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Barred from Birthright, Sons Accepted for B’rit Milah: A Conversation with Jews for Jesus’s Aaron Trank

Recently I wrote an article entitled “Are Messianic Jews Really ‘Just Trying to Convert Us’?” There were a variety of very strong responses to it in the comments section and which I received via email and facebook message. Some were supportive and others wrote to critique what I wrote. I thought about whether a follow-up piece might be helpful, clarifying some of my thoughts and defending my arguments, but I realized that might not be the best path forward. Instead, I believed that hearing thoughts from someone identifying as a Jewish believer in Jesus would be far more beneficial than any piece I might write, which would run the risk of merely paraphrasing the first op-ed. Fortunately, Aaron Trank, Director of Digital at Jews for Jesus, had contacted Jewschool a few months ago, and I was able to connect with him via email. We scheduled a phone call, and our dialogue is included below.
LR: “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”
AT: “I’m a second-generation Messianic Jew. My dad is Jewish, my mom is not. I was raised with a very strong Jewish identity. My parents sent me to the Jewish school in Sacramento, and I prepared for Bar Mitzvah at the Reform temple. My great-grandmother was a victim of the Holocaust, so identifying with Anti-Semitism and specifically the Holocaust, and learning about it at a very young age was just a part of my upbringing. At the same time that I was going to Jewish school, we were going to a church. It was interesting. For the first couple years, whether you’re in Sunday school or at the Jewish elementary school, you’re basically just learning bible stories. They’re basically the same stories. At Sunday school, I’d just also be learning about Jesus.”
LR: “Is there a term that you prefer to use to identify your religious beliefs and/or practices?”
AT: “I would describe myself, if I was choosing the terminology, as ‘a Jewish believer in Jesus as Messiah.’ I would even specifically say as the Jewish messiah. If I am trying to explain my religious identity, I’m usually trying to communicate clearly what I believe and the implications of it. I find that people, when they hear I’m ethnically Jewish and that I am also basically an Evangelical Christian in my beliefs, people will try to put a very simplistic label on it, which loses some of the nuance. What I am is not a simple thing for me to just answer.
LR: “Do people ever refer to you with terms that bother you?”
AT: “There are non-Jewish people who say ‘it’s amazing that we have a converted Jew with us’ as if there is something wrong with the fact that I was born Jewish. That word [converted] is sort of a trigger word for me. If Jesus really was the Messiah, this idea that Jewish believers in Jesus would need to ‘convert’ is really not true. In another sense, the word “converted,” in Christian theology, is something everyone has to do in terms of repentance or turning inward. If someone is using it in the general sense – that we ‘converted from our sinful ways,’ – then that’s fine. If someone is using it as if I were Jewish, but then converted, then I find that offensive. I didn’t convert.”
LR: “What is your relationship like with San Francisco’s normative Jewish community?”
AT: “Particularly in San Francisco now, I’ve had a very healthy relationship with the Jewish community. My daughter attends the Shalom school, my wife and I attend classes at the JCC, we spent five summers in Israel and actually back in 2011 we almost made Aliyah! Then we got pregnant with kids, so we didn’t do that. In general, we have a very respectful relationship with the leaders in the community, and they know that we believe in Jesus. They know that I work for the Jews for Jesus organization.”
LR: “Have you experienced any particularly memorable positive experiences with the normative Jewish community in San Francisco?”
AT: “I have two sons and both of them had b’rit milah (circumcision) performed by an Orthodox mohel. It was just a traditional b’rit milah ceremony. All of this was done with transparency. We had a conversation before he performed the circumcision, and it wasn’t an issue for him, so it was a blessing for us. My wife is from a similar background from me, only her mother was born Jewish. So the Orthodox mohel was fine with the circumcision (note: when a child’s maternal grandmother is Jewish, the child is halachically Jewish).
