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Breaking bread with Jews

A Sabbath meal with an Orthodox rabbi’s family

When a Jew invites you to Shabbat, never say no. I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in America, and I’ve never said no to anyone who invited me to a Shabbat—be it a lesbian “spiritual” couple or an ultra-Orthodox rabbi.

A while ago I accepted a Shabbat invitation from Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization. I met Rabbi Adlerstein at the 175th anniversary of the birth of William E. Blackstone, a pioneer of Jewish-Christian relations in America. Rabbi Adlerstein was the keynote speaker, and his introduction immediately caught my attention: “Forgive me, for I am a sinner.” Then he confessed that he once harbored resentment towards Christians. I knew right then that I had to interview him—and through a three-hour interview, I learned more of his story. 

Adlerstein developed a “deep-seated revulsion to anything Christian” as a young Orthodox Jewish boy in Manhattan who frequently met the fists of Irish Catholic boys on his way home from school. With his telltale payot (side curls) and yarmulke (Jewish cap), he was an easy target for anti-Semitism. His grandmother and mother were survivors of the Holocaust, and the young Adlerstein divided Christians into two groups: evil Christians who seek to hurt Jews, or annoying Christians who seek to convert Jews. He didn’t like either. Then the rabbi discovered through his work at the Wiesenthal Center that conservative Christians are some of the boldest Zionists. Soon he began studying the New Testament, reading Christian literature, and engaging with Christian leaders from various denominations—and realized that many of the beliefs he once held about Christians were inaccurate. 

Which leads us to my visit with Adlerstein for Shabbat at his home. At the table head sat the rabbi, and surrounding him sat the rabbi’s petite wife, his soon-to-be-married son, their Jewish friends, my evangelical Christian friend, and me. Together we lit the candles, said a sanctification prayer over wine, broke challah, then washed our hands for the feast—and what a feast!

Over four hours, we had matzo ball soup, salad, sesame-fried chicken, potato casserole, Chinese stir-fry, and two kinds of cake, all washed down with plenty of wine. By the sixth course (a roast beef so tender I could suck down the bones into juice), I lost count of the number of dishes. At one point I had to lean back and loosen my belt with a sigh. “We eat like this every week! That’s why we Jews have these,” the rabbi’s son told me while patting his belly.

That night, we discussed Leviticus 13-15. I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun discussing Leviticus, and I think the rabbi too enjoyed quizzing a couple of young Christians on our interpretation of the most law-dense book of the Bible. I decided to toss any proselytizing aside and simply collect as much insight and wisdom as I could from Rabbi Adlerstein’s incredible mind—and the self-proclaimed Torah “addict” was happy to oblige.

I learned that the Orthodox Jews don’t glean through their sacred texts like many Christians do—they dissect and agonize and argue over every word, coating every passage with layers of moral and legal implications. I saw that in their dress and observances: The rabbi didn’t shake my hand because I’m a woman; the light switches in his house were taped on because Orthodox Jews cannot use electricity during Shabbat; the lightbulb in the refrigerator was unscrewed so that it wouldn’t turn on automatically; and of course, the entire meal from the meat to the chocolate shavings on our cake was kosher.

Shabbat being a day of rest, toward the end of the meal, the rabbi dropped his chin to his chest and dozed off. His wife walked over and gently shook his shoulders, whispering, “Abba, abba, wake up. Time for dessert.” As the rabbi blinked open his eyes, the only two evangelical Christians at the table (my friend and I) exclaimed, “Behold! He is risen!” The rabbi, of course, got the joke—and to my relief, he cracked a chuckle.

Later, I heard one of the rabbi’s friends tell him, “I wasn’t sure whether to believe you when you told me you befriend Christians. Now I see it for myself.” For me, his statement drove home how precious that evening was. But I wonder if the rabbi recognized that our joke—“He is risen!”—also marks a key distinction between Judaism and Christianity: The resurrection of Jesus Christ fulfilled the numerous prophecies in the Old Testament that foretold the Messiah’s coming. Because Jesus died and is risen, Christians no longer need to observe certain Old Covenant laws that Jews still do.

Several months later, I had brunch with another Orthodox Jew who told me that the idea of “salvation by grace through faith alone” was hardest for him to accept about Christianity. It made more sense to him that to atone for his sins, he would have to perform certain deeds, such as fasting, doing good works, and praying three times a day. I immediately thought of the old favorite hymn “Amazing Grace”—an undeserved grace that’s confounding to many, but so amazing to those who accept it.

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Gary Fong/Genesis Photos

Joni Eareckson Tada (Gary Fong/Genesis Photos)

Lessons from Joni

What some persevering people in difficult situations taught me

Our current cover story in WORLD features our 2017 Daniel of the Year: Joni Eareckson Tada. You can read more here about the remarkable life she’s led as a quadriplegic and disabilities advocate since her diving accident 50 years ago.

