I was only four years old when our family crowded into my grandparents’ living room the day before Yom Kippur. I can still remember how my father picked up a chicken, tied up by its feet, and swung it over our heads, the chicken cackling and feathers flying all over the place. They all dutifully chanted three times, “This be my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement. This hen shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace.” My father took the chicken into the kitchen, and the next sounds we heard were, “ackle—thud—uggh!” That was it.1
Another vivid memory, not quite so graphic, was my father carrying the Torah from the children’s service back to the main synagogue. I was so proud, trotting alongside him to keep up as he carried the Torah, held tightly against his chest with his tallit (prayer shawl) wrapped around it. I remember thinking, Those scrolls must mean a lot to my father. So the Scriptures always fascinated me.
I attended an Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx, where I received religious training five days a week throughout my adolescence. I was proud to be Jewish. But about a year before my bar mitzvah, I had my first taste of antisemitism. We lived about a mile from the synagogue, and my father and I were walking there for the evening Rosh Hashanah service when some kids started calling us names and threw things at us as we made our way to the synagogue. I knew those kids and was perplexed by their behavior. They’d never done this before.
“Why are they calling us names?” I asked. My dad was so upset he didn’t want to talk about it. Finally, he turned to me and said, “Christians hate Jews, and we don’t have anything to do with them.” And that was the end of the discussion. He never let me bring up the topic again.
A few months later, the father of one of my best friends died, and I was invited to the funeral. My friends were standing in front of the Catholic church, and I told them I couldn’t go in. Ten minutes later, I made up my mind that he was my friend, and it didn’t matter to me what religion his family practiced. I took a deep breath, walked into the church and tiptoed down the aisle. As I eased my way into the row, I accidentally kicked one of the kneelers and the whole church echoed with the thud. Everyone turned around and stared at me. I was mortified. Convinced that God was judging me, I vowed I would never again darken the door of this or any other church.
But on the day of my bar mitzvah, as I gazed at the Torah ark, I sensed something was missing in me. I had a lot of religious training, but I didn’t know who God was. Then and there, I promised God that I would find the truth of who He was. But within a few months, I forgot my promise. I was still attending synagogue, but God was not on my mind.
When I was 15, a good friend came over and asked if he could read something to me from his Bible. I told him to go ahead. He read Isaiah 53. “Who do you think it’s talking about?” he asked. “I have no clue,” I replied. He said, “I think it’s the Messiah, Jesus.” When I realized he was trying to push Jesus on me, I threw him out of my house and told him never to speak to me again.
A couple of years later, I was dating a woman who challenged me to study the Bible with her. We spent most of our time together reading the Bible. Because I had grown up believing the New Testament was cursed, we focused only on the Hebrew Scriptures. I began to compare the Hebrew Bible with the Old Testament in the Christian Bible and found that the translations were very similar—except for the prophecies about the Messiah.
After a year of reading the Scriptures, sometimes for as long as 12 hours a day, I decided to break my childhood vow and visit a church. The pastor spoke about how Abraham was the “father” of Jews and Christians, specifically the father of all those who believe in Yeshua (Jesus). I thought about this faith and realized I didn’t have it.
Soon after, I looked at the New Testament for the first time. My friend (the one I threw out of my house) had given me a little green New Testament. I had wrapped it in some old dirty socks and pushed it to the back of my drawer. Upon reading the very first verse, “A record of the genealogy of Yeshua the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” I somehow knew that if the Jewish people were going to have a Messiah, it had to be Jesus.
At first, I didn’t tell anybody that I believed in Jesus. I must be the only Jewish person on Earth who believes this, I thought to myself. Then I remembered that every now and then, Jews for Jesus had given me pamphlets in Manhattan that I collected. There were other Jewish people who believed that Jesus is the Messiah!
A friend told me that Jews for Jesus had a Bible study in Manhattan, and I began to attend. Then, I decided to go to Bible school.
After graduation, I began telling other Jewish people about the Messiah. One day I was handing out tracts on the corner in front of Bloomingdale’s with a ministry called Chosen People. Jews for Jesus had sent a team to the same location. A young woman approached me and asked if I would be willing to move to another corner because I was in her “appointed” area. I offered some words of encouragement and gave her my business card. That was our beginning—but I’ll let my wife, Shoshannah, tell her story first.
I was born in 1953 in Detroit, Michigan. My parents, Jerry Tilleman and Lois Faren Tilleman, were both Jews of European descent, who immigrated to the United States in the 1940s. For most of my childhood, I lived with my three siblings and our parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
My great-grandfather, Morris Singer, was an Orthodox Jew from Russia. I spent all of my summers in Detroit with Grandpa Singer. I observed my grandpa wrap tefillin and pray each morning, chanting in Hebrew and davening (reciting Jewish liturgical prayers). I would sit quietly across the room in a rocking chair and “daven” in time with him (religious Jews sway rhythmically while praying). All I knew was that Grandpa was talking to Hashem (God). I wanted to talk to Hashem like my grandpa did, so I imitated him. I didn’t understand any of it. I just believed God was real.
