Bob Mendelssohn attended synagogue four times a week

As a teenager Bob Mendelssohn, an orthodox Jew, attended synagogue four times a week. He aimed to do Judaism perfectly. Yet he wasn’t really happy and was looking for deeper meaning. He discovered that Jesus is a man of grace and love and accepted him as his Saviour.

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My name is Bob Mendelsohn. I am the director of Jews for Jesus in Sydney, Australia. I was born and raised in Kansas City, the third of three children. As a result I always brought surprises to my family as you can imagine. We went to an orthodox Jewish synagogue. There is all kinds of levels of orthodoxy. We had what we might call negotiable Judaism. We had not two sets of dishes, not four sets of dishes, but we had five sets of dishes. Two of course that were in use on the regular during the year, two that were for use during the Passover and the fifth set of dishes, well that was for the KFC that we would bring in. Negotiable if you know what I mean. When I turned sixteen and went to synagogue, I would drive, because in Kansas you could get a license at sixteen. I would drive to synagogue, park a block away and then walk like the rest of the orthodox men. So I would at least look like I was proper.
When I was thirteen I had my bar mitzvah. Hundreds were there. I was nervous as I’ll get out, but there were all kinds of folks in the congregation that morning. Not only all my youth group and the dozens and dozens of my parent’s closest friends, but Ed Charles the third baseman for the Kansas City Athletics and Sally Simpson, the junior high school Spanish teacher, all kinds of folks were there. I wanted to do very well and so I performed and sang and wondered if anybody was really listening. Wondering if I was even getting through to the God who seemed to be so remote, so distant. But I did Judaism very well. I wanted to keep learning and keep doing Judaism correctly. So, although most of my friends stopped attending synagogue at their bar mitzvah, I continued. I went three, four times a week and I wanted to do Judaism correctly.
When I was sixteen I went to a sleep away camp in Wild Rose Wisconsin. It wasn’t that wild, but there for two weeks I was, with all kind of other Jewish folks from the Mid-West and a fellow from New York City. Jewish people from Kansas City didn’t exactly like Jewish from New York City. I don’t think we like very many people from New York City. And Jimmy was one of those folks who already was one of them. When I met Jimmy though, I was captivated by his keenness in being Jewish and his seeming connection between things Jewish and his own personal life. He was only a few years older than me. So I took what he did on board. And I came home after that fortnight away with my family and I was with them and told them I was not going to eat their food but rather prepare my own. I was not going to drive to synagogue anymore. I was going to walk to a more nearby one, where there was a mechitza, a separation between the men and the women. I was going to do Judaism more correctly. I guess that is the thing about religion. Once you have some, you start having more and you define more and more and who is outside as less and less. Well there I was, trying to do my Judaism correctly. I even learned with rabbis and went to continue to press on in this Jewish life. It was significant to me. I graduated high school, I sang in the choirs. Everything about my life though was Jewish. I had Gentile friends, a few here and there, but I basketballed with and tennissed with Jewish friends. I had a chess club I went with, everybody I knew was Jewish. We hung out with one another.
At seventeen I graduated high school in Kansas City. I went to Washington University in St. Louis, to be a doctor like most of my friends. That was counterculture time. So in 1969 I started taking on board all kinds of things, including the hippy lifestyle of drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what you did to nonconform together. We all looked the same, dressed alike; we did all that stuff because we were nonconformists. What we wanted was to find meaning and relevance. All the while I was doing that, my hippy commitments, I was also committed to university and trying to learn and my educational commitments were full on as well. At the same time I maintained my Jewish commitments and even rallied others from Cincinnati and from New York to join me in my dormitory room to pray the prayers and be devoted to the Jewish religion. I continued learning, now with rabbi Polen at Tiferes Israel Chevra Kadisha, the orthodox synagogue in Delmar Loop, in St. Louise’s University City. I traded out, because you don’t get those for free. I traded guitar lessons for his son, so that I could learn with the rabbi. All the while I kept trying to put my head together, as we called it. I wasn’t really happy. University gave me less pleasure. Judaism was giving me all kinds of personal identification but not really deep meaning and relevance.
One night I went to synagogue. It was a Friday night and I had a Shabbes goy, a Gentile who looked after some of the things I couldn’t look after, including turning on and off the light switch there in my dormitory room. Well, Neil, the Gentile from Illinois had failed that night to turn of my light when I returned from synagogue. And there I was, lying on my dormitory bed at Eliot Hall in St. Louis and looked up and thought, this is ridiculous, after five minutes, maybe 45 minutes, I am not sure how long, and I went and turned of the light. Now what happens? Now how much of the Torah and the mitzvah’s and all the things that I was supposed to be committed to was I going to maintain. Soon everything was gone and my whole life went into chaos. After three semesters at Washington University I dropped out, hitchhiked around the United States, looking for that meaning and relevance. I was in New Orleans, I remember dancing at about three in the morning, on Bourbon street, in the French quarter, next to a guy, who was of a different colour, different everything than I was and for some reason out of the depths of my heart came this hatred. It made no sense for a man of peace and love. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had no control over it. I hitchhiked some more and I was in Atlanta, Georgia, I was in a crash pad at the Emory University and there, while one of the fellows was in taking a shower, I rifled his trousers and pulled out a five dollar note and put it in my pocket, knowing all the while that thievery was wrong, but I needed the money.