Earlier this year, I spent time shadowing Joni at church, work, and home. Here are a few takeaways from that experience:

Her extraordinary life is fueled by ordinary Christian living. Joni’s gone to the same small church for more than 20 years. She’s loved the same Christian husband for more than 35 years. She’s worked in the same disabilities ministry for 38 years. And she’s prayed, sung, and meditated her way through the Scriptures for half a century.

As far as I can tell, that’s her secret: Simple, Biblical living rooted in yearly, monthly, daily, hourly, moment-by-moment dependence on God’s grace poured out by His Spirit. The means are simple, but the grace is amazing.

More than once, I heard her sing: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

Endurance produces character. Actually, the Apostle Paul said this first. But how you can see it in a life that has required a mind-boggling amount of endurance over 50 years, even for the simplest tasks. 

It’s inspiring to browse the paintings in Joni’s small art studio, but it’s important to remember she didn’t put a pencil in her mouth and sketch a beautiful portrait the first day of her rehabilitation. She spent month after month drawing line after line until a picture started to emerge.

And so we’re called to spend day after day drawing line after line in our families, friendships, churches, work, and our ministry to others. It’s often messy and we often fail, though if we endure, a clearer picture starts to emerge. But sitting at the easel isn’t easy. There are no shortcuts to Christian living.

God’s strength really is made perfect in weakness. One of the joys of this assignment was meeting other people with special needs.

Earlier this fall, I traveled to New Jersey for a Joni and Friends conference, and on a Friday night in the fellowship hall of Trinity Baptist Church in Montville, N.J., I chatted with David Densel, a 36-year-old man who has been in the church with his family since childhood. 

David has cerebral palsy, but he doesn’t allow that to stop him from serving other people. For example, when he learned another member of the congregation was deaf, David learned sign language. He gave up television time to watch VHS tapes of sign language instruction.

It’s not always easy, but he perseveres. “With my hands the way they are it makes it way harder,” he says. “But as long as they understand me—so what if you have to do the signs a little differently?” 

Joni told the Friday evening crowd—including lots of people with disabilities—she was looking forward to a new body one day, but that she’s really excited about the promise of a new heart that’s free from sin. “That’s the finish line,” she told them. “We’re going to be with the Lord Jesus, and then the real story will unfold.” 

David turned to me, his eyes grew wide, and a smile spread across his face. I wondered how many people smile like this when they think about heaven. And I thought about the advantage this man in a wheelchair has over so many others who think they don’t need Christ, or who never think about the life to come. 

“She’s right,” he whispered with excitement in his voice. “This is only the beginning.”

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YouTube screen grab/Radio Free Asia

Angela Gui testifies before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (YouTube screen grab/Radio Free Asia)

Daughters of dissidents

For children of disappeared Chinese dissidents, advocating for their fathers’ plight comes with an emotional toll.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump arrived in Beijing for a “state visit–plus,” an upgraded experience including private talks with President Xi Jinping, a military honor guard, a formal banquet, and “special arrangements,” according to Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai.

Yet while Xi puts the full array of Chinese opulence on display, under the glimmering veneer is the ugly reality of human rights activists disappeared, imprisoned, or monitored, as well as the grief and worry experienced by their spouses, parents, and children. Currently two young women, 23-year-old Angela Gui and 24-year-old Grace Geng, are each still waiting for the Chinese government to free their fathers, who had both been imprisoned for criticizing the Communist Party.

Chinese authorities said they freed Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai on Oct. 17 after holding him for two years in prison. Yet a week later the government’s claim, Gui’s daughter Angela said in a press release that she hadn’t heard from her father and “it is still very unclear where he is.” A few days later, Bei Ling, a friend of Gui’s, said Gui was “half-free,” was currently staying in the city of Ningbo, and had met with his wife and mother.

Like other Chinese dissidents before him, Gui, though out of prison, is likely still under the constant surveillance of security agents. Chinese authorities kidnapped Gui from his apartment in Thailand in October 2015, whisking him off to the mainland along with four co-workers from his book publishing company. Gui made a televised, apparently forced confession of his involvement in a 2003 hit-and-run incident, and received a two-year prison sentence. The real reason for his incarceration: Gui was working on a gossipy book about President Xi’s love life.

The disappearance prompted Angela to become an advocate for her father’s release. She has testified before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the British House of Commons. As a result, Angela believes she’s being monitored: In 2016, two Chinese men approached her in Frankfurt, Germany, and took her photo with a large camera, according to the Taiwan Sentinel. “Even if I don’t constantly worry about my safety, the fear is always there subconsciously,” she told the Sentinel. “I avoid being alone in unfamiliar places, and have regular contact with friends and family when traveling.”

Last month at a London panel on China’s human rights abuses, Angela met another young woman who understood her situation: Grace Geng, the daughter of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who was tortured and imprisoned in China for several years. In August, two fellow human rights activists snuck Gao out of the home where he was being held under house arrest. Gao had no teeth left and could not eat due to the pain and bleeding, a result of beatings and malnutrition. After 23 days, government officials found Gao, placing him back in secretive detention.

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