We attended a Reform temple and took Jewish education classes each Sunday morning. We attended synagogue regularly until I was confirmed at age 13. Then, our family fell apart when my mom left us. My dad was a plumber who worked long hours, and the four of us were left to care for ourselves. My mom only visited occasionally, while my dad married multiple times to try to find us a new mom. Our Jewish education came to an abrupt end, as did our family life.
I lived in survival mode as my life descended into chaos. These were terrible years filled with fear and a sense of not belonging to anyone. Through all of this, I always prayed to God. I would mostly just cry in my bed and ask him questions. I didn’t understand how to live in my circumstances, so in high school, I started using all kinds of drugs. I managed to graduate, then I got in a car with a friend and drove across the country and landed in San Francisco.
I wandered through various jobs, relationships, and some college courses. But I was on a spiritual quest. I wanted to know the God my grandpa Singer prayed to. I started going to a Conservative synagogue but found it unfulfilling. Then I started reading eastern philosophy and religion. I would go to bookstores, sit in the section where spiritual books were shelved, and read anything that grabbed my attention.
One day, I picked up two books someone had left in my apartment, a Bhagavad Gita and a Bible that included a New Testament. I lost interest in the Bhagavad Gita but kept reading the Bible. I was fascinated by Jesus and asked God to give me a sign if Jesus was who I had been searching for.
Soon after that, my landlady talked with me about Jesus—she had never done that before. Within 24 hours of that conversation, a customer at the restaurant where I waitressed was in a conversation with the people at her table about Jesus. I was eavesdropping, and she noticed. She asked me if I was a Christian, I told her I was Jewish, and she asked me if I had ever heard of Jews for Jesus.
It was at that moment I remembered tearing Jews for Jesus posters off of a telephone pole years before. I had told my friend these people were liars. But I gave this woman my phone number, and a woman named Martha from Jews for Jesus called me.
I began meeting with Martha weekly and on May 20, 1980, I received Yeshua as my Messiah. I began attending weekly Bible studies at Jews for Jesus. Then a married couple in my congregation invited me to live in their house as a part of their family.
Although I had my newfound faith, I was still holding on to old habits and felt deep shame. I couldn’t seem to let go of my broken relationships and my addiction to drugs. Slowly, I saw the mercy of God removing those habits from my life—He did the work I couldn’t do by my own strength. And I continued to experience difficult circumstances even as a believer—my father effectively disowned me, my mother was indifferent to my faith, and it took me a long time to stop my drug use and overcome feelings of shame for my past.
Jews for Jesus offered me a scholarship to attend a Bible college on the East Coast, and I never looked back.
In 1984, a man named Stewart and I were both in front of Bloomingdales on 59th Street in New York City, where we were both sharing the gospel on the street. From that moment I thought, “He is perfect for me.”
A few years later, I was living in New Jersey, but I wanted to be in New York City telling people about Yeshua! My congregation leader told me that Stewart was looking for volunteers. After one of our outings, Stewart invited me to dinner and a movie. On that first date Stewart said, “If you can see yourself married to me one day, we can continue to date. If not, this is our last date.”
We were engaged within a few months. In 1986 we were married in Summit, New Jersey. Stewart and I have been married for over 30 years. We had our daughter in 1987, and our son in 1989. Stewart was leading a congregation in Connecticut at the time.
We moved around a lot with our two kids—from Connecticut, to Queens, to New Jersey, to Florida, and then to South Carolina.
As first-generation Jewish believers, we’ve had to navigate a lot of difficulties—especially with our respective families. The holidays looked different and we had to deal with sensitive faith-related issues. And some of our family members felt that because we were believers in Jesus, we were constantly judging them.
In 2009, God called us both individually, but simultaneously, to reach our Jewish people with the good news of Jesus in New York City. God made it clear to both of us that He wanted us here for a very specific reason—and He continues to bless and anoint us here today. We have had our fair share of difficulties, but following God is the best decision we have ever made.
Stewart says: My passion is evangelism and discipling people—I truly love sharing the good news of Jesus with my Jewish people and reading the Word of God together. I look for every opportunity to minister and be a blessing.
Shoshannah says: Because of my own story, my heart is to reach broken-hearted women. Loving people, listening to people, and developing relationships with people is what I love to do. God is long-suffering and hasn’t given up on me, so I don’t give up on anybody. I hold on to the truth of 1 John 1:9 every day: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
1. The ritual slaughter of a chicken as a symbolic form of redemption before Yom Kippur is called shlogn kapores.