History in First Person: Cheryl Gonzales

The fourth director recounts how the LORD opened her eyes to the Jewishness of Jesus and the Scriptures and then how she led Shoresh USA through a ministry shift as the Second Intifada killed all tourism to Israel

Editor’s note: CMJ USA was renamed Shoresh USA in 1992. The CMJ USA name was restored by the board in 2007. 

Looking back on my time with Shoresh USA, I am reminded that the Lord works when we aren’t looking. And as I ponder further, I am quite certain that what I received during my season with Shoresh was far more than I contributed.  

It is quite humbling to be counted among such Shoresh giants as those who came before and after me, but oh how grateful I am that the Lord gave me this gift called Shoresh. The title of Executive Director never felt appropriate for me, but I do see how the Lord allowed me to hold that position in the ministry during a downturn for tours to Israel. Prior to my coming on board, the major focus of Shoresh had been taking groups to Israel, and I was blessed to go on my second and third trips to Israel with Neil and Marcia Lebhar. 

With the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel tours were put on hold and eventually came to a complete stop. Like Gideon’s army, the Lord whittled the size of Shoresh to a minimum and the focus became mostly local in northeast Florida. Our team was small: Jody Hysler, Mary Reilly, myself, and the Board, until eventually it was only me and a local board. I stayed on with Shoresh until 2008 when the Lord made it clear it was time for me to move on. During those eight years, the Lord surprised us with the doors he opened in the local Jewish community and in the local Church. 

Looking back, I can see that beginning in 1995 the Lord was ordering my steps, which would not only lead to Shoresh but change my understanding of Scripture forever. During those five years, I learned that Jesus was Jewish from a substitute retreat speaker, Dee Baxter. Dee, her husband Carlon, and their family became treasured friends. After that retreat, I found myself in other conferences where a hunger was created for the Hebrew language, the biblical feasts, and the Hebraic context of Scripture as a whole. And after my first trip to Israel with Dee and Carlton Baxter, I encountered Shoresh. I can’t remember the exact year I met Marcia Lebhar, but I do remember it was at a Passover Seder hosted by Shoresh and led by Stan Kellner. The Lord was placing a fire in me for Jewish ministry, and I had no idea how to manage that flame.

Cheryl Gonzales

Oddly, the Lord’s plan led me to leave my job in the mortgage industry and take on a temporary position with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in Jacksonville. To my surprise, as I was leaving the job interview with BGEA, Marcia called and invited me to join Shoresh USA after my time with the Billy Graham crusade. Specifically, the invitation was to be a witness in the Jewish community. What that would look like, we had no idea.  

We never imagined there would be a Jewish connection with the Billy Graham Crusade and Shoresh, but the Lord was clearly at work. I realize that the term “crusade” is completely counter to our hearts for the Jewish people. The word conjures up horrific abuse against them. Why would the Lord have me there when I wanted to be with Shoresh? The Lord was working his plan. One day I answered a phone call from a local rabbi who called the Billy Graham office wanting to meet Dr. Graham! From that chance phone call, a friendship began that opened doors into the Jewish community that I could have never opened.  

Photo by Paul M. Walsh via Wikimedia Commons

Billy Graham

After the crusade left town, I joined Shoresh and began pursuing additional friendships in the Jewish community. I babysat children, baked challah, attended Hebrew classes, took elderly ladies to Shabbat services, hung out at a bookstore enjoying Klezmer music, went to Seders and Yom Kippur services and more. And I prayed for my new friends. How I miss them and weep for them as I write this remembrance. I wish I had photos of each face, but they are in my memory and in my heart. Everyone reading these newsletters believes that Yeshua is the Messiah for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. And while my relationships in the Jewish community were intentional, they were sincere and without an agenda to save them. “Saving” them is the Lord’s work. My role was to love. Once while driving to Hebrew class, the Lord whispered to my heart, “Will you love them even if they reject me? Because I did and still do.” Yes, I loved them, and still do.

The Lord provided wonderful opportunities to share with these new friends. I remember a lovely Shabbat dinner at my Hebrew teacher’s home. On more than one occasion, he told me that when he taught on anti-semitism and the Holocaust, he always began with the Gospel of John.

On that Shabbat evening after dinner, he was relaxing in his easy chair with his eyes closed while his wife and I chatted over coffee. She was telling me a story of being in Israel (Samaria region) and being invited to participate in the sacrifice of a lamb for Passover. She said that the Samritans believed they were the real Jews, not the ones in Jerusalem. I was overcome as John 4 was coming alive in that living room for me! Without thought, I shared with unhindered enthusiasm, “Oh my gosh! That is just what Jesus talked about with the woman at the well, and he told her 'You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.' Without moving a muscle or opening his eyes, my Hebrew teacher asked, “Where does it say that?!” I was delighted to tell him, “In the Gospel of John! 

Photo by Olaf Herfurth via WikiMedia Commons

Shabbat candles

Once while driving to Hebrew class, the Lord whispered to my heart, “Will you love them even if they reject me? Because I did and still do.”  Yes, I loved them, and still do.

While nurturing friendships, the Lord was also opening doors to teach in churches. He opened that door with an invitation to create and lead a VBS at a Methodist church. It was my great joy to develop a children’s curriculum on the biblical feasts and from that grew a program for teaching adults over a seven-year period and beyond. Teaching the feasts led to city-wide feast celebrations and, at every Shabbat or feast celebration, the Lord always sent an unexpected Jewish visitor as our special guest. Additionally, we held Lunch & Learn gatherings for pastors & ministry leaders to encounter the Hebraic roots of the Christian faith from teachers and priests like Rev. Peter Pierson, now Bishop Neil & Marcia Lebhar, and David Miller, all brilliantly gifted teachers. 

There are far more of these treasured memories than I could ever share in an article. As I recall these gifts of learning and relationship building, my heart is reignited for the Jewish people in our community. 

I pray that my eight years with Shoresh USA planted good seeds in fertile ground that will yield a bountiful harvest for Israel in God’s Kingdom. May the work of CMJ USA be fruitful until the Lord’s return.  

On Cheryl’s last trip to Israel in 2008, her guide, Kay Wilson, gave these parting words “Whatever you do, always choose life.” Upon returning from that trip, the Lord called Cheryl to release Shoresh and join a pregnancy resource ministry, helping and empowering women to “choose life.” For the last 14 years, Cheryl has prayed for life in America and in Israel. Additionally, Cheryl serves on the board of Ruth’s Heart, a ministry led by Mary Ann and Stephen Lewis, connecting and educating the Church in America to support Jewish Believers in Israel. Cheryl lives with her husband, David, in Jacksonville, Florida. Together they are proud of their grown children and enjoy bragging about their five wonderful grandchildren. 

Discuss

Cheryl, I remember with fondness getting to celebrate a Seder dinner with you and that time you came to talk to Shawn Porter’s youth group. Thank you for your faithful service!

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Article published on 10/13/2022