- Written by Roy Isenberg
This is my testimony, so I have to talk a lot about myself, but I'm not a hero. I'm just an ordinary guy who found Jesus. I'm a Christian. I used to be an Orthodox Jew, and a crook—not that those are by any means synonymous—but that's who and what I was.
My grandfather was a rabbi in the Lubavitch movement. My less-than-Orthodox father married an Anglican who converted to Judaism. My family constantly fought over me, and eventually I moved in to live with my grandfather. He insisted that I attend Hebrew Academy.
I hated that school. I hated Hebrew. So I became the class fool and rebel. My grandfather was more and more the tyrant, even physically choking me in one of his fits of anger. But before I was due to go to rabbinical college, I got lucky." I got sick with rheumatic fever.
Actually, I loved being in the hospital. It was peaceful and calm. My family deteriorated further, and my mother was sent to the psychiatric department of the Jewish General Hospital after a severe breakdown.
In my growing independence, I made an important decision. I cut off my payos, the curly hairlocks growing down past my ears that are the traditional mark of the most orthodox sects of Judaism, and I burned my yarmulke, the obligatory skull cap. I was through with Orthodox Judaism.
Eventually I was expelled from Jewish school for setting fire to the bathroom, so I got to go to a regular school. There I fell in love with Ellen, who was to be my girlfriend for the next 10 years. But because she was not Jewish, my family would not accept her.
I was an aggressive kid at school, loud and obnoxious on the outside, empty and lost on the inside. One day in English class, I lost my temper. I threw a chair at the teacher and blacked out. I was then admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Jewish General Hospital and labeled "manic depressive."
At the age of 17, 1 was out and normal again, working for my dad as a warehouse manager. Then an old high school pal appeared with an offer—to peddle hash. Within days I was part of the deal. Within weeks I was running it. My double life dates from that time. On weekends I was Mr. Nice Guy, playing it straight with my girlfriend Ellen, watching movies on TV, eating pizza and drinking Coke. But during the week I was the "Ice Man," descending lower and lower into crime and violence. I was a liar and a manipulator.
At the age of 20, 1 came near to being convicted. But the court could not find enough evidence to sentence me. I was free to continue being a crook—until I got cancer. I had been feeling tired for some time; my spine ached, and my joints were swelling. The surgeons removed a malignant tumor from the base of my spine. But even from my hospital bed, I continued to direct drug deals. In February, 1980, I left the hospital. The cancer was in remission, and I thought I was cured.
My drug deals were bringing in big money, and Ellen and I were talking marriage. I expanded my criminal activities into fraud, gambling and even arson. It was a violent lifestyle and some of my criminal enemies—and friends—were getting themselves killed.
My tumor returned in 1981. My doctor looked at me and said, "Roy, you're going to die." For the first time in my life I was scared. The "Ice Man" shivered. I lay in my hospital bed in Montreal and anguished, "I'm going to die. Do I believe in God? Is there a God to believe in? I'm supposed to be Jewish. Is that going to help?"
I asked to see the rabbi, the Jewish hospital chaplain, and I confessed some of my past to him. I remember sitting up in bed, grabbing him by his jacket and crying, "Rabbi, what shall I do?"
"There is no forgiveness," said the rabbi, shaking himself free of my grip.
Later I fell into a coma, and for one minute and forty-one seconds my heart actually stopped beating. They rushed me to the operating theater to revive my vital signs, and in that time I had a vision. I saw myself walking down a tunnel. Suddenly a hand appeared in front of me and forcibly pushed me back. It did that twice. A voice said, "Roy, you have not yet done what I have set you out to do. Turn around and go back." I told my vision to the Roman Catholic chaplain, who said that I had been touched by God. That terrified me. I got better again and was released.
Stupidly I got drawn back into the world of crime. A friend got murdered. A brother got set up in another city with a false ID to avoid getting arrested. And then Ellen discovered the truth about me and threatened to leave. I decided that I must quit this whole business for her sake. I told my buddies that I wanted out.
Then the very worst thing happened. The sister of a friend phoned to tell me that she couldn't wake him up, that he looked really sick. I ran over there, and he was foaming at the mouth. He was dying from taking drugs that had been tampered with and poisoned. I knew that I had been part of that whole dirty thing. Suddenly my personal guilt was enormous and sharp and devastating.
