Tuvya: Sarah and Mike Mills live north of New York City. Do you think of yourselves as a Jewish Gentile couple?
Mike: I think about it, like when we have kids. I wonder how we’re going to raise them.
Sarah: I do think about our identity since we attend a church instead of a Messianic synagogue. So, we don’t think about it much except when we’re celebrating holidays. Or, like he said, when we talk about having kids. We wonder what that’s going to look like.
Tuvya: Sarah, what was the spiritual culture in your home as you were growing up?
Sarah: Both my parents are Jewish. I was raised in a very religiously conservative Jewish home. My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor from France. Her parents were in concentration camps. Her brother and sister were actually hidden by a Catholic family. So, Jewishness was my identity growing up, and my family was involved in our synagogue. Then, when I was 10 years old, my mom came home and told us that she believed in Jesus.
Tuvya: How did your grandmother respond when she heard about your mom’s faith?
Sarah: She was very upset, and she threatened to disown us. In the end, she didn’t talk to us for a few months, though she didn’t disown us. My mom’s confession of faith definitely was a huge shock in our family. Then, my dad came to know the Lord, and a year after that, I too made the same decision.
Tuvya: Was that difficult for you?
Sarah: Yeah. It took a while because I remember thinking, “You’ve told me my whole life Jesus was just a man—if he was even real—that he certainly wasn’t God. All of a sudden, now it was okay. And we do believe in Jesus now.” I think for that year, I really did struggle. My parents were really good about letting me make that decision. I never felt forced into it. When they would go to church, I would just sit in the back room. I wasn’t involved in the services until I wanted to be. Eventually, our family joined a church, and we left the synagogue.
Tuvya: Sarah, what was it that drew your mom to Jesus?
Sarah: I think she came to this point in her life, an existential crisis where I think she felt unfulfilled in her life. She felt like there was something else out there pulling her. At the same time, she had a Christian friend who said, “I really want to meet someone Jewish and tell them about Jesus.” When she met my mom, she told my mom about Jesus through the writings of the Old Testament. My mom really dug into the Bible, because she was a very serious Jewish person. She was surprised to find that the Jewish Bible had a lot in there that helped her believe in Jesus as Lord.”
Tuvya: Mike, what was your spiritual experience growing up?
Mike: I grew up in a Catholic area, but my parents didn’t talk about God. Actually, they had me baptized when I was a baby, and my parents sent me to Sunday school to get confirmed. I think my parents believe in God, but it didn’t seem like anything they really tried to talk about with me or my siblings. My mom said she was trying to give us a foundation. It was just something we could refer to, to help us figure out what we believed later on. Religion didn’t seem like something that was a really big deal when I was growing up. Toward the end of high school, I think I became an atheist. Whatever I thought had to be rational. That continued through my college experience. I actually met Sarah’s friend in my hometown, before I met her. They were at a Bible college in Haverhill, Massachusetts, when I started hanging out with them. I was just interested in what Christians believed and what they did about what they actually believe. I was in college at U. Mass Lowell. By the time I met Sarah, I was a little more open to the idea of being a Christian. I was interested by what I heard in the Bible about what Jesus was teaching. I thought that was pretty good. Around seven months into my relationship with Sarah, I decided to become a Christian. I just came to the conclusion that it was the most rational answer.
Sarah: He’s very rational. We went to see that movie The Case for Christ right when it came out. It was about Lee Strobel and his spiritual journey. I remember walking out and Mike asked, “Is all of what they said in that movie true?” It actually made sense for him.
Tuvya: Sarah, I’d like to go back to your family experience coming to Jesus from the practice of Judaism. So, your mom came to faith first. Did she talk to your dad about her faith before she spoke with you?
Sarah: Yes, my mom talked to him before she talked to me, but not right away. At first, she actually hid her faith from him. Her Christian friend would give her books that she hid under her bed. I think she was afraid of what my dad would say. In a lot of Jewish homes, that would be a cause for ending the marriage. I think she carefully asked, “This is what I’ve come to believe, are you going to walk away, or is this something we can have a discussion about?”
Tuvya: Was that difficult to see they were struggling?
Sarah: For a little bit. I mean, my mother was always definitely more religious than my father. They were both raised practicing Judaism in their families. My mother was the one that was more likely to say, “I want to become more Conservative, to be more traditional.” So, my dad was the one who went along with her. I think if it had been the other way around, like if my dad had come to know the Lord first, I don’t think I would be sharing a story with this outcome. But my dad was very easy going. He was willing to listen when she said there was something that she really believed. And then he came to faith too.
Tuvya: So, how did they tell their friends at the synagogue?
Sarah: I don’t really remember, honestly. I think we might have just left. I don’t know. But I remember going back to synagogue for a friend’s bar mitzvah. It was very awkward.
Tuvya: Mike, when you met Sarah before you came to faith in that six- or seven-month period, how did you bridge the dual cultural gaps of her Jewish identity and Christian faith? Neither of those were part of your world.
Mike: I didn’t really think much of it. I didn’t really know many Jewish people growing up. So, that was novel. It wasn’t bizarre or anything like that. I was curious to learn more about that.
Tuvya: How did you learn about her Christian faith, since it wasn’t yours yet.
Mike: I’d ask her questions, actually to poke holes in what she was telling me. Sometimes she didn’t have answers, but her pastor would talk with me about things in the Bible.
Tuvya: So, you were going to church with Sarah?
Mike: Yeah. I started going to church with her a couple of months after we started dating. Actually, she encouraged me to go and …
Sarah: Actually, I didn’t.
