Karol Joseph, ‘Because of my fears I was always afraid’

Karol Beth JosephI was born in Boston on August 16, 1952, the third of four children. Both my parents were Jewish. I grew up in Newton, about eight miles from Boston, in a community so Jewish I only knew one Gentile girl in my whole elementary school. I never doubted that God existed. I knew that He talked to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and I was sad that He did not talk to me, though I tried initiating conversations. I loved God and wanted to please Him, but I knew that I fell short of what He expected of me. I didn’t pray enough and of course we did not follow all of the laws. I therefore did not blame Him for His silence.


At Hebrew school I had Hebrew classes from Mr. Cohen. I remember telling my mother that he wasn’t a very kind man and she suggested that I talk to him after class. As we talked, he rolled up his sleeve and I saw numbers tattooed on his arm. He told me how his wife was killed in a concentration camp. Mr. Cohen was the first Holocaust survivor I ever met. Around that time, our family saw a movie about the Holocaust. In one scene, a crowd of naked people were gathered in a room. My father explained that they were being prepared for what they thought were showers, but that they were really going into gas chambers to die. “That’s what the Gentiles will do to the Jews,” he explained. From then on I knew that we Jews needed to stick together and that we must never allow something like the Holocaust to happen again.

Carefully hidden fears

After my bat mitzvah and graduation from Hebrew school, my involvement in synagogue deteriorated. I only went on holidays and for special events, like weddings. I was as Jewish as ever culturally, but I no longer looked to Judaism for spiritual answers. I studied many religions, I was looking for something meaningful and something that would help me deal with my fears. For some reason, fear often seemed to dominate my life. As a child I was terrified of fire. As a young adult, I was afraid to leave my apartment. I imagined my car breaking down and leaving me stranded, or that someone would break into my apartment while I was gone and wait to harm me when I returned. Nobody knew how fearful I was. I managed to hide my anxieties.

An intelligent Christian

In 1984 I was working on a Ph.D. in health care policy. Fearing I wouldn’t pass an economics class, I asked Chris, a fellow student, to tutor me. One night we got into a discussion about abortion and I was surprised to learn that Chris was against this. When I asked why on earth he took such a stance he told me that he was a Christian. I was 32 years old and had never met anyone who confessed to being a Christian. I had accepted the common belief that the Bible is a mixture of Jewish history, myth and good moral teaching, but not the Word of God. It was startling to think that someone as intelligent as Chris would take the Bible literally.

What impressed me about Chris even more than his intelligence was his peace. He was always calm. I never saw him waver in his faith. He knew more about my Bible and more about Jewish history than I did. He knew things that I felt I should have known as a Jew. I was jealous of the peace he had, yet I knew that what he believed couldn’t be for me – because I was Jewish.

When Chris showed me the fifty-third chapter from the Prophet Isaiah, I could not believe that I was seeing something from the Jewish Scripture. As soon as I got home I checked my own Bible. Sure enough, the passage Chris had read was the same. I was amazed by how clearly it seemed to describe the Christian view of Jesus. Still, I looked for ways to challenge Chris and his faith. Once I asked him, “Tell me, do you really believe that God created the world like the Bible says?” Chris calmly replied, “Absolutely, don’t you?” Then he challenged me in turn, “And do you really believe that an amoeba jumped out of a puddle of water and eventually became you? Tell me, which do you think takes more faith?” That made me think.

When two famous Christians were involved in a large scandal, I figured this would give me the upper hand with Chris regarding faith issues. With the newspaper article in my hand I said, “Okay, Chris, explain that.” Still, he didn’t waver. He simply said, “Karol, these are just people. People will always fall and make mistakes. Don’t judge Jesus by what people do; judge Jesus by what Jesus did.” That was the last time I challenged him.

In the meantime, I saw an ad in the Boston Globe from a group called Jews for Jesus. They offered a free book called ‘Testimonies’, which I ordered. Some time later, Jews for Jesus sent a letter asking if I wanted further information. I indicated that I would be willing to talk with someone from their organization.

Battle against overeating

Beside my fears I had a serious problem with food. It was an addiction and an obsession. Occasionally I was a borderline anorexic, but usually I was overeating. I knew I couldn’t solve this problem by myself and so I went to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. There I learned that I would never be able to handle my problem by my own strength and willpower and that I had to turn my life over to the care of God, as I understood Him. I asked God for his help and I realized that God could and would restore me completely, if I would turn my will and life over to Him. During one of my daily prayers I felt a tug on my heart, ”What are you going to do about Jesus?” I wondered if the tug was from God. I felt certain that the Jewish God would not want me to believe in Jesus, but I decided to ask Him about it. For three weeks straight, every morning I asked God to show me if Jesus was really the Messiah.

The truth is, I was afraid to believe in Jesus because I knew that if I did, my friends and family would consider me an outsider and a traitor. I was also afraid that I would have to change my political view. But when I weighed my fears against the possibility of having a personal relationship with the God of the universe, what choice did I have? Three weeks later, when I had lunch with Chris, he looked at me and said, “I think you are ready to accept Jesus.” In that moment I knew that I already had.

In the streets of New York City

A week later, a man named Steve from Jews for Jesus called in response to the card I’d sent a few months earlier. Coincidence? Steve and I began to study the Bible together weekly and he was able to help me navigate some of the questions and concerns I had as a Jewish believer in Jesus. Once he invited me to go out evangelizing, I had no desire to do this at all but during a meeting God spoke to my heart. So I ended up in the crowded streets of New York City. I was terrified to approach complete strangers, especially in Times Square at night! I was so full of fear that I preferred to become invisible. A tall, lanky street preacher came and stood a few feet from me. He opened his Bible and began to preach his heart out. As I heard the Scriptures preached, I felt a new joy and boldness. Then I talked with a young Jewish woman, who by the end of our conversation was ready to ask God to give her a new life based on forgiveness through Jesus! At the end of the evening I realized that thanks to Him my fear had gone and that fear has never, ever returned!

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