by Daniel Asor
Sometimes it takes one to know one.
I was sitting in a Fuga, an acrobatic plane in the Israeli Air Force. An IDF commanding officer was in the pilot’s seat, ready to take me on an aerial tour of Israel’s southern region. This was my reward for having led a battalion of Air Force cadets, training them in street-fighting tactics.
We flew over the Negev and my spirit soared as the vast desert spread out below. Later, as we descended and approached the Air Force base, I noticed it was surrounded by a long, high fence, broken periodically by watchtowers. Suddenly I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. I had been here once before…
My mother was a widow and I was living in a dormitory high school in Be’er Sheva. I wanted to go home for the weekend, but we were poor and I had no money for the bus. So I decided to walk home, a distance of 15 miles. It was a hot summer day and I headed out on the road, jogging to make good time. After a bit, I took a shortcut, angling off the road into the desert. Before I knew it I had lost my way. I didn’t know the route back to the road, so I decided to push on.
It was very hot and I had run out of water. I was getting faint and all I could see was desert sand. Eventually I reached a large, fenced-in area. There was a guard tower and I shouted for help, but nobody answered. I set my sights on the next tower, a half-mile away.
I was exhausted and stricken by the heat. I crept slowly along the fence, and as I reached the next tower I collapsed. Again I cried out but no one was there. Then I saw an Air Force jet making a landing approach. He flew so close to me that I could make out the expression on his face. But he did not see me.
I dragged myself a bit further, then blacked out. When my eyes opened, it was the middle of the night. "Help!" I weakly called out. My faint echo was all that answered me. This is it, I told myself. You’re not coming out alive. I mustered my last ounce of strength and cried out the final words that a Jew says, "Shema Yisrael!"
Suddenly I heard the sound of jeeps. Flashlight beams arced through the darkness. The security system had detected a strange object outside the fence and they had come to investigate. I couldn’t believe the miracle.
In order to rescue my limp body, the soldiers had to cut away the bottom part of the fence. They gently hoisted me onto a jeep and brought me to the base to recover.
Now, six years later, I was landing at the very same base where I had been given a second lease on life. After disembarking the plane, I asked the pilot to accompany me on a walk out to the fence. I searched a bit, but found what I was looking for – “my spot” in the fence, demarcated by the steel cables used to mend it years before. It stood before me as a testament to my narrow escape.
At that moment I had an epiphany. Someone, somewhere was watching over me. Was it a coincidence that I ended up at the exact same spot where my life had been spared? I sensed that this power was sending me a message about the deeper meaning of existence. I didn’t know who or what, but I was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
A few months later I finished my army service and, along with rest of my buddies, headed to New York – they pursuing dreams of riches, me on a grand search for Truth. I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel, and books on meditation and yoga. I became a vegetarian.
But along the way I got distracted. Life in New York quickly became a whirlwind of running from pubs in the Village, to happenings in Central Park, to museums on the Upper East Side. I was drawn into the vast, warm sea of aimless existence.
I hung out with other Israelis who were looking to disengage. We started a business distributing fashion accessories. Before long I was making a ton of money. I got my pilot’s license and bought an airplane.
At one of the pilot lessons I met a cowboy. When he heard that I’m from Israel, he perked up. "I observe kashrut,” he told me, “though not for religious reasons. It’s healthier. Rabbis come to our ranch to buy cattle for slaughter. At first I thought they don’t know what they’re doing, but then I realized they are top professionals. Just by examining the animals, they can tell which are the healthy ones. I’m telling you, they are top professionals!"
An American F-15 pilot was listening to our conversation. "I’m not Jewish," he interjected, "but during the Gulf War I came to Israel with the Patriot missile defense system. I must say: You are God’s nation. The 39 Iraqi scuds that hit Israel miraculously caused no casualties. God is watching over you quite nicely."
I was trying to opt out of my Jewish connection, and here I was surrounded by praise for my people. It was not so easy to escape my destiny.
I wanted to become a flight instructor, so I moved to Florida and pursued a degree in professional aviation. There were Christian students on campus who used to get together for Bible study. I became curious and signed up for a course in comparative religions taught by a local priest. He started with Oriental faiths and reached Judaism toward the end of the course. He said that Abraham "worshiped the mountain gods, whom he called El Shaday." Shocked and surprised, I raised my hand. "Did you know that this name, ‘Shaday,’ appears on the mezuzah at the entrance to every Jewish home? Are you suggesting that contemporary Jews also worship ‘the mountain gods’?"
The priest stood silent as tension filled the room. Suddenly, a tall and longhaired Catholic student rose to her feet. She felt the need to defend the honor of her religion and turned to me angrily. She pointed an accusing finger and yelled: "You! We did not come here to listen to you! Get out!"
