God in the Life Of the Revd Joseph Steinberg

THE REVD Joseph Steinberg is a Jewish man who talks here about how recognising Jesus as the Messiah influenced his life and career.

The Revd Joseph Steinberg. Photo: Jo Duckles

Joseph has been living in the UK for 30 years but grew up in a Reformed Jewish family in North America. His great-grandparents moved to the US in the late 1800s as refugees from Russia who passed through Uzbekistan and Turkey.

Born in Miami, Joseph grew up in Richmond, Virginia, an area with 10,000 Jewish people and three synagogues.

“We were reformed Jews which meant we had a strong cultural identity but weren’t religious. We would go to the synagogue on high holy days and celebrate the Jewish festivals, but in an area that was mainly Christian, our main identity was equally rooted in being against Jesus. He was someone I despised even from a young age, because for 2,000 years our people have been killed in his name. I thought he was the antithesis of what I aspired to be.”

When Joseph was 13, Bar Mitzvah age for a Jewish person, he met a 15-year-old Christian named Mark “My father was working in our front garden. Mark tried to share the Gospel with him and my father threw him out of the yard.”

Not to be deterred, Mark returned to the house a week later with evangelistic pamphlets, to be met with a similar response when Joseph’s mother answered the door.

It was in the summer holidays that the bored teenage Joseph agreed to play basketball with Mark.

“After about three minutes, as he held onto the ball, he told me he had moved to the area two years earlier. His parents had divorced. He was unhappy and had got into some trouble. Then, about a year later, he had come to Christ through a television evangelist and since then couldn’t help but tell everyone about how Jesus had changed his life,” says Joseph.

Mark challenged Joseph to read the Bible to discover what God expected from him as a Jewish person so Joseph got hold of his father’s Tanakh (Old Testament) and read it every day for a year. Challenged by the Scriptures, Joseph kept asking Mark questions. He would quiz his parents too, but their answers were often non-committal.“ I was reading and the Scriptures were affecting change in my heart,” says Joseph. “I became envious of Mark’s faith but I had been brought up to believe that you couldn’t be Jewish and believe in Jesus.”

But after a year of daily Bible reading, Joseph came across Jeremiah chapter 31, verses 31-37 where the prophet says God will make a New Covenant with the Jewish people, giving them a new spirit and a new heart. This drove Joseph to want to discover more about Jesus so he dusted off the Gideons’ New Testament he was given at school.

Joseph devoured the Gospel of Matthew in three afternoons. “I was amazed by Jesus. If God were to become a man he would do the things that Jesus did.” He was inspired by the way Jesus performed his healing miracles, often touching those who were the untouchables. “I remembered that the book of Leviticus states a leper is ‘unclean’ and should live alienated and alone so as not to contaminate anyone. But Jesus touched the leper and instead of being made unclean, the leper was made whole!” The way Jesus performed these miracles changed the way Joseph saw him.

The turning point came as Joseph began to see Jesus’ death differently. “I had thought of him as weak, but I could see in the gospel that this wasn’t true. He was giving his life up on purpose, with dsetermination. I began to see how his life matched up with the Old Testament prophecies. Here was a Jewish man who seemed to fulfil Jewish prophecies…and yet I was afraid to follow him because I knew my family would be devastated.”

Despite his fear, at the age of 14, Joseph accepted Jesus as his Messiah. “I went from despising Jesus to loving him, despite the fact that all my life I’d been told he wasn’t for me because I was Jewish. Strangely, it only took me a few days to find out there were actually other Jews who also believe in Jesus,” he says.

For six months Joseph was terrified of telling his parents. This was Bible belt America where everyone was expected to turn up at church in their Sunday best. “I couldn’t just don a suit and go off to church on a Sunday,” says Joseph. He knew he had to say something about his faith.

After an initial attempt to tell his mum left him tongue tied, Joseph finally managed to break the news during a regular Friday night family trip to a pizza restaurant. “We got into a religious conversation, which we didn’t do very often. I said that if Christians believe in Jesus, then I guess that makes me a Christian. The way I phrased it was wrong and what my father heard me saying was that I had gone to the other side. I just didn’t want to deny Jesus. My father gave me a terribly pained look and I just went out into the cold and cried.”

For the next six years, Joseph says his relationship with his father was all but dead. At age 17 he moved in with a Christian family. Soon after, he felt called to mission and joined a Jews for Jesus music evangelism group called the Liberated Wailing Wall.

“There were seven of us performing evangelistic concerts worldwide. It was the beginning of my ministry. I have always seen myself as a missionary,” he says.

After completing a course in missions and Jewish studies in Chicago, Joseph came to the UK and worked as a missionary for Christian Witness to Israel before he was called to Anglican Ministry. After theological training at Trinity College in Bristol, Joseph moved to Chigwell and was ordained. He worked in the Church of England for a decade before another stint working for Jews for Jesus. Eventually he became Director of Mission Stewardship for the Church Mission Society. Then three and a half years ago, the opportunity arose for him to take on his current role as CEO of Christian Witness to Israel (CWI), a 175-year-old mission to Jewish people.

“Going back into Jewish mission was a Jonah experience for me, where I wanted to run the other way because Jewish mission is tough.”

Joseph is married to Naomi, who is also a Jewish believer in Jesus, and he has three grown-up children. He lives in Witney and works in Eynsham. If you are interested why not find out more by contacting CWI on 01865 887831 or emailing info@cwi.org.uk.

As told to Jo Duckles.