Shannon Nuszen: From missionary to observant Jew

An inside look at what spreading the Gospel to Jews implies, in light of the recent controversy oncerning the now-defunct missionizing Shelanu TV.

Shannon Nuezen: I wanted to learn the truth and beauty of Judaism (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shannon Nuezen: I wanted to learn the truth and beauty of Judaism
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some time ago, I met a most interesting woman, highly qualified to talk about the tactics of proselytizing Jews, to bring them to believe in Jesus as the Messiah and the training required by missionaries. She is Shannon Nuszen, a former Evangelical missionary, who is today a Torah-observant Jew. In light of the recent controversy in Israel concerning the now-defunct missionizing Shelanu TV program – an offshoot of the widespread GOD TV – both directed especially at Jews, I wanted to find out what spreading the Gospel to Jews implies, and its modus operandi.
You tried to get Jews to Christianity, and as a Christian you became a Jew. That’s surely very unusual. So before you enlighten us about the technique and training of how to missionize Christianity to Jews, would you briefly tell us the main stations of your eventful life that brought you to this point?
I was born into an Evangelical family. My father is an Assembly of God minister. As a teenager I was trained as a missionary to my peers and I was very good at it. Later in life as an adult I got into more of the messianic movement which was Christianity with a Jewish flavor to it; teach Jewish traditions and they would observe Jewish holidays which I loved. I liked learning the Jewish traditions behind many of the holidays and the things that Jews do. Learning to Evangelize Jews was different than I had learned as a teenager. As a typical missionary for Jews you needed to learn a little bit more about the Tanach, the Pentateuch, Jews seem to be more educated, so I needed to learn the verses that would prove that Jesus was the Messiah, if I were to convert any Jews. Which is what I did. Unfortunately, I was successful with less affiliated Jews and secular Jews. My problem came about when I would encounter more religious Jews, Orthodox Jews; they seem to be ready for me, they would taunt me and make fun of me and give me a really hard time. I had my set verses that I had learned in order to Evangelize a Jew and they would tell me that they were mistranslated, I was taking them out of context or that they didn’t exist, which I thought was absurd.
At that time were you already professionally in the missionary work?
Yes, I would say that I was professional, but I would be wrong to tell you that every missionary is trained to become a professional, because every Evangelical Christian is themselves a missionary. It is the fundamental belief of Christianity, that it is our job as Christians to Evangelize the world and the Jew first, so Jews are prioritized.
It’s remarkable that as a person who was so indoctrinated, so steeped in the belief that to convert Jews is carrying out God’s will, you managed to extricate yourself from this community of missionaries. How did your ingrained lifestyle allow you to escape?
The Orthodox Jews who I would encounter would make fun of me and it was clear that I was going to have to learn a lot more than just the verses I had learned in order to convert them, that I was going to need to really know my Bible. I would bring up one verse like Isaiah 53, and they would ask me what did Isaiah 52 say, or what did Isaiah 49 say? And of course I had only learned the one verse that I was taught that spelled out Jesus to a Jew. I didn’t know all the surrounding verses. So I went back and I thought, “I’m going to have to learn everything and I’m going to have to learn every verse and every chapter or the whole book if I have to in order to reach these Jews,” because as a Christian I was very sincere in my love for Jews so I really wanted to accomplish bringing them to Jesus, because that was to me at the time like the ultimate mitzvah. So in the process of learning more, things began to really fall apart and didn’t make sense to me at all, because I had learned that this verse means the fulfillment of this prophesy and that this verse means the fulfillment of this prophesy.
So when I was learning the entire chapter and all the surrounding verses or the entire book, things really started falling apart and I felt really stupid. I wasn’t sure why it was falling apart, because I had no doubt that Jesus was the messiah, but when I went back and learned the entire book it really fell apart. I went to my pastor, I went to my teachers with my questions and things that didn’t make sense and I kept getting the same answer and they weren’t able to explain it to me, and they ended up saying “you lack faith,” which to me was offensive, because I had lived and breathed my faith my entire life. I was a preacher’s kid. When the doors of the church were open, I was there.
