THE YEAR WAS 1975. JUST BEFORE ARI AND I MET, I BECAME ACQUAINTED WITH JULIETTE, a neighbor in the apartment building next door to me, in a suburb of Tel Aviv. She was known as “Jo” and had three daughters.
Her husband, an alcoholic who wandered from one mistress to another, would come and go, periodically leaving her and their three daughters destitute. But love is a funny thing—and Juliette still loved her husband. For 20 years she tried to keep her family together. She was a good and faithful homemaker and unceasing in her efforts to help her girls.
As Ari and I got to know her well, we could see she was a broken woman. She began attending our Bible study, and shortly afterward, confessed she was ready to make Yeshua her Lord. “But,” she said, “My husband has been looking for a legal reason to divorce me for many years. He has never found one. If I become a believer in Yeshua, he will have what he wants.”
Choose: Yeshua or Your Kids
We answered that this would have to be her decision. She would have to count the cost of following her Lord.
She did commit her life to Yeshua, along with her eldest daughter. The transformation, especially in her 16-year-old daughter’s life, became an incredible example of the power of God at work in a teenager’s life. During that time members of our congregation occasionally took them food, since the husband refused to support the family consistently.
Sure enough, the husband sued for divorce and demanded custody of the children. He made it known he did not plan to raise his daughters but would put them in a home for children. He also demanded that their apartment and everything in it be given over to him alone, with his wife receiving no financial aid now, nor at any time in the future. In other words, his aim was to legally kick her out of her home and take the children.
The husband’s lawyer wrote in the court proceedings that the reason this man is making these demands is that our Messianic congregation “has broken up his good home, has caused his children to deteriorate, and his wife to change her religion.”
These types of cases often set a precedent for future legal and cultural decisions. As such, our congregation felt this attack must not go unchallenged. We had to stand with our fellow believer. Must an Israeli, who comes to believe in Yeshua as Lord, lose her children?
We began to pray for a lawyer who would not only represent us well, but truly understand the principles of Messianic Judaism—namely that a Jewish person can receive the forgiveness of God by believing in the sacrifice of God’s Messiah and by being obedient to His Word. We as Messianic Jews aim to walk and talk with our God that we love, the God of Israel—not change religions!
We understood the magnitude of the battle: the right of a Jewish woman to believe in Yeshua without the State of Israel taking her children from her was on trial here.
Indeed! At the same time, another young woman in our congregation who had accepted Yeshua as Lord, asked her husband what he would do if she believed in the Messiah Yeshua. He answered that he would divorce her and take custody of their baby. He warned, “No court in the country would support you and give you the baby if you believe in ‘Yeshu’ (a non-believer’s pronunciation of Yeshua’s name).”
Looking back on what I recorded at the time in the Maoz Israel Report, it was clear we knew our prayers were being heard even before the judge made her decision:
“Yesterday Jo was in court, and although it has been a long, drawn-out affair, it is going very well, as we absolutely believed it would. Our hearts tell us we have won this battle in the spirit world according to the precious promises of the Word. And good results are following here on earth.”
“One witness brought in by the husband to speak against us, actually spoke instead quite favorably about us. At one point the judge even asked where our congregation met, and unknown to us, a person from the government was sent to attend one of our meetings! God has favored us with a tremendous Israeli lawyer. He has been given supernatural wisdom to see, in advance, the strategy of the other side.”
Even so, when the decision came down, we were shocked at the judge’s reasoning! The judge (who was an orthodox Jewess!), stated that in her judgment that Juliette had not transgressed the religion of Moses. For example, the judge explained, she had not tried to feed her husband unclean or forbidden foods. Nor had she transgressed the Jewish religion by breaking laws of modesty, behaving as a prostitute, or intentionally disturbing the orderly family life with her husband. This was a phenomenal change in the way a judge was perceiving an Israeli who believes in Yeshua the Messiah.
A newspaper article (March 1982) reporting on the case stated that the judge was “discussing the subject of whether or not the joining of the sect of Messianic Jews is sufficient in itself to transgress the religion of Moses and Judaism.” She declared that “joining in itself is no indication to pronounce her a convert to another religion.”
In other words, this judge’s written explanation became an Israeli legal document implying that a Jewish person who maintains a Jewish lifestyle can believe that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah and still be a part of the House of Israel!
We were encouraged by a prophecy [which is still being fulfilled] given in 1980 by Ron Wahlrobe of Lubbock, Texas, part of which is quoted here:
“The Gospel light will blaze in the Jewish community and touch thousands of people. Nothing will incite more of a reaction from Satan than this. He will lash out with threatening accidents; impulsive convulsed mobs; threats from nature; and imprisonment. Nevertheless, God will give you favorable court decisions, divine protection and an ability to see the plans of the enemy before they are executed.”
Jo’s husband even went to the Rabbinical Court, thinking he would get a more sympathetic ear. But his behavior was so notorious, that this court ignored him. Jo was given custody of her three girls. She was given legal ownership of the house and her divorced husband was ordered to pay regular monthly alimony.
The popular Israeli evening paper, Yediot Aharonot, of January 31, 1983, headlined, “He’s made to pay alimony to his wife in spite of her joining the sect of Messianic Jews.”
