With Real Intent: Out of Judaism
Nancy Goldberg Hilton
My Jewish Heritage
I remember sitting in a synagogue as a child, listening to the cantor sing the ancient songs of my people. His tone was melodious and reassuring, his words inspiring. Then I would listen to the rabbi speak words of praise to the one eternal God. We would arise and sing together the sacred prayer of the Jewish people, the Shema:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Barukh Shem kvod malkhuto leʾolam va-ed
Praised be his name whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever.
Then we would all say together in Hebrew and then in English:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. (Deuteronomy 6:5–9)
As a young child, I felt close to God every time I said these words. I would look around the synagogue. In the front of the room stood our rabbi. Behind him, covered with a curtain, were the Torah scrolls. I would sit quietly, feeling reassured and at peace with my surroundings.
As a young girl, I went to Hebrew school and was taught the stories of my ancient Jewish faith in a God who opened the Red Sea and brought my people out of Egypt. I learned about a powerful God who established temple worship, provided miracles for my people, and made a covenant with Father Abraham (see Genesis 22:15–18). Ours was a God who gave instructions to ancient prophets who in turn led and guided the Jewish nation.
Although I loved to learn and sing the traditional Jewish prayers in the synagogue, I always felt there had to be more than this, more to know about this God whom we worshipped. What happened to this God? Where is he now? The God I learned about was an ancient God, and all of his actions and miracles happened a long time ago.
I was also taught that God had no form or substance, that prophets had ceased to exist on the earth, that our counsel should now come from our rabbis, and that Jewish life centered in the synagogue, not the temple. I was taught that if I followed the laws of God and our traditions, I would maintain my connection with God. But what was this connection? Why did I need it? What was the meaning of Judaism?
As I grew older, my need for God faded and thoughts of boyfriends, parties, and schoolwork occupied my time. After all, who was God anyway? I realized that this God had abandoned us in our greatest times of national trial (the Holocaust during World War II). Because of this perception, I lost hope that there was a true and living God who could help me in this life. I came to believe that God's promises were hollow and his covenant meaningless. He was not a living God that I could depend on. He was not real. So I abandoned my belief in him and turned my back on thinking about him or relying on him. After all, there were no more miracles.
I eventually graduated from college and married a Jewish man. I became a successful businesswoman and had all the trappings of worldly success. I kept the traditions of my Jewish heritage and went to High Holy Day services (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and Passover. But these were mainly family gatherings and traditions. I did not understand the need for God, nor did I understand his purpose.
The year 1992 was a pivotal year for me. I had achieved success in business, but I felt a deep emptiness inside of me. I wondered if there was more to life than the success I had achieved or the things I had acquired. I went searching for help from the spiritual realm. I still did not believe in God and definitely did not believe in Jesus Christ. I actually feared the name of Jesus Christ, for it meant persecution to me and Judah.
For some reason I began to pray each night saying the Shema, the sacred Jewish prayer. I did not understand why I did this, but I felt better doing it. I did not realize how God would eventually answer my prayer.1
My Burning Bush Experience
My quest for spiritual assistance resulted in a miracle that occurred in 1992 at a place called Rainbow Bridge, located on Lake Powell in Utah. I had accepted an invitation from my parents to accompany them on a vacation to Lake Powell and to see the natural sandstone bridge located there. I had always wanted to see Rainbow Bridge. For some reason, I was anxious to get there. In fact, I felt a sense of urgency.
It had been raining that day, and I found myself all alone. As I walked under the bridge, I heard one loud clap of thunder! It shook the earth. The sound of the thunder coursed through me, and I felt a great change enter my whole being. My mind was instantly opened to understand the things of God. All my feelings of darkness and evil left me. I instantly accepted the reality of God's being. I knew that Jesus Christ was his Son, a person whose love extended to me at this time of personal crisis. He was truly my Savior at that moment when all thoughts of my past trials faded and my heart was filled with wonder, compassion, peace, and love. This experience was brief, but its effect on my life will last forever.
I stood in the rain not feeling cold or wet, but feeling free from darkness and at peace. I was filled with a spirit of joy that words cannot describe. I felt a strong and powerful connection to God and his Son Jesus Christ. I remember feeling at one with them and everything around me. It was as if the world were in perfect unison, everything in order. I knew God was at the helm.
