The Orthodox Jewish community of Berezna was the birthplace of Leopold Cohn, who was destined for a momentous quest. In this part of Europe, Orthodox Judaism was a way of life. Traditional Judaism was all-pervasive in its impact on a daily existence and there was zeal for the Torah (Law). It was not surprising, then, that Leopold Cohn became a rabbi.(1)
Following the completion of his formal studies and the subsequent receipt of smicha or ordination at the young age of eighteen, Rabbi Cohn contracted a very happy marriage and, in keeping with the custom of the time, became installed in his wife's paternal home, there to devote himself to the further study of the sacred writings.(2)
Through the years of almost ascetic religious study and devotion, the burning problems of his people, the problems of the Galut [exile] and of the promised, but long-delayed, redemption through the coming of the Messiah, had become deeply etched upon the rabbi's spirit.(2)
A part of his morning devotions was the repetition of the twelfth article of the Jewish creed, which declares, "I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah and, though He tarry, yet will I wait daily for His coming." (Maimonides) The regular use of this affirmation of faith fanned to a flame the desire of his heart for the fulfillment of God's promises and the speedy restoration of scattered Israel until, no longer satisfied with the formal prayers, he began to rise up in the midnight watches and sit on the bare ground to mourn over the destruction of the temple and to implore God to hasten the coming of the Deliverer.(2)
"Why does the Messiah tarry? When will He come?" These questions continually agitated the young rabbi's mind. Knowing that the Talmud taught that the timing of the coming of the Messiah should have already occurred he studied the original prophecies themselves.(2)
He studied Daniel 9:24-27... From the twenty-fourth verse of the chapter before him he deduced without difficulty that the coming of the Messiah should have taken place 400 years after Daniel received from the divine messenger the prophecy of the Seventy Weeks. The scholar, accustomed to the intricate and often veiled polemical treatises of the Talmud, now found himself strangely captivated by the clear and soul-satisfying declarations of the Word of God, and it was not long before he began to question in his mind the reliability of the Talmud, seeing that in matters so vital it differed from the Holy Scriptures.(2)
It was neither an easy nor a pleasant matter for Rabbi Cohn, the leader of a Jewish community, daily gaining in popularity among his people, to entertain doubts concerning the authority of the Talmud. And yet, every moment of sober contemplation brought him face to face with the question, "Shall I believe God's Word, or must I shut my eyes to truth?"(2)
It was the season of the Feast of Dedication and, as was his custom, he planned to preach to his people on the meaning of the feast. He had not intended to refer in his sermon either to his doubts about the Talmud or to his late discoveries in the prophecy of Daniel but, when he rose to speak, some of his deepest thoughts welled up within him and would not be denied articulation. The effect of his words upon the congregation became immediately evident. Whispers grew to loud protests, and before the sermon progressed very far the service broke up in an uproar. That day initiated a series of petty persecutions which robbed the life of the young rabbi of its joy and made his ministry difficult to the point of impossibility.(2)
The New Testament was as yet an unknown book to Rabbi Cohn, and consequently it never entered his mind to look there for the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophetic predictions.(2)
He decided to seek advice from a fellow Rabbi in a distant town, however he was not received well when questions about the accuracy of the Talmud were raised and eventually he felt if necessary to leave the congregation he was leading and come to America for further research into the Messiah.(2)
March 1892 found Rabbi Cohn in the city of New York, warmly welcomed by his countrymen, many of whom had known him personally at home. Rabbi Kline of the Hungarian Synagogue, who had preceded him to America, and to whom he had a letter of recommendation, received him with much kindness and even offered him a place of temporary service in his synagogue while awaiting a call to a suitable congregation.(2)
One day while walking past a church he noticed a sign that said "meeting for Jews" written in Hebrew. After being told by someone in the church that he could have a private meeting with the churches minister he decided to do it. He knew this was a church that taught the Messiah had already come and had Jews inside.(2)
Rabbi Cohn plucked up enough courage to present himself at the minister's address. He entered the house with many misgivings, but the impression made upon him by the gracious personality of the minister, a Jew who, like himself, was a trained Talmudist, and in addition the scion of a famous rabbinical family very soon put him completely at ease. Before he realized what he was doing, he found himself relating to his new-found friend the story of his messianic quest.(2)
During that meeting the minister noting that his visitor was completely unacquainted with its contents, the minister handed him a copy of the New Testament in Hebrew and asked him to study it at his leisure.(2)
Rabbi Cohn opened the volume and turned to the first page, where his eyes fell upon the first lines of the Gospel by Matthew: "This is the book of the generation of Yeshua the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham."(2)
