Jacob Gartenhaus — a true Israelite

by Doug Kutilek

Jacob Gartenhaus (1896-1984) was born in Bukowsko, a small village in the far southeastern part of modern Poland, near the borders with Slovakia and Ukraine, though when he was born there, it was part of the immense but tottering Austrian-Hungarian Empire (which disappeared some 20 years later during World War I). The village was isolated geographically, but also culturally, being almost wholly composed of rigidly observant Orthodox Jews. Jacob, like his older brother Zev (there was also an older sister), was immersed in the language and literature of rabbinic Judaism from infancy, and was being prepared by his father to be a rabbi. The family, like all of their neighbors, spoke Yiddish. Jacob’s father occupied nearly every waking moment — and frequent self-imposed night vigils — in traditional prayers, study of rabbinic literature, and attendance at the synagogue, rarely even laboring to provide for the family (Jacob’s mother kept a small shop which provided their barest of material needs).

Jacob’s first exposure to the outside world came when at age ten he accidentally drank acid which badly damaged his throat. He was rushed for medical care to a larger town some miles away, and later was sent for several months to a hospital in Vienna, where he discovered Gentiles, as well as non-observant Jews, were not the menacing “ogres” he was led to believe they were.

At 16, with no job prospects and facing the possibility of being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, he decided to leave for America (against his parents’ strongest wishes), though he had no money, no contacts, and spoke no English. He made it as far as Berlin (illegally crossing the border without papers), before necessity ultimately compelled him to return home. He set out a second time, with papers, money, and parental blessing. He visited his brother in Vienna on the way (discovering he had become a Christian), before sailing via Hamburg for New York, knowing only the name of an uncle who moved there before Jacob’s birth.

In New York, all the ingrained Orthodox practices fell by the wayside, and the only goal in Jacob’s life was to work hard and get rich. He took work in a hat factory. His brother sent him evangelistic letters from Vienna and ultimately traveled to America to witness to him face to face. Jacob also encountered missionaries working with Jews. He began to attend a Jewish mission, and after great struggle and much study of the New Testament, recognized Jesus of Nazareth as Israel’s promised Messiah. Jacob immediately began to endure repeated severe beatings. He was ostracized by relatives and friends. Intense pressure was put on him to renounce Christ and return to Jewish tradition.

Soon called to preach (a ministry that would last 65 years!), he enrolled at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and then Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, graduating from both. During his student days in both schools, Jacob was continually and fervently active in Jewish evangelism, enduring great reproach for the name of Christ. With his formal education complete, Jacob became the head of the department of Jewish Evangelism for the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, a ministry he continued for 27 years. His focus was chiefly on Jews in the Southern United States (some 800,000 in those days), though he made frequent trips to foreign countries — Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. He held numerous citywide meetings to educate Christians on Judaism and Jewish evangelism, to expose and refute anti-Semitism, and to help create rapport between Christians and Jews.

No doubt, Jacob’s most gratifying convert was his own father, who had moved to Palestine in the 1910s and maintained his attempts to “establish his own righteousness” by keeping the traditions of the rabbis, who at 90 confessed Jesus as his Messiah during the final visit Jacob had with him.

In 1949, Jacob founded an independent work, the International Board of Jewish Missions in Chattanooga, TN. This work, with a worldwide outreach, continues the ministry of Jewish evangelism, more than a third of a century after Jacob Gartenhaus departed to be with Christ. They publish a magazine, Everlasting Nation, and, have literature available.

Gartenhaus authored more than two dozen books, nearly all of them involved with evangelizing Jews with the Gospel message. The most famous of these is probably Winning Jews to Christ (Zondervan, 1963), which gives a solid introduction to Jewish literature, beliefs, and perspectives, and suggests methods for effectively approaching Jews with the Gospel. He also provided sketches of the lives of notable Jewish Christians — including Alfred Edersheim, David Baron, Christian David Ginsburg, August Neander, and others (33 in all) — in Famous Hebrew Christians (Baker, 1979). His autobiography is Traitor? A Jew, A Book, A Miracle (IBJM, 1980).

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