Susan Perlman is one of the founders of and assistant to the Executive Director of the American Jews for Jesus and oversees the organisation’s multimedia outreach. She is the creator of many of the ministry’s dramatic presentations and is writer and editor of numerous publications and articles. She grew up in a traditional Jewish family, but Susan came to believe in Jesus as her Messiah. This is her story:
I was brought up in a traditional Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. We observed the dietary laws, rested on the Sabbath and celebrated all Jewish holidays. I knew it was good to be Jewish. I didn’t really know the God of the Jews, but that did not seem to be of much significance, until my life took a sad turn.
When I was twelve, my father died of a heart attack. It was very sudden and unexpected and our family was in shock. After the funeral, as is customary in the Orthodox Jewish tradition of mourning, our family spent a week sitting shiva. During this period we were not allowed to leave the apartment and I remember we sat on wooden crates in the living room. Many relatives and friends came to visit us, bringing food and recalling their fondest memories of my dad.
To the rabbi who visited us, I had a pressing question to ask, “Rabbi, is my daddy in heaven?” He paused, not expecting the question, but his smile seemed reassuring. “Susan, your father’s memory will live on in the life you lead. You can be his legacy.” It was a nice thought, but it didn’t satisfy me. “Rabbi,” I went on, “you didn’t answer my question. Is my daddy in heaven now?” He was a little more serious at this point and looked straight into my eyes and said, “I wish I could give you a definite answer, Susan, but I can’t. We don’t know for sure what is beyond the grave. We can only hope and remember, your father was a good man.” This troubled me even more. “How come we ‘can’t know for sure’?” I thought.
One thing I did know at the time was that I was bewildered. I was angry with God, yet paradoxically, I questioned whether or not He was even real. Maybe he only existed in my imagination and in the traditions of our religion. Even the rabbi seemed a little uncertain about it.
Doing things ‘right’
Regardless of whether or not God existed, my positive feelings about my Jewishness remained strong and I would certainly not be anything other than Jewish. I felt Judaism taught people to take responsibility for their own actions. I really worked hard at doing things ‘right’ at least, according to my own perception of ‘rightness.’
After high school I started studying and I saw myself as a cause-motivated, action-oriented independent woman. I participated in marches for peace and I never gave up my efforts to ‘make a difference.’ I tried to be a modern day heroine defending what I felt was basic to human survival. In all this, I was not looking for God—but apparently God was looking for me.
Jews don’t believe in Jesus
One day I met Larry at the corner of a street in Manhattan. He told me that Jesus was the Messiah, that He came to die for the sins of humanity, that He conquered death—and that by accepting His sacrifice I could have my sins forgiven and live for eternity with my Creator. Well, I let Larry know I was Jewish and that Jews don’t believe in Jesus. I figured there might be an awkward moment, maybe even a mumbled apology and then we would talk about something else. Yet Larry continued to talk as if Jesus was still relevant to the discussion.
Then he invited me to a church in New Jersey. I went and was impressed by some of what I saw and heard. The people were young and seemed to have an idealism that was, in some ways, like my own. Of course, they weren’t Jewish, so I was certain that what they believed was not for me—still, I respected them. Larry and I became friends. I found him kind, creative and contemporary in his outlook, even though he had certain standards of morality that one didn’t often come across in the big city. My friendship with Larry, my curiosity and my avid interest in reading were enough to convince me to look into the Bible. That was a life-changing experience.
I took my Jewish Bible and began reading in Genesis. It didn’t take long to discover the fact that God is holy. I could also see that the Bible was not an ordinary book and the God of Abraham and Sarah was no ordinary god. There was something so wonderful and right about God that I could not help being attracted to Him. However, the discovery of God’s holiness had led me to another revelation—I was unholy. My own spiritual need became evident for the first time.
Larry’s words began to make sense. All the good and right things I could do seemed inadequate to bridge the divide between this awesome God and myself. I continued to read the Bible and to discuss these things with the new acquaintances I’d met through Larry.
My awareness of this spiritual need and my findings from the Bible caused me to view the things they said in a different light; I was no longer merely hearing about someone else’s religion. They were talking about things that were of deep interest to me, things that I was seeing in my own Jewish Bible.
A life forever changed
Within days, I went back to the church. I had just been promoted at work, I had the love of my family and friends, a nice place to live and a promising future. I should have been very happy that night, but as I sat in the church service all I could think of was the fact that I was in the midst of holy things and I felt unholy. I knew I didn’t belong—not because I was Jewish but because these people had a relationship with God and I didn’t. I knew that Jesus just might be the promised Messiah and I was frightened.
I left the church building and sat out on the front lawn. It was a summer night and the air was warm. I knew I had a choice to make as I sat cross-legged and looked up at the stars. I told God that I too, wanted to have a relationship with Him. I found myself tearfully confessing to Him right then and there that I believed Jesus was the Messiah. I accepted the fact that He had taken the punishment for my sin.
I told God that I wanted the forgiveness He offered through Jesus and that I wanted to live for Him. He heard my plea and that night He changed my life forever. He gave me the assurance that His promises in the Bible are true and lasting. Now I had a strong basis for my hope, rooted in my Messiah.