Benyamin Cohen connected to his Judaism through Christianity

By  Dave Gordon, Catholic Register Special
  • April 15, 2009
{mosimage}Why is an Orthodox Jewish man, son of a rabbi, going to church every Sunday?
In My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, Benyamin Cohen chronicles adventures and lessons learned while attending church services for a year. He talks of how his faith in Judaism was renewed from his Christian experiences. The story was made all the more fascinating as his wife, the daughter of a Baptist minister, had just finished converting to Judaism when he embarked on his year-long journey to explore what churches of various denominations offered.
The Atlanta native said that in his neighbourhood there was a church on just about every street corner. 
“And so I look across the street at the church and I see everyone, all the children look like they’re having fun,” said Cohen in an interview. “The parking lots are full every Sunday. I was really curious — what are they doing in there that’s so exciting? And what could I learn from them to enhance my own religion? I know it kind of seems like an odd way to connect with my own Judaism, but for me I felt that it was something necessary to do.”
{sa 0061245178}He figured if he was going to try Christianity, he’d jump in deep: first, he attended a Baptist megachurch. Among 15,000 African-Americans at this service, he ends up seeing “my Jewish face 20 feet tall on Jesus Jumbotron.”
“I thought church was going to be easier than synagogue, but to my surprise the service lasted more than four hours… It was a lot of singing and a lot of dancing,” he said, “I felt like I was at a concert… It was almost like being in a Hollywood version of a house of worship. It was very surreal.”
Indeed, most of his adventures border on hokey, kitschy and out of the ordinary. To name a few: 

  • Attending an Ultimate Christian Wrestling Match. 

  • Going to a sunrise Easter service at Stone Mountain, a theme park memorializing the confederacy. 

  • Attending a Pentecostal “signs, wonders and miracles” service with his wife’s Christian grandmother, during which people speak in tongues.
Cohen, the former editor of (geared edgily for Generation Y), offers the same kind of pop culture and wacky-factor in his book — more quirky science experiment than journalistic observation or even spiritual journey. Most of the narrative was built around punchlines, with a primary instinct to mock — not taking seriously religious ceremonies that are taken seriously by others. And so naturally, not everyone attends “wacky” churches.  
Though he was open about being a visitor, and a Jew, discomfiting was a certain deception, when passing as a Catholic in order to attend Confession, where he receives advice about attaining spiritual uplift during prayer. 
Luckily for the reader, there are interspersed moments of clarity — one of which was a sobering understanding of how today, in fact, we are religiously free to worship as we please, as wacky as we please, though it wasn’t always that way.
“Catholicism and Judaism have much in common,” he writes. Both were immigrant groups who made their way en masse to North American shores, fleeing persecution. “Once here, one type of persecution was replaced with another, as we were both discriminated against by mainstream Protestants.”
Even though the book (and its cover) were clearly meant to induce giddiness, there are gleams of insight, earnest pearls of wisdom.
Going to a year’s worth of church services taught him a greater appreciation of the benefits and difficulties of being Jewish. 
“I realized, number one, that the grass is not greener at the church across the street. You know that old parable — people always wish that they had someone else’s problems and not their own problems, and if they saw what the other person’s problems were, they’d realize that they’re perfectly fine with keeping the problems they already have. I realized that the churches aren’t perfect either. They have their own challenges,” he said.
Cohen continued with daily Jewish practices even during his exploration of Christianity. He said the journey helped him complete his goal of finding spiritual satisfaction. 
“Hanging out with these truly religious people, who live truly Christian lives and are God-fearing people, it was inspiring to me to be in their company, get a fresh perspective on religion and bring it back to my religion.”
(Gordon is a Toronto freelance writer.)

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