I was putzing around in my kitchen the day after April Fools’ when I got a call from a number in Utah. “Hi,” the voice on the phone said. “This is Judy, Elder Christofferson’s assistant. Is this Jason Olson?”
“Yes, this is him,” I said. And had she really said Elder Christofferson? Like…the apostle?
“Elder Christofferson would like to speak to you about sharing your story in General Conference this weekend. Are you free to speak with him?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said. “I’d love to.”
My wife, Sara, was standing right by me at the time. “Who is it?” she mouthed.
“Elder Christofferson,” I mouthed back, feeling a mix of excitement and disbelief. I could barely believe that one of the Twelve Apostles wanted to make my story part of his semi-annual conference message to the 16 million members of our Church.
A moment later Elder Christofferson was on the phone. He’d heard a part of my conversion story from 20 years before and said he wanted to make sure I was OK with him sharing it.
I imagine that most people who get a call like that are thrilled to say yes, and I was no exception. The call was especially moving to me, though, because for the past year and a half, I’d been feeling prompted to share my story and even working on the manuscript of a memoir. It meant a lot to me to know that an apostle felt the same prompting that my story could help bless the lives of others.
And so that Sunday, my wife and I listened alongside millions of Latter-day Saints around the world while an apostle of the Lord told everyone about the time I almost burned the Book of Mormon I’d been given by one of my closest high school friends…
…and how God held me back.
This is more of that story.
I was born and raised Jewish. Though my father was Lutheran, he and my mother agreed to raise their children in her faith and the faith of her ancestors. I was very happy with their decision. I loved the smells and tastes of the holy days, the feel of Hebrew words in my mouth as I recited scriptures and prayers, the legacy of study and knowledge rabbis introduced me to, and above all else the feeling of closeness to God I felt by carrying on his ancient covenant with the house of Israel.
Every Jewish child learns, of course, that not everyone loves our faith like we do. My grandfather had served as a medic for the US army in WWII–a war our country entered too late to save most of Europe’s Jews.
The first time I remember personally dealing with anti-Semitism, I was about twelve years old. Some Jewish friends and I were playing tackle football at our neighborhood park in Scottsdale, Arizona. No pads, no helmets. A brutal kind of fun in the Arizona desert heat. The grass barely grew in the sandy field. We still liked to run and laugh and mess around.
On this particular day, not long before my bar mitzvah, some other kids from the school who didn’t like us much came by the park on their bikes. At my school, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was Jewish because we took the Jewish holidays off from school. These boys knew who we were. And maybe they thought that having our own holidays made us weird. Or maybe they just thought it would make them feel tough to pick on somebody else. Anyway, they got off their bikes and started making fun of us and shoving us around. As we got into a yelling match, one of them shouted, “You Jews should go back to the gas chambers!”
It was the first time I got into a fistfight.
My friends were proud of me for standing up to the bullies. We were proud of being Jewish, even as we knew there would be times we would have to fight, one way or another, for our faith.
Over the course of Jewish history, our ancestors had faced different obstacles in maintaining the faith. Some had kept true to God’s covenant with Israel as Christian neighbors tried to make them conform to the majority religion by force: through pogroms, through the Inquisition, through official discrimination and informal bullying. At other times, Jews had been enticed away from the faith by a lack of pressure: when there was less prejudice against Jews, it was easier to drift into the mainstream culture and pick up other religions out of convenience, or for worldly rewards.
As modern American Jews, we didn’t face the same degree of pressure many of our ancestors did. Sometimes we’d be faced with a bully, or the pressure of a classmate sure we were going to hell for not accepting Jesus. Far more often, we’d face the appeal of Christian youth groups and the invitations of Christian missionaries.
In my Reform congregation, leaders consistently expressed respect and tolerance for Christianity but warned us against conversion. “Christianity is a beautiful religion,” our head rabbi once said during Hebrew school, “and we honor our Christian neighbors in their faith. But as Jews, Christianity is not for us.”
When I was 14 years old, though, they brought in a guest speaker to our “Hebrew High” program to give us a more detailed preparation against conversion attempts by Christian movements, including groups known as Messianic Jews. Messianic Jews, by mixing acceptance of Jesus with Jewish symbols and traditions, were seen as a particular threat to Jewish youth.
