Editor’s note: In 2023, we will share a testimony every month. While most will be of how some of our Jewish friends came to know Jesus as their Messiah and Savior, we may also tell stories of how the Jewishness of Jesus and his Gospel have enriched the faith of Gentile followers of Jesus.
By Ron First as told to the Rev. Cariño Casas
I grew up in Little Israel – Brooklyn, New York. My grandparents – Russia
and Lithuanian Jews on my dad’s side and Prussian Jews on my mom’s side – fled their homelands for the promise of the United States.
My parents were conservative Jews. Mom kept a kosher home, and my two brothers and I went to Hebrew school. We observed Shabbat. We kept all the feasts, yet there was no real deep understanding what the feasts really were. We were Jews in a religious way, not so much in an understanding and relational way.
My first love and passion was music. I grew up to be a professional musician, playing shows in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. I loved working with great musicians and famous people through the years, but something was missing in my life. I was looking for love in all the wrong places, in bad relationships. I got into alcohol and pot and things of that nature. I was unsettled and dissatisfied.
I recall working at Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskills, and – despite it being one of the most prestigious, sought-after, full-time musician jobs in New York – I was left with an empty feeling, asking: "Is this all there is!?" I got burnt out. A friend helped me join the 1978–1979 world tour on the SS Rotterdam. I thought that would be a great way to get away to find myself, because I just felt itchy and had to get out of New York.
One of the ports of call was Haifa, Israel. Two other young Jewish bandmates and I took a taxi to Jerusalem. I remember seeing banners all over the streets from the Begin-Sadat peace talks (Camp David Accords), which had ended a few days before we got into port.
In the Old City, when I saw the Western Wall, I fell to my knees weeping and couldn’t understand it! I was a heathen yet I was so emotional! I believe that began the search for truth. I got into all the Zen, all the Eastern philosophies, trying to find significance and trying to find the truth of who I am.
When the SS Rotterdam tour ended, I left New York to teach high school band in El Paso, Texas. In 1983, I met Charlie Flores, a fellow band teacher and pastor of Calvary Chapel El Paso. It was Charlie and his wife, Ceci, who planted the seeds of the Gospel in my heart. Charlie and Ceci had a clear love of Israel and the Jewish people, and they knew the Scriptures. I found this and their fragrance of life attractive.
During the summer school break, I would return to East to work as a resort musician. That’s where I met John and Fran Signorelli, Christians who watered those Gospel seeds and told me that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel.
In July 1984, all the seeking and the question about Jesus came to a crescendo. I needed to know the truth.
I was working in the showband of a resort in the Pocono Mountains. I came to the point where I was literally willing to die to know if Jesus could possibly be the Jewish Messiah that our people have spurned and considered a God for the Gentiles, for the goyim.
But something was holding me back. Calling on Jesus might be dangerous, even deadly.
I came to the point in my life where I actually got on my knees and I cried out to God, even though I believed that if I ever mentioned the name Jesus to Adonai, to God the Father, he would literally throw a lightning bolt down and strike me. Jews don't mention Jesus. It's a dirty word. It's a cuss word. But I was willing at that point to die, literally, to know if what Charlie and Ceci shared, if what John and Fran shared was actually true, that he indeed was the Jewish Messiah. I was willing to die. It was then he revealed himself to me in a supernatural way on July 25, 1984 in Bushkill, Pennsylvania, at the Unity House Resort.
I believed that if I ever mentioned the name Jesus to Adonai, to God the Father, he would literally strike me. But I was willing at that point to die, literally, to know if Jesus indeed was the Jewish Messiah.
A lakeside walk
When I cried out to know the truth, God started talking to me. At first, I thought I was crazy and I was hearing things. Maybe I had too much booze that night. Maybe I was out too late after the show and was doing what I shouldn't have been doing, or maybe I'm losing my mind or having a nervous breakdown.