Before she could finish speaking, she suddenly choked and fell to the floor, with her accusing hand clasped to her throat, choking and coughing as she fell.
I sat there, stunned, not daring even to breathe. Students rushed to her rescue. They gave her some water and soon she recovered. Other students just glared at me. It was very tense. The class went on a break and the priest asked me not to attend class anymore.
This event was confusing for me emotionally. But even more so, it made me interested in the differences between Judaism and Christianity.
Things got even more confusing one weekend at a cocktail party where I met a friend from my time in the Israeli army. He was married to a Christian woman and invited me to join him for Shabbat services at a Messianic Temple. To my amazement they had a cross on the Holy Ark. Some of the worshipers wore kippas. The chants sounded Christian, but the lyrics were definitely Jewish. After the prayers, the “rabbi” handed out the Eucharist, sacred wine and bread, just as in a Catholic church.
I pushed it aside as an aberration. I was immersed in my aviation studies and couldn’t give it any more attention.
During this time I met a Dutch woman and got married – she a Catholic, me a Jew. We wanted to find some common spiritual ground, so we went on a spiritual search. Hare Krishna, Lifespring, Transcendental Meditation. We tried it all.
I eventually met some nice Christians who had a Bible study group. It was comfortable to be with them – I had some knowledge of the Bible from my youth, and their theology was familiar to my wife. Without making too big a deal of it, I converted to Christianity.
One day, the main donor of our church invited me to attend the weekly Bible study of all the pastors in town. He wanted to draw me closer to the inner circle. So every Sunday afternoon, I sat with these Christian leaders and studied in great depth. I was the darling of the group – young, Israeli and a flight instructor. From their perspective I was a great success story.
I became an active missionary, sharing the light with whomever I met.
Once, my friends at the Florida church asked me to give a lecture about the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. I showed them how to wear a tallit, the prayer shawl, explaining how it wraps the body. I went on to explain that the arm-tefillin is placed alongside the heart.
In medicine, a person is not declared dead when their heart stops pumping, as long as the brain still functions. That’s where a Jew places the head-tefillin. Just as there are four kinds of brainwaves, the head-tefillin is divided into four sections.
Questions came pouring from all directions. “What is the meaning of the knot on the back of the head?”
The answer came in a flash. The brain stem, the "fifth brain" is at the spot of the tefillin knot. The brainstem is the instinctive brain, which orders the heart to pump blood and the lungs to draw air.
A woman in her 70s approached me with tears in her eyes and said: "In the name of the church, I am asking for your permission to hold on to the hem of your robe." She raised the hem of my tallit and cried: "Hallelujah!" The crowd echoed: "Hallelujah!"
She held aloft a Bible and said: "Whoever wants the Old Testament prophecy to come true, raise your hands!" The churchgoers all raised their hands.
She said: "May this come true: ‘It shall come to pass that 10 people will grab one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’” (Zechariah 8:23)
I stood there, wrapped in tefillin, shocked. As I descended the stage, the church members continued to bombard me with questions, calling me “Rabbi.”
My family back in Israel didn’t know what I was involved in. But my sister’s husband, a former priest, figured it out. He himself has an amazing story. His father was the senior priest of Vera Cruz, Mexico, and he followed in those footsteps, also becoming a priest. But he left the church and began to research religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism. He skipped Judaism because his father had told him that the Jewish people had ceased to exist, and those living in modern Israel were European colonizers. But then, on a visit to New York City, he saw some chassidic Jews. This triggered a trip to Israel where he spent two years studying Judaism.
To make a long story short, he converted to Judaism and married my sister. He then invited his older brother to visit Israel, and the brother also converted. Before long their mother and other five brothers all converted and now live in Israel. It was later discovered that the Conquistadors who arrived in 1521 included several Jewish “marranos” who had faked conversion to Christianity in order to escape the Spanish Inquisition. By the mid-16th century, there were more crypto-Jews in Mexico City than Spanish Catholics – prompting Spain to open an Inquisition office in Mexico. Today, over 200 “marrano” families from the city of Vera Cruz alone have converted to Judaism.
My brother-in-law contacted me and said that what I was doing is wrong. He wanted to meet with me to discuss theology. When the priests in Florida heard about this, they saw this as an opportunity to win him back to Christianity. So they set me up with a private training program, showing me all the possible arguments and counter-arguments.
A few months later, I met my brother-in-law for a debate – a modern-day version of the Barcelona Disputation. We argued for days, and then continued for months of correspondence back and forth – me consulting with the priests and him consulting with the rabbis. After a year, I concluded that Christianity was false, as it became clear that Isaiah 53 and other biblical “sources” had been taken out of context and fabricated to fit their story.