AT: “The Shalom school where my daughter goes is run in conjunction with Chabad. They also know that our family are Messianic Jews and that I work for Jews for Jesus. It really wasn’t an issue for them. They asked. They said it’s fine for your daughter to go here as long as you don’t proselytize here. I responded that I have no intention of proselytizing at a pre-school (laughs).”
LR: “Has anybody else been upset by your involvement in the Jewish community?”
AT: “These positive events were recent and in San Francisco. When I grew up in Sacramento, it was a different story. In the middle of when I was in 3rd grade, my family was basically outed as being believers in Jesus. And so there was a lot of pressure put on the administration of the school to force us out. It was a pretty traumatic thing as a child, where we were outed and ousted in some sense from the Jewish community in Sacramento. My parents had publicly identified as believers in Jesus, and it had ramifications on our relationships with everybody in the community. “
AT: “That was just as a child. Back in 2002, I applied to go on Birthright. Under affiliation I put “Messianic Jew” – I’m a compulsively candid person. Back then, they weren’t actively asking if you believed in Jesus or not when you applied. But I didn’t want to go on a trip on false pretenses. Surprisingly, I was accepted! But then two weeks before the trip, I was called by one of the Birthright reps in the U.S. office who said ‘Sorry, you’ve been disqualified.’ This was infuriating to me. Birthright contracts with Israeli tour companies – so I was already talking with these tour companies and told them too that I was a Messianic believer. They had already purchased tickets for me that were non-transferable and non-refundable.”
AT: “This tour company was trying to overturn the US decision [because they didn’t want to lose the money that they had already spent on my ticket]. The Israeli company said that if I were willing not to talk about my faith, it should be fine. But then Birthright threatened to not use this particular Israeli tour company anymore if they were to let me on the trip. So they ate the price of the ticket, but I still wasn’t allowed to go.”
AT: “One other thing. You asked before about terminology. Whenever somebody asks ‘are you a Jew for Jesus’ I try to stop and explain that Jews for Jesus is an organization. It’s not a denomination, it’s not a movement. It’s an organization. Theologically it is Evangelical Christians. It is made up of Jewish people, who are missionaries, who bring this message that Jesus is the Messiah. Jews for Jesus is part of this much larger movement – the Messianic movement – which is made up of many organizations.”
LR: “What does the spectrum of Messianic belief look like?”
AT: “The spectrum of halakhah in the Messianic movement is actually just as broad as the spectrum of halakhah in normative Judaism. There are Messianic Jews who you would look at and think that they were Lubavitch! There are Messianic Jews on the other end. My Jewish family who are normatively Jewish are Reform. They eat treyfe, just not in the house. I don’t follow halakhah any more than the rest of my Reform family does, but I have Messianic friends who want to convince me that I should! The question of orthopraxis is a spectrum just as wide as in the normative Jewish community.
LR: “Are there any other thoughts or anecdotes you’d like to share?”
AT: “My wife and I, when we were preparing to make Aliyah, we were taking Hebrew classes at the JCC. Eventually in the conversation, everyone knows you’re going to reach the point where everyone says what you do for a living. We were gearing up for this! What was I going to say? Is it going to be awkward?”
AT: “When we were in this class, and it came to this point, I didn’t hide it. I just said what I do – that I work for Y’hudim L’ma’an Yeshua (Hebrew for Jews for Jesus), I waited for a response. I said this in front of the class and waited for somebody to cringe. But the teacher actually thought this fact was interesting! She gave me the opportunity to explain what I believe and who I was in front of the class, at the JCC. After the class was over, and we didn’t get kicked out and nothing horrible happened, my wife and I went to get coffee. We were both perplexed by it. We believed this narrative that was true decades ago, but it hasn’t been challenged since then. It’s this narrative that Messianic Jews are not welcome in any Jewish community. From then on, I’ve been very interested in challenging this idea. My hypothesis is that it’s not true anymore.