The feelings the words awakened in him beggar description. It seemed that he had finally reached the goal of his long quest. The sacrifices he had made, the separation from wife and children he had endured, the days he had spent in agonizing prayer—all those things were about to bear their fruit and receive their reward. The problem which neither he nor those he consulted could solve was now answered by a book, and that book was in his hands. Surely such a book must have come to him by the will of Heaven. God had finally answered his many prayers and now, he was sure, He would help him to find the Messiah.(2)
Taking leave of his host, Rabbi Cohn ran as fast as he could to his room and, locking the door, gave himself to a study of the precious volume, his pearl of great price. "I began reading at eleven o'clock in the morning," he wrote later when reflecting on the events of that momentous day, "and continued until one o'clock after midnight. I could not understand the entire contents of the book, but I could at least see that the Messiah's name was Yeshua, that He was born in Bethlehem of Judah, that He had lived in Jerusalem and communicated with my people, and that He came just at the time predicted in the prophecy of Daniel. My joy was boundless."(2)
But had he been able to look into the future, Rabbi Cohn would have seen other days of sorrow in store for him. Narrow and toilsome is the path of faith in a world of unbelief. His first rude shock came the very next morning, when he tried to share his discovery with Rabbi Kline, who but recently had offered to assist him in finding a charge. "You are a wild dreamer!" shouted his rabbinical colleague when he had heard Cohn's story. "The Messiah whom you say you found is none other than the Jesus of the Gentiles. And as for this book," he said, tearing the New Testament from Cohn's hands, "a learned rabbi like you should not even handle, much less read this vile production of the apostates. It is the cause of all our sufferings." And with these words he threw the book to the floor and trampled upon it with his feet.(2)
Fleeing from this unexpected outburst of wrath, Rabbi Cohn felt himself once more a raging sea of conflicting thoughts and emotions. "Can it be possible that Yeshua the Messiah, the son of David, is the Jesus whom the Gentiles worship?" To believe upon such a one would indeed be an act of rank idolatry!(2)
When he turned to God's lamp of truth, he found light. The prophetic vision of the suffering Messiah began to penetrate his mind as he read and re-read the fifty-third chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah, yet he was a long way from finding peace of soul. Solemn questions now stared him in the face: "What if Yeshua and Jesus are the same person? How shall I love the 'hated one'? How shall I defile my lips with the name of Jesus, whose followers have tortured and killed my brethren through many generations? How can I join a community of people so hostile to those of my own flesh and blood?" These were indeed questions troublesome enough to rob any man of his peace. And yet, above all the raging storm, there was a still, small voice that kept speaking to his heart and saying, "If He is the Messiah predicted in the Scriptures, then surely you must love Him, and no matter what others have done in His name, you must follow Him."(2)
Still halting between two opinions, Rabbi Cohn decided to fast and to pray until God clearly revealed to him what to do. When he began his supplications, he had in his hands a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures. Being wholly absorbed in prayer, he was startled when the volume fell from his hands to the floor and when he bent down to retrieve the sacred book he saw that it had opened at the third chapter of the prophecy of Malachi, which begins with the words, "Behold I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Angel of the Covenant whom ye delight in: behold He has already come, saith the Lord of Hosts." Now his entire being was electrified to attention and his every sense of perception awakened. For a moment he felt that the Messiah himself stood by his side pointing him to the words "He has already come". Stricken with a feeling of awe, he fell on his face, and out of his innermost parts came words of prayer and adoration. "My Lord, my Messiah Yeshua, Thou art the One in whom Israel is to be glorified, and Thou art surely the One who hast reconciled Thy people unto God. From this day I will serve Thee no matter what the cost." And, as if in direct answer to his prayer, a flood of light filled his understanding and to his unspeakable happiness he no longer found it difficult to love his Lord, although he was sure now that it was Jesus whom he was addressing. In that hour he knew that he had become a new creature in the Messiah.(2)
Consulting no longer with flesh and blood, Cohn began to proclaim to all his friends and acquaintances that the rejected Jesus was the true Messiah of Israel, and that not until the Jews as a people accepted Him could they find peace with God.(2)
The first reaction of his friends was one of amused indulgence. "Rabbi Cohn is mentally confused," they said, "due to his long separation from his loved ones." But when his perseverance and earnestness of appeal challenged their attention, they branded him as a traitor to his people and began to persecute him bitterly. Some even thought that it would be a pious act to remove him from among the living. Such are the ways of zeal void of the knowledge of God!