I stopped attending church. Soon after I received a call from Steve, the son of our church’s priest, saying that his father had died and that he was now expected to take over the position. I congratulated him, but Steve stopped me. He was experiencing a crisis of faith and did not want to take over his father’s position. We had a long talk and as a result he traveled to Israel for two weeks. I arranged for my brother-in-law – “the former priest, son of a priest” – to show this “doubting priest, son of a priest” the sights and discuss theology.
When Steve returned from Israel, he told me: “What’s wrong with you? Judaism is a beautiful religion, and Israel is a beautiful country. You gave it all up for nothing!”
I went back to New York and was invited to the wedding of an Israeli army buddy. There I met many friends from my army unit – each one married to a non-Jewish woman, with kids wearing crosses on their neck. It struck me: We were trained for the military fight, but not the cultural battle.
After I left the church, I started to increase my Jewish learning. That’s when my wife gave me an ultimatum: “Either give up your Jewish books or give up me.” I knew that I couldn’t let anything stand in the way of the yearnings of my soul. The choice was painful but clear. She stepped on a plane and went back to Holland.
I decided to get back into the fashion business, and put my airplane to good use by delivering merchandise to the Caribbean Islands and the Florida Keys. One evening I made a delivery to Key West and by the time I headed back it was one o’clock in the morning. I had planned to refuel in Key Largo but there was a storm and I couldn’t land. I called back to Key West and they told me the storm was headed their way, so I should just try to make it back to Miami.
About 20 minutes later I ran out of fuel and my engines shut down. I was at 7,000 feet and radioed for help. I was losing altitude and only gliding. The coast guard told me about an emergency Air Force landing strip in the middle of the ocean, built onto floating barrels. Yet there was zero visibility – it was pitch black and raining – and there was virtually no chance of locating this tiny target. Not to mention that the landing strip had been half-destroyed in a recent hurricane.
The coast guard advised me to eject from the airplane with my life jacket and let the plane crash into the water. But that part of the ocean is infested with sharks and I would have had to survive for a few hours until daylight when a rescue crew could be sent. I decided that my only hope is to try a complex water-landing and somehow try to survive. I had to use all my flight expertise to keep the plane in the right position, hoping that the landing would not tear the plane to shreds or send it nose diving in to the deep.
It was cold and dark and I was terrified.
When I got to within 100 feet of the water, I shouted "Shema Yisrael!"
The next thing I knew my plane landed on something hard. I had hit the landing strip!
I brought the plane quickly to a stop. I got out and in the thick darkness started to feel my way around. The plane had stopped just five feet from the end of the landing strip. I sat there – cold, wet and frightened, waiting for sunrise so I could be rescued.
Here, a second time, God had saved me from the brink of death. Since age 15, I knew of a transcendental power watching over me. But all those years I was estranged. Sitting on that landing strip in the middle of the ocean, I asked myself: Why did I shout "Shema Yisrael" and not something else?
The answer is that when mortality is starting you in the face, everything melts away. All that exists is the unadorned truth shining forth. That’s when I made the decision not to run away any longer.
Gates of Rome
Today I am back in Israel, happily married to a wonderful Jewish woman and the proud father of Jewish children. I spend my days and nights reaching out to Jews who have become ensnared in the traps of Christian missionaries operating in Israel.
There are currently 90 Jews for Jesus congregations in the country 5,000 Israelis whose goal is to convert other Jews.
I authored a book called The Gates of Rome, explaining the truth of Judaism in light of Christian doctrine. Someone purchased 500 copies of the Hebrew edition and distributed them in Be’er Sheva. Feeling the heat, two leading missionaries undertook to write a rebuttal. They analyzed my book point by point, scrutinizing the sources and the logical arguments. Five months later they left the Church and became observant Jews. Their Christian wives and children all converted, too.
It is gratifying to see success. In another recent instance, an American Jewish college student had met a Saudi princess. They wanted to get married, but she insisted that he first convert to Islam. So he went to Mecca, fasted 30 days of Ramadan and converted to Islam. Meanwhile, his mother had moved to Israel, and this young man traveled from Saudi Arabia in order to say a final goodbye before getting married and becoming a Saudi prince himself. I was put in touch with him, and we spent many hours dealing with the basics of Judaism and Islam (the topic of another book I authored). I sent him to Aish HaTorah for a crash-course in Jewish education. He called off the wedding and is now living in Israel.
I often think about that fence at the Air Force base. In a way it represents my own path back to our tradition: A journey through a parched desert, and a breech that is mended, yet distinguished as a landmark – testament to the miracles performed by the One watching over me.