Ilya Lizorkin had to shift gears. He started a worship service for Russian Jews, and Muslims showed up. Of course, he didn't start the thing at all but Jesus did, and His Spirit blows where it wills. Men of understanding let it blow and step out of the way.
I came to learn about the "Rock of Israel" congregation (don't call it a church) while looking for something positive in the early weeks of last summer's Israeli-Lebanese troubles. I happened to run into Fred Klett at the post office and vaguely knew of his founding of CHAIM, a Christian ministry camped out in promises to bring the Jews back in the last days: "And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has power to graft them in again" (Romans 11:23).
Fred explained that he had met Marko Malyj, son of Ukrainian immigrants, at the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism. Add another Soviet Jewish immigrant with a Muslim father, and a Bible study taught in Russian and English was formed. (Did you know that the Philadelphia area has 100,000 Russian speakers, most of whom don't know their right hand from their left spiritually? Fifty thousand of these are Russian Jews, the rich silt of three waves of immigration-the last in 1992-prompted by tyranny and economic poverty in the faltering Soviet Union.)
A providential encounter with two influential Russian Jewish women in the community resulted in another group, and soon there were several cells-and the dawning recognition that it was about time for a bona fide congregation. Fred and Marko heard about Ilya Lizorkin at Reformed Theological Seminary in Florida and "began working on getting Ilya to come to Philadelphia."
Ilya invited me to his office. I asked how he became a Christian and he said, "I wouldn't put it that way. I became a follower of the Messiah." He likes to call himself a Messianic Jew or a Jewish Christian, and I duly noted the semantic preference. It was my first hint at a cultural-religious sensitivity that has been crucial to the success of the mission of reaching out to Jewish and Muslim transplants.
Ilya's own spiritual odyssey illustrates this. Born in Samarkand, the fourth-holiest city of Islam, he spent his first years in Odessa, Ukraine, moved to Tajikistan at age 8, and then returned to Ukraine to pursue nursing. He became a believer through "Jews for Jesus" on the streets of Odessa in the wake of perestroika, a de-regionalized limbo and religious vacuum left by the implosion of the Soviet Union. Ilya tells me that Russian Jews felt culturally Jewish but not religiously Jewish at the time. And so, though ironic to American ears, "Jews for Jesus" actually offered disaffected religious nomads like Ilya more Jewishness.
This historic peculiarity explains the surprising twist in the "Rock of Israel" founding. Ilya was fishing for Russian Jews and netted a family from Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic that is nominally Muslim. He discovered the family was no more religiously Muslim than Ilya had been religiously Jewish. One Tajikistan woman (who during worship follows the Muslim practice of "rubbing the blessing" into her face), when asked about her attendance at Rock of Israel, replied that she comes "because my countryman runs it."
Rock of Israel obliges by including on its liturgical calendar not only Jewish holidays but Muslim nonreligious holidays like Norooz, a spring equinox celebration from which Ilya preaches the Resurrection. I worshipped with Rock of Israel on two Saturday evenings, and we opened with "the Sh'ma" from Deuteronomy 6: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one . . ." (but in Hebrew).
I got to hear Andrei from Odessa on electric bass. I broke bread with a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn named Lauren at the home of her Kyrgyzstan friends Ulan and Mira, whom she led to the Lord-after her own conversion by a cabby in New York. Our being all together reminded me somehow of the wall hanging I had spotted in Ilya's office:
"The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:6).