Kehila Spotlight: Meet David and Martha Stern
David and Martha Stern
“When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming.” – Elie Wiesel
David and Martha Stern came home to Israel in 1979, in David’s words, as “part of the great ingathering promised by God for which Jews have prayed three times daily for 2,000 years.”
Even before they arrived, David had begun working on what he humbly refers to as his “Messianic Jewish writing projects.” The fruits of those projects, listed below, are now recognized as landmark works of Messianic Jewish faith and testify to the Sterns’ insight, courage and profound service to the worldwide Messianic Jewish community. David’s descriptions follow the titles within quotes:
- Messianic Jewish Manifesto, a systematic view of the “history, ideology, theology and program of Messianic Judaism.”
- Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel: A Message for Christians, “an abridgment [of the Manifesto] for Christians who have not seriously considered the Jewishness of their faith.”
- The Jewish New Testament, an original translation into English of the New Testament “in a way that expresses its Jewishness.”
- The Jewish New Testament Commentary, “which deals, verse-by-verse, with the Jewish issues raised in the New Testament.”
- Complete Jewish Bible, “which combines in a single volume the Jewish New Testament with [Stern’s] modernized version of an existing Jewish translation of the Tanakh.”
- Messianic Judaism: A Modern Movement With An Ancient Past
- How Jewish Is Christianity? (with others)
Of these, perhaps the most impactful and important is the Complete Jewish Bible.
“My first purpose,” Stern writes in the Bible’s introduction, “is to restore the unified Jewishness of the Bible, and, particularly, to show that the books of the New Covenant are Jewish through and through.”
By any reasonable measure, Stern has eloquently accomplished that purpose – it is impossible to measure his unique translation’s impact on the understanding and growth of Messianic Judaism. According to an article by Sarah Posner in The Atlantic, there were an estimated 350,000 Messianic Jewish believers worldwide in 2012, including “a tiny minority in Israel,” between 10 to 20,000, but that number continues to increase, “according to both its proponents and critics.”
Stern remains one of Messianic Judaism’s foremost representatives and spokesmen. From his article, “Coming to Messianic Jewish Faith” in Ben Hoekendijk’s book, Twelve Jews Discover Messiah, published in 1998, he addressed one of the major obstacles to understanding Messianic Judaism.
“The conventional wisdom in the Jewish community is that normal Jews do not come to faith in Yeshua the Messiah of Israel and that Jews who do were either forced or enticed, or are disturbed, deprived or depraved,” he wrote. “My story is proof to the contrary. Take my word for it or find people who can prove it because they knew me back when: I was intelligent, talented, successful, upright, happy and loved both before and after He found me and I came to Him.”
“David has spent his life with the Word of God,” Stern’s wife, Martha, relates in her testimony. Despite the seriousness of their work, its many challenges and recent health trials, they have maintained delightful outlooks and upbeat humor throughout.
“Three days after we met, David asked me to marry him,” Martha recalled. “Well, actually, his first words were, ‘I’m considering you to be my wife, what do you think about it?’ and I answered something like, ‘I was considering it too, but I’ll have to get to know you better.’”
Even before that conversation, Martha had imposed two important conditions on their continuing relationship, conditions that, in hindsight, may have changed countless lives.
“I shared with David that, since childhood, it had been my dream, more than a dream, my plan, to live in Israel. After he said yes to Israel and cleared the first hurdle, I asked if he wanted to have children.”
Again, David agreed. Without her knowing it, he arranged for Martha to get time off from her job in San Rafael, California to visit him in Los Angeles, almost 400 miles away.
“I was impressed,” Martha admitted.
They became engaged not long afterward and, “Within a year,” David wrote, “Martha Frankel…ended my 40 years of bachelorhood.”
The Stern’s now enjoy their two children and eight grandchildren who live nearby in the land. As David continued to pursue his many “writing projects” and Martha became an accomplished artist, they have become recognized as “pillars of the Messianic Jewish movement, having made an incalculable impact on the development of Messianic Judaism.”
David is a fourth-generation native of Los Angeles. In 1853, his great-grandfather, Elias Lavanthal, came by covered wagon to what was then a village of about 2,000 people.
“They must have been among the town’s first 20 Jews,” said Stern. “I praise God for my Jewish identity and upbringing. We…celebrated Passover and Chanukkah at home. [My mother] and I read the Torah aloud together when I was eight. I attended our synagogue’s Sunday school for ten years and was considered so promising that Rabbi Max Dubin wanted me to become a rabbi too.”
Stern’s educational background includes a Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, a graduate course at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University), and a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University. He taught the first course in Judaism and Christianity at Fuller Theological Seminary and worked as a professor at UCLA. What he describes as his spiritual odyssey began at age 15 when he discovered that he had been unhappy with his life without knowing it.
“I tried to construct a meaningful life,” Stern wrote about that period. “Since I didn’t know what life meant, this wasn’t easy!”
As time passed, though Stern had “glamorous hobbies—mountain-climbing, water-skiing and surfing.” (In 1963 he coauthored the Surfing Guide to Southern California, reprinted in 1998 and still considered a classic by surfers.) “Family, friends and strangers saw my life as one of excitement and purpose. But my nagging inner question, ‘What does life mean?’ drew a blank.”
Consequently, Stern looked into “about two dozen religions, some Eastern, some Western, some—who knows?” It never occurred to him to investigate either Judaism or Christianity. But one night, Stern stayed in a motel where the owners had placed a magazine of Christian testimonies on the nightstand.
“I read how Jesus had brought peace, order and meaning to the lives of the men who wrote them and tears welled up in my eyes. But tears prove nothing—I cry over stories in Reader’s Digest too. Still, I now see that this was God’s first move in the events leading to my salvation.”
Later, while continuing to examine Christianity, Stern discovered Romans 10:9:
“If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
“To this day I can’t explain how, but I realized I had come to believe that Jesus is Lord—he alone and not all of us—and that God raised him from the dead—him alone and not all of us. So I confessed aloud to God and according to that verse I was, at that moment, saved.”
Stern is a Jew who came to know Jesus, Yeshua the Messiah, as a complete Jew, not a convert to Christianity, who then had the courage, energy and tenacity to follow the prophet Micah’s exhortation:
“Arise, plead your case before the mountains and let the hills hear your voice.” Micah 6:1
David Stern has pleaded his case eloquently and the world is better for it.
“Through saving me and giving me this work,” Stern wrote, “God has given meaning and purpose to my life. He has also given me a wonderful wife and children and a place to live in the land of Israel, the home of the Jewish people.”
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Cliff Keller lives in Jerusalem, Israel with his wife, Marcia after making Aliyah in the spring of 2011 from the United States. His most recent novel is a work of historical biblical fiction entitled The Lion or The Lamb: Samson Ruth and Salvation. Cliff also blogs at Standing by the Gate and has a writing website, goodStories.