"Well," she told me. "The people who accepted that Jesus was the Messiah became Christians, and the people who didn't stayed Jews."
"Oh. So who's their Messiah?"
"He hasn't come yet."
"When's he coming?"
"I don't know. They don't know."
"Oh, well... I hope he comes soon!"
I had virtually no understanding of what the Messiah means in either religion. I just wanted Jews to have their version of what we had. It's only fair. I was a kind child in that sense, wanting equality for all. When I grew up, I still really had no idea what Messiah meant but I knew that Jesus supposedly had saved us from something. But it didn't makes sense that he didn't save everyone. Why would he only save the people who believed he saved them? Anyway, in those fights I had with my parents about religion, church, and Jesus I remember yelling, "What good did Jesus even do the world? There is still war and starvation. Terrible things still happen. We weren't saved from anything!" I wasn't cognizant of it, but I knew what the Messiah meant, and Jesus wasn't him.
As an adult, I still only knew about the Christianized telling of the Messiah, the one where the Messiah was the Son of G-d and Savior of man kind from the fiery pits of hell. I justifiably thought there was no Messiah and there never would be. I thought Jews were as delusional as Christians for waiting for something so unrealistic. But then I really discovered Judaism, real Judaism not just Channukah, the Rugrats Passover special, and the Christian explanation of the Messiah. Jewish beliefs about G-d and humanity are so sound, practical, and meaningful. I worried that I wanted to be a part of something that had a nonsensical belief hiding at its core.
When I went to buy my first introduction to Judaism book at the bookstore, I saw in the table of contents of Judaism for Dummies the page with the question "Why don't Jews believe in Jesus?" I knew all of my concerns could be addressed by reading this page. I was scared to find out that Jews really do believe in the coming of the Son of G-d. But they don't. When I finally read that Jews do not believe that one person could be the son of G-d, I sighed a huge sigh of relief, knowing there could be a space for me in Judaism.
The messianic age will mark an age of peace on earth in which every day is like Shabbat. Sounds fabulous!
Now, I still don't know how I feel about a personal Messiah. Reform Judaism believes in a Messianic age that will be brought about by humans' collective actions. The Orthodox believe in a person who will come redeem the world, a man from the line of David. The Conservative Movement believes it is up to each person to choose what he or she believes. Since I most identify with the Conservative Movement and will be working with a Conservative Rabbi, I get to choose what I believe. I like what the Reform movement has to say. It is much like what the Kabbalists teach: each person has a messianic awakening inside of him/herself. I think that is not only possible, but truly necessary to peace among people.
At first, I totally rejected the traditional Jewish belief about an individual Messiah. I found it too similar to the Jesus idea. But after a long time learning and thinking, it's not similar to Jesus at all. I learned that Paul, the guy who spread Christianity, was actually a traditional, practicing Jew who rejected that Jesus was the Messiah. Then he went out in the desert, had a vision, and reimagined the meaning of the Messiah. And that's how we got Christianity as we know it today. So the traditional, ancient, Jewish belief that a human being as one of G-d's many children will lead humanity into an age of peace doesn't freak me out. It's just I just think about the Messiah in terms of practicality. How will anyone know if this person is from the line of David? The only tribal affiliations we know about today are Levites (and their subset, kohaines). There are no Judahites, only Israelites. Second, in order for the Temple to be rebuilt, the Dome of the Rock has to be destroyed/removed/renovated. There can't possibly be peace on earth with that happening.
I would really love for the messianic age to come and it can't hurt to hope for it. But I am very compelled by the idea that we shouldn't wait around for someone to save us and to redeem the world. We each have to work hard at tikkun olam to bring about the coming of the Messiah.
Side note: for those of you considering converting, the tradition says that once the Messiah comes there will be no more conversion to Judaism. Take your time considering and studying, but don't wait forever! I mean, if you believe in that sort of thing.