“You got some mail,” my roommate said to me on a Thursday in late June. Immediately, my eyes went to the thick purple envelope waiting for me on our IKEA kitchen stand and not any of the junk mail I had received — because, of course, bigger, more colorful envelopes are more fun to open. Little did she or I know that envelope would contain something far more sinister than its purple coloring would lead you to believe.
My best guess was that it was a non-profit solicitation. As someone who has spent many years working for an environmental non-profit and is on just about every environmental organization’s list, I am accustomed to getting many, many solicitations in the mail to my address in Brooklyn; some of them have return address labels with your name on them to entice you into donating, others bookmarks or magnets.
But when I opened the envelope, I saw that inside was a slim book called Changed, written by a man named Tom Cantor.
Did I order this book in some kind of pandemic-induced online shopping haze? I wondered. But as I examined the back cover of the book, I began to get a more-than-sneaking suspicion that whoever sent me this book was also sending me a message about how, I, too, could be cleansed by finding the lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Which is to say, no, I did not order this book, not even in a pandemic-induced online shopping haze.
A morbid curiosity drove me to flip through the book, as Tom, the memoirist, takes us through his journey of growing up a “rebellious” Jewish kid in Los Angeles, his growing feeling over time that he was “dirty” and needed to be “cleansed,” his belief that his marriage to his non-Jewish wife, Cheryl, will cleanse him, and his dissatisfaction that once she is raped, he, as he put it, “had no hope of being cleansed through my relationship with Cheryl.” (In fact, his professor, Dr. Luce, encourages him to “Dump her!”)
Cheryl’s rape (and subsequent pregnancy and their decision to give the baby up for adoption) is processed entirely through Cantor and his need for cleansing. This desperation for cleansing drives Cantor to seek God, and in doing so, he discovers Jesus Christ. As he seeks out a house of worship, he eventually finds one that tells him he can both be saved by Jesus Christ and remain Jewish. As the title of one of his later chapters declares, Cantor was “Cleansed at Last.”
As he writes, “Now, what I could not get from a two-hour shower in Switzerland [where he engaged in sexual acts with women in his youth] or a relationship from Cheryl, was instantly accomplished when I received Jesus as God into my heart.”
After skimming the book, there were two things that stood out to me: One, how nefarious it is to send someone a book encouraging them to abandon their beliefs; and two, if you’re going to convince me to stray from my deeply embedded heritage and strongly held beliefs, you’re going to need to be a much, much better writer.
But who actually sent me this book? Having noticed the envelope containing the book was notably lacking a return address, or any type of organizational affiliate, I took to Twitter (where else?) to ask if anyone else had received this special gift as well.
Immediately, Cory Epstein, who I had met only a few days earlier when volunteering for the Emily Gallagher for Assembly campaign, responded. He had gotten one, too. So did Cheryl Moch, another Brooklynite who replied to me on Twitter. Both of them Jewish.
A quick Google search revealed that sending these books is not new territory for Cantor, the founder of Israel Restoration Ministries, a San Diego-based ministry. As far back as 2013, he told the Jewish Press that he’s spent $4 million a year on his conversion efforts — money presumably from his own largesse as President of Scantibodies Laboratory, Inc. In non-pandemic times, these efforts have included everything from door-to-door proselytizing to female Ministry representatives dressing in the manner of Orthodox women in order to ingratiate themselves amongst the community; they begin their conversations by talking about Israel, and then explain Jewish Christianity.
But even evangelism has to take a backseat to COVID-19. Thus: books in the mail.
A slew of angry Amazon reviews revealed that I was not the only one offended by this book and perturbed by the fact it was sent to them in the mail from an unknown source. The more I learned, the more my uneasiness grew.
As a white Jewish person, who was born, raised, and continues to live in New York City, I know that I enjoy a whole suite of privileges often not afforded to people of color. But getting this book served as a reminder that there are people out there who don’t like the fact that I’m Jewish and would change that if they could. And that between my Jewish last name and any other Jewish-related activities I might have been involved in, there’s someone with a list that has rubber-stamped “Jew” next to my name.
Cheryl Moch, who lives in Brooklyn Heights and received the book about two months ago, similarly found receiving the book disconcerting.
Upon reading the book she said, “I felt that it was consistent with their tactics, because it wasn’t until halfway through I got their message,” referring to how Evangelical groups (like Jews for Jesus, for example) often aren’t “upfront” or “honest” with their intentions.
“It feels to me that when God comes to me, it’s not going to be… God will not be veiled in creepy messages. God will stand before me honestly and not in the middle of the book. If the message is really of the true spirit, put it on the first page. Put it on the book cover. Don’t sneak it in,” Cheryl said.
For his part, Cory (who received the book the same day as I did), didn’t necessarily find it all that threatening, but he did think it had another message entirely.
“It honestly seemed when I read the title Changed that maybe it was some sort of [anti-gay] conversion therapy book,” he told me, noting that he was “very confused when I got the book at first because obviously there’s no real clues on the outside as to what you’re getting.”
Cory also remarked on how it was hard to take the book seriously, particularly with chapter titles that exclaim “I Am Dirty.”
“It might bring some laughs,” he said.
Stacey Freed, a writer who lives in Pittsford, New York, received the book about a month before I did. When she first got it, she thought it was a Jewish story, submitted in consideration for the Rochester Jewish Book Festival, for which she serves as co-chair. She assumed the other co-chairs had received it, too, but when she wrote to them, it turned out they had not.
Stacey, who flips through the book every now and then, said, “What’s interesting to me… I write essays for a living… you write an essay and you put it out there and I think a lot of writers are really private, but at the same time you want your stuff to be read.” There’s a push-pull of wanting to have something read and wanting to hide under the covers, Stacey explained.
“I’m so skeptical of people who put this heart-wrenching, horrible stuff out there,” she said, likening it to “testifying.” Stacey also shared in a follow-up email how alarming it was to her to read the way he constantly spoke of being “defiled” without giving a clear explanation as to why — beyond being sexually active in his teen years — and the way he sought for Cheryl to absolve him of that.
“Beyond the Madonna/Whore theory of women for this guy — a total egotist. He sounds like a controlling abuser. Every encounter he has ever had with Judaism is negative; that’s a shame, if true. So, in the end he replaces any kind of mental health needs with Jesus Christ, an external savior who died for every Christian’s sins,” Stacey wrote.
But not everyone I spoke with who received the book gave it the amount of time or attention I did. Jonathan Ben-Menachem, another Jewish writer, said to me via email, “My reaction to it was basically confusion, since I don’t often receive books in the mail. I basically opened the envelope because it was thick and addressed to me, saw that it was some strange form of Christian proselytizing/conversion project, and threw it out.”
Everyone I spoke to had different experiences with the book — and a different relationship to Judaism. Some of us are or have been involved in Jewish organizations, others weren’t; some of us had more traditional-sounding Jewish last names, others didn’t. And while I did try calling Israeli Restoration Ministries, there was no answer.
For anyone curious about Cantor’s teachings, he’s certainly prolific. In addition to Changed, he’s released a DVD collection, downloadable PDFs, and of course, a daily podcast.
And if you’re wondering whether or not you might, too, receive the book in the mail, know that Cantor’s summer blitz does not appear to be over yet: Less than a week after Cory’s book came, he and his boyfriend returned from a short vacation to find that his boyfriend (yes, also Jewish) had received his very own copy of Changed in the mail.
Header image: gmm2000/iStock/Getty Images.