Mike: Didn’t you?
Sarah: No, because growing up in the church in my teenage years, one thing was really instilled. I learned that “you don’t date non-Christians.” I believed and agreed with that. And there I was dating a non-Christian. So, I really felt that while we were dating and getting to know each other, and he wasn’t a Christian, that I didn’t want to be the reason he would ever say he became a Christian. I also didn’t want it to be telling Mike, “Well, you know, if you’re going to be with me, then you need to believe in Jesus.” That wouldn’t be right. So, I actually didn’t invite him to church. He invited himself. And I’m so grateful that I did it like that, because he had to find truth on his own. I wasn’t trying to get him to believe in anything.
Tuvya: So, growing up at church you learned it wasn’t a good idea to date somebody who wasn’t a Christian. What was the purpose of that warning?
Sarah: Yeah, I realized while dating Mike, that by dating a non-Christian, I might compromise what I believed for the sake of the relationship with someone who doesn’t share my relationship with God. Doing that would probably be the worst decision I could make in my life, quite frankly. I mean, my faith is not just a creed I repeat to myself to make me feel good. It’s a decision that I’ve made to forsake everything else to follow Jesus. And I have to live that every day. It is the whole framework for my life and my identity. I would be betraying God and myself to make someone else first in my life ahead of the Lord. So, I realized I couldn’t compromise on that by going into a relationship with Mike. That was really hard, especially when I was developing feelings for someone. But for me, my faith is really the foundation of my life. It is so much bigger than this guy that I really liked or starting to love.
Tuvya: Yeah, those are hard choices to make, aren’t they?
Sarah: Yeah. When we were dating, I prayed every day that God would tell me when to walk away. Dating is one thing, but I knew that I could never marry someone who didn’t share my relationship with the Lord. I really feel like the Lord gave me the strength to walk that path. I feel kind of bad saying that, but Mike and I have talked about that since then. But that’s the reality of it. And that’s the really hard thing about dating someone where your world views don’t align.
Tuvya: So, Mike started to go to church with you on his own?
Mike: Yeah, I guess I did. (Laughter). At the time I wasn’t trying to be emotional about it. Not that I’m not emotional about things I find truth in, but for this kind of thing in particular, I talked to people to see if the gospel makes sense.
Tuvya: Was there a turning point for you?
Mike: I don’t think there was necessarily a point. It was kind of like a buildup. It was just like at a certain point I figured, “Okay, I ought to make a decision.”
Sarah: It was something he was really struggling with, to make that spiritual decision. He met with our pastor a lot, like every week. Mike would just come with his questions. I do remember this moment when Mike called me to come over and talk. He was detailing his conversation with Pastor Paul. I could just see Mike had been fighting with it, and now he had broken down the last resistance of, “This just can’t be.” That was it.
Tuvya: Anything happen when you started telling other people of your beliefs?
Mike: My family didn’t really care too much. Some of my friends were not surprised, and the others were just like, “Okay.” It got really interesting at my college though. I remember a history class during my final semester. There was a class discussion about something related to Christianity, and I spoke up. I said, “Yeah, I know for a fact that’s not really what Christians believe and what the Bible says.” I don’t think anybody in the class, besides me, was a Christian. The teacher just shot me down without further discussion. Yeah, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a Christian. I realized I believed it because I could defend it.
Tuvya: So, you’re married now. No children at this point. How do you identify yourself as a couple with your friends?
Sarah: I think most of our friends just see us as a Christian couple because that’s just the world we’re in. You know, we attend a church, and that’s where most of my lifelong friends are from. My closer friendships, obviously, I feel like they have a better grasp on my Jewish identity.
Tuvya: So, it’s important for you to preserve your Jewish heritage and identity?
Sarah: Definitely, yeah. I think it’s also confusing for people, because a lot of people don’t understand what a Messianic Jew is. It’s even confusing to a lot of Christians. But, yeah, my Jewishness is definitely important to me. I want our children to have a strong Jewish identity. That’s how I was raised, and I think it’s important.
Mike: Yeah. We have had that conversation a lot. Sarah has said she wants our kids to have a Christian Jewish identity. I won’t say it doesn’t matter to me. It’s definitely strange to think about how my kids will view having an identity as Jewish and as a Christian. Just because it’s something I never imagined. Now, I feel good about it. Maybe, I even feel proud of it too.
Tuvya: Have you celebrated any Jewish holidays together?
Mike: Yeah, Passover.
Sarah: Yeah. We’ve celebrated Passover every year, usually with a seder at home with friends. Mike actually led the seder this year. Growing up, he never thought he would raise his children in any type of religion. I think it’s easier for him to imagine raising his kids as a Christian because he’s a Christian now. But that Jewish aspect is still growing on him. At Passover, I asked if he would like to wear a kippah. He said, “Well, no. Why would I, because I’m not Jewish?” He might not be Jewish, but our children will be. And I’ve said that to him before.
Tuvya: Culture is learned, and it grows on us. I think that’s something you two can have fun working on together.
Mike: I’ve had conversations with people who have a Jewish spouse. When I tell them that my wife is a Messianic Jew, they get really confused. I had a coworker who told me his wife is Jewish. When I told him about Sarah’s background and what we believe, he came back to me a couple days later and said, “Mike, you can’t be Christian and Jewish.” I said, “Yeah, well, you can.”
Tuvya: Sure, and that is something you can have fun working out together. Well, this has been wonderful, and I think your story is going to help a lot of people who are in very similar situations. Thanks for opening yourselves up and sharing the process of working out spiritual harmony.