From Messianic Jew to Counter-Missionary - Part 1


By Julius Ciss, Executive Director, JEWS FOR JUDAISM (Canada)

This is part 1 of the 3 part series in which Julius Ciss tells us his story.

Julius Ciss' riveting story of his five-year involvement in the Hebrew Christian movement is a unique insider perspective on a process that has ensnared thousands of Jews. Julius recounts his discovery of why Judaism rejects the missionary message, and describes the return to his own faith, ultimately leading him to establish the Canadian branch of Jews for Judaism.

From "Messianic Jew" to Counter-Missionary: The Story of Julius Ciss

© 1992 Jews for Judaism

My name is Julius Ciss, and I am a "counter-missionary". I work to educate the Jewish community about the problem of deceptive Christian missionaries who target Jews for conversion. I also try to bring those Jews whom they have "converted" back to authentic Judaism.

Being a counter-missionary was hardly a goal towards which I had strived: rather, it was the almost inevitable outcome of a series of circumstances in my life.

I grew up in a traditional Jewish home. My parents are both Holocaust survivors. They had received a very limited Jewish education; but with the little knowledge of tradition that they had, they tried their best to provide a Jewish upbringing for me and my two brothers in our home in Toronto.

My parents attended an "Orthodox" synagogue, thus leading me to believe in my younger years that I was an "Orthodox" Jew. While they did keep a semblance of Shabbat, attended the synagogue on the High Holidays, and conducted a Passover Seder, religion was not a vibrant entity in our home.

As a result of my scant religious education, I had never had much understanding of the essentials of Judaism. I did not understand the concepts of Jewish prayer, spirituality, G-d, or the meaning of the holidays. All I knew were the few basics that I had gleaned from my six years in afternoon Hebrew school, or "cheder''; and, unfortunately, even that did not prove very spiritually satisfying.

Consequently, I found little reason to maintain a strong Jewish identity. I did have a sense of being Jewish, but I lacked any kind of vital commitment to this identity, either religiously or socially. It wasn't difficult to make the decision in my adolescent years to begin dating non-Jewish girls. In my fourth year at Toronto's Ontario College of Art, I met a woman named Mary Beth. We immediately felt an intense mutual attraction. We thoroughly enjoyed each other's company, and a relationship blossomed. There was only one problem: she informed me on our second date that she was a "born-again" Christian. However, I didn't care; I was already deeply emotionally involved with her.

As Mary Beth and I continued to date, our relationship very quickly evolved into that between a missionary and the potential convert. Mary Beth tried by various means to convince me that Jesus Christ was my personal saviour. Needless to say, I had strong objections to such claims and we frequently engaged in heated discussions about G-d, Israel, and the Bible. She alluded to many spiritual issues of which I had no understanding. All I knew was that I was a Jew; I was born a Jew, I would die a Jew, and Jews didn't believe in Jesus. Time and again, she confounded me with various passages from the Bible, a Bible that I really knew nothing about. My only response was the constant refrain that Jews don't believe in Jesus.

She finally got the best of me when she demanded, pointblank, "Well, if Jews don't believe in Jesus, what do they believe in? What do you believe in?'

I didn't know. I knew we believed in one G-d, but I honestly didn't know much else. At afternoon Hebrew school, I had learned very little about G-d, Torah and Israel. I had "survived" six years of Hebrew school without acquiring much Jewish knowledge, and, after my Bar Mitzvah. I quit. That was the end of my formal Jewish education. Unfortunately, many Jews to whom I have spoken in North America have had a similar experience. My ignorance about Judaism and my inability to answer Mary Beth's questions compelled me to start looking through the Torah and the rest of the Tenach in a desperate attempt to prove her assertions wrong.

My ignorance embarrassed me. I was unable to defend Judaism, and I didn't know where to begin to learn. I decided to start reading the Jewish Bible (the Torah, and the Prophets). Some of what I encountered was fascinating, and some of it I found quite confusing. To help me better comprehend the Bible, Mary Beth supplied me with some literature written by Jews who had converted to Christianity. These "Hebrew Christian" books and pamphlets appeared to have been expressly designed to convince the spiritually ignorant secular Jew of the validity of Christianity's central claims.

The books intrigued me. As I ventured more deeply into their various "Messianic" claims and allegations, I attempted, using the Christian Bible that Mary Beth had given me, to find the answers to disprove her arguments. But gradually, inexorably, I became confounded by this literature. Many of its arguments appeared to make sense.

On several occasions, Mary Beth had asked me to go to church with her. I finally consented. However, once I was in the church, everything in me screamed out that I was in the wrong place. The entire setting was utterly foreign: gentiles worshiping a foreign "god" with strange hymns. Being there made me feel like a traitor to my people. At the conclusion of the service, I defiantly stalked out of the church and informed Mary Beth, "I'm never going back there again. I was born a Jew and I'm going to die a Jew."

She was now desperate to find a way to get me to accept Christian religious belief. She discovered a congregation of predominantly Jewish people in Toronto who believed in Jesus. She arranged for a private telephone conversation with a member of this group. After speaking to him, I agreed to attend a Friday night "Erev Shabbat" service.

