The crowd of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) referred to in the Bible, has grown exponentially over the thousands of years that have passed, since the writer of the epistle reflected on those who has preceded him and his brethren. As we now ponder those who we know and those whom we know of, that have lived as witnesses of the light and compassion of Jesus, we have godly heroes to whom we look and admire” (Psalm 16:3)
One of these exemplary witnesses is Dr Leopold Cohn, respected Rabbi and the founder of Chosen People Ministries. In 1862, life began for Leopold in the ghetto of a town called Berezna, Eastern Hungary. Orphaned at the age of seven years, it was the crushing loneliness and desperate battle for survival of this tragic childhood, that Leopold reflected upon in later years, as the training ground which taught him to trust wholeheartedly in God.
This trust and desire for God led Leopold to train with exceptional diligence, to become an ordained Rabbi and at this time he was also blessed with a wonderful wife, called Rose. In accordance with tradition, Leopold moved into his wife’s paternal home to devote himself to studying sacred texts.
Leopold had two matters that God had put upon his heart and like Jacob, he wrestled with them in tension with his absolute love and trust in the Lord. The first of these matters was the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland and the enduring suffering and loss that had brought for thousands of years.
The wait for the Messiah to bring deliverance from their exile was the second and most pressing matter for Leopold; in the desperation and sense of wandering he was experiencing in being Jewish in Europe, he took an active approach to understand the coming of the Messiah; searching the Talmud earnestly.
As part of his daily prayer and devotion, Leopold would recite the twelfth article of the Jewish Creed; “I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah and, though He tarry, yet will I wait daily for His coming.” As we find in our personal devotions, the consistency of our prayers leads to deeper desire for that object that we seek, but also works a cyclical effect, causing our hearts to be reshaped by the new and good desires we choose: “As a man thinks, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7).
For Leopold, this daily repetition led to a fiery and unquenchable passion for the coming of the Messiah, but he was challenged and perplexed by the seeming contradiction in the evolution of the Talmudic school of thought, about the timing of the Messiah’s coming: The Talmudic literature states that the world will stand for 6,000 years in total, with the Messiah coming after the first 4,000 years, and His reign commencing for the remaining 2,000 years of the world as we know it, with wicked kingdoms destroyed.
This is affirmed by the Holy Scriptures; in the book of Daniel, there is remarkable clarity and context for the coming of the Messiah, and Leopold had the wisdom and boldness of Daniel in identifying that which had been covered up for a long time; that Daniel 9:24 reveals that the coming of the Messiah ought to have taken place 400 years after Daniel received the prophecy of the 70 weeks.
This did not appear to be addressed, except in philosophical terms, in the Talmudic writings that follow this period in which the Messiah ought to have appeared. Not only this, but it had become culturally unacceptable within the Jewish community to raise challenges or doubts, as to the apparent failure of the Messiah to appear at the appointed time.
Leopold found this to be the case when he raised it at Hanukkah, with his own congregation during his service. A pattern emerged that day of intense resistance and active aggression against Leopold for raising this thread of thought, regarding the timing of the Messiah’s coming. Leopold was essentially forced to flee to New York, America, in his quest for knowledge and understanding, as that was a city renowned in the world at that time for both a thriving Jewish community, and a progressive and intellectual way of life.
In New York, Leopold had a divine appointment he had not foreseen, coming across a sign for a “Jewish Meeting” during his daily walk, he entered to find a Messianic congregation. Shocked by the strangeness of a congregation at once so familiar, and yet so alien in its unorthodox customs of uncovered heads and mixed seating, Leopold left, but not before getting the home address of the Pastor.
A visit to the home of the Pastor, revealed him to be an accomplished and respected Talmudic scholar himself and Leopold accepted a copy of the New Testament from him. Leopold raced home to read the New Testament, which he did voraciously! Following 14 hours of continual reading, he concluded that he did not understand much of it but was clear about the parts he could; that the name of the Messiah was Yeshua, that he was born in Bethlehem, lived in Jerusalem, taught the Jewish people and did indeed come at just the time appointed by the prophet Daniel. Leopold stated that in this knowledge, his joy was boundless.
That joy was almost immediately juxtaposed with sorrow, as his host and community, initially so warm and respectful to Leopold, turned quickly to the opposite extreme. Shouting and abusing him as stupid and arrogant, foolish and deceitful, members of the Jewish community confronted Leopold with the fact that this Yeshua of whom he spoke, was in fact the Jesus of the Christians, who had been persecuting the Jews for centuries in their exile.