But knowing that God and Jesus Christ were real was not enough for me. I wanted to know their doctrine and the purpose of Jesus Christ.
My Quest to Understand Jesus Christ
After this miracle, I set out on a journey of inquiry to see if I could bring together my ancient Judaism with information I would receive from the Christian community about God and Jesus Christ. When I experienced my miracle, I knew that God's plan was perfect, so there should be some way to learn about this plan.
The first thing I did was to purchase a Bible containing both the Old and New Testaments. As a child in Hebrew school, I had read parts of the five books of Moses, but that was the extent of my scripture study.
I was surprised to discover that the New Testament was also written by Jews. Peter, James, John, Matthew, Mark, and Paul were all Jewish. I never knew this before because I had never read or owned a New Testament. Jesus Christ was also Jewish, and now I had the book that gave the details of his life. This was important information.
I kept reading the New Testament but still did not have a clear understanding of Jesus Christ and what he did for us. Why did he die? What was the meaning of his atoning sacrifice? Why was it important that he overcame death? What did all this have to do with me?
Over the next four years, many wonderful and caring people who truly believe in Jesus Christ invited me to visit their churches; but I did not feel that any of their churches were right for me. Everywhere I went I felt uncomfortable. I was a Jew walking in a Christian world that could not relate to me nor I to it. Why was this so?
They were silent about the contributions of the Jews to Christianity. It was totally ignored and actually forgotten. I found each church was separate and apart. But I knew that we should all be one. Paul taught, "One Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4:5). Where was this oneness, this feeling of unity of purpose with our God and his Son Jesus Christ?
After my experiences with the many forms of Christian religion that I encountered over four years, I finally decided to give up. No one had the answers that I sought. None of them expressed a belief in a living, powerful God—a God of miracles. They did not believe in inspiration or revelation. After my incredible experience at Rainbow Bridge, I knew God was real and that Jesus Christ was his Son. That should be enough for me.
My quest had failed. I did not feel, not once, in any of the churches I visited the same kind of spirit that I felt at Rainbow Bridge. Shouldn't I have felt that same feeling if I were in the right church?
The Book of Mormon
In 1995 I had my own title insurance business in Dallas, Texas. While in Houston, for a meeting, I told my business contact about my belief in Jesus Christ. He asked if I would accept a book to read, and when I responded affirmatively, he handed me a copy of the Book of Mormon. He said he was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormons. He briefly explained the nature of this book and marked a few passages he thought I would like to read. I felt a new window of spirituality beginning to open.
On the airplane back to Dallas, I read in the book's introduction: "The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God's dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains, as does the Bible, the fulness of the everlasting gospel."
A sense of peace and love filled my heart again. Tears came to my eyes. I recognized the same spiritual force I felt at Rainbow Bridge. This book was fascinating. I read with great interest the title page: "Written to . . . Jew and Gentile—Written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation— . . . To come forth by the gift and power of God . . . that they [the remnants of the House of Israel] may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ."
Then I started to read the first chapter of the Book of Mormon, entitled "The First Book of Nephi." To me, reading this book was like looking at the history of the Jewish nation in a new light, one that revealed the inspiration of a living God who continued to strive with his people and communicate through prophets even in the New World. The life of Lehi and his family is described in detail as he preached to the people in Jerusalem and then fled for his life to a promised land in America.
I was interested to learn that Lehi carried with him to the New World the "plates of brass," containing "the five books of Moses, which gave an account of the creation of the world, and also of Adam and Eve, who were our first parents; and also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah; and also the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah; and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah" (1 Nephi 5:11–13).
Lehi, his family, and many of his descendants kept the law of Moses in America, and they offered sacrifices and built synagogues and temples. As I read further, my mind started to open to a new truth, one that would consume my thoughts: this book described the history of the Jews; linked it to Jesus Christ, the Messiah; and then brought it forward in time to a glorious gathering in the last days.
I had heard the term Messiah in my Jewish religion but never understood who this should be or what he should do for us. Could it be that our prophets through the ages actually preached of the coming of Jesus Christ as our Messiah who would come to earth as the Son of God and overcome death and sin as the Book of Mormon says? Was what Lehi preached in Jerusalem and in America the same as what other prophets preached from the beginning? Was that why Lehi was threatened and had to flee Jerusalem for his life? Nephi, the son of Lehi, said that the Messiah would come 600 years from the time that his father left Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 10:4). That would be the time that Jesus Christ was born in Jerusalem. So was the fulness of the gospel preached in Jerusalem as Lehi said it was?
