Remember the question: What is a boy from North Dakota with a German last name doing teaching English in a Hebrew school in Bogota, Colombia?
Now that’s a good question. And the answer?
God works things His way, in spite of our best-laid plans.
My parents raised me as a good Missouri Synod German Lutheran first in Fargo, then in the town of Casselton, North Dakota, population 1,500. My father told me that the Lutherans had the one true faith in the world, the other protestants were off to one side, and the Roman Catholics were off to the other side. Jews didn’t even come into the picture. Of course, there were probably no Jews in Casselton, North Dakota, back in 1960 anyway.
The worst thing I could do, my mother told me, would be to marry a Roman Catholic girl. Imagine! (Is that the same thing that Jewish mothers in Bogota might tell their sons?) So this proves that the Jews do not have a monopoly on tradition. You know, Lutherans, or Roman Catholics, or Muslims for that matter, can be just as fixed about what is proper, and, in the words of Tevya, “what God has told us all to do!”
One night, at the age of 8, there in far off North Dakota, I felt moved to pray. I knew that Jesus was there listening to me and that he was my friend. I told him I wanted to become a pastor or a missionary… Lutheran, of course. I had an uncle who was a Missouri Synod Lutheran missionary to India, so that seemed like a good course for my future.
That spiritual relationship followed and kept me “clean” throughout my high school years, but sometimes God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our ways or thoughts, or at least very different.
So, suddenly, my father got a fellowship to study at Columbia University Teachers’ College, in New York City, and our family moved from this North Dakota town of 1,500 to New York City! With five kids, the family settled on Broadway on the edge of Riverdale in the Bronx. Across the street was Van Cortlandt Park, the best playground and five siblings between the ages of 2 and 11 could ever want. We spent our summer at the New York City World’s Fair in Queens.
I walked off to Riverdale Junior High 141, you know, the place where Archie and Veronica studied, and half of my class was Jewish! My education was beginning! My best friend was Marc Cohen and while he made his Star of David in woodworking class and I made my cross. We had our discussions on religion, but still remained close friends. Besides, we were both a bit nerdy.
From there it was up to Connecticut, to Farmington High School where I was able to get the grades, extracurricular activities and sports recognition (as a long distance runner) to get into Yale College. Plans change. I would go to college first and THEN to seminary.
At Yale I met a different breed of Christians, charismatic evangelical Christians who were excited about God, excited about the Bible, and excited about Israel! And since the Lutheran church in West Hartford, Ct, was a bit boring, it was not difficult for me to make the decision to leave the Lutheran church behind and join this small house-church that met in New York City.
It was 1970, just three years after the Six Day War when Jerusalem had been reunited under Jewish rule, and this church was excited! Prophecy was being fulfilled! The Jews were returning to the land of Israel just as the Hebrew prophets had said. I had never heard anything like this, and I got excited too!
So that was the inspiration: I began to study modern Hebrew at Yale, and I found out I had more in common with the Yale Reform Rabbi than I did with the liberal protestant chaplains. I took a course taught by an Israeli about Arabs in Israel, and I wrote an article for the Yale Daily News showing support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, finishing with the words from Micah 7:20: “You will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago.” Suddenly I was connecting spiritually and I decided I needed to visit Israel. A semester abroad in Tel Aviv university would be perfect!
But now there was a conflict with my family tradition. My departure from the Lutheran church did not excite my parents and they quickly turned against my new spiritual focus, and a semester abroad in Tel Aviv through Yale was not feasible.
But a trip down to Colombia, South America, to visit our church’s work down there, was! So off I went!
Now, let me explain. It is one thing to be an evangelical Christian who has studied the Bible, believes in God and prophecy, and has a fascination with Israel and the Jewish people. It is quite a different thing to actually learn what modern Judaism, Jewish history, including the Holocaust, and Israel is all about.
So, simply put, I needed an education. I was hired to teach English, but I think that by being at the Colegio Hebreo, I actually learned much more about everything Jewish, and fell in love with it.
Thank you for doing that for me.