As a guest at the Shabbos table of a chassid of Erlau, Yosef Yehuda Sherman was inspired by the dramatic story the family’s elderly grandfather told of their escape from the horrors of the Holocaust. The story of the righteous gentile who took a major risk to procure visas and paperwork for the whole family, allowing them to escape from Hungary intrigued him. The family had been pushed to leave by their Rebbe, Reb Yochanan Sofer zt”l, who refused to leave until all his chassidim had escaped.
The heroic act of the Hungarian gentile touched Sherman deeply and made him realize how important it is for us to express our gratitude to those who helped rescue Jews during the war.
Yad Vashem has done a remarkable job of recognizing almost 26,000 non-Jews who saved Jewish lives, usually at great risk to their own. Yet, they have limited the acknowledgement to those who saved lives in Europe from Nazi Germany. Jews are and always have been threatened in many locations, and, more often than not, have had to rely on the graciousness of non-Jews for help.
Yosef Yehuda Sherman realized he had a mission.
A painter, Yosef Yehuda was encouraged by Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg, the Nadvorna-Kechnia Rebbe, to use his talents to make a kiddush Hashem. While he had painted his whole life, since beginning his journey towards becoming a religious Jew, he hadn’t shared his talent with others.
Yosef Yehuda, who had been compared to Marc Chagall by art critics, returned to his easel to create art for the righteous gentiles of the world. He intended to present his gifts to the various ambassadors who resided in Israel.
And, having been born to a devoted Christian family, he knew how to relate to non-Jews.
*** Josef Sherman was born to an evangelical Christian family in Anaheim, California. His family, sincere searching Christians, first of Pentecostal church, a movement that recognizes a personalized G-d who is involved in people’s lives. His parents were also wary of letting secular culture dictate the morals in their home.
As his mother explains, “We raised our son in a moral environment, where he was protected from the dangers of society. We did not allow sinful music or television into our home. We taught him that everything you feed your soul will impact who you are.” Josef (a long-awaited son like his biblical namesake) was encouraged to find meaning in the church.
At 15, he was ordained as a minister, a position he held for more than a decade. When he was 16, he was given the opportunity to participate in a science research program at The University of California, where he worked with neurotransmitter sensors for research on the brain. Using the scientific approach made him appreciate how detailed, balanced, and remarkable a world G-d created and he began applying scientific logic to his religious studies.
Religion continued to play an important part of his life and, when his family moved to North Carolina, he served as an ordained lay minister. The mix of religion and science, as well the encounters with atheists and intellectuals while in college, raised more questions then he ever anticipated.
It was also in college that he met real live Jews, with whom he felt an affinity. Although he still believed in and taught Christianity, he was drawn to Reform services and attended lectures taught by a female rabbi. He loved the classes and the ability to ask questions. The church had not only discouraged the asking of questions, Sherman had realized that many of the ministers could not answer the questions or understand the original texts.
It was in with in the Reform congregation that he discovered the “Eight Steps of Charity.” He was amazed not only by the value Judaism placed on charity but on the laws that dictated how to be a giver, laws that existed thousands of years before modern society acknowledged its importance.
He also was dazzled by Hebrew and the fact that Jews all over the world seemed to be able to speak the same language. To him, it highlighted how connected they all were. Even the Reform, whose Jewish knowledge was less than others, knew Hebrew.
Globe Trotting Josef studied in educational institutes across the globe: University of California at San Diego; the University of Göttingen, Germany; at the Tecnológico de Monterre in Mexico; the University of California at Berkeley, and in France, Lebanon, Morocco and China.
Eventually he made his way to Israel, where he was awed by Jerusalem’s holiness. He had always known that his father’s father was Jewish, but while in Israel he discovered that his maternal grandfather was Jewish as well. This generated a great desire to learn about Judaism; he felt he was being directed towards the Jewish people.
When he returned to the University of North Carolina as an administrator researcher and a resident assistant in the local church, he suddenly appreciated how far he was from any Jewish center. The realization of how much he missed the Jews, their holidays, their Shabbos and their way of life suddenly hit him and made him a pause.
He took the time to seriously learn Hebrew and used it to review his translated version of the Bible. Cracks, inaccuracies, mistakes, misinterpretations, and errors surfaced. He began to see that many of the concepts he grew up with were taken out of their Biblical context or just misconstrued.
“When Christianity was tested, it failed. Judaism scored 100 percent. But it was a huge shock for me – my world literally turned upside down.”
With Rosh Hashanah approaching, he realized his very soul needed the prayers and holidays to feel complete. He searched for real Jewish services – an Orthodox shul. But he was afraid. He was Christian and did not know what people’s reactions to him would be.