Stories From the Field: My Visit to a Synagogue

In Blog by Cameron Joyner5 Comments

In light of the recent attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh, I want to share with you a fond memory of a trip my wife and I took to a local synagogue. Sometimes as believers in Jesus we aren’t sure what to do. The Jewish community needs our support right now and along with prayer you can let them know you care by attending a service at your local synagogue. My only request is to call and let them know you’re coming.

One of our core goals at The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry is, “fostering solidarity with the Jewish people.” I love this about our ministry because it is my personal belief that anti-Semitism, which is hatred for the Jewish people, has less room to thrive when strong bridges are built between the Jewish and Christian communities. One of my favorite ways to connect with the Jewish community is by visiting a local synagogue every once in a while to simply get to know our Jewish neighbors. Recently, after calling and asking, my wife Amber and I had the privilege to do just that.  

Stepping into a synagogue for the first time is very much like stepping into a new church for the first time. Upon visiting a new place of worship, some of you may remember the sense of nervousness that can overcome you before arriving. It is likely that the following questions have alarmed you in a similar past experience. Who will I talk to?  Will I be welcomed? Will I know what to do once I am there?  I believe that even the most gregarious of individuals would be likely to ask the aforesaid questions in a similar scenario because it involves participating in one of the most intimate activities known to mankind: corporate worship. It has been said about God that “at the heart of the universe is a relationship.”1 Indeed, “as Trinity, God always already possesses the fullness of charity in Himself—difference and regard, feasting and fellowship, perfect delight and perfect rest—and has no need of any external pathos to awaken or fecundate His love. We are not necessary to Him: He is not nourished by our sacrifices or ennobled by our virtues, any more than He is diminished by our sins and sufferings.”2 In other words, God eternally possesses perfect fellowship within Himself, within the Godhead. I believe this further informs what it means to be made in the image of this same God, the God of Israel, as we were made for experiencing worship together before Him. So, it seems only natural that experiencing this in a totally different and new environment would bring about a bit of apprehension.  

Upon entering this particular synagogue, however, Amber and I realized that all of our nervousness had been in vain, as we were very warmly welcomed. I had the privilege of donning a prayer shawl, as is the custom for Shabbat in many synagogues, and the congregation’s rabbi complimented my kippah, or yarmulke, that I received from the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem years ago. Before we knew it, our chubby-cheeked, 11-month-old daughter was an instant hit as a sweet couple sat down beside us so that they could “be near the baby.” The rabbi was very friendly in taking time to get to know my wife and me, while also pointing out the various activities available throughout the day.  

One of my favorite ways to connect with the Jewish community is by visiting a local synagogue every once in a while to simply get to know our Jewish neighbors.

It was Amber’s first time getting to witness the sheer zeal and passion with which the Jewish people worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; therefore, that alone was one of the highlights of the occasion for me. However, other things happened that would ultimately surpass my expectations as to how the day would progress.

First, I was surprised to hear the rabbi mention Jesus as he addressed the congregation.  It has been my experience in the Jewish community that it is commendable to respect other people’s beliefs; however, the occasion being presently discussed is not normally where the figurehead of another faith background would be mentioned.

Allow me to share some context here. The rabbi was drawing a very interesting parallel between the system of checks and balances found in the American government to instances of checks and balances found in the theocracy of ancient Israel from the Hebrew Scriptures. Many of you will recall that Moses is an example of a prophet who was kept in check by God. Another scenario mentioned was the one concerning Nathan and David, this time an example of a prophet keeping a king in check. Then, lastly, it was mentioned that Jewish prophets and rabbis, “even Jesus, famously railed against the corrupt priestly class at the Temple who wanted to keep their cash cow going; what followed was an upsetting of the apple cart.” While this caught me by surprise, I was later surprised to hear again from the rabbi—although he disagrees with me about Jesus being the Messiah—that Jesus is recognized by many in modern Judaism as a law-abiding Jewish rabbi.  

Another surprise for the day was that Amber and I were privileged with the opportunity to stay for Kiddush, which in this case is a Shabbat lunch reception. We were invited by our new friends who had originally sat down beside us and they graciously offered to walk our baby girl around meeting other members of the congregation so that my wife could fix her plate. The rabbi came and joined us, and I had the privilege to share the ministry of The Friends of Israel with him. He was surprisingly well-informed concerning Replacement Theology in the church, and he cited the anti-Semitic comments made by Martin Luther so many years ago as part of his understanding of anti-Semitism in the church. In case you are not aware, tragically, Luther said this about the Jewish people:

Their synagogues should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it.. their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed…they should be deprived of their prayer-books and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught… their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more….To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden—the Jews.3 

 It was my privilege to share with him and everyone at the table that we teach against Replacement Theology and that Luther’s statements have nothing to do with what it means to be a true Christian. We discussed the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and parts of America today. One gentleman sitting with us added that “there was definitely an undercurrent of anti-Semitism that could be felt” when he first moved to the area. The rabbi also reluctantly admitted that the term “Christ-killer” is still in use today. I responded that, “theologically, we believe Jesus the Messiah died for our sins—which means that since I am a sinner, I am just as much responsible for His death as anyone.” I continued, “it has never made sense to me that sinful people, who call themselves Christians, would point the finger at someone who was never even there that day outside of Jerusalem and refer to that person as a Christ-killer.” I sensed that my views were appreciated, and I very much appreciated the honesty of those around me who shared their views.

