torah really talks to you, it whispers to you - and it does not whisper Jesus!"

"Absolutely," Keren agreed, "absolutely. If you're not reading in Hebrew, you just can't see it.  For instance, at the end of Ecclesiastes, there is an absolute confirmation of the Oral Torah, but if you're not reading it in Hebrew, you can't see it.  The same with the acrostics throughout Psalms...  There's a totally different feel when you're reading it in the original.  When you read the Christian scholars' defenses, they seem to make sense - but when you know Hebrew, they become laughable...

"So I came to realize that I could no longer do this. The type of questions that came up for me - and I even brought them up for the people in my congregation and they didn't like to hear them - were these: I would say, "You keep only Jewish holidays, because you say the Church replaced them with pagan ones; you reject a Sunday Sabbath, because it was an invention of the Church; you reject having a Christmas tree because you say it was originally pagan. Fine.  So - from where did you get your New Testament?  After all, its ultimate authority comes from this Church that you don't trust! The only authority for accepting the New Testament canon as it is today is the Roman Catholic Church! They set the canon!"  They admit that there were hundreds of gospels, but 'We chose these four because they gave the message that we wanted to give.' If you don't trust them on all these other things, or on papal infallibility, how can you trust them on the New Testament?

"Once I started asking these questions, I realized I had better start looking carefully at the New Testament - and once I did that, it began falling apart. Absolutely falling apart. I could compare what John said with what Isaiah said, and you can see that he misquoted him... I decided I couldn't accept this anymore.  Our only choices that we had in Oklahoma City were Reform and Conservative Judaism; so we went through a Conservative conversion - with many problems; I don't want to get into that, I can just say that I fought with them all the time. We then moved to Israel, and I immediately started studying for a kosher, Orthodox conversion.  Of course, we remarried each time, so I've been married three times to the same woman!  When a person converts, you become a brand-new person; as the Sages say, he is like born anew - and therefore we were no longer married.  So we married here in Israel once again.  My wife's name is Yael, I'm Yoel, and we have a son named Noam and a daughter named Naomi [both from the root meaning pleasantness - ed.].

"Another of the reasons I came to Judaism is that I once went into a Christian bookstore and saw a video by Rabbi Chaim Richman called Treasures of the Temple.  I took it home and watched it and I couldn't believe what I saw: an Orthodox rabbi talking about rebuilding the Temple, and fashioning the vessels and sewing the special garments. I had no idea that Jews still believed in this stuff!  I said to myself, This is it!  This is what I'm after - the real thing!  And now as well, I continue to try to promote undiluted, real Judaism." 

Asked if he feels that conversion to Judaism is the only way for non-Jews to get closer to G-d, Yoel said, "For sure not. Each person can feel the way G-d is pulling him and leading him. You open up your heart to G-d and ask Him which way He wants you to go - because G-d calls certain people to convert, but He calls other people's hearts in a totally different direction, such as to become righteous members of the nations; it's totally personal, something between you and G-d.  I've definitely met many truly righteous Bnei Noach, who keep the seven Noachide laws - and they'll tell you about the difference between trying to go through an intermediary and just plugging directly in [as they are now doing], and about what real spirituality and closeness to G-d is.  And that's the message I'm trying to get out today."