I was in Fort Lauderdale or Pompano Beach Florida. There I was a co-resident of a jail for a few days after being caught out doing some illegal things. And there was a fellow who was young and was reading a well-worn Gideon Bible. I had never seen that New Testament. Never really read the Older Testament in English. But there it was and I began looking through his pages. I gave it back to him quickly, it was saint Matthew and saint Marc and all these other Catholics. He is the one who paid for me to get out of jail. He had enough money for me, not for him. I was back in Washington D.C. during an anti-Vietnam march with my black armband, rallying with those who were against the military industrial complex.
My father flew me home that week and gave me a one-way ticket to Kansas City for Passover 1971. It was great to be with my family. During that occasion we had an encounter again, as I tried to make the Passover Seder, the Passover meal, meaningful and relevant. And I tried to make sure that the story of the Jewish people leaving Egypt was still significant for us. I had wanted to bring in civil rights and black people and other folks who didn’t seem to have the freedom that we were enjoying there around the lokshen kugel and the beautiful foods that my grandmother made, the matzah ball soup. Well, there was an occasion in the Seder where I tried to bring in something new and it brought great cacophony and more chaos to the Seder. My father took the Seder back over and I walked out of the house. And I looked up for the first time in my life and prayed in English. I didn’t know what to call God. So I said, Sir, here I am, trying to do things your way, but the hypocrites, you’ll forgive the expression, my family, they are doing it your way. Is there another way, was the joust of my prayer.
About a month later I am there in Kansas City and I encountered some Jesus freaks, some Jesus people who were out on the street corners talking to the people about their faith and I encountered them or rather was encountered by them. I had an argument with them, there at Walker Park, in front of the Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City. They lost the Bible battle, I knew my stuff. I had been raised orthodox and they had been believers in Jesus all of three months. But they gave me a Bible and I went back were I was staying. And I began reading the pages of the catholic side, Saint Marc and Saint John. And I saw in there nothing catholic at all, but something extremely Jewish and very compelling, a man of meaning and relevance and peace and love. I wanted that desperately, but I didn’t want Jesus. I went to a girl’s house three days later. I knew she was a Christian. I told her I really want this Jesus-stuff, love, joy, meaning, relevance, but I don’t want Jesus. She said, you don’t get this Jesus-stuff unless you take Jesus as your Saviour. So that night, under a full moon, May of 1971, I asked Yeshua, I asked Jesus to be my Saviour, to wash me of my sins and He did. She taught me how to sing Amazing Grace. I knew the words from Joan Baez and Judy Collins, but I didn’t know that song until that night. I went home, told my mum and dad that Jesus was coming back. Well, I kept bringing surprises to my family, didn’t I? When I kept more kosher, when I kept more religion than they, when I dropped out of university on scholarship and when I found Jesus. That was probably the most surprising thing of all. And yet, God gave me grace and a family that is bigger than my own folks. Oh you can be surprised too, I suppose, if you have been seeking to please God by religious devotion. You can be surprised at the grace and the joy that He wants to give you. Not because of what you’ve done, but because of what He has done. Receive Him as your Saviour. You will be surprised by joy.