Having been warned against them, we were shocked when the guest speaker, who introduced himself as Mitch, walked in wearing a “Jews for Jesus” T-shirt. Speaking with apparent conviction, he told how scriptures from the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, foresaw Jesus as the Messiah. Though my father was a Christian, I hadn’t even realized there were supposed prophecies of Jesus in our Jewish scriptures. As he presented the Christian case, I felt like maybe Isaiah and other prophets might actually be talking about Jesus. When Mitch told us three people in the room had accepted Jesus into their hearts, the thought would not leave my mind that maybe I was one of them.
But after a short break, the speaker came back dressed as an orthodox rabbi and explained that his name was really Tovia Singer. Rabbi Singer had wanted to introduce us in a dramatic, memorable way to the types of arguments Christian missionaries might use. As he explained the gaps in Christian reasoning and talked us through a Jewish interpretation of those same scriptures, I felt embarrassed for taking “Mitch” so seriously.
That was a turning point in my life. Rabbi Singer was the first rabbi I knew who presented a direct challenge to Christian teachings. I admired his conviction and clarity. I wanted to stand for truth, even if it meant directly rejecting things my father believed in. Hadn’t Abraham destroyed the idols of his father?
After Rabbi Singer left, I looked up his website and began to study. I was voracious. In the beautiful Tanakh I’d been given at my bar mitzvah, I highlighted and studied every prophecy I could find that might be about the Messiah. I was determined to become one of the greatest Jewish counter-missionaries ever.
As my confidence grew, I wanted real practice. Not just a rabbi in a Jews for Jesus T-shirt: I wanted to face off with Christians who were serious about their religion. As it happened, I had a few friends who were serious about their faith and even planning to serve one day as missionaries–for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I knew these were good guys. Shea Owens, Dave Thaxton, and Matt Nelson would hang out at my house; I was comfortable in their homes. I trusted them to let me be honest about my beliefs and what I’d learned studying the scriptures. I also believed I could convince my Latter-day Saint friends that they were wrong about Jesus being the promised Messiah. And if I could defend myself against these future missionaries as a freshman, I would surely have the strength to protect myself from Christianity later.
Shea, Dave, and I met for weeks during lunch, discussing and debating religion. I had grown up singing songs like “David Melech Israel,”–David, King of Israel–that made me feel the ancient hope for a returning king who would restore a lost glory to the children of Israel and usher in a better age. It was clear to me that Jesus had not fulfilled that hope. He had been killed rather than crowned. In the years after his death, the temple had been destroyed and life for Jews had gotten worse. From my study, I understood there were scriptures Christians interpreted as predicting Jesus’ suffering. Looking at the Hebrew and at history, I preferred interpretations that were about the suffering of the Jewish people as a whole.
Like many Christians, Shea and Dave were unconcerned about Jesus’ failure to fulfill many Messianic prophecies during his life because they believed in a Second Coming. Unlike many Christians, however, they didn’t seem to believe that Jesus’ life had marked the end of the need for key features of Jewish life in the Tanakh, which they were studying in seminary as the Old Testament. My Latter-day Saint friends didn’t think God’s covenant with Israel was over. They didn’t see the destruction of the temple, as many Christians did, as a sign that temple worship was over. My attempts to show my friends’ that their beliefs were false had unintentionally opened me up to finding out their beliefs were intriguing.
Our conversations began to turn more deep and serious. Gradually, those talks moved more and more from the lunchroom to the quiet of the library after school. I still stretched my Latter-day Saint friends, questioning them incessantly, like a good Jewish boy should do. They didn’t get defensive. They showed respect for my beliefs. But they also had real answers about theirs.
One day, Dave finally built up the courage to offer me a Book of Mormon. “Jason,” he said, “it’s been fun discussing religion with you these past months. We thought you might benefit from reading the Book of Mormon. It’s our sacred book of scripture and it’s my honor to give you one.” He and Shea hand wrote their “testimonies” in it.
I felt strange. On the one hand, I was curious about their religion. Their approach seemed so flexible and faithful. I had grown especially curious about what made the Latter-day Saints different from other Christians. All I could remember being taught at Hebrew High was that the Book of Mormon was about gold plates and American Indians, but there was clearly more to it. And as a good Jewish boy, how could I turn down a book?
Still, I was reluctant to take it. It said “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” right on the cover. Dave’s attempt to share his religion was exactly the sort of thing Rabbi Singer had warned us against. And what would my mother think if she found me studying a Christian book–a volume of Mormon scripture?
