When he isn’t spinning discs at weddings and other parties, Jeff Neckonoff is waging a private battle against missionary groups who dupe unknowledgeable Jews into joining their ranks.
And he knows their tune: Raised a “Torah-ignorant” Jew, Neckonoff turned to messianic Judaism before embracing Orthodoxy.
“Everything the missionaries said resonated and made so much sense” to me, said Neckonoff, 45, who will discuss his journey during an April 1-2 scholar-in-residence weekend at Congregation Beth Shalom in Red Bank.
In a phone interview with NJJN, Neckonoff said he was coming to Beth Shalom to share his message that “God has his own place” for everyone.
Neckonoff said he grew up “culturally Jewish” in Canarsie, a Brooklyn neighborhood so Jewish that during his first few years in school he thought non-Jews were a minority in the United States. He attended afternoon Hebrew school, hating “every minute of it.”
“I studied Jewish history and learned how to read Hebrew but did not learn much about God,” he said.
Like many of his Jewish friends, he had “a nicely catered” bar mitzva, ate bagels and lox, and consumed no bread on Passover without really understanding why.
It wasn’t until Neckonoff took a course in comparative religion at Baruch College in Manhattan that he even had any curiosity about God. It was also where he met his Italian-Catholic wife, Maria.
After graduation, he worked as a DJ at some of the hottest night spots in Manhattan, Queens, and Long Island — including several strip clubs. His marriage ceremony was performed by a “rebel” priest and “a really cool” rabbi who told Neckonoff “he was lucky to be marrying a woman who didn’t want to convert me.” He agreed that their children would be raised Catholic.
One evening — after the couple had just seen Schindler’s List — he caught a TV program about the Holocaust. He sent for two books recommended by the host, expecting them to be traditionally Jewish. Although “enraged” to find they were actually Christian, Neckonoff read them and was so intrigued he read the Christian Bible and sought out chat rooms on the Internet. He received numerous mailings from many faith groups; the ones he got from Orthodox Jewish counter-missionaries, he said, were largely “mean and hateful.”
“They said what I was doing was a shanda and I should divorce my wife immediately and become frum,” said Neckonoff. Instead, he developed a rapport with a representative of Jews for Jesus.
He joined a messianic congregation — a church combining Jewish symbols and Christian theology — which he now derisively refers to as “Congregation Beth Goyim.” Its members wore kipot and tallitot, its rabbi wore tzitzit, and the congregation had an ark and Torah scroll and a service with “joyful” music.
When Maria became pregnant with their daughter, it “made sense,” he said, that she be raised with his newfound mixture of Judaism and belief in Jesus.
It was at one of the messianic conferences he and his family occasionally attended that he had an epiphany. “I looked around and saw there were about 100 people in the room and maybe me and six or seven others were the only halachically born Jews,” said Neckonoff. “Why weren’t more Jews streaming in? I realized maybe I didn’t know that much about Jews or Judaism.”
After much reading, research, and soul-searching, Neckonoff rejected Jesus as the messiah and began taking classes in Judaism. Over the years, he became more observant and encouraged his son and daughter to join him on his journey. They converted, and Maria — now known as Meira — spent years in intensive study before also undergoing conversion.
Today the family lives in an Orthodox neighborhood in Lawrence, NY, and the children attend an Orthodox high school. Neckonoff is a DJ — mostly on the Modern Orthodox bar and bat mitzva circuit, where, he said, he plays only “the clean stuff.”
At his website, www.jewsforhashem.com, Neckonoff offers resources for “those lost Jewish souls still trapped in the messianic, Hebrew-Christian, & evangelical worlds.”
Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Dovid Harrison said, “We are so excited to be hosting Jeff. His presentation promises to be a fascinating, educational, and inspiring experience.”