Once a Jew...
As a missionary and pastor, I often get asked about my testimony. I was asked to share this story for the Christian Mission Among the Jews newsletter by my good friend and sister in Christ, Cariño Casas. If you have read my testimony before, today’s testimony will provide more context.
I was born to Jewish parents in the northwest Suburbs of Chicago. My mom (Tracy) was raised in a semi-observant Reform Jewish home, and my father (Larry) was raised in a less-observant Reform Jewish household. My parents enrolled me in Hebrew school at Beth Tikvah in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, where I practiced Hebrew, learned Bible stories from the Tanakh (the Jewish term for the Old Testament), and practiced chanting for my Bar Mitzvah. Hebrew school met on Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings.
In addition to my Hebrew school experience of Judaism, both sides of my family would have meals together on the Jewish holidays. My mom’s side would generally be the side of the family with whom I would celebrate the high holidays. We would go and spend the day at my grandfather’s house. At my grandfather’s house we would observe the Jewish holidays with a deep reverence for tradition. We would fast by not spending money, watching t.v. or eating on Yom Kippur, and instead we used the day to reflect and pray; in the afternoon (and again at night), we would go to the Synagogue to pray and worship with our community. After the Yom Kippur fast or as a way of celebrating the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), we would end the day with delicious home- cooked meals.
In addition to the high holidays, my family would get together to celebrate Chanukah by lighting the menorah, opening gifts, and having dinner together, and we would celebrate Passover as well with my grandfather leading the seder; every celebration involved delicious home cooked meals, good conversations, fun and shared love in the family.
My dad’s side was less religiously observant, but they still saw the Jewish holidays as good times to get together, have fun, express their love, and share a good meal. One year, my dad’s side of the family decided to have a Passover Seder at a local Chinese restaurant; the restaurant served a typical menu alongside a “Jewish inspired” menu with foods like Matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, and roasted chicken or lamb, as we were eating, my Bubbe (grandmother) pulled out a box of Matzah, set it in the center of our table, and said something like: “there, now it's a proper Passover.” My Bubbe has always had a great sense of comedic timing and humor.
Looking back, I see great value and deeply appreciate these times with my family and our time of celebrating the holidays together. Looking back, I see great value and deeply appreciate these times with my family and our time of celebrating the holidays together. I miss these celebrations now that my family lives further apart.
But, you might ask, how did I come to know the Jewish Messiah? The story begins when I was in preschool. I became friends with a kid named Neal Tierney; as a result of our friendship, I was invited to his house, where I met his family. My mom and Neil's mom, Joan, became friends too.
Joan was and is a woman who has a heart for telling people about Jesus, she took to that calling with me. Whenever I stayed at their house, Joan would read stories about Jesus from a children’s bible story book and take me to family-friendly events that were hosted at her church. I was not always sure how to respond to the invitation because I knew my family told me: “Jews do not believe in Jesus.”
A few years after I met the Tiereny’s, they introduced me to the Urquizo family — Andres, Eve, and their son Andy. I became friends with Andy, and my mom became friends with Eve. From day one, they treated me like I was part of their family. I was invited to events like quinceaneras and christenings. The Urquizos also brought me to their church's youth group, picnics, and potlucks. Eve — who had such a deep love for the Jewish people — liked to ask questions about Judaism, what I learned in Hebrew school, and how that all might connect to the life of Jesus.
Eve got to know my mom and my mom’s side of the family and began being invited to Hanukkah parties and Passover Seders. Her deep commitment to my family, understanding Judaism, and to the message of Jesus has impacted my life. Unfortunately, Eve died in October 2020, shortly before All Saints Day that year. She is greatly missed, but I know that she is heaven rejoicing with our Lord.
There is one other family that I should mention who is central to how God called me to faith in Jesus. When I was in second grade, the Axelrads moved into my neighborhood. Jackie and Micahel Axelrad with their four children: Karissa, Ryan, Marcella, and Jared. The Axelrad’s house was right in front of the school bus stop. They decided that that was a prime location to begin their family devotions, pray for their children, and pray for the children gathered at the stop. I guess it worked, since I became friends with Ryan. I remember long summer days playing baseball or video games with Ryan or playing by the creek in their backyard with Ryan and his siblings. We created imaginary worlds, told stories, and discussed faith questions. In fact, looking back, Ryan was already an already evangelists to me. His parents must have taught him well.
Michael had been raised Jewish but came to know the Jewish Messiah as his Lord and savior. Jackie and Michael (the parents) became missionaries with Cru and served all over the country and in parts of Europe before settling down in Illinois. And so, their family, having been a missionary family, began sharing the hope that they had with me. They too invited me to church. I began attending Awana — a youth group organization that focuses on scripture memorization — with Ryan. All three of these families continue to walk with me in my faith journey and to be important friends in my life. I am grateful to God for their friendship and that they are my family in Christ.
The testimony and friendship of these families were used by the Lord to call me to faith in Jesus, and resulted in me being Baptized when I was seventeen.
The conversations with family after Jesus called me to faith were tense at times, but I am grateful to God that my family was always respectful, if a bit hurt and confused. Some people have a much harder experience after coming to faith in Jesus than I did. Although, the first thing my mother said when I told her that I believed in Jesus as my Lord was, “did I fail in raising you.” That definitely stung when she said it. But you know what? She came to faith shortly after I did! Although, that is her story to tell. Over time, the rest of my family has softened a bit and is generally supportive of me and my ministry as a Lutheran pastor. In fact, my Dad, who was more-or-less indifferent to the whole affair, was baptized five years after I was baptized.
A couple of years after I was baptized, I began to receive encouragement from friends and members of the congregation I was attending to consider going to seminary. So, I spoke with pastors. The pastors I knew encouraged me to consider it and wrote letters of recommendation to the two seminaries of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod.
Now serve as a pastor of a Church in New Jersey and a missionary for The Apple of His Eye Mission Society. But this article — unfortunately — will not allow all of those details. More information can be found at the Apple of His Eye Website in my article: “Jewish and Lutheran?”
If you have any questions, would like to know more, or are still uncertain about your faith and what it means to believe in the Jewish Messiah, feel free to email or call me.
Yours in Yeshua,
Reverend Jordan Peiser