The Very First Jew for Jesus

Moishe Rosen's Controversial Story, Told by his Daughter

Selling Faith: Moishe Rosen hands a pamphlet to a student on a Berkeley, Calif., street in the early 1970s.
courtesy of jews for jesus
Selling Faith: Moishe Rosen hands a pamphlet to a student on a Berkeley, Calif., street in the early 1970s.

By Raphael Magarik

Published April 10, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.
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Called to Controversy: The Unlikely Story of Moishe Rosen and the Founding of Jews for Jesus
By Ruth Rosen
Thomas Nelson, 320 Pages, $22.99

Before he founded Jews for Jesus, Moishe (at the time, Martin) Rosen took business classes and sold fishing rods. Taking employment at a sporting goods store rather than at his father’s junkyard was Rosen’s first rejection of his ancestral legacy, his first apostasy. But his sales career — later he also sold cameras and cemetery plots — foreshadowed something beyond a simple conversion to Christianity. According to a new biography by his daughter, Ruth Rosen, the famous evangelist never really left sales.

Ruth Rosen
courtesy of thomas nelson inc.
Ruth Rosen

The business classes Rosen took at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, a technical school in Denver, seem to have influenced his career as a “fisher of men” far more than his theological education at Northeastern Bible Institute did. Certainly, he was never much of a religious thinker. Rosen converted at age 21 after his young wife found Jesus, because he couldn’t convincingly refute the missionary pamphlets she brought home. His was a simple faith: Rosen saw every lucky turn as a gift from God. God gave him used winter coats, a $5 refund check, a tip-off about tire trouble and complimentary obstetric care for his wife. But Rosen didn’t talk much about the reverse problem: undeserved suffering. And he shrugged off biblical criticism as easily as he did theodicy. Liberal ideas, he explained, just “didn’t speak to me.” Richard Harvey, a Jews for Jesus missionary who became an academic theologian, is quoted as ruing the lack of a coherent “Moishe Rosen messianic Jewish theology.”

On the other hand, Rosen was constantly formulating and systematizing his business thinking, and “Called to Controversy” catalogs the results. He distinguished pedantically between principles (negative precepts) and procedures (best practices). He spoke at length on the principle of “If you don’t have it, don’t spend it.” Rosen stressed “standards, goals and accountability” at Jews for Jesus, and his daughter dwells lovingly on each step toward those lofty ideals.

As a result, “Called to Controversy” reads less like the life of a religious leader than like the biography of a businessman. Its central dramas and controversies concern power plays (Rosen sabotaged a boss by not reminding him to renew a building permit); sales technique (to demonstrate his organization’s determination to a local Jewish group, Rosen forcibly smacked a female employee), and management styles (Rosen shouted angrily at subordinates and frequently fired them). These tactics built a prosperous business: Starting from nothing in 1973, Jews for Jesus now employs more than 150 people and takes in about $20 million a year in donations.


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