Chapter One

Moishe Rosen
The Man behind the Movement

I'm overweight, overbearing, and over forty. What am I doing leading a youth movement? That statement summed up Moishe Rosen's thought in the early days of his ministry to the college-aged Jewish "hippies" and "Jesus freaks" of the late sixties and early seventies.

From the beginning, Moishe has been anything but politically correct. Indeed, Jews for Jesus evolved in a strange, albeit indirect, way from something of a faux pas. It was the spring of 1969, the height of the hippie movement in New York City. Moishe was the featured speaker for a group of Christian students at Columbia University. As was often the case, his biting humor offered comic relief during the course of a serious address. Typical of his store of wisecracks was a Ronald Reagan quip: "A hippie dresses like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah." The students loved it, but Bob Berk, a Jewish believer Moishe had met that day, was less than amused. Later he asked Moishe if he had ever actually smelled a hippie. Moishe retorted that he had never gotten close enough to smell one. Bob rebuked him for his callousness and informed him that many of the very hippies he had ridiculed were spiritually hungry Jewish youth—just the sort of people he ought to be meeting.

That was a turning point in Moishe's ministry. He remembered the scorn and ridicule he had encountered as a child from an Orthodox Jewish home, and now he was guilty of scorning others from his own protected vantage point. He was a successful high-level executive in a Jewish mission, shielded by a receptionist, a secretary, and two assistants. He was part of a world of respectable achievers. He had presumed the hippies ambling the streets in ragged jeans and T-shirts were "losers." But his conscience was pricked: Nobody sees me without making an appointment well in advance. I have become more concerned with administrative procedures than with people. How can I get to know the hippies?

Moishe found the answer to his question in Greenwich Village, a favorite hippie hangout. As he began spending time there regularly, the window of his world opened to a wider vision of ministry. But simply talking and listening to a few dozen young people was not enough. With the right set of tools, he could reach so many more.

Unable to find printed literature suitable for reaching this new generation, Moishe began writing his own crude tracts. The cover of the first one pictured a full-figured, square-bodied man with the caption "A Message from Squares." No typeset or clip art, just Moishe's own writing—scrawl really—but the short, pithy, disconnected statements were attention grabbers: "Hey you, with the beard on your face!" "We think you are beautiful." "God likes beards, too." "He didn't want the Israelites to even trim their beards." "You're brave to do your own thing." The tract went on to challenge the reader with a more poetic than cohesive message that ended with John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

His next tract, titled "Peace Isn't Nothing," was a message to antiwar protesters. These tracts, which Moishe later dubbed "broadsides," worked. As he put it, "Soon there were wall-to-wall hippies in my office." And many of them came to know Jesus as their Messiah.

Moishe had stepped out of his own comfortable world and into the youth movement that was flowering in the late 1960s. Within two weeks he had begun offering a relevant message to the counterculture—and especially to the Jewish counterculture. No other ministries to Jews at that time seemed to be speaking the language of youth.


Early Years: Behind Every Great Man . . .

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on April 12, 1932, Martin Meyer Rosen was officially brought under the covenant of Abraham and given the Hebrew name "Moishe" at his circumcision. His Orthodox grandfather lovingly called him "Moyshelah," the Yiddish diminuitive. His mother usually called him by the anglicized "Martin" –until she wanted to be stern. Then it was "Moisheh Meyer! . . . "

Religion was not a vital aspect of Moishe's early years. After his grandfather's death, his family switched from strict religious observance to a nominal Orthodoxy. His family still belonged to the Orthodox synagogue, but behind closed doors, his mother fried bacon for breakfast. Yet Moishe's Jewish identity and heritage were unmistakable and unshakable—particularly when it came to family.

At fourteen, Moishe began keeping company with Ceil, a shy but headstrong Jewish girl who had recently moved to his Denver neighborhood from Boston. Moishe immediately decided that this petite brunette was by far the prettiest girl in the neighborhood. He was charmed by her "exotic" accent and quiet ways.

Ceil, despite her initial reserve, found herself at ease with this tall, gangly admirer. Having never known anything but strictly kosher rules and regulations at home, she also found the more relaxed atmosphere of the Rosen household inviting. She had already begun to chafe against the strictness of option. When she was fifteen, Ceil's Jewish Orthodoxy and her rebellious venture into atheism were briefly challenged. The vehicle was music; the setting, her public high school:

    I remember participating when the girls' chorus in our high school gave a Christmas pageant. We dressed up as Israeli women, with long, flowing gown. As we glided across the stage in slow, dance-like rhythm, singing, "O come, O come Immanuel /And ransom captive Israel," something stirred within me. I suddenly realized that Jesus was Jewish and it made me wonder for just a moment if he could be for us after all .

