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Christians Take On Jewish Identity

September 26, 1998

DALLAS (AP) _ Menachem Brakefield arrives home sweating after walking the mile from Friday evening prayers in his heavy black wool suit and hat.

``Shalom, mazel tov! Man, it’s hot!″ exclaims the burly 48-year-old printing company salesman as he mops his forehead and greets family and friends who have arrived for the Sabbath meal.

Devora Brakefield, 49, and friend Hannah Skinner, 53, have prepared a kosher feast and lit the Sabbath candles. Everyone crowds around the small dining room table for several prayers before diving into the chicken, green beans, carrot-raisin salad and new potatoes.

As they celebrate the Sabbath according to Orthodox Jewish dictates, they cannot help reflecting on their path to this spiritual point: Menachem and Devora were born Scott and Debe (pronounced like Debbie) and were churchgoing Southern Baptists. Hannah, formerly Nancy, was a Disciple of Christ.

The three struggled separately for years to reconcile childhood beliefs with adult experiences. Eventually, inspired by a traveling, Bible-quoting, Orthodox rabbi from New York, the three formally converted in February and took on Hebrew names to symbolize their adoption of new, Jewish identities.

Beginning at sunset Tuesday, they will observe their first Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, which is marked with fasting and prayers.

It was a leap of faith a long time coming.

___

Devora, a former public school librarian, remembers struggling with certain aspects of her stable, loving family’s Southern Baptist faith, which taught that the Bible was the unerring word of God.

She had trouble reconciling the Christian belief in one God with the teaching that Jesus was the Son of God.

``Is Jesus the Messiah? Is he the son of God?″ Devora remembers asking herself. ``Is he a deity? I grew up thinking he was equal to God, therefore that would make him God.″ And that would make two gods, she thought.

Still, Devora stuck to the Baptist path her family expected. At 21, after graduating from Baylor University, she married a ministry student. The wedding was at First Baptist Church of Dallas, where her father and brother still are deacons.

Devora had two daughters, but by 1980, under circumstances she won’t discuss, she was divorced. She married again, briefly, but divorced again two years before meeting Menachem Brakefield in the singles Sunday school class at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.

Menachem had overcome his own obstacles: a mother who died when he was 10, a violent father. He started working at a young age, married and divorced twice and was raising two school-age sons and an 18-year-old daughter when he met the brown-eyed, soft-spoken Devora.

``What partially brought us together was our search″ for spiritual answers, Devora recalls. After dating for two years, they married in 1990 in a small Baptist wedding.

One day when Menachem and Devora were watching TV, they saw a man wearing a skullcap preaching about the Old Testament. He was Joseph Good, leader of a Beaumont congregation practicing what is variously called Messianic Judaism or Messianic Christianity. Adherents believe that Jesus, whom they call Yeshua, is the Messiah whose death made humanity’s salvation possible after the sins of Adam and Eve. (Jews do not believe Jesus is the Messiah or consider the New Testament part of the Bible.)

But Messianic believers also follow some Jewish dietary laws, do not observe Christmas or Easter, and worship on Saturday, the traditional Jewish sabbath. This signifies their belief that Jesus did not come to establish a new religion, but to ``fulfill″ an ancient one: Judaism.

Menachem was so fascinated that in the fall of 1990 he attended a conference sponsored by Good. There, he met Hannah Skinner.

___

Hannah, a 43-year-old former schoolteacher and mother of two from East Texas, had sampled several Protestant denominations before she saw Good on TV. He was talking about how Jesus fulfilled the Jewish festivals described in the Old Testament. She was bowled over.

``It was like, ‘Oh, this is what I missed.’ ... It was not just emotion. I could see where it was pulling the Old Testament and the New Testament together,″ she says.

After the conference, Hannah went home and started a Messianic congregation. For several years, Menachem and Devora drove the 90 miles from Dallas every Friday to join the group of 25 to 30 people. They began avoiding pork and shellfish as prescribed by Jewish law and started reducing the emphasis on Jesus in their worship and their daily lives.