Torn over what to do, it wasn’t the book that made up my mind–but my friendship with Dave. I remember thinking that Dave was the sort of person who would light Hanukkah candles with me if I invited him. He was a real friend. Despite my reservations, I decided I would take the book.
I snuck it home in my backpack, hiding it like contraband.
The Book of Mormon stayed in my backpack for a long time. Long enough to get jostled, bent, and sometimes crushed by the heavy textbooks I shoved over it every day. Once, Dave saw that battered blue cover. He was disappointed and hurt that I was treating his sacred book in that way.
I felt guilty about letting my friend down by ignoring the book. I also felt guilty, though, about letting my family down by holding onto it. I even felt guilty for letting down Rabbi Singer, who I barely knew!
One night, I decided just to be done with it. I slipped a lighter into my pocket. I tucked the Book of Mormon under my shirt. Then I snuck out to the backyard to burn the book.
As I was just about to flick the switch to start up the flames, I felt a voice, at once firm and gentle, pierce my mind and heart. “Do not burn my book,” it said.
I hesitated. Was that the voice of God holding me back? Or was my mind playing tricks on me?
I didn’t want to do anything sacrilegious. Was I going to fall for this fake Mormon propaganda the same way I was ready to listen to “Mitch,” the fake Jews for Jesus missionary? I held up the lighter again.
But that feeling of a voice pressed again. “Go to your room and read my book,” it seemed to say.
I hesitated again. How would I feel if Dave burned the Torah scroll from which I had chanted for my bar mitzvah? Burning a book, even if it was not wholly true, was hardly a solution. And if there was any chance this voice, and this book, came from my God–the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–I might as well read it and settle the question for myself once and for all.
I put the lighter away, snuck the book back inside, and began to read.
I had only gotten as far as the title page when I realized the Book of Mormon was no ordinary book. The Book of Mormon, the prophet Moroni claimed at the outset, “is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.” Not only was I surprised to find myself addressed as a member of the house of Israel: I was surprised to find this book overtly arguing that God had not abandoned his covenant with us.
Rabbi Singer had not prepared me for this.
In almost the same breath, however, the Book of Mormon challenged my beliefs. The next phrase said the book was written “to the convincing of Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God.” It was an uncomfortable proposition. I’d debated plenty with Shea and Dave whether Jesus might be the Christ, the Messiah, foretold in the Tanakh. I wasn’t aware of anything in Jewish tradition or scripture, however, to support the notion that the Messiah–or any other human–might somehow be God.
I often stayed up late at night, reading by lamplight, to study the book and puzzle through the challenge it presented. The book’s fundamental claim of Jesus as a divine Messiah was not something I accepted. And yet, the Book of Mormon also surprised me. It dealt with themes of exile and promise and chosenness and suffering in ways that spoke to me as a Jew. And the Book of Mormon regularly made reference to the unique role of God’s covenant with Israel and the value of the Jewish people–even after Jesus’ lifetime.
In the book, Jesus himself spoke about the continued role Jews would play in sacred history:
And because I said unto you that old things have passed away, I do not destroy that which hath been spoken concerning things which are to come. For behold, the covenant which I have made with my people is not all fulfilled; but the law which was given unto Moses hath an end in me (3 Nephi 15:7-8; italics added).
The Book of Mormon and its testimony of Jesus Christ were supposed to “restore” the Jewish people, and the other parts of the House of Israel, to the heights of spiritual purity and righteousness they found when they made a collective covenant with him on Mount Sinai.
The Book of Mormon’s Jesus showed me everything I was looking for in a Messiah. I perceived his transcendent power, as well as his immanent presence in the world, in the life of the Jewish people, and in my own life. Reading the book, I began to feel the same hope as Dave and Shea that Jesus was real and would come again to fulfill the rest of the Messianic prophecies.
I wasn’t sure yet what to make of that hope. What I wanted from Jesus would be a “restoration” of Jewish holiness and covenant renewal, not a conversion to a new religion. Still, the Book of Mormon was like a Middle Testament for me, a bridge between the emphases of the Tanakh and the Christian New Testament. I was intrigued by it. I was annoyed by it. Sometimes I was deeply moved by it. When I reached the end, I knelt to pray about it.
There are moments in life that transcend the limits of our understanding. Moments that fill the heart, enlarge the soul. Moments when God writes his will on us, when the flesh of our hearts becomes his tablet.