Ceil quickly set aside those thoughts, and under her parents' roof, she remained outwardly observant, while inwardly disenchanted with Orthodox Judaism. At eighteen, Ceil married Moishe, and totally discarded her Orthodox upbringing. "The freedom was exhilarating!" she remembered. "We would not have an Orthodox home; we would be modern American Jews without any hang-ups about religion. We were both proud of our heritage and knew certain ties and roots should be maintained. But the pressure to 'be religious' was off."

No longer constrained to "be religious," Ceil found herself less resentful, and once again she began contemplating God. She even told God she was sorry she had said he was not real. She was ready to worship him in any way he would show her—even if it meant returning to the Orthodox Judaism she had rejected. Then something happened.

Christmas was not a season for Jewish people, but Ceil loved music and could not resist listening to Christmas carols, which she found very appealing. She was particularly captivated by "O Little Town of Bethlehem," which seemed to repeat over and over again in her mind, even after the record player was turned off. One night as she looked into the starry sky, she contemplated the star of Bethlehem—and Jesus. Yet, she feared such thoughts. Jews simply did not believe in Jesus, for if they did, they were ostracized from their families and the whole Jewish community. But she could not control her curiosity and needed a means to satisfy it. That means came in the form of an inexpensive Bible she had discovered at a five and ten cent store.

    Finally, I asked Cousin Dorothy to purchase the Bible for me—but I didn't show how eager I was to read it. As soon as she left, I opened to the beginning of the New Testament and began reading the Book of Matthew. The I went on to read Mark, then Luke and John.

Ceil quickly realized that Jesus was Jewish and that she was not "reading about some foreign religion." But more than that, Jesus was "so practical, down-to-earth . . . and at the same time, there was something unmistakably divine about him. He spoke with authority." Ceil's sense of excitement exceeded the exhilaration she had felt less than two years earlier when she had dropped the pretense of Orthodoxy. Now, as a wife and the mother of an infant daughter, she was grateful to God for his blessings. And her relationship with God had a new focus: Jesus, a Jewish man who had lived and died nearly two thousand years earlier. Yet Orthodox or not, her culture considered Jesus taboo. There were no family members, no friends with whom she could talk about it . . . so she prayed. She would trust God to meet her need—and he did.

The angel-messenger came in the form of a woman—Hannah Wago. Hannah visited Ceil at the request of a Christian family who had been praying faithfully for the Rosens. They were unaware of Ceil's Bible reading or of her prayer that God would send someone to her. That visit was the first of many meetings between the two women—meetings that focused on Bible study and doctrinal issues.

It was a relationship that Moishe did not welcome. The more Ceil learned, the more certain she became that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. As she became more assured in her faith, she tried telling Moishe, who summarily dismissed all overtures regarding the gospel. So angry was he that he insisted that Ceil and Hannah stop seeing each other. One day, when he came home to find Ceil talking in the phone with Hannah, "he ripped the phone out of the wall!"

When Moishe finally demanded that Ceil abandon her newfound faith, her response was unequivocal: "Please don't make me choose between you and God. If it were anything else, you know I would choose you. But if you give me an ultimatum about this, I'll have to choose God."

It was Easter Sunday, 1953. Ceil went to church, an act that was an outward sign of a very momentous inward transformation, though she took care to be very discreet. She was not trying to make a statement or cause a commotion in the neighborhood. Indeed, she hid her hat under her coat as she walked to the waiting car. But once she was in church, the subterfuge was over. When the altar call was given at the end of the service, she made her way forward to make public confession of her faith. And she prayed fervently that her husband would believe in Jesus.

Those prayers were answered. Moishe's decision to follow Jesus came soon after—a result of his attempt to make a case against Christianity. He had vowed he would prove Ceil wrong. But the more he learned about Jesus and the New Testament, the more he realized that Ceil had found the truth. On Pentecost Sunday, 1953, Moishe went to church with Ceil, and as she had done earlier, made public profession of his faith. Then came a less public but more far-reaching profession to family and friends. 

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