Even as a child Renee Kirschner understood the importance of education. Its value was instilled in her every Saturday in the synagogue and by her parents. “When a jewish boy or girl started school, traditionally he was to be given bread with honey on it so he would associate sweetness with learning,” she remembers.
Born in 1936 in Brooklyn, New York, her parents saw to it that she went to public school and, when she was old enough, to Hebrew school. Her mother was a seamstress and her father a grocer. “I was well into adulthood before I realized we were actually poor,” she says, “Mother always had to supplement the income. We lived extremely modestly, but I never felt deprived.”
Renee grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Her aunts and uncles were all within walking distance, just a few blocks from her tenement. Renee describes her religious training in the home as “moderately orthodox.” Her mother’s kitchen was kosher and the family observed all the traditional holidays. “Religion was just ‘there,’” she says, “I don’t remember discussing God, or having anything impressed upon me spiritually.”
In Hebrew school it was a different story. There she got a solid training in the faith. She remembers that her mother would come early to pick her up from public school and walk her a few blocks over to the school where she learned to read and write in Hebrew; and where she would hear the rich stories of the sacred Torah. “As a child,” she says, “I would think about how Abraham and Isaac knew God as I would know the Rabbi, or as I might know someone in the neighborhood. They knew Him personally. They talked to Him. Then I would think, ‘that was then.’” She says she would wonder once in awhile if her people, the Jews, missed the boat when it came to Jesus. It was a fleeting thought. It would vanish.
After college Renee taught in the public schools in Brooklyn. Her students were mostly Black and Puerto Rican, the “underprivileged.” She taught there for six years before moving to Michigan to teach in the Warren school district
“By the time I came to Michigan, I was a non-practicing Jew, not religious at all.”
One day Renee heard Jim Winters, a graduate of Life Challenge, talking about the Bible. She and Jim worked at he Detroit Symphony Orchestra as telemarketers and between calls Jim would give testimony to Christ. Renee noticed that Jim spoke knowledgeably about the Old Testament. “As I listened to him, I knew from my own training in Hebrew School that what Jim was saying was accurate.” Then when she heard Jim talk about the New Testament, about Jesus as the Messiah, “I knew immediately that what he said had the ring of truth.” Renee says God put this man in her life at just the right moment. After six months she knew that Jesus was everything Jim said He was, “I knew that Jesus was the Messiah. He was therefore my Messiah.”
“Now, if someone invited me into his home the way I invited Jesus into my heart, I would have said “No thank you!” I was tentative, unsure when I said “Jesus, if you are the one you say you are, come into my heart and change my life, ” but that invitation was enough for Jesus. My life was changed forever by His grace.” When she finally screwed up the courage to tell Jim Winters of her conversion, she was amazed at what a big deal it was, how he and his wife rejoiced.
Jim and his wife attended Brightmoor. Renee knew she would now go to church, but she had no idea what to expect. It was a foreign language and a foreign place but, “as soon as Pastor Trask began to speak, I was sold.”
“I am a Jew. That’s part of who I am”, she says. At the same time, she says, she is also a Christian, a follower of Christ, a Messianic Jew. Renee attended Brightmoor for twelve years following her conversion. She now attends Congregation Shema Yisrael, a place of worship for Messianic Jews in West Bloomfield Hills.
Renee first learned of Life Challenge from Jim Winters. Renee says she only recently learned of Jim’s untimely death, when Life Challenge received a gift in his memory. Whatever struggles in life Jim may have had, she says, Jim loved sharing Jesus with anyone who would listen.
Renee began working at Life Challenge on the recommendation of Judy Dubiel. Judy met Renee in church and recommended her for a position at the ministry. Cal Bonzelaar, Jeff’s father, wasted no time asking her to come aboard to “run the banquets.” This was in 1993. She tried, but running banquets, she realized, was not her gift. By the end of the spring season she knew it just wouldn’t work. She decided to quit. Being a gracious and persuasive man, Cal talked her into staying but with a new role.
Since that time Renee has filled a very important role at Life Challenge. As Program Secretary she acts as liaisson to the court system, working on behalf of the students to report to their parole, probation and corrections officers. The job can be demanding with lots of detailed requirements to satisfy, letters to write and accountability procedures to put in place. Renee sums it up as only a New York Jew could, “My job,” she says with a grin, “is helping Life Challenge students avoid the whole shemozzle.”
As Renee looks back on her career she gains perspective, “Life Challenge is like a world of its own,” she says, “It can be trying, but it is where God wants me, the best of all possible worlds for me. It’s a wonderful ministry and I am blessed to be part of it.”