Why had this information been lost? What happened to it? Is this why the Book of Mormon was preserved—so that we, as Jews, could understand what information had been lost from our Old Testament? Was Isaiah referring to the Book of Mormon when he wrote of a sealed book delivered to "him that is not learned" and then foresaw the day when "the deaf [shall] hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness"? (Isaiah 29:11–12, 18).
Maybe this Book of Mormon was the link I was looking for to bridge the Old and New Testaments, linking Judaism and Jesus Christ.
Gospel Questions Answered
The Houston business associate came to Dallas the following week. I had so many questions to ask him. I will never forget that day! I asked him, "Who was Jesus Christ? What was his purpose? Do I have a purpose on the earth? What happens after I die?" This kindly man said, "I know the answers." Then he explained, over several hours, the answers to my questions. When I asked how he knew his answers were true, he said he knew they were true through the Holy Spirit of God. He said he would have some missionaries come and teach me if I wanted to learn more. I felt a strong connection to God as I listened to him—the same feeling kind of feeling I had experienced at Rainbow Bridge. I decided to investigate his church.
I continued to read the Book of Mormon with increasing interest. I also read the story of Joseph Smith, a modern prophet. When he was a young man he wanted to know which church to join, which one had the true doctrine of Jesus Christ. Early in the spring of the year 1820, Joseph Smith, after prayer, received a glorious vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son.
I could certainly relate to his story. Like young Joseph, I too had been on a quest to learn the truth of the gospel and had gone to many churches. I had also experienced a spiritual battle and a glorious miracle of God. In my case, I did not see the physical presence of God or his Son, but the impression left on my mind was clear and personal. Now I also knew that God and Jesus Christ have tangible bodies. What rejoicing I felt in my soul! I believed that Joseph Smith told the truth.
Learning the Restored Gospel
Two weeks later I received a telephone call from two 20-year-old missionaries who said they could teach me some lessons about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We set a date and time to meet at their church building. When I saw their church building, there was no cross on the roof. In fact, it was a plain building with no pretense or adornments. It was the same inside—no crucifixes to emphasize the death of Christ, no candles, no bells, no incense, no money boxes, no icons on the walls. I liked that.
The missionaries explained that there were six lessons and gave me an outline of what they covered. I remember that the fourth one taught about the plan of salvation and life after death. I asked them to teach me that one first. But they refused, saying that all the knowledge I would receive would be built line upon line and that I had to start at the beginning.
I would see if what I learned from this church would clear up the questions I had during my four-year search. The missionaries certainly had my attention for two reasons. One was the Book of Mormon (which I was reading), and the other was the spiritual feeling I had while reading this book and while listening to the doctrines the missionaries taught.
The basic message from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the restoration in modern times of the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ. I was told that I would learn the true gospel, revealed anew in its fulness. The restored Church has a living prophet and twelve apostles who have the power and authority of the priesthood, both Aaronic and Melchizedek. I was eager to start learning.
But I also had another goal. To me, any knowledge I received about God and Jesus Christ had to include Jesus Christ as the Messiah and connect on some level with ancient Judaism as I understood it. I felt that Judaism had just stopped in its progression and that maybe I would discover that it was completed in the Latter-day Saint restoration.
I knew that the elements or links to Judaism I was searching for must include a true and living God, Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Son of God, priesthood power and authority, temples, miracles, the Holy Spirit, and repentance and baptism. I was excited to be finding all these in my Book of Mormon reading!
Though overwhelmed with all my questions, the missionaries were encouraged by my enthusiasm. I was invited to receive the gospel lessons in the home of some members. I soon learned there were more books of scripture to read than the Bible and the Book of Mormon. There were also the Doctrine and Covenants, the Book of Moses, and the Book of Abraham. If I read from all of these sources, I might eventually understand the big picture of the gospel that I was seeking. The missionaries explained to me that many plain and precious things had been lost or omitted from the Bible and that through the restoration of the gospel many of these truths were revealed anew.
