Remembering Moishe Rosen
"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.
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?"