In the latter part of the 19th century, people were on the move because of political and social upheaval in Europe which continued throughout the turn of the century. This turmoil generated an intense longing for material stability and religious freedom. Most Jewish people who lived within the ghettos of Eastern Europe had little to do with Christians, because of common antisemitic attitudes held at the time. Antisemitism was a real threat to the safety of Jewish lives and property.
In 1862, in the ghetto of the little town of Berenza in eastern Hungary, a family of orthodox Jews joyfully welcomed a new son, Leopold Cohn, whose destiny would become interwoven with the future of Jewish people across two continents. At the tender age of seven years old, Leopold lost both of his parents and he and his sister became orphans. This tragic loss combined with the loneliness and isolation of ghetto life caused Leopold to cry out to God for help and comfort. The Lord answered Leopold’s prayers and guided his steps throughout the rest of his childhood and as a young adult, providing an illustrious rabbinic career and a wife named Rose, who was a beautiful, accomplished daughter of a wealthy Jewish family.
However, tragedy struck again in 1881, when Leopold’s father-in-law died unexpectedly only one year after his wedding. Leopold again cried out to God and also began fervently searching the scriptures about the Messiah—who he was and when he was coming. During this time Messianic expectations were high. Jewish people everywhere were hungrily searching for the Messiah and thought he could be alive and living in another part of the world at that very moment, like a long-lost relative.
It was during these years of rabbinic study that certain portions of Scripture leapt off the page to Rabbi Leopold, especially the passages in the book of Daniel that describe the timeline of Messiah’s coming. According to Daniel’s timeline, the Messiah should have already come two thousand years ago! Cohn asked himself, “Is it possible that the time which God had fixed for the appearance of our Messiah had passed away without the promise of our true and Living God being fulfilled?” Cohn was perplexed… if Daniel was correct, then the rabbis of the Talmud were wrong. Rabbi Cohn decided to dig deeper, but after much searching, he could find no satisfactory answers for his troubled soul. One rabbi in a distant town advised him to go to America where people knew more about the Messiah, so Cohn immediately made his preparations to leave for the United States.
Three weeks after Leopold’s arrival in America (New York City to be exact), he happened to walk by a church where there was a sign with Hebrew letters saying “Meetings for Jews.” Too curious to turn away, Cohn entered the church, and to his utter amazement, the room was packed with 800 or so Jewish men and women. There was even a choir of Jewish girls singing “At the cross…” Cohn found this confusing but he stayed to hear some of the preaching. He was fascinated…but as an observant Orthodox Jew he was also disgusted…there were many cultural things that were off-putting to his traditional Jewish upbringing, such as women and men sitting together, the presence of crosses, and the preacher saying God’s name without a yarmulka (skullcap). Cohn left halfway through the message but got the contact information for the preacher from the security guard. He visited the preacher at his home, and after much discussion, the preacher gave him a New Testament in Hebrew to read. As Leopold read the New Testament, he realized that Jesus was the true Jewish Messiah!
Cohn knew that there was but one course for him to follow: he must share the knowledge of the Messiah, Yeshua, with his Jewish people. He explained an early encounter with members of the local community: “I showed them from the Scriptures that to believe in Yeshua was Jewish faith, real Jewish faith.” This became Leopold Cohn’s life calling. It also became a guiding principle for our ministry, which he founded in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, in 1894.
Leopold Cohn began this ministry by holding meetings in a store which was a renovated horse stable. He founded his work upon faith, in response to the Scriptural exhortation of Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” The ministry’s first Bible meeting was attended by eight Jewish people. The Lord continued to bless this work, and in the course of his lifetime, Leopold Cohn led over 1,000 people to the Lord.
Responsible Jewish evangelism has characterized Chosen People Ministries from its inception. Over the years, different aspects of our ministry’s outreach have continued and expanded. The early work was a real family ministry. Mothers would come to the mission to participate in women’s activities. They would also bring their children, who took part in children’s programs. This, in turn, resulted in fathers coming to the mission. Through the dedicated work of early workers, many individuals and entire families came to believe in Jesus. There are many Jewish Christian family trees whose spiritual roots began through the outreach of Chosen People Ministries. Several of them, including some of our staff, are in full-time service for the Lord.