Before they taught me the first lesson, the missionaries asked permission to say a prayer. I was astonished that the missionary's prayer was not memorized but came from his heart. The words were beautiful, personal, and specific. This was something so new to me—that we could actually ask God questions and receive answers. The missionaries taught me how to pray. The key to my receiving a spiritual witness of the restored gospel, they said, was that I had to ask. Then I should wait for an answer or be aware later how God would answer me.
The question I needed answered was whether Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by the power of God and was truly a prophet who had received the fulness of the gospel of Christ. I know that I felt a connection to God when I read the Book of Mormon, but I had not yet asked him if the book was true. I wanted to learn more before I asked God.
As the missionaries continued to teach me, I could see a link between my ancient Jewish religion and revealed religion in subsequent ages. God revealed his gospel to an ancient prophet who taught it to the people. Later the people apostatized and lost the true faith. Then God appointed another prophet who again taught the true faith but who was rejected and perhaps killed. This cycle continued over and over again. I now could see God revealing his gospel to Father Adam, followed by apostasy; then to Noah, Abraham, and Moses, with each dispensation followed by apostasy; then to Jesus Christ, followed by universal apostasy. The gospel was finally given, for these last days, to the Prophet Joseph Smith. I also learned other truths that increased my knowledge and faith.
I finally decided to put to the test the statement in Moroni 10:3–5. I wanted the truth, and I was ready to receive an answer. I talked to God in a way that I had never done before. This time I was asking the right questions and seeking answers. I now knew how to communicate with him through personal, heartfelt prayer.
I prayed, "Dear Heavenly Father, I want the truth about this church. I am ready to hear the truth from Thee. There is a promise in the Book of Mormon that if I ask in faith, I will receive an answer by the Holy Ghost. I want an answer to my questions." So I asked, "Should I be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Is the Book of Mormon true? Is Joseph Smith a prophet of God? Are the teachings that I have learned from this church true?" I asked many other questions and then ended my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ.
After my prayer, I waited for an answer. Time passed, and finally, feeling exhausted, I went to sleep without having received an answer. I was awakened at 3:00 AM. I felt a powerful spiritual presence and connection to God. I realized that what I felt was the Holy Ghost. I heard a quiet voice inside my mind say that I was to be baptized immediately into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Book of Mormon was true, and Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.
I asked more questions and received answers. I was so happy. I knew I was on the right course this time and that the answers to my prayer did not come from anyone on this earth, but from my Father in Heaven.
A New Beginning
Four days later, on May 30, 1996, I was baptized and confirmed a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by proper authority. I remember the words that coursed through my mind as I received the gift of the Holy Ghost—"I am home." I knew this was true. I felt so clean and pure now that my sins were forgiven. What a great blessing repentance followed by a cleansing baptism was in my life. I put my old life behind me and started a new life from that moment on. I was determined to keep the commandments of God and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.
How I rejoice in the words in the Book of Mormon. I read this book every day and ponder the miracle of its preservation and its message. I am particularly moved by its witness of Jesus Christ's central role in the latter-day gathering of Israel and the personal meaning that this reality holds for me as a Jewish convert to the Church.
And I will remember the covenant which I made with my people; and I have covenanted with them that I would gather them together in mine own due time, that I would give unto them again the land of their fathers for their inheritance, which is the land of Jerusalem, which is the promised land unto them forever, saith the Father. And it shall come to pass that the time cometh, when the fulness of my gospel shall be preached unto them; and they shall believe in me, that I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and shall pray unto the Father in my name. . . . Then will the Father gather them together again, and give unto them Jerusalem for the land of their inheritance. Then shall they break forth into joy—Sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem; for the Father hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem. (3 Nephi 20:29–34; compare Isaiah 54:1)
I believe that God's ancient covenant people (Jewish people) will someday know him. Their minds will open like a flower that blossoms and continues to bloom. The paths of their minds will be unlocked, and pure knowledge will flow into them and remind them of their true God. They will all have a burning bush experience like mine. They will hear his voice and feel his presence through the Holy Ghost and awaken to the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
I pray that, when this glorious day of promise comes, they will accept the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ so they will become the children of God—repentant, redeemed, and eventually exalted—and the power of God will be manifest once again in the ancient land of Israel.
The Book of Mormon was the key that unlocked my understanding of the truth of God's perfect plan. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the kingdom of God on the earth in its purity, perfection, and truth.
1. I give more details about my conversion in my autobiography, My Burning Bush. The full text is available for free at www.hiltonbooks.com.