When Cohn's countrymen settled down to the inevitable acceptance of the fact of his conversion, they proceeded to dispatch letters to his wife and friends at home, to inform them about his "apostasy." As a result, all communication between him and his wife was soon completely stopped.
In the meantime the Jews of New York were in an uproar over the act of the once honored rabbi, so arrangements were made for his secret departure to Scotland, so that he might have opportunity to study and gather strength in a friendly environment.
In Edinburgh Cohn found a cordial welcome among the people of the Barklay Church. It was well that he was now among friends, for he had another battle ahead of him and another enemy to overcome, an enemy more subtle and dangerous than all those he had left behind in New York. Approaching the day of his baptism, he felt that he would have to face the supreme test of his life and that arrayed against him would be Satan and all the powers of hell. Many things, he knew, were in the balance for him. In a spiritual way he expected to gain much from a resolute and open confession of his faith in the Messiah, but on the human side he was in danger of losing all that he counted dear in life—his wife, children, friends, position, dignities; in fact, everything.(2)
For some days prior to his baptism, even until the very hour of his solemn public commitment to the Messiah, Cohn lived under a cloud of gloomy foreboding. Prayer, to which he resorted often, brought him only temporary relief. But on the morning of his baptism, when he reached the church, he felt strengthened and cheered, as if the clouds had been dispelled by the very presence of the Messiah whom he was so eager to confess. Later, he came to know how the prayers of many friends had supported him in the hour of battle and of glorious victory. Indicative of these was a letter he received from Dr. Andrew A. Bonar, the venerable pastor of the Finnieston Church in Glasgow, which read, "My people and I were praying for you at our service this morning." In this way Cohn cut loose from the life he once lived, in order to give himself anew to the service of his people. He was no longer a rabbi of the law, but a messenger of the Messiah, and he carried in his heart the secret of Israel's salvation.(2)
In the fall of 1893 he returned with his family [who had also come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah] to New York, still the same passionate pilgrim after truth, except that now he had his bearings and the goal was no longer to him a matter of speculation. For the former Rabbi there was only one calling in life to serve God, and only one thing worth doing - to make known the way of God's salvation in Jesus the Messiah. And so, upon landing again in New York, he set about immediately to establish contact with the masses of his Jewish brethren.(2)
Rabbi Cohn dedicating his life to serving others, formed the Brownsville (Williamsburg ) Mission to the Jews, which he founded in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, in 1894. He began this ministry by holding meetings in a store which was a renovated horse stable.
He founded his work upon faith, in response to the Scriptural exhortation of Romans 1:16, "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek." The ministry's first Bible meeting was attended by eight Jewish people. The Lord continued to bless this work, and in the course of his lifetime, Leopold Cohn led over 1,000 people to the Lord.(1)
He started a newsletter, Chosen People. In 1924, Cohn gave the Williamsburg Mission a new name, the American Board of Missions to the Jews; the administration of the organization devolved in 1937 to Joseph H. Cohn, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, after the death of his father, the mission's founder. Dr. Leopold Cohn passed away on December 19, 1937.
The San Francisco arm of the American Board of Missions to the Jews, headed by Moishe Rosen, broke off from the national organization in 1973 to form Jews for Jesus. The original mission changed its name yet again in 1986, to Chosen People Ministries.(3)
Rabbi Cohn wrote "I showed them from the Scriptures that to believe in Yeshua was Jewish faith, real Jewish faith. Chosen People Ministries still uses that guiding principle.(1)
It is noteworthy that in I930, at a time when he was being attacked for his faith, Wheaton College in Illinois, a Christian educational institution of first rank, conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity.(2)
Rabbi Cohn was sometimes viewed as a controversial person due to being Jewish and believing in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. For his faith in Christ, he was assaulted, harassed and temporarily cut off from the rest of his family.
He states in his autobiography that he was ordained as a rabbi in his native Hungary in the 1880s...(3)
1). http://www.chosenpeople.com/main/about-us/history For more on Rabbi Leopold ask Chosen People Ministries for a copy of the Book. They can be reached at 24 E. 51st Street, New York, NY 10022 Ph. 212-223-2252.
2). This is a slightly shortened version of the testimony found at http://shalom.org.uk/library/RabbisWhoBelieved/RabbiLeopoldCohn.html Viewers are encouraged to read the entire testimony and the testimony of others found on this web site. Testimony re-posted with permission.
3). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbi_Leopold_Cohn quoting Randall Herbert Balmer (2002). Encyclopedia of evangelicalism. Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 127–. ISBN 978-0-664-22409-7.