My Jesus Year


Originally published April 20, 2010

BENYAMIN COHEN (Author of “My Jesus Year”): I grew up in the heart of the Bible belt in Atlanta, Georgia, one of eight children, the son of an Orthodox rabbi. I’m the only one that didn’t go into the family business. They are all rabbis or married rabbis.

I was always jealous. I grew up across the street from a Methodist church, and literally my bedroom window looked out at the church parking lot, and every Sunday morning I would see it was packed, and living in the Bible belt there are churches on every street corner, and their parking lots are full every week. Maybe I could go to church—not to convert to Christianity. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to go to find out what got people excited about worship, what got people excited about their religion. Maybe I could go and tap into that spirituality and find out the secret that I was never taught growing up, and maybe I could bring that back and apply it to my own Judaism.

Here’s one thing that I learned. I haven’t even walked into a church, and here’s already one thing I could write down and tell my rabbi—first-time visitor parking. I’m not talking about bringing Jesus into the synagogue. It wouldn’t hurt, it wouldn’t kill you to put a little first-time visitor parking sign in the parking lot.

I didn’t know going to church that they talk about the Old Testament. I assumed Jews have the Old Testament and Christians have the New Testament. I didn’t realize they have both, and this pastor got up and started giving an Old Testament sermon, and the way he was describing his interpretation was completely antithetical to what I had learned growing up. What came out of that moment was that I didn’t realize I cared so much about my own Bible.

At this Episcopal church they had a ritualistic service every week, and they had these nice traditions, and I was like that’s such a nice, sweet thing to have traditions and ancient rituals. I was like that sounds familiar. We have that in synagogue, and it kind of made me look at my own rituals with a new, fresh perspective.

Orthodox Jewry and Mormonism have a lot in common. We are both minorities in America. We both have special dietary—they can’t drink caffeine, and we have to keep kosher. They wear special undergarments, we wear special undergarments. There’s a lot of laws that dictate all their lives, and so for me I felt a real kinship with the Mormon community, and I went knocking door to door with these two female Mormon missionaries, and their conviction, these are girls 19- and 20-years-old, and their conviction for their religion was just awe-inspiring to me. I’m sure the woman whose house we were visiting, I’m sure she’s wondering why the Mormons brought their accountant with them. You know, what is he doing here?

I was feeling guilty at the end of the year that I kind of strayed from my own religion, and so I wanted to cleanse myself of that guilt, so I did what any good Jewish boy does, and that’s go to confession. I asked my Catholic friend, Vince, if I could do this, and he said, “No, only Catholics can go to confession, but I will sneak you in.” It was a very meaningful spiritual experience, and an interesting postscript to that whole episode is that the priest, now that the book has come out, the priest actually knows that I went to confession with him, and he called me and thanked me. He is so happy that I had a meaningful experience with him.

I for one feel a lot closer to a religious Christian than I do a non-religious Jew, because we have so much in common. People ask me if I found Jesus in church, and I personally did not, so to speak, find Jesus, but what I did find was true spirituality. That’s what I found in these places: the lack of cynicism, the openness to the experience, and the belief in God, whoever that God may be.

  • Brittanie

    I’m a Mormon and my younger brother and sister are both on missions right now. They amaze me at the conviction of their testimonies sometimes. I don’t think my conviction is any less, but their is just….brighter…if that makes any sense.

    Anyway, I’m glad that you were able to find something worthwhile in your search. I have some Jewish friends, and there is a lot that we have in common. I try to look at the ways we are similar rather than the ways we are different. After all, one of the tenets of my faith is that we are all children of the same God.

  • Chris

    What a fantastic journey to make, especially in this time when religious divides are splitting our country. I am going to purchase this book for my own family, since that is a tenet in this house–we honor all expressions of spirituality that come from a place of loving our neighbors. I was lucky enough to be raised in a Roman Catholic household with parents who believed in allowing us to explore other religious practices growing up, and that has greatly influenced my spirituality decades later. Kudos to Mr. Cohen!

  • roslyn bradford

    good article. Did you have a chance to visit a predominantly African-American christian church? Just curious.

  • John Stephen Dwyer

    I appreciate Ben Cohen’s interest in Christianity as it’s practiced in the US and the conclusions he draws seem like good ones. However, I’m disappointed that Cohen’s appreciation for Christian traditions doesn’t necessarily translate into respect for them. I’m referring to his willingness to “sneak” into Confession (even though the confessor later expressed no problem with it). Here’s Cohen, under the roof of a Catholic Church, deliberating violating the rules in place about one of the Sacraments (yes, with capitol S”) that are at the core of Catholic spirituality. That’s grossly disrespectful. I doubt Cohen and his family would applaud anyone’s entrance into a synagogue for the deliberate purpose of violating a rule, law or custom that Jews hold as important.

  • Sybil Reisch

    Being a Lutheran Christian, I too, have gained a stronger faith knowing the Old Testament stories, and having attended a Hebrew service plus a Bar Mitzvah. We have those God Stories in common!

  • Maureen

    A most interesting article. Perhaps if we all took a visit to a synagogue, church, temple, we’d find that we are not that different! At the same time embrace the differences and celebrate both instances…

  • Charles T

    As a Catholic of Syrian-Lebanese heritage….I’d love to meet and talk with you. I respected your story..and am very impressed.

  • Roxana

    I can totally relate to this experience. I am a practicing Catholic, and I have a profound respect for all people of faith. I remember reading Malcolm X in high school and being so touched when he describes his trip to Mecca. That’s exactly right, we need not convert to another faith if we are deeply rooted in our own but we can gain appereciation and deepen our own spirituality by dialoguing with people from other faiths. Great piece!

  • Eileen

    Dear Benyamin,

    I saw your article on Facebook and had to comment. First, welcome to the world of Christianity.

    Second, I am a Jew who accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour (you know, the Messiah) in 1973. Well, in people years that’s a long time ago – almost 38. I was 23 and now I am 61. My grandfather was a rabbi in Poland and then in Israel and both my mother and my father suffered through Hitler’s reign before and during WWII. My father was in two concentration camps and I lost many relatives in death marches. So, all that to say I am a bona fide Jew.

    For many years I was a strict follower of Jesus, in a fundamentalist Protestant church with few other Jews. Oh, by the way, we call it being a “fulfilled” Jew, not a “converted” Jew. I raised my four children that way and they all believe in their Jewish lineage. I am not as strict any more, but still a believer. Understanding that Jesus is the Messiah enhances my Judaism.

    Best regards,

  • Florence Dob ies

    Very interesting article. Where can I buy the book.

  • Larry

    I appreciated your willingness to be exposed to the church. I thought that the book by Jacobs, “The Year of Living Biblically,” (trying to follow now all Old Testament laws and ordinances) while very funny, and thought-provoking, bailed out somewhat when trying to deal with a New Testament “lifestyle”. Perhaps because Jesus did, after all, boil down the commandments to two, and church was multi-cultural..

  • Alice C. Linsley

    Whoever that God may be?

    Are you sure he spent a year with Christians? Christians know who our God is. We refer to Him as Christ our God… as in the ancient liturgies and prayers. He was revealed as the unigenetic Son of God at his baptism at Nimrah by John the Baptist. That is when the holy Trinity was made manifest also.