But he actually spoke to me. “Ron, I want you to go down to the lake of the hotel and I want to be with you. I want to enter into your life.” Well, it was late at night. I wasn't going down. But his voice woke me up the next morning: “Ron, I want you to go down to the lake. I want to walk with you, I want to talk with you. I want to be in your life.”
I started to listen to the voice. I trekked down to the lake, where there were people swimming. I said, “OK, I'm listening.” I'm speaking to this voice: “What do I do now?”
“Go ahead, walk around.” There was a pathway around the lake, a beautiful path into the woods. All of a sudden, about a quarter of the way through, I hear this voice saying, “Go in, go into the water.”
I say: “My God, this is crazy.”
There was a little pathway into the water. I thought, I'll obey his voice. I get into the water about maybe waist high, maybe stomach level, and I feel something pushing me under the water. I go under the water, totally submerged. Then he releases me. I get out. I'm starting to cry, I'm shivering.
I'm having a nervous breakdown. This is crazy! As soon as I thought that, I felt a hand on my shoulder. There wasn't a physical hand, but I felt his hand on my shoulder and comfort in my inner being saying, “Ronnie, it's OK. I want to be with you.”
Amazingly, when I came out of the water, there were butterflies encircling me. I didn't know what all this meant. Again, I thought, I'm having a breakdown. And again, that hand of comfort: “Ronnie, it's OK. Let me into your life.”
“’No way I'm going to do that,” I said. “No way I'm going to give up my Jewishness for whatever this is. I can't do this.”
“It's okay,” the voice said. “Just go ahead and walk.”
I'm having a nervous breakdown. This is crazy! As soon as I thought that, I felt a hand on my shoulder and comfort in my inner being saying, “Ronnie, it's OK. I want to be with you.”
I get to the top of the lake and see three deer on the path. I walk right by them. The deer get very skittish in the summertime because there are a lot of people from the city, but they didn’t run away. I must have been maybe two feet from them. I'm scratching my head. I don't understand what’s with the three deer, what's with the butterflies? I'm getting really freaked out. Again, when I started to get fearful, I hear this voice: “Ronnie, it's okay. Just let me in. I want to be with you.”
I didn't do that. I wouldn't relent. I didn't want to. Being Jewish was too important that I didn't want to give that up. So, I get on the left side of the lake, and there was an area that was burnt. It probably got struck by lightning and looked very, very eerie, and I felt very scared.
And I heard this voice saying, “Ronnie, just walk straight ahead. Don't look to the right. Don't look to the left. I want to be with you. I'll get you through this. Just go.” And I started walking, and I finished the walk, went back to the room, then I had to get to rehearsal.
After rehearsal, I was rushing to shower and get ready for dinner and the show. It was crazy, though, because the minute I jumped in the shower all of a sudden, I had an incredible peace, and I realized that, wow, this is Jesus. And I just said, “Yes. I want to be yours.” And I felt a presence and a joy that I cannot explain.
It all began to make sense. The butterflies represented the Holy Spirit. The three deer pointed to the Trinity of God. Around the lake where it was burnt down and looked really ugly, I got that there was an evil and an Adversary (Satan) in the world as well. It all made sense.
Before the show, I went into the resort dining room, and John and Fran Signorelli saw me. I must have had a grin on my face. I must have been radiating in my tuxedo because I was not a nice person. And I was very impatient, very antsy. All the musicians and their wives were around this big table at the hotel, and John and Fran looked at me and I looked at them. I gave them a sign, and they got it. We went outside and we prayed and just rejoiced. The hotel guests were storming the place, but we were oblivious to that. We were just praising God. And I got it. I knew at that point that he was real.
Ron has been a disciple of Jesus since that July day. He worked as an educator in El Paso until 2008 and retired as a school principal. He and his wife moved to New Braunfels, where Ron founded and runs Christian Insurance Services. Ron represents CMJ USA in the Texas Hill Country, teaches on the Feasts of the LORD (Lev 23), and hosts Shabbat dinners. Connect with Ron via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.