Before Kiddush concluded, we talked at length about the land of Israel and the blessing it is to visit there. I have since stayed in touch with the rabbi and look forward to seeing our friendship grow as we search for ways to be a blessing to each other and our respective communities. While I am certainly not encouraging Christians to set aside firmly held convictions concerning the truth that Jesus is our risen Messiah and Savior, I want to close by encouraging Christians to take every opportunity to let the Jewish community know how much we love them.

  1. L.I. Granberg and J.R. Root, “Marriage, Theology of,” in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 743.
  2. David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 2005), 77.
  3. Martin Luther, “On The Jews and Their Lies,” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 47, trans. Martin H. Bertram (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).

About the Author
Cameron Joyner

Cameron Joyner

Cameron Joyner and his wife, Amber, are Church Ministry Representatives with The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry in Atlanta, GA. If you would like to learn more or partner with Cameron’s ministry, you can contact him at cjoyner@foi.org or call our headquarters at 800-257-7843 and speak with someone in North American Ministries. You can also support their ministry online here.

Comments 5

  1. Dear Cameron & Amber,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences in visiting the synagogue and all of your thoughtful comments. I have never attended a sabbath at a synagogue, but I hope to some day. Christians owe a debt to the Hebrews in that Christ was a Hebrew and He is the one that sacrificed His life, so that we may live with Him throughout eternity. There is no forgiveness of sins without Him. I know my Jewish brothers do not believe that Jesus is Messiah, but I believe if we really care about them, and live a Christ-like life before them, our Heavenly Father and Holy Spirit may draw them to the Savior. Jesus said, “all who come to me I will no wise cast out”. Salvation is for everyone who wants Christ to be Lord and Savior. “To the Jew first, and then to the Greek”. And, “all those who bless you, I will bless, and those who curse you, I will curse. Let us be a blessing to the Jewish people. In Christ, Gary

  2. That was a wonderful example of love and freindship to our Jewish people – thank you – because of Him.

  3. Thank you for sharing. About 10 years ago I was taking an FOI online course in Judaism. My intent was to learn more about the Jewishness of Jesus, & the cultural contexts of the Old & New Testaments. Among the suggested exercises was to visit a synagogue. So I dropped a dime on the local rabbi, explained I was a Christian pastor, & desired to meet with him. He invited me to their Saturday morning Shabbat service. As it turns out there were only 3 of us … “A rabbi, a pastor, & an old man walk into a synagogue …” It wasn’t the beginning of a joke, it actually happened that way. In any case, this was the beginning of a wonderful relationship I shared with the rabbi. He is quite a bit younger than I, has little kids whereas I have little grandkids. We sat together in his office a few times enjoying coffee & conversation. Through his unbelieving eyes, I have learned so much about my Savior, & have gleaned a very fresh understanding of Scripture. Among other things, he invited me to attend Rosh Hashanna services a few years ago, which I embraced. It was very liturgical, more than I expected, & much of it was in Hebrew, but I could follow the drift fairly well. There were about 40 men and a dozen women, separated by a partition. When I realized we had spent basically 3 hours a day for 3 days in deep liturgy, without so much as a bathroom break, I gained a real insight into Paul preaching for 3 hours at a shot (Acts 20:9). What was deeply disturbing to me was the zeal the rabbi & his congregants have for the God of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob, but as Paul says, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Romans 10:2-4. They invited me to the Yom Kippur service a few days after, but I attended Yom Kippur service with a Messianic friend at his congregation. Amazing difference to enjoy Jesus in the midst of the worship, & to see how He brings fullness to all of God’s feasts prescribed for Israel. We recently moved across the country, so I can no longer enjoy a closeness to the rabbi or his wonderful congregation. I’m hopeful that my rabbi friend will some day accept Messiah Jesus, & we can enjoy coffee together on the other side of Glory. I started the journey to learn more about the Jewishness of Christ Jesus & Scripture, but along the way developed a real heart for Israel & the salvation of the Jews. Shalom.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I have a friend non-orthodox, whose son is a rabbi in Plano, Texas. He told me, the timing wasn’t right for Jesus to be Messiah, but that Christianity was the best thing that ever happened to the world. I was astounded, somehow the conversation got ended there and we have not had an opportunity to speak again. I would very much like to visit a synagogue and meet more Jewish people, since my friend doesn’t attend.

  5. I never did get the chance to thank you for your encouraging comment! It took long enough, and for that I do apologize. God bless!

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