As a 25-year-old Jew, I was about to attend my first organized religious experience since my Bar Mitzvah. In that 12-year period, I had never seriously questioned who G-d was or the nature of my Jewish spiritual roots. Now, not knowing what to expect, I walked into the meeting hall and sat down. The congregation was addressed by a very pleasant man with a large nose and a face as Jewish as the map of Israel. He wore a yarmulke (skull cap) on his bald head, and a tallit (prayer shawl). Many of the male congregants that evening were also wearing yarmulkes and tallitot. Some of the women wore head coverings, and one lit Sabbath candles while reciting a Hebrew blessing. This was followed by the recitation of Kiddush blessings over a cup of wine and HaMotzi over a challah; but each blessing ended with the expression "B'shem Yeshua HaMashiach" ("in the name of Jesus the Messiah"). I clearly remember a guitar player and a violinist. They were singing some wonderfully vibrant Jewish songs I had never heard before, but which I would soon learn were traditional Jewish melodies: "Od Yeshama" and "Hinei Ma Tov". The atmosphere felt very Jewish, and I found the environment more stimulating than any synagogue experience I could remember.

The synagogue of my youth had struck me as nothing so much as a fashion show, with lots of noise and conversation, and services conducted in a language that I didn't understand. Here, however, everything was in English. The music, accompanied by rhythmic hand clapping, was both emotionally and spiritually inspiring, and altogether enjoyable. I decided to give this group a chance, and that I would listen to what they had to say. It was very reassuring to meet other Jews who believed in this new form of "Christian Jewish" expression. The environment was not at all offensive; on the contrary, its Jewish flavour was quite appealing. I didn't feel like the traitor I had been when attending Mary Beth's church. I felt comfortable and wanted to return for more of these "Oneg Shabbat" meetings.

In this milieu, basic gospel messages were presented with a distinctly Jewish flavour. The man leading the services who looked so Jewish was, in fact, a Jewish-born Baptist minister. He was a gifted speaker, passionate and convincing, and I was extremely moved by his sermons.

It was in the environment of this "Hebrew Christian" church, or "Messianic Jewish Synagogue", as its leaders preferred to call it, that my interest in my Jewish identity was rekindled. I began to go once every three or four weeks, and soon found myself attending meetings every week.

The evangelical techniques used by this congregation lulled me into feeling more comfortable with the idea of accepting Christianity. Their symbols were clearly Jewish rather than Christian. At the front of the meeting room, a large Jewish star hung on the wall, as did two tablets with the Ten Commandments written in abbreviated Hebrew letters (no doubt originally part of an Aron HaKodesh, or cabinet containing the Torah scrolls). Ritual articles of clothing (yarmulkes and tallitot) were worn, and Hebrew terminology was used liberally. The congregation almost never spoke the name "Jesus Christ" to identify the individual in whom they believed; instead, he was referred to as '"Yeshua HaMashiach." The New Testament was called the "Brit Chadasha", or "New Covenant". After having been exposed to my girlfriend's Christian jargon, I found this "Jewish" environment and terminology much less abrasive to my ears and conscience. The more I listened, the more Jewish belief in Jesus seemed possible to me.

Through my weekly Bible study group, I was drawn still deeper into serious consideration of the belief system offered me by these people because of their ability to use the Old Testament, or as they called it, the "Tanach", to "prove" repeatedly that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. "If the Jewish Bible prophesied a Messiah, and if Jesus fulfilled those prophecies, mustn't he, then, be the Messiah?" they challenged. When I expressed concern at being unable to read the cited prophecies myself, in the original Hebrew, I was assured that the translations in their Bible were irreproachable, the work of great scholars.

As a result of this congregation's pervasive use of Jewish symbols, terminology, music, ritual and liturgy, and their distorted celebration of Jewish holidays, I soon began to feel that I had never been more Jewish in my life. The minister preached that if Jesus were the Jewish Messiah, what could be more Jewish than to believe in him? Judaism claims that it awaits the coming of the Messiah, so if Jesus were that Messiah, then I would be complete as a Jew if I accepted him as my Messiah. In accepting Jesus, I would be a "completed Jew", a "fulfilled Jew", and a "Messianic Jew". My religion wouldn't be Christianity but "Messianic Judaism".

What could be more natural?

When questioning how I became involved in Christianity, many people over the years have suggested that there may have been something "wrong" with me at the time: perhaps I was undergoing some kind of emotional trauma, or was a victim of depression, so that my need for an emotional "crutch" made me susceptible to such religious arguments.

Yet my only emotional distress at the time arose from the fact that I was romantically involved with a Christian woman who had introduced me to these religious issues. The initial impetus for my involvement in Christianity had been my desire to prove her assertions wrong. I had a very satisfying social life outside the "Messianic Jewish" group with which I had begun to associate, and was enjoying tremendous success as a magazine illustrator. There was no crisis in my life to precipitate this spiritual quest, no intense emotional drive for ultimate truth. Very simply, I had a beautiful girlfriend who happened to be Christian, and we were very much in love. If I could find a way to affect a compromise between my Jewishness and her Christianity, perhaps we could get married. At one point, a congregant of Melech Yisrael had suggested that we could even get married under a chuppah (traditional Jewish wedding canopy)!

Continued in Part 2


Julius Ciss, Executive Director of JEWS FOR JUDAISM (Canada), was a prolific Advertising and Editorial Illustrator in North America from 1975 to 2004. He was also a popular Illustration Professor at The Ontario College of Art & Design from 1977 to 2004. The images on his personal website, www.juliusciss.com, are just a few samples of the hundreds of paintings he created during his award-winning illustration career in Canada. Once referred to as the Jewish "Norman Rockwell", Julius retired from both creating and teaching illustration in 2004 to devote himself full-time to the vital counter-missionary work of JEWS FOR JUDAISM (Canada). You can contact Julius at julius@jewsforjudaism.ca.