Leopold was stunned and confused, fearing that he would be committing idolatry by believing in Yeshua, if he was one and the same as Jesus. In what was now a mark of his character and habit of a lifetime; he sought scriptural understanding. In the light of the New Testament, Leopold found the Law and Prophets, illuminated by the light of the World, Jesus. Leopold saw that Yeshua and Jesus were one and the same, and that chapter 53 of Isaiah in the Old Testament scriptures, was a clear and parallel prophecy of the life, suffering and death of Jesus.
Finding this truth which refuted every other belief and possibility, Leopold separated himself from his old way of life and being, to become a new creation in Christ. Leopold had received revelation of the Messiah and the long awaited and desired salvation of the Jewish people. Unable to keep this truth to himself, Leopold began to declare this world changing revelation to his community.
The price of making such a drastic, unorthodox and taboo change of mind and lifestyle, caused him to be ostracised by the Jewish community, his New York compatriots even writing to his wife and children in Hungary to tell them of Leopold’s “apostasy”. Being estranged from his wife and children, who cut off communication with him, rejected and abused by the orthodox community of Jews who inclined to violence against him, Leopold was urgently sent away under cover of dark.
Much like the apostle Paul, Leopold fled, as it was arranged by the Pastor he had received the New Testament from, for him to go to Scotland and live in Christian community. At Barklay Church, Edinburgh, Leopold was received by an understanding and kind Christian community whose hearts God had prepared to receive him, but also to understand the profundity of witness to the Jewish people. This love for the Jewish people was evidenced in Edinburgh from letters of encouragement and prayer, reaching Leopold as he himself went through the dark night of the soul, which those on their way to their God ordained destiny must face.
Persevering, Leopold took baptism and made a public declaration of faith and confession in Christ. Incredibly, Leopold did this knowing in his spirit in the weeks before his baptism, that he would face the fury of Satan and the gates of hell in opposition. What can the opposition of the enemy mean in context of the glory, truth and victory of Christ? Nothing, and therefore not only did Leopold take baptism, but he returned to New York to persevere in ministry to his beloved community, and God’s chosen people, the Jews.
Such was Leopold’s passion for his people, that not only did he secure a building in Brownsville for preaching and evangelism in the surrounding areas, but he also set about in practical mission, alleviating the physical suffering of the many Jewish immigrants, who needed food, clothing and basic necessities and support, as they flooded into New York.
Whilst Leopold’s ministry grew quickly and was having a great impact, he was facing persecution from his own community and the Christian community was slow in aiding or supporting him. God’s grace shone bright in the darkness and Leopold’s wife and children were not only reconciled to him, but came to faith and joined him in New York! What joy and affirmation of faith must have come upon Leopold in this greatest of consolations? The unity of Leopold, Rose and their children is what carried them through the poverty, suffering and persecution they suffered as they persevered in Jewish Mission.
The resistance Leopold and his family faced is revealing of the harrowing persecution the Jewish people had themselves faced for many centuries; accused by the Christian church of being subhuman and treated as such. The deep trauma of this shocking discrimination, caused violent outbursts because the community feared that if they allowed any of member to turn from worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they would never be rescued by their Messiah, and their exile from Israel would be prolonged. The sad reality is that the established church had for many centuries, disenfranchised Jewish believers, and marred their own witness of Jesus to the Jewish community, through their aggressive and violent persecution of them.
In this confused and fearful climate, Leopold persevered in loving his people, sharing the gospel and serving the poor. Though persecuted even within his own ministry, even by those who had come to faith through his love and bravery, as well as those angered on the outside, Leopold bore his sorrows privately as he carried the great weight of his personal cross.
He was aware of the importance of his witness and encouragement for the sake of the gospel, and Leopold continued to hope, continued to be kind and upbeat. This is a great testament to Leopold’s character, that though he had such a sensitive spirit, earnestly seeking relationship with God and keeping his heart tender for his community, he was resilient in the bitter and vehement persecution that continually accompanied him.
This perseverance resulted in over 1,000 Jewish people coming to faith in Yeshua, and the kind of community impact that caused people from all aspects of the diverse society of New York to respect and honour Leopold, standing with him to the end of his life, as God caused His own favour to rest upon his servant.
This favour assured Leopold and those around him, whether friend or foe, that he was a beloved and obedient servant of the Most High; Wheaton College in Illinois, a prestigious and noted Christian educational institution, conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity upon him in 1930, when the persecution against him was at its most intense.
Dr Leopold Cohn passed away on 19th December 1937, and the ministry he had founded in 1892, came to be known as Chosen People Ministries, named after a newsletter he produced from the early days of his ministry. By god’s grace, the legacy of Dr Cohn now continues, 127 years later, as Chosen People Ministries operates internationally, serving in 17 countries, including Israel.