Over time, Hannah began to read books by Jewish authors that raised questions about Jesus’ divinity.

Recalling one book, she says, ``As I read each chapter, I realized that Judaism and Christianity were not at all alike on faith, on the law. Jews enrapture the law _ they hug it. They kiss it every Sabbath. Christianity says you don’t want to be under the law.″

As she approached her spiritual turning point, she says, ``I was scared.″

___

Rabbi Tovia Singer never set out to convert Christians to Orthodox Judaism. The affable, 38-year-old rabbi’s son had a simpler purpose: to recapture Jewish college students attracted to Christian campus groups. He founded a group called Outreach Judaism in Monsey, N.Y.

Singer interprets various Old Testament passages through a Jewish lens, including some interpreted by Christians to be prophecies or other evidence of Jesus’ existence. He also compares New Testament passages side by side and points out seeming discrepancies.

Singer says Christians often are drawn to his message with hopes of refuting it. Some then ``want to explore Judaism for themselves.″

Enough interest has bloomed in the Bible Belt that Singer has established a branch office of Outreach Judaism in Arlington, Texas.

Phil Roberts, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s evangelization efforts among Jews, says Christians who convert to Judaism apparently were not really committed to Christ in the first place.

``If somebody does what these people have done, it shows their profession (of faith) is not as genuine as they had thought,″ he says.

Singer met the Brakefields and Hannah Skinner in 1996 after they had listened repeatedly to tapes he had made.

One weekend, Singer came to Dallas and took them and several other families through a Friday night Sabbath dinner and Saturday of learning, study and prayer.

``That was like the beginning of (conversion) for us,″ Devora says. Only one question remained: ``How do we do this?″

___

Singer advised the Brakefields to sign up for a class in Torah, Judaism’s holy scriptures, at the Dallas Area Torah Association, a private Orthodox Jewish institute.

``We were afraid to go because we didn’t know anybody,″ Devora says.

But for nearly a year, they attended the class every Tuesday night. In February 1997, Hannah moved in with the Brakefields, her marriage of 29 years having broken up over her desire to convert. That summer, the three moved into a crowded but comfortable three-bedroom apartment in a complex where several other Orthodox families lived, within walking distance of Congregation Shaare-Tefilla.

They stepped up their adherence to Jewish law, and their dedication won the admiration of Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried, dean of the Torah institute.

``We’re not in the conversion business,″ he says, but added he decided to help the Brakefields and Ms. Skinner because Singer referred them and Fried saw the seriousness of their studies and observance.

``I saw their conviction from the beginning,″ Fried says.

___

On a chilly day in February of this year, Devora, Menachem and Hannah immersed themselves in turn in the mikveh, the ritual bath of cleansing and renewal. Menachem underwent a ritual circumcision, which in his case meant only a pinprick to draw blood. They affirmed their faith in Judaism and promised to abide by its laws.

For their extended families the conversions have made relations more complex, but most say they are supportive.

Says Hannah’s daughter Kristin Skinner, 25, a Denver telecommunications analyst: ``She’s happier than I’ve seen her in years.″

Devora’s parents say they worry about her soul and also wish family get-togethers could be as easy as they once were.

Menachem’s daughter Cassie Mullens, 28, notes she and her two brothers see less of him now that driving on Saturday, Christmas celebrations and church events are no longer options. But she adds that her father does seem changed: less temperamental, more patient, seemingly more at peace.

``If this is what makes him happy,″ she says, ``this is what we want for him. This is probably what he needs.″

Devora and Menachem were remarried in February under the traditional chuppa, or canopy. The home wedding was complete with more than a hundred Orthodox guests, men in black hats and women in long skirts, folk dancing and a honeymoon trip to Israel donated by the congregation.

``You’ve learned so much, but at the same time, you also taught us so much,″ Fried told the bride and groom. ``In certain ways, we have so much to learn from you.″

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