I landed in court because of that incident, and I can still hear the judge calling me "the scum of the earth." But again there was not enough proof of guilt, so I was released.
I was never so convinced of my sin as I was at that point. I ran off to a chapel somewhere and spent hours there by myself. That was a real turning point for me spiritually. I think I became sort of "half a Christian" then. I quit the drug business and refused all the bribes and threats to get me back in. I got a legitimate job.
Then Ellen left me, and in my despair and loneliness I phoned an alcoholic uncle, just for his company. He realized that I needed help. "Go to church," he said, "my church." For the first time in my life I entered an Anglican church.
I felt awful—scared, lonely and embarrassed. But 10 minutes into the service, something funny happened. Everyone got up and started walking around. Was it over already? First one, and then another, came up to me and shook my hand, saying, "The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you." I choked over my emotion and said nothing.
Slowly the people at church became my friends. I attended every service, weekdays as well. I heard the gospel: that God offered us forgiveness through the death of his Son. Was that really true? Was Jesus big enough to carry my sin?
Friendships at church developed. I got the sense that I was really becoming a Christian. With the counsel of the priest, I confessed my sins, repented and reached out in faith to God and his Son, Jesus. I felt that I had been given a new start. I really believed, and I tried hard to change those deeply ingrained habits of sin and crime.
In midwinter I got worried about my health again, and through X-rays the doctors discovered a dark mass on my heart. My soul raged. Was this how God was going to reward me for coming to him and believing? They flew me to a specialist in Toronto. The church had laid hands on me and prayed for healing before I left. In Toronto the doctors opened me up and removed a tissue sample. The tumor was benign! We did a lot of rejoicing that night.
Still I found it hard to shake off the old habits. A relative of mine who worked with me made me jealous over a girl, and I set him up so that he got fired. My minister told me that I had done wrong and warned me of Jesus' words in Matthew 7:21: "Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father, who is in heaven." He explained that confession of faith was not enough. I confessed to management about what I had done at work. My uncle was reinstated and I quit before they could fire me.
Meanwhile, Ellen was suing me for thousands of dollars, my brother was continuing to peddle dope, my father was mad at me because of my conversion, and my mother was saying that she would only come to my baptism if I paid her. I felt confused. Was I being punished for the deaths that I had been mixed up in and the minds that I had helped to destroy through cocaine?
Two things were obvious to me: I did not yet feel truly forgiven for my sins, and I could not stop lying. I talked to my minister. He explained the death of Jesus to me. It was no pretense, no game, no pretty story for kids. The death of Christ on the cross was brutal, but so was sin. Therefore the huge problem of the world's sin needed a huge solution. Jesus did not die to make nice people better; he died to make wicked people forgiven. His death, then, covered my real sins—the ways in which I had helped to destroy other lives.
I began to understand how big Jesus is. All that really bad stuff I had done, all that stuff that kept me awake at night in agonies of guilt—all that had been dealt with by Jesus. If I could ever get that into my heart, I would know what it meant to be really forgiven. Slowly God's forgiveness did get its way into my heart, and I prayed a new prayer with a new sincerity: "Thank you, Lord God, for forgiving me and saving me through Jesus, your Son."
As I became a stronger Christian, my Jewishness did not disappear, of course. In fact, it grew. I felt that perhaps I was, in a sense, the truest kind of Christian—a Jewish believer. I felt that I was a completed Jew, far more Jewish than ever before because I had come to believe in Israel's Messiah, Jesus.
The second issue, a godly life, took longer. But by God's grace I am being remade from the inside out. That's ironic in a sense, because I'm writing from a wheelchair, which means that my outside, my body, is not being remade. In fact, I've got a neurological disease called "stiff man's syndrome."
What does the future hold? I don't know. Lots of pain and frustration, I expect, and some anger too. I know there's no answer to the question "Why me, Lord?" But that doesn't prevent me from asking it again and again in the midnight silence. What does the present hold? Pain and frustration also. But along with that, the chance to do what I'm doing now—sharing my testimony with others, warning them off of drugs and crime and helping them to know Jesus.
One thing I do know for certain. I'm no hero. I'm just an ordinary guy who found Josus and got a second chance. I guess that's what they call beag "born again."