"Cancer didn't kick me and I didn't kick the bucket"—a blog entry, September 10, 2009. Moishe Rosen died May 19 in San Francisco of prostate cancer at 78, leaving behind a wife, two daughters, a controversial parachurch organization, and more than a bucketful of quips.

As the founder of Jews for Jesus, Rosen was the most colorful Jewish evangelist of the twentieth century—perhaps since the apostle Paul. Even before he founded Jews for Jesus in 1969, he demonstrated his own unique form of confrontational evangelism that often riled Christians and Jews alike. "Friendship evangelism," he once said, "is no evangelism at all."

Born in 1932, Rosen grew up in an Orthodox—though not particularly religious—home: "My Jewishness is something that I took for granted. I grew up in Denver, Colorado, in a neighborhood where most of the people were Jewish. If you walked into the grocery store, or the shoemaker, or the barber, you expected to hear Yiddish."

He and Ceil Starr, still teenagers, married in an Orthodox synagogue but were determined that they would not keep a kosher home. They would be "modern American Jews." But through an extraordinary set of circumstances, they both became Christians some three years later. Ceil converted after befriending a Christian woman; Rosen was not pleased and began studying the New Testament in order to prove her wrong—a process that led to his own conversion. He later enrolled at Northeastern Bible College in New Jersey and would go on to become an ordained Baptist minister, though he quickly discovered he was not by nature an evangelist.

Rosen's first street-preaching assignment was on an isolated traffic island: "I had written my speech on school notebook paper, and I read it as though I were delivering a proclamation. Nobody at all walked by in the 45 minutes we were out there, and I was relieved when it was over. I thanked God for our lack of listeners."

By the time Rosen was in his thirties, however, he in New York City, working as an administrator for the American Board of Missions to the Jews (now Chosen People Ministries), where he was, by his own account, shielded by a secretary and two assistants. He was an effective trainer and had turned into a popular speaker, but he did not get down-and-dirty in the trenches of Jewish evangelism.

Sprinkling his messages with wisecracks, Rosen sometimes repeated Ronald Reagan's quip: "A hippie dresses like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah." On one occasion, a friend confronted him: had Rosen ever smelled a hippie? Rosen snapped back that he had never gotten close enough to smell one.

Article continues below

But the words stuck in his mouth. Rosen instantly recognized the self-indictment. Large numbers of hippies, after all, were Jewish. That incident was the turning point in his ministry. He began spending time in Greenwich Village and wrote the first of his tracts ("broadsides"), a crude cartoon message entitled "A Message From Squares." It was hardly a typical tract: "Hey you with the beard on your face!" "We think you are beautiful." "God likes beards too."

Soon Rosen was heavily involved in youth-focused street evangelism—the precursor of Jews for Jesus, a movement that some years later found itself headquartered at the center of the hippie ferment, the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. Quick to poke fun at himself and the incongruity of his ministry, Rosen often quipped: "I'm overweight, overbearing, and over 40. What am I doing leading a youth movement?"

Rosen had become convinced that Jewish mission endeavors were failing. They were adrift. Organizations sponsored city missions, educational ministries, and youth camps, but had few lasting conversions to show for all their efforts. Earlier Jewish mission outreach in the 19th and early 20th centuries had recorded large numbers of baptisms. But with the horrific revelations of the Nazi Holocaust, support for Jewish evangelism declined and there was hesitation to confront Jews forcefully with the message of Jesus.

In recent decades, Jewish missions have transitioned into Messianic Jewish ministries that emphasize Jewish forms and culture—more Jewish in their rituals, according to Rosen, than are practicing Jews themselves. He criticized the concept of the Messianic rabbi: "The use of this term is like a diploma-mill doctorate, an undeserved honor, which they arrogate to themselves. It is designed to mislead people."

Rosen was determined to defy the softer approach to Jewish evangelism. To his critics who scorned the name Jews for Jesus and the high-stakes pursuit of Jewish youth, he had a quick comeback: "If the Jews didn't need Jesus, why didn't he come by way of Ireland?"

Who really was this rotund minister whom I introduced several years ago in a seminary chapel service as "the only Jewish Buddha" I had ever known? Rosen was a man of ambiguity and paradox and legendary contradictions. He liked to tell the story that before going off to Bible college, his father insisted he see a psychiatrist—fearing he might have gone over the edge in his zeal for Jesus. Rosen insisted he was not offended: "I thought there was always the possibility that I might really be insane." After two sessions, the doctor sent Rosen's father a letter stating Rosen had been examined and "found to be psychiatrically normal." That has been his ace in the hole: "So no matter what anyone says about my mental stability these days, I at least have a letter to prove it. Most people don't."

Article continues below

In a 2009 blog entry entitled "35 Things About Me," Rosen wrote: "I want to be a godly person … . I've tried to be godly, but I know too much about my failures." Whether failures or not, he admitted his fondness for "seeing pretty girls of all ages." He allegedly said to a group of single male staff members: "There are three good reasons why you should get married; the first is sex. The second is sex. The third is sex." Perhaps more than girls, though, he confessed, "I love to eat," but "I don't like being fat."

He did not reference in his 35 things about himself—or among his failures—his notorious temper. On more than one occasion, during staff meetings he would throw things in a fit of rage across the room—once, according to testimony, ripping a phone out of the outlet and throwing it "through a plate glass window." Such incidents were presumably not premeditated. But "pain training" was another matter altogether. To prepare those going out into the streets to evangelize, he maintained they must be toughened up—ready and willing to stand up to opposition. Thus his slapping and hitting them—sometimes knocking them to the floor—to prepare them for persecution. The board of directors soon put an end to this treatment.

