Sarah Urbach was a pioneer, one of the first Israelis to follow Yeshua in the 1950s. She was resolute, unshakable in the insistence that “the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” No shrinking wallflower overshadowed by her dynamic husband, Eliezer, Sarah was a fearless and devoted evangelist in her own right.
Connie and I first met the Urbachs in 1975. Through them we were nourishe by the rich Jewish roots of our new found faith in Yeshua. They also became for us a bridge to the past, a link to the vanished world of Eastern European Jewry. The vicious, systematic eradication of that world left lifelong scars. Those deep Holocaust scars made Sarah’s discovery of the redeeming scars of Messiah all the more dramatic.
I want to honor Sarah’s life and her memory by introducing her to you in this article. To tell her story I am including excerpts from the eulogy delivered with wonderful humor and devotion by her daughter, our friend Nechama.
The Hate-Filled Atmosphere
Like others in the Labor Zionist movement, (my grandparents) Nachum and Tova, had a tremendous concern for the welfare of their people – which was later transformed into a spiritual burden for the salvation of Israel, in their daughter Sarah’s heart.
Poland between the two World Wars, was characterized by a rising tide of anti-Semitism, which was an omen of the bad things to come. I remember Ima reminiscing: “The Poles and the Ukrainians hated each other, and both hated the Jews even more.” In this poisonous environment, Sarah spent her early years. Always a very sensitive person, in childhood as in old age, her cultured home, her violin lessons, and her extensive involvement in the Zionist enclave did not shelter her from the damaging effects of this hate-filled atmosphere. But no doubt, the most scarring event was a traumatic personal experience of anti-Semitism in the Polish public school, where, for no good reason, a Jew-hating headmistress, made the sensitive, introverted child stand in front of the entire class, accused of something she had not done, calling her the Polish equivalent of a “Jewish runt”.
In 1937, just two years before the Holocaust, Nachum … took his family to Zion – an economically backward little strip of desert, then known as Mandatory Palestine, policed by the British. This small country … intended as the refuge for the Jewish people, was already the scene of escalating gunfire between Jew and Arab. My mother’s sense that this world is not a safe place – a sense, which accompanied her throughout life – was strengthened when, as a 17 year old on her way to school in Jerusalem, some Arabs sprayed her bus with gunfire.
The Pearl of Good Price
Already an Israeli for ten years, the Jewish girl from Poland was discovered and married in Tel Aviv in 1947, by an intrepid young Holocaust survivor. Eliezer Urbach fled certain death in Poland, only to endure endless months of hiding, sickness, the Soviet army, and prisons. With the determination that characterized their entire lives Sarah and Eliezer began building a life together in the old/new land of Israel. Their early poverty-filled years in the newly reborn country did not add much hope. True hope did not come until the unlikely discovery of Messiah in distant Brazil. Can we imagine the resilience and the strength of will required to weather so many storms, one after another?
In 1954 we emigrated to Brazil, where Abba’s two great uncles were living, in hopes of improving our family’s financial fortunes. Alas, from a financial perspective, Brazil turned out to be the wrong portion of the Americas. But it was there that both our parents found the greatest fortune of all, the Pearl of Great Price, Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel. Sarah finally found her True, Lasting Refuge.
Pursuing God’s Heart
Our introverted, home-body mother, who hated risk, and abhorred wild adventures, then schlepped after her adventurous husband, back to Israel. There they were discipled by the Plymouth Brethren. From this struggling body of pioneering believers in Israel, Ima learned to treasure her Bible, and her Daily Light, a collection of daily Scripture readings. These both became great sources of comfort throughout her life as a servant of God. Our Ima also drew great comfort from conversing with her Lord in prayer, day and night. He became her constant companion, to whom she brought her heartaches, complaints, and petitions, just like King David had done.
Another quality which helped her get through life was her great sense of humor … Even recently, experiencing Alzheimer’s disease, that famous dry humor was still there. “How are you feeling, Ima” I asked. “There is room for improvement,” she said … Ima had insight into human nature, and “did not suffer fools gladly.” She loved authentic people and things, and I am eternally grateful for her legacy.
Was following Yeshua any easier than growing up in anti-Semitic Poland, starting a family in Israel’s 1947-49 war and poverty-torn society, or making a new life across the world in the Brazilian jungle? It certainly was not, fifty years ago when she returned to Israel as a new believer. In that Israel no one – neither her family nor a society built on the ashes of the Holocaust – could fathom the connection between Jesus and Jewishness. Once again, Sarah found herself, with pioneer Eliezer and two Israeli children, battling for existence.
It Wasn’t Easy
Their faith took root in the very beginnings of the modern Israeli Messianic movement, with the Jaffa fellowship led by Solomon Ostrovsky. It was not easy. As Eliezer wrote in his life story, Out of the Fury (Zhera, 1987), “Jewish believers lived on the edge of fear and disaster. There were so few of us in Israel, we all knew one another, and quickly learned of the consequences that befell our members when they were found out – firing from a job, eviction from an apartment, harassment from the Orthodox religious community.(p.191)” At that time (and still today) “Jesus was referred to as ‘Yeshu,’ a derogatory acronym which meant ‘may his name and memory be blotted out.’ … Jewish believers were forced to conceal their faith to be safe and protect their families. I saw a Bible bookstore burned and destroyed. (p.197)”
Seeking a home with greater religious freedom in which to grow their family and their faith, the Urbachs set sail for Canada. Finally, in North America, came a measure of peace. After stints in Toronto and New York City, Eliezer and Sarah settled in Denver, Colorado. It was 1970. Thus the Rocky Mountains, where most of us came to know her, became Sarah’s turf. Here, with firmly set jaw, she challenged unsuspecting passengers at the Stapleton Airport outreach table, boldly confronting skepticism and unbelief in her trademark Polish-Yiddish flavored English. “Vaht? You tink you know so much? Vy don’t you stop kidding yourself and admit you need a Savior?”
Sarah was a results oriented person who brooked no showmanship. “So, Shishkoff, how many Jews are coming to the Lord there in Haifa?” she would ask me, never reluctant to place a bottom line in front of us. Her son, Chaim, a Messianic leader whom I deeply respect, observed “Mama grabbed people for Yeshua. She lived with a sense of urgency. There was no time for small things. Ima knew this world was not her home. Heaven was not a vague hope with her; it was a guaranteed reality. Because of her assurance, we are assured … I urge you to get to know Sarah’s God.”
Todah (thank you) Ima Sarah. You endured to the finish. You have fulfilled your difficult days with a redeeming end. We will not forget you. You will always be dear to us. Shalom.