As waves of Jewish immigrants flooded into New York at the end of the 19th century, Christian missionaries waited anxiously to tell the impoverished multitudes about Jesus and convert them to Christianity.
One of those missionaries came up with a bright idea. He didn’t ask Jews to convert to Christianity, nor turn away from their people and traditions. He offered them the possibility of preserving their rich Jewish heritage by believing in the Jesus the Messiah. He showed them that faith in Jesus would ensure both salvation and lead to a level of spirituality that would be the envy of Christians and Jews. His idea became the most successful evangelistic strategy for reaching Jewish people with the Gospel in modern times.
Of course, it was a Jew who formulated and practiced this unique mission, which in time became a movement known as “Hebrew Christians,” and later Messianic Judaism.
Itsak Leib Joszovics was born in Hungry in 1862 into a strict Orthodox Jewish family. As a child, when his father passed away, he was sent to a Hassidic yeshiva, a Jewish boarding school, known for its extreme orthodoxy. Schooled under one of Hungary’s most prominent rabbis, Joszovics attained ordination.
As a rabbi, Joszovics fled Hungary after he was charged (he claims falsely) with forging documents assigning himself to ownership of an orphan’s property. He left behind his wife and their four children and landed in New York in 1892 without penny, family or friend. There he met a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who convinced him to convert to Christianity.
Joszovics received a scholarship to a Christian seminary in Edinburg, Scotland, where his wife and children rejoined him, and they, too, converted to Christianity. Upon completion of his studies, the rabbi was ordained as a Baptist minister.
After returning to New York, Joszovics changed his name to Leopold Cohen and founded an organization called Chosen People Ministries. The local Jewish community was outraged by Cohen’s aggressive attempts to convert Jews to Christianity and published stories in the local newspapers about his sordid past.
Notwithstanding, he managed to win the trust of a Baptist Church that provided financial support for him, his family and ministry. Cohen rented a building in Brownsville, a popular neighborhood in Brooklyn where the Jewish immigrants flocked. He opened a clinic and distributed food and second-hand clothing to the needy immigrants. Cohen ran English classes and trained seamstresses for the growing NY garment district, where many Jewish women worked.
Most of the immigrant Jews could not tell the difference between American Orthodox, Conservative or Reformed synagogues, and Cohen’s deep knowledge of the Jewish prayers, culture and traditions turned the mission center into a regular gathering place for Jews on the Sabbath and holidays. His sermons sounded like the rabbinic teachers back in the old country, but also included portions devoted to faith in Jesus. Instead of instructing the congregation to become Christians and abandon their Judaism, Cohen taught that faith in Jesus as Messiah can be a fulfillment of their Jewish identity.
Cohen published many evangelistic books in Yiddish, Hebrew and English, including the first translation of the New Testament into Yiddish published in the US.
While other missionaries saw the Jewish people as traitors to the God of the Bible and inferior to Christians, Cohen emphasized that they are God’s chosen people–thus the name of his mission. Cohen also influenced many of the Christian missions that only Jews who have come to believe in Jesus could be effective witnesses to the Jewish people. Yet the number of Jews who came to faith was still tiny in relation to the amount of resources and efforts that were invested.
Despite the Jewish resistance to his message, Cohen labored to protect the Jews from growing antisemitism in the US that was directed primarily toward the poor Jewish immigrants. He sent letters to education officials in the city pleading with them to remove antisemitic books from the schools curriculum. He also reminded the Christian churches that they have a debt toward the Jewish people, who should be honored as the “Elder Brother.”
Cohen was an avid supporter and sent money to further the causes of Zionism, seeing the return of the Jewish people to Israel as fulfillment of the Messianic redemption.
In 1930, Cohen was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois in recognition of his ministry among the Jewish people. Cohen died in 1937. His son Joseph Cohen spread the mission to reach Jewish people with the Gospel to centers around the world. Today, 120 years after the mission began, there are Chosen People Ministries centers in 16 nations, including Israel, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
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