Because of such practices and a host of rigid rules, many staff members throughout the years left the movement. Some of the online testimonies are poignant. Jo Ann Schneider Farris sought unsuccessfully to make amends and bring about a resolution. "I didn't want Moishe Rosen to leave this planet being hated," she wrote. "Somehow, I believed things could be made right and everyone could hug and make up." But she found the chasm too wide to bridge.

According to one estimate, "Half of the missionaries who leave Jews for Jesus leave 'badly.'" Even if that figure is inflated, the painful stories of many who have left should not be discounted as simply fabrications of malcontents. Rosen conceded as much when he wrote in 2003, "Sometimes I fear that I was too tough on some of you. For those mistakes, I truly apologize."

Article continues below

In the decades after setting up shop in San Francisco, Rosen's star would increasingly rise as he developed four parallel aspects of the ministry: recruiting youth (primarily Jewish) for evangelistic ministry; reaching out to Christians (individuals and organizations) for support; goading Jews in an effort to draw public reaction; and utilizing various forms of media (particularly broadsides and advertisements) for publicity.

To be ignored or go unnoticed was the response the movement needed to avoid at all costs. Opposition, persecution, abuse, insult—bring it on. On one occasion, someone shot a bullet through a window at the San Francisco headquarters. How did Rosen react? By issuing whistles to the staff. "Most of them didn't work, though," he later said.

If some of his methods were deemed outrageous and offensive, all the better. A large black-and-white newspaper ad depicting orthodox Jewish men—as might be seen walking to synagogue on the Sabbath—was designed to shock the senses. The man in the middle is opening his coat to reveal a bright-red Jews for Jesus T-shirt. Make the New York Jewish establishment mad, grab public attention, and in the process pique the curiosity of rebellious Jewish youth. A recipe for success.

Baiting the Jewish establishment often provoked a strong reaction and gave Rosen and his movement the attention he was seeking. "I feel less revulsion for Christian missionaries than for their Jewish accomplices," wrote Elie Wiesel. "Jews for Jesus … are dishonest. They are hypocrites. They do not even have the courage to declare frankly that they have decided to repudiate their people and its memories." Along this same line, Jacqueline Swartz, a Jewish reporter, vilified the Christ in the Passover presentations that were conducted in Christian churches: "This is a Passover from hell. A macabre parody, courtesy of Jews for Jesus."

"Eccentricity is armor that gives you an advantage," Rosen once mused. "Not letting people know what you're doing keeps them guessing. Always keep people guessing." What impact has Jews for Jesus had on the Jewish community? "Jews for Jesus is like an elephant in the room; you can't ignore us."

What about his achievements as a Christian leader? His barely audible response, when interviewed in 2006, was matter-of-fact: "I'm not impressed with my own achievements." Did you sometimes feel like you were just bumbling along in the work? "Sometimes I wasn't even bumbling. The work was at a complete standstill," he responded in his typically self-deprecating style. "I'm not an over-achiever. I'm like Ferdinand the Bull who didn't want to charge; all he wanted to do was go out in the field with the flowers and bees … . I was no paragon of dedication."

Article continues below

Pledging his "love [for] any body of Believers," Rosen had little patience for typical worship services: "I only wish that church services and sermons were shorter, and I'm wondering if anyone figured out how to package the whole service into 20 minutes, unless of course it is me preaching."

Nevertheless, in broad evangelical circles, Rosen was generally held in high regard. He crossed denominational lines easily and cultivated friends and financial support from fundamentalists to Pentecostals and mainline Protestants. In fact, staid Christian Reformed folks were his staunchest allies. Vernon Grounds, a noted evangelical scholar and president emeritus of Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary, said of Rosen, "He is a dynamic and creative witness! When Moishe Rosen comes into a city, there is either a revival or a riot."

J. I. Packer described Rosen as "the portly near-genius who envisioned and shaped the mission from the start" and who insisted that the message of Jews for Jesus "is centrally about God's grace, and God must have all the glory for it."

Rosen stepped down from his position as director of Jews for Jesus in 1996, at age 64. He continued to serve on the board of directors and to be active in online evangelism.

When asked, not long before his death, what his greatest legacy was, Rosen's response was predictable: "People can no longer dismiss the idea of Jewish Christians." No one ever challenged Rosen's claim to be a Christian, but to Jews that meant he had renounced his Jewishness. The debate over Jewish Christians will never be resolved across religious lines. But anyone who knew and worked with Moishe Rosen would never doubt his pride in his Jewish heritage nor his Christian witness.

Ruth Tucker is the author of Not Ashamed: The Story of Jews for Jesus.

Related Elsewhere:

Jews for Jesus has a tribute site for Rosen.

The Washington Post, Baptist Press, Charisma News Service, The Jewish Chronicle, and other outlets have obituaries. Tuvya Zaretsky wrote a tribute for Baptist Press.

Earlier articles on Jews for Jesus and Jewish evangelism include:

Jacob vs. Jacob | Jewish believers in Jesus quarrel over both style and substance. (Feb 8, 2005)
Do Jews Really Need Jesus? | What evangelicals believe about evangelization of the Jews—and whether the Holocaust makes a difference in that task. (October 8, 1990)
'Volcanic' Response | Jews for Jesus takes to New York City streets. (Sept. 1, 2006)
Jews for Jesus Fights Cult Label (Sept. 12, 1994)
Jews for Jesus director defends remarks (CT politics blog, Sept. 9,2008)
Opinion: Why Evangelize the Jews? (Stan Guthrie, March 25, 2008)