I may not understand something, but I did not lack faith. So my next plan was: if I couldn’t make the text work, I’m going to learn the Jewish response to Christian missionaries. If I learn how they respond, then I’ll learn to debate them and reach them and bring them to Jesus. So I went searching how Jews respond to Christian missionaries. I found a rabbi who had lessons on line and that was free. I started doing those, then my whole world fell apart. Everything I believed was wrong; the Jews were right. It was a crisis that I was going through; it was very emotional. It probably sounds very strange to a Jew, but to me Jesus is like an imaginary friend. He was somebody who was at one with me and who I walked with and talked with every day. He was part of my life and it was central to everything I was.
What was it that finally turned you on to Judaism?
I had always thought that the Bible that I was reading was true, that the words were from God himself, heavenly inspired and that every word was absolutely true. But when I found out that the verses were purposely mis-translated and that there were things in there that was an obvious agenda, that infuriated me, that the church had done that was very upsetting. I think I went through every stage of grief, there was intense anger and there was sadness. Everything that was central in my life, my friends, my family, everything I do every day was gone, then they had no purpose in life, it was very devastating. So at first it was the scriptures themselves, seeing that they didn’t make sense; what I was learning didn’t exactly show that Jesus was the messiah and maybe he didn’t even exist. For a while I went through a difficult time of feeling there is no God, I had given up on God. I decided to speak out directly to the rabbi whose lessons I had been learning and somehow he got through to me. He said if I could put Jesus aside, God was still very much there for me and he loved me. From that point on I decided I was going to study to learn the original Hebrew of the text and I was going to learn all over like a child going to Jewish day school. I wanted to learn the truth and beauty of Judaism. I had decided that Judaism was the path I wanted to take. I went first to a Reform synagogue, then fairly quickly went to a Conservative synagogue and started learning there. In the meantime I had attached myself to Arutz 7, which is where I first encountered you, Walter, and the Jewish people and different teachers that were teaching from Israel.
You were still in the United States at that time?
Yes, I was throughout this process. I began the process in 2005 and entered the formal conversion process probably in around 2006/2007. I finished an Orthodox conversion in 2009. I began going to a reform synagogue and because I was learning on line through Arutz 7 and Aish (HaTorah), I was very hungry to learn more. The Reform synagogue and the Conservative synagogue seemed more like a social group, people there didn’t have the answers that I was looking for. It was clear that I really needed to delve into learning much deeper. So I connected to Chabad that was nearby and that was how I began the Orthodox conversion process.
Would you like to say something about the reaction of your family to your decision to convert to Judaism?
My father had come to my home during my learning and I had usually turned things over and didn’t want him to see the Hebrew. He came over one day and saw everything that I was learning open on the table. He told me we need to sit down, because I see what you are looking at and I see that you changed the way you dressed, you changed the way you eat. I see that you are getting involved in a cult. He said we need to learn together and I need to bring you back. That was great, because I had a lot of questions and maybe he could help me and maybe he could bring me back. I asked my father to listen to the same lessons that I had learned from this rabbi. He agreed and looked at the same material that I had learned. We agreed not to speak about it again, until he had. He stayed at my house that night and I actually heard the rabbi’s lessons in the other room; he was listening to it. He knocked at my door at three o clock in the morning, sat at the end of my bed in this catatonic state. I asked “daddy what’s up?” He said, that man is right. I took my bible in there and I tried to tear apart everything he said. But he is right about everything, the Jews are right. He looked at me and asked what do we do now?
I eventually decided to convert Orthodox. My father decided not to do a conversion, because he was too old to learn a new language, a new culture and religion. He became a Noahide.
Are you saying that you actually brought your father nearer to Judaism?
My father left Christianity because of the learning that I had done. Yes, he chose to be a Noahide, but he is very close to Judaism and to Jews. You can see him writing on social media about Israel and defending Israel. He has been to Israel quite a few times. My mother was a little more difficult. I thought she would be understanding, because she had been through the messianic church and understood the Jewish traditions; but the teaching in Christianity is that if you don’t accept Jesus you’re going to hell. That’s very heavy and very difficult for a mother to go through and feel that their child is going to hell and I have children. So I was going to hell and I was taking her grandchildren with me. Very difficult; you have to understand that you can’t go out to eat together, and you can’t celebrate holidays together. Your entire lifestyle changes, which affects not just you but your entire family.
You converted while you already had children. How did that affect the children. Did they become Jewish?