I found myself closing my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. The next moment, I was filled from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet with the spirit of God. I felt full of light. Like I was glowing with it.
When I rose from my prayer, I knew for myself that the Book of Mormon was true.
There is a difference between a spiritual turning point like I experienced and the actual process of changing religions.
When I confided in Shea that I believed the Book of Mormon was the word of God, I immediately asked him to baptize me–but begged him to do so in secret. I wanted to live out my conviction that the Book of Mormon was from God and that Jesus was the Messiah while preserving all that I loved in Judaism and preparing to pass it on someday by raising a Jewish family.
I desperately wanted to live a Jewish life. After all, I whole-heartedly committed to do so in my bar mitzvah. Couldn’t I secretly have a Latter-day Saint baptism while preserving all that?
It turned out not to be so simple. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would not baptize me before age 18 without parental consent. And my parents, mourning my departure from tradition and concerned about what kind of group I’d gotten involved with, were understandably resistant. They had me meet with all kinds of experts, from psychiatric counselors to an anti-cult specialist, in the hopes that I would give up my convictions.
None of that changed what I’d felt. But my mother made one decision that would inscribe Judaism still more deeply into my soul and never let me forget my people or the Torah. It would later drive me to the land of Israel. For three years, I had weekly one on one studies with an Orthodox rabbi in Phoenix, Rabbi Raphael Landesman, that enriched the ineradicable Jewish part of my soul and nearly kept me in the Torah fold. I was closer to that rabbi than any other religious leader–but I could not shake, I could not deny, my experience with the Book of Mormon. I knew it was true, and I knew that God knew it.
Rabbi Landesman was patient with me whenever I shared convictions I’d gained through the Latter-day restoration of the gospel. In response to my belief that Jesus would come again to finish the Messiah’s work, he said simply, “We can’t know for sure that Jesus will be the Messiah. You hope he will be the Messiah, but you don’t know for sure, since he has not fulfilled all the prophecies the Messiah is to fulfill. I will tell you this: When the Messiah comes and fulfills all the prophecies, I will ask him if it is his first or second time coming….But until that day comes, it is your duty in the covenant to live the Torah.”
I couldn’t explain to the rabbi or envision for myself just how balancing my heritage with a new faith would work, but I felt I needed to be baptized, whatever pain it might cause my family. In the end, my mother’s father helped me stay connected to my family when I made my decision. Though my choice was certainly not what he and my grandmother envisioned for their eldest grandson, he took time to reach out shortly before I was baptized.
After listening to my feelings in a multi-day conversation, he said, “Jason, I can tell you sincerely believe in the Book of Mormon and Jesus. You know what? If you lived in the time of Jesus, I think you probably would have been one of his first disciples,” he said. “Now, I don’t believe in any of it, but I respect that you do.” I was moved to know that his relationship with me was more important than our differences. In all my relationships, I hope I have acted in a way worthy of his example.
I was baptized on August 16, 2003. For me, that was not the end of the story, but the beginning of a winding journey to meld my covenant heritage in Judaism with the unique teachings and experiences I’ve enjoyed as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wrestled with what my own particular mix of faiths meant as a Latter-day Saint missionary in New Jersey and New York. I’ve asked myself what my relationship is to two lands of promise for my people after making aliyah and living in Israel in my early 20s, as a student who attended both Brigham Young University and Brandeis, and as a Latter-day Saint chaplain in the US Navy.
I don’t have all the answers. Like my grandfather, I aspire to lead out in respect for those who may take issue with my decisions or beliefs. But in my life, I’ve been blessed to experience the beauty of two faiths. I can only hope that others find some beauty and meaning in my story.
Jason Olson is collaborating with award-winning Latter-day Saint novelist and poet James Goldberg to complete a memoir describing his experiences. To learn more about the project or contribute in support of its completion, visit https://www.facebook.com/donate/885434675259320/ or write Jason at [email protected].
Jason OlsonJune 17, 2020
Richard Whaley, I served as a Latter-day Saint Navy Chaplain from 2014-2020. Served in Japan, on a cruiser, and with Marines in North Carolina. It was a wonderful ministry!
Jason OlsonJune 8, 2020
Dear Becca, thank you for sharing you story. How lovely. The Mission President who presided over Scottsdale, Arizona, when I was baptized, Tracy Watson, gave Elder Christofferson my story. Elder Christofferson was searching for stories about the Book of Mormon and conversion.