Answering the Call
IN THE BEGINNING
Jonathan Aaron Bernis was born December 1, 1959 to Jewish parents in Rochester, New York. He describes his upbringing as a traditional Jewish family – “holiday Jews” – going to synagogue for the High Holidays, and celebrating the other significant Jewish holidays. He attended afternoon and weekend classes at the synagogue and although he always believed in God, he felt his spiritual duty was fulfilled after his bar mitzvah at age 13. Still, he continued to go to synagogue on the High Holidays and special events.
Jonathan’s first exposure to the Gospel came through his assistant wrestling coach, an All American athlete and born-again Christian. Jonathan attended a Young Life meeting at his invitation, and despite being intrigued by Jesus, his Jewish upbringing taught him Jesus WAS NOT an option for Jews. He often recounts, “Jesus Christ was the God of the Gentiles or the Christians, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Christ, who grew up in the Vatican.”
THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
In college, Jonathan discovered drugs and partying, becoming interested in various ideologies and philosophies. A friend also became heavily involved in drugs and as he watched her descent into the bondage of drug abuse, he severed contact with her, unable to bear the sadness of the downward turn of her life.
Jonathan ran into her several months later, and found she had become a different person. He asked her what happened and she told him God delivered her from drugs and she was born again. She began relentlessly witnessing to him until Jonathan finally agreed to go with her to a Bible study.
As both a drug dealer and a Jew, Jonathan felt completely out of place at the Bible study and immediately wanted to leave. The teacher took him aside and showed him Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God ...” and Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death ...” He knew already that he was a sinner, since he was dealing drugs, but for the first time he felt separated from God. He did not want to give up the life he was enjoying, so to get out of the uncomfortable situation, he prayed with the teacher. He went home and tried to forget the whole thing, but a few days later, discovered an intense hunger to read the Bible!
HINEINI (HERE AM I)
Delving into the Tenakh and the Jewish New Testament, Jonathan saw Yeshua (Jesus) was the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and his life began to come together. He was a 20-year-old business major and had set a goal of making a million dollars by the time he was 30. This changed as he answered the call of God on his life. When he read the New Testament he was shocked to see Abraham, David and the other Jewish figures from his youth. He gave up drugs and devoted himself to the Lord and the call on his life.
Four years later, he founded Congregation Shema Yisrael in Rochester, New York, where he served as Senior Messianic Rabbi from 1984 to 1993. As leader of Shema Yisrael, he led tour groups to Israel for the MJAA (Messianic Jewish Alliance of America). In 1990 he added a tour to Russia, still under Communist rule. The five-person team took 200 Bibles, which people quickly devoured. The group experienced a surprising openness to the Good News everywhere they went, leading more people to the Lord in five days than in 10 years of U.S. ministry!
Jonathan sensed God’s call to Russia in a profound way. Literature distributed in St. Petersburg came into the hands of a Jewish Believer in Minsk, who called to request that someone come to teach their group of Believers.
In Minsk he met Boris and Volodia, who started a Shabbat school for kids which developed into a Messianic congregation. On a flight home following his third trip to Minsk, the Lord spoke to his heart through Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” He strongly sensed God was dealing with him to make a commitment to Russia, saying, “Go back to St. Petersburg.” Jonathan readily agreed, replying, “Hineini, Lord!” (Here am I!)
ANSWERING THE CALL AND BEYOND
After Jonathan answered the call to St. Petersburg, the Lord inspired the idea for a festival outreach. By faith, the largest concert hall, seating 4000, was rented for a three-night festival in 1993 featuring Messianic singing and dancing. At the conclusion, Jonathan shared his testimony of coming to faith as a Jewish Person. More than 3000 attended the festival; nearly one-half of them Jewish! Hundreds were turned away due to limited space. Jonathan and the team were moved to tears – humbled to experience abundantly more than expected. There had been no other account of such large numbers of Jewish People turning to Yeshua since the Book of Acts!
After that first festival, Jonathan led a monthly fellowship and in 1993, he resigned the Rochester congregation and moved to St. Petersburg, founding the Messianic Jewish Center, attracting 300-400 people every week.
With his move to Russia, Hear O’ Israel! Ministries was established. Three more festivals came about: Moscow, Minsk and Kiev. In Moscow, the Festival filled the 18,000-seat Olympic Stadium for a three-night event. People from all over the world participated with the team, holding round-the-clock intercessory prayer. Thirty thousand people, about half Jewish, attended. An astounding 10,000 stood to receive Yeshua – half of them Jewish! Jonathan and the team were awed and felt they were experiencing what was prophesied in the Book of Acts! A Messianic Jewish congregation was founded, with 550 people, many Jewish, attending the first meeting.
In 1996, Chira Kaplan came to Kishinev, Moldova, to document the festival for Jewish Voice Broadcasts and to interview new Believers. She and Jonathan formed a strategic partnership. The next year, as Chira and Brother Kaplan were en route to Riga, Latvia, to participate in another festival, Brother Kaplan suffered a devastating stroke. The two ministries had planned to team up to air evangelistic programs in Ukraine. With Brother Kaplan’s incapacitation, the board approached Jonathan to take leadership of Jewish Voice Broadcasts. Soon the ministries merged under Jonathan’s leadership, becoming Jewish Voice Ministries International.
Under Jonathan’s leadership, Jewish Voice has grown considerably in outreach and has experienced a four-fold increase in its support base. His vision is clear: to reach every Jewish community worldwide while the doors remain open for proclaiming the Good News of the Messiah.