I had two children; my daughter was ten and my son was four. Their conversion was automatically accepted under my conversion because they were so young. They loved it and clung to it right away. My little four year old had long peyot, sidelocks, and he was the “rabbi” in our home. They went to Jewish day school, she since went to seminary. They are both here in Israel. My son is about to join the IDF.
I now want to come back to proselytizing to Jews. What is the modus operandi of the missionaries, because I believe that missionaries work by stealth and surreptitiously lead their chosen target into their net. What criteria do they employ to select their targets?
The unaffiliated and the less educated Jew is easier to prey on, but really they were all our target. As far as deceitful tactics, we didn’t feel it was deceitful. It’s called ‘friendship evangelism’. You befriend a Jew and you become close to them. You share day-to-day life with them and you wait until they ask you. Then you are not approaching them directly. There are different types of missionaries. There are the one’s in your face, carrying the microphone around Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem and giving out tracks, and then there is the everyday person you’ll encounter on the street who’s just friendly and offers you something or befriends you in some way.
In Texas we were instructed to become part of the Jewish community in different ways. I would go to the JCC and volunteer for events. I would be a greeter and meet people, attend their conferences and rallies or anything that was taking place. I became very friendly with many Jews and became a very familiar face. In that way you gain credibility and their friendship.
All I hear from Christians whom I meet is “We love Israel; He who blesses Israel; We are visiting here because we love your country; and no, we don’t want to proselytize.” It sounds very convincing and after all we encourage Christian tourism; but can I trust those sentiments, or should I view every evangelical Christian visitor to Israel as having a deep- seated ulterior motive?
Unfortunately, when you put it that way,it doesn’t sound so nice. It’s about perception. To you it’s an ulterior motive and evil and sinister and it’s a lie; but to a Christian it’s very much the opposite, they are coming out of a pace of very sincere love. Even though they are being deceitful, they are told ‘when you see somebody in a burning building, you’re going to save them no matter what and even if you have to take them kicking and screaming and explain to them why you’re doing it later.’ You’re going to save them from that situation. They are doing it out of love and concern. As far as the one’s who say that they don’t proselytize, I have not heard them come out directly and say I don’t proselytize. They have a very sneaky way in wording it. They will say we don’t believe that a Jew has to convert to Christianity, They say that in honesty. They want you to stay completely Jewish, they want you to keep all of your culture and your traditions. They just want you to accept Jesus as the Messiah. They don’t see that as converting to Christianity, like you and I would.
Are you still active in countering Christian proselytizing to Jews?
I do not consider myself a counter-missionary. I am a “missionary awareness” consultant. What I have done for the past 10-15 years is to monitor missionary organizations that are operating in Israel. I monitor their activities, who they are involved with. I work with government and Jewish organizations on the partnerships they form with them. I get asked to verify of various organizations what their belief is. Our hope is that Jewish organizations when they form these relationships set up proper boundaries and guidelines to dictate how these interfaith relationships should be conducted, because the evangelicals have a very strong foothold here in Israel and have infiltrated just about every part of our society. We found it difficult to put up proper boundaries. It has been a big open embrace of everything Christian lately.
Fortunately, the Shelanu TV station has been ordered to close down.
Yes, their goal was to get into every Israeli home and to preach the Gospel to every Jew and to bring every Jew to salvation in Jesus. The CEO and founder of GOD TV quotes over and over that nine million Jews in Israel need Jesus, so he is not excluding children, he means everybody.
I believe that the appeal in the case of Shelanu TV, the offshoot of the US GOD TV, has not yet been finally adjudicated.
The biggest problem we encounter in this argument is the American perception of freedom of religion and freedom of expression. In that regard we need to realize that America was founded on Christian values. The concept of religious freedom here in Israel looks very different from than in America. I think it’s the government’s responsibility to protect every Jewish person and the identity of Jews as a whole. As far as religious freedom in Israel is concerned, everybody is allowed to live and believe whatever they want to believe, there is absolute freedom. We have every major religion represented here in Israel; but there is a red line that should not be crossed and that is when you target and prey upon a people; that needs to be protected.
Postscript: Israel revoked the broadcast license for GOD TV in June, when then-communications minister David Amsalem accused it of being “a missionary channel.” GOD TV launched its Shelanu channel at the end of April on the HOT cable provider, stating it was designated for Christian viewers