We, through our Maoz contributors, ended up paying $10,000 for that court case—a lot of money in the early 1980’s! But oh, was it worth it! As far as we know, this was the first legal case in modern Israel decided in favor of a Messianic Jew. And we have never heard of another case since in Israel where the court removed the children from a parent because of the spouse’s faith in Yeshua.
Bribing for Converts
Less than two years later came the next public challenge. On October 5, 1984, an article appeared in our local Ramat Hasharon newspaper stating that the mayor of our city publicly accused us, Ari and Shira Sorko-Ram, of being missionaries who bribe Israeli young people to convert to another religion.
To understand the severity of such an accusation, it is important to understand the accepted cultural convictions of the typical Israeli man on the street since the early days of the state of Israel.
The word “missionary” in Israel had a very negative connotation (and still does to many Israelis). Believe it or not, the word conjures up an image of a paid Christian foreign agent, who believes the Jewish people should all convert to Christianity and cease to exist as a people. No method would be off limits to the missionary’s enticement to vulnerable Israelis, especially the elderly, according to this nearly universal Israeli view. In those days, Israelis were confident no sane Jew would fall for Christianity (the religion that launched the Holocaust in the understanding of Israelis). Therefore, the nation was absolutely certain that missionaries must be offering generous benefits such as money and trips abroad in order to entice Jews to forsake their people and convert to Christianity.
In fact, our Knesset (parliament) so believed this narrative, that a few years prior they passed a law forbidding any individual (i.e., missionary) from bribing any Israeli to leave Judaism and convert to Christianity, with the threat of a prison term! (Obviously, they’ve never been able to find someone to convict of this “crime.”)
From the prime minister to the street-sweeper, Israelis believed missionaries help Jews leave the country, in order to pull them away from their families and historical heritage that God has given Israel. Missionaries were often compared to Nazis, who physically exterminated the Jewish people, while missionaries attempt to “finish the job” by spiritually exterminating the Jewish people. One newspaper called Messianic Judaism a “social disease.” In another article a journalist discussed how “Messianic Jews and prostitutes” plague the State. In the 1970’s and 80’s we read scores and scores of articles that warned about the peril of Israeli believers in Yeshua the Messiah.
Obviously, from the point of view of an Israeli born-again believer, what charge could be more absurd? What kind of “convert” would a person be who changed his religion because of money? Our Bible challenges the Jewish people—not to change our religion, but to ask God to change our hearts—from a stony heart to a heart of flesh in order to know our God, to worship and personally communicate with him, as did the Israelites in the Bible.
It was clear that this accusation from our mayor, which had no substance, simply reinforced these false beliefs among the public. So, after praying and bringing the issue before our congregation, we sued Mayor Moshe Verbin of Ramat Hasharon for malicious and damaging slander.
Since Israel’s Declaration of Freedom guarantees freedom of religion, we insisted we have a right to publicly speak of our faith in God, just as an Orthodox Jew has a right to speak of his. We have a right to exist! Therefore, we would continue to utilize that right, morally and gently, yet firmly. And we asked Mayor Verbin to publicly apologize for his false accusations and pay our court costs.
The mayor laughingly responded to journalists saying he would not apologize nor pay damages. He added that he was sure we would withdraw our suit. No Messianic Jew had ever stood against such “accepted” slander before, and they could not believe we would. However, again, we hired one of the finest civil rights lawyers in Israel who is known for his battle to insure freedom of religion in this country.
Case Settled Out of Court
The case continued for about two-and-a-half years with many twists and turns. Finally, on May 11, 1987 an agreement was reached with Mayor Verbin to write an “apology.”
Headlines of our local paper Tsomet Hasharon: “Mediated Agreement—Verbin will publish clarification that Messianic Jews, Ari and Shira Sorko-Ram, are entitled to cling to their faith and to publicize it within the framework of the law.”
His apology included denying he made statements which implied we were using unlawful methods to “convert” children and the elderly. He included that he did not look favorably on our activities and in his opinion “Messianic Jews have removed themselves from the community of Israel.” We, in turn, dropped our charges of slander against him after he agreed to include a statement which we had written of how we viewed our faith as Messianic Jews.
Verbin agreed to publish this “clarification” even though he was under heavy political pressure from the religious political parties in Jerusalem not to “give in.” It was a courageous move on his part as the religious factions had been active in pushing Verbin to make such accusations in the first place.
The national news carried the agreement on their broadcasts and believers throughout the land rejoiced in this first stand against this kind of abusive and slanderous publicity against believers. One Israeli reporter for a national agency, himself a believer, said he could not believe his eyes when the news came over his teletype!
Encouraged by our victory, several other Messianic Jews initiated court injunctions challenging harassing police investigations due to salacious accusations. Challenging people of influence was a long battle of nerves, but we knew the long-term ramifications would make it worth the effort. Together with the growing community of Messianic Jews in Israel, we were chipping away at the culture of a false narrative which painted us a cult and enemies of the State. We were slowly gaining ground with the truth of who we really are, and the reason we have a right to exist in Israel.
Some months later, our doorbell rang, and there stood Mayor Moshe Verbin! He wanted to get to know us, what we believed, and why we believed it. He came to our home a number of times and we became good friends!
This article originally appeared in Maoz Israel Report, September 2021, and reposted with permission.