11 thoughts on “Barred from Birthright, Sons Accepted for B’rit Milah: A Conversation with Jews for Jesus’s Aaron Trank

  1. As a Jewish believer in Jesus I am so very encouraged to read this article. It gives me some hope that “normative” Jews and Messianic Jews might be able to speak with each other in a reasonable and friendly way, even if we have to agree to disagree. Thank you for being willing to engage with Aaron and let him be “seen” by your community in a reasonable way.

  2. Aaron, thanks for being so clear in your explanation of what it is to be a Jew who believes that Yeshua (Jesus) is Messiah. My parents were survivors who came to America. They were a couple with a 6 year old boy that survived after 1938. Almost no one else survived. They made “being and American” their new religion since they decided that being Jewish only meant death. They were terribly agitated for the next 10 years till several people showed them in our Jewish scriptures that Messiah was clearly identified. The New Testament prophesy edition published by the Million Testaments League very clearly showed them that Yeshua (Jesus) fulfilled the promises. This middle-aged couple became believers and walked their faith joyfully for the next 45+ years. Their children, my brother and I, love The
    L-rd, our children love Him too, and now most of our grandchildren. We are grateful (not proud) to be called Jews, even our grandchildren, and we are totally sure that Yeshua (Jesus) is our Messiah, that we will remain Jews who believe, that we may someday have to die for this belief, and when all this all shakes down, we will spend eternity with Him in heaven as promised in the book of Revelation, a book inspired by God and written down by one of our Jewish brethren Yochanan (John). Praise God!

  3. Thanks Lex for being willing to seek the perspective of a Jewish believer in Jesus. Thanks Aaron for being so articulate and transparent about not only your personal beliefs as a Jewish believer in Jesus, but their implications for you and your family.

  4. I’m sorry, but there is no such thing as a Jewish believer in Jesus. I have discussions with Evangelical Christians all the time and its just not possible. At least not if you believe in Jesus as your savior. I am open-minded. I believe that there are all kinds of way to be Jewish, but I am not so open-minded that my brain falls out. Jesus does not fulfill the prophecies in the Tanach unless your read it backward already believing in Jesus. You have been fooled.

  5. I’m surprised that the Jewschool site is pandering to this movement, given its tagline of “progressive Jews and views.” There is nothing “modern” or “progressive” about trying to convince Jews to follow another religion (it’s been going on since the time of Abraham), and Christianity is one of the oldest and most mainstream movements around. I doubt readers of this site would see eye-to-eye with evangelical Christians on most issues.
    I will say that you have done a good job here of explaining the breadth of the evangelical movement to convert Jews – it’s not all “Jews for Jesus,” this is just one organization among many. However, I do not respect your strategy of quietly infiltrating the mainstream Jewish community in order to “witness” to Jews (either openly or through the “good example” of your Christian lives).
    The evangelical Hebrew Christian movement holds up the token born-Jews and Jewish descendents (some patrilineal) among its ranks as proof that they are succeeding in winning Jewish souls for Jesus. Thanks to this propaganda, most Jews believe that – like you – most “Hebrew Christians” are of Jewish descent, but this is absolutely not the case.
    Most are born Christian and are seeking a Christian movement that they feel offers greater authenticity and depth. Hebrew scriptures and Jewish touches like Shabbat candles may offer this, but this will never make these followers actually part of a Jewish community (even if they join the local JCC).

    1. You are correct at least about Philadelphia. The founder of the Jews for Jesus movement in Philly, now deceased, was a Christian who changed his name to have a Jewish sounding name in order to start a Jews for Jesus movement. His son now runs the group.

  6. I have a sincere question, and its one I have wanted to ask the Jewish community for decades. First, let me give my own background: I was raised in an Orthodox (frum) home in the 1950s, and because my mother (obm) was a convert to Orthodox Judaism in the 1940s, I had an Italian Catholic grandmother who told me much of the glories of her Faith. I ended up feeling very drawn to Traditional Catholicism (the pre-Vatican II kind, which yes, still exists!) and converted after I became a legal adult (for fear my parents might prevent me otherwise.)
    Here is my question: as a child and teen, Judaism was not a religion I found spiritually fulfilling. It seemed to revolve around saying kaddish, lighting yahrzeit candles, going to funerals I tried to make it fulfilling, at times I tried to force it to be so. I studied Torah, Tanakh, even Talmud. I even dabbled in kabbalah (genuinely Chasidic, not pop culture) in a desperate effort to find a deeply spiritual form of Judaism. I was always a very spiritually driven child, and used to wish that we Jews had nuns because if we did, I wanted to run away and become one! Movies like The Nun’s Story really made an impression on me. Judaism always felt to me like a materialistic religion for the here and now, and I felt drawn to spiritual matters and the olam ha’ba.
    So, why would you condemn a Jew who in seeking for what fulfills them, may join Christianity? I have sat in many shuls, in the balcony, looking down, seeing the Aron, trying to make myself feel SOMEthing akin to what I feel when I enter a truly traditional Catholic chapel and kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, and it just never happened. I feel the true Presence of God in a traditional chapel or church. It makes me feel comforted, in touch with God. Why would you want to deprive me or another Jew of what helps us?

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