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From Lubavitch to Messiah

Tom Mayr-Lori is Director Emeritus of The Messianic Testimony, a Jewish mission constituted in 1977 with the merger of the Mildmay Mission to the Jews, which was founded by John Wilkinson in 1876, and the Hebrew Christian Testimony to Israel, founded by David Baron and C A Schönberger in 1893. Tom was born in Israel after his Orthodox Jewish mother and father and their two children fled from Hitler’s Germany. This is his story.

Growing up in Exile

After the Second World War had broken out in Europe and Hitler’s Afrika Korps was pushing eastwards towards Israel (or Palestine, as it was known then), the British government evacuated all ‘alien’ Jews to Uganda, with the thought of establishing a Jewish homeland there. My family and I were among the many hundreds of families who moved and found ourselves in a camp at Entebbe.

 

Following the War, when it became apparent that the United Nation’s ‘partition plan for Palestine’ would be implemented, we were given the option of repatriation or staying in Uganda, provided we became naturalised British subjects. Along with a number of other Jewish families, my parents opted to stay and so it was that I grew up in the shelter of the Jewish community in Uganda. There we kept the festivals and High Holy days, and it was in Uganda that I had my Bar Mitzvah.

 

Many of the boys at my school were indifferent or even hostile to me but two of them became my friends. They were very sincere Christians and I began to see that not all Gentiles hated Jews, and that there were some Christians who were definitely different from others. After leaving school I was called up for National Service in the British Army. Arriving at army barracks in England during a snowstorm in late January, I had a real culture shock. But winter changed to spring and I started to warm to my soldier mates. When the time came for my demobilisation, I decided to become a regular soldier and, consequently, trained as an engineer.

 

The Reality of War

As a volunteer in the Israel Defence Force (IDF), the 1967 Six-Day War brought me up with a jolt. Men had died in their tanks and I suddenly became terribly afraid to die. I knew that I could not stand before a holy God, the God of my childhood and my fathers. Although I put on tefillin – the small leather boxes containing fragments from the Torah that Jewish men wear on the foreheads and left arms for morning prayers – and attended schul (the synagogue) nothing the Rabbi said could give me peace from my fears and sleepless nights. In the end I left the Forces.

 

A Search for Peace

Following service with the IDF, I went to Reading where I met the parents of one of the boys I had been at school with. They invited me into their home and within an hour gave me a front door key to their house, saying, ‘There’s the coffee and tea, milk is in the fridge and there is a spare bed upstairs. If you are ever in the area and need it, please let yourself in; we love you for Jesus’ sake.’

 

That really touched me – I could have been a thief, or anything – they did not know me at all, except that I had been at school with their son. Their actions spoke far louder than any words they could have said.

 

Twice a month I went to Stamford Hill in London to spend Shabbat with the Lubavitch, the largest and one of the strictest Hasidic Jewish sects in the world. I was still searching for peace and performing my mitzvot (commandments) to find peace but the more I tried, the more frustrated I became. I found their traditions most unhelpful and the long hours of talks did not lead to any commitment on my part. I longed to belong but I just could not enter into the spirit of the meetings.

 

At the same time, my Christian friends in Reading invited me to their church but, of course, being Jewish, I refused to go. I remember attending a meeting in their home when I became most indignant that they read about Abraham, ‘our patriarch.’ Wasn’t their Jesus enough for them?

 

John, my friend, asked me, ‘What do you say each Sabbath?’ ‘The Shema! (Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one)’ I answered.

 

‘That’s right,’ John said, ‘There is only one true God: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We Gentiles are privileged to worship your God, the only living God, and to know him as our Father.’

Although I didn’t understand what John was talking about, I was aware that I did not know God as my Father. The more frustrated I became with my visits to Stamford Hill, the more I looked forward to the kind invitations to the home of my Christian friends. Eventually, my desire to seek God became so great that I started attending their church. I was terribly aware of my own wrongdoings and the inadequacy of the mitzvot to overcome them. I was troubled in spirit, yet I could not keep away from this church.

 

The Reality of Peace

The following summer, a number of people from the church went to the Christian convention at Keswick, including John and his family... and me! It was there, right at the start of the conference, that God truly brought me to himself. During one of the large gatherings, the presence of God gripped me as I understood the truth. I felt as though I was the only person in the tent. I found a quiet spot where I read the words of 1 John 1:9 from the New Testament: ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’

 

That week was pivotal in my life. I came away from Keswick with the assurance that I knew God and a joy in my heart that has never left me, even though I have been through many trials and heartaches.

 

Giving Peace Away

I believed the rest of my life should be centred on God’s work. I spoke Swahili and knew East Africa fairly well and so, the next summer, I went with a group of students to Kenya for three months. Our project was to build a hospital for the Tukana people at Kalokol, which was a full day’s drive from any town. This was a marvellous time and I was especially aware of God’s grace but I realised that I needed more training if I was to continue doing this kind of work. This was confirmed to me by the words of Ezra 7:10: ‘For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.’

 

On returning to England, I applied to study at Birmingham Bible Institute, where I spent the next three years. By this time I had already met my future wife, Esmé, but we didn’t marry until 1976.

 

During the summers, I went on evangelistic tours to Austria with Operation Mobilisation, where I met a number of Jewish families. And so, though I wanted to go to Africa, I also realised that there was a need to share the Messiah with my own people. I went to Israel for twenty months to use my engineering skills to install and maintain X-ray equipment at a hospital, and subsequently qualified as a radiographer.

 

Whilst in Israel, I had opportunities to show Fact and Faith films, which presented evidence for the truth of Scripture from science, to volunteers on surrounding kibbutzim. From this, a number of discussion groups started to which several kibbutzniks – young Israelis who were materialistic, yet open to talk and think on eternal issues – came.

 

I continued to work in radiography and sought to share the Good News of the Messiah with my own people. I also became involved with The Hebrew Christian Alliance, now called The British Messianic Jewish Alliance, an organisation run by Jewish believers in Jesus to help and encourage one another in the faith. Then, in 1984, the Lord opened the way for me to work as an evangelist with The Messianic Testimony, first in England and later in Europe.

 

As I look back over many years, I thank the God of Abraham for his faithfulness to me and to all of us in The Messianic Testimony. I praise God for turning Jewish people from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, giving them assurance of sins forgiven and a place among those who are sanctified by grace. And I trust him to keep us for all that lies ahead.

 

The Messianic Testimony is a Jewish Mission reaching out to Jewish people in Europe, Russia, South Africa and Israel. For further information about their work visit www.messianictestimony.com

This article first appeared in the summer Herald 2014

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