As my husband, Stewart, says, we met while I was on staff with Jews for Jesus in the summer of 1984 in New York City. We were both handing out pamphlets—Stewart with another organization called Chosen People—in front of Bloomingdales on 59th Street in New York City. From that moment I thought, “He is perfect for me.” You see I had determined to marry a Jewish man who shared my belief in Yeshua. From such a small marriage pool, God heard my prayer!
A few years later I was living in New Jersey. Although I was not at that time working with Jews for Jesus, I wanted to hand out pamphlets in New York City. My congregation leader suggested I call Stewart, as he was looking for volunteers to do just that. After our first outing, I wasn’t sure whether I was more interested in handing out pamphlets or in Stewart! Nonetheless, we continued hitting the streets each Saturday. Finally, 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.” It took me a moment to process what Stewart had just said. Then, I admitted I could surely see us together in marriage. We were engaged within a few months. In 1986 we were married in Summit, New Jersey.
From the beginning Stewart and I had foundational things in common. We shared a faith in the Jewish Messiah. We both came from Jewish homes with no intermarriage. And we both had a deep love for our Jewish heritage that included a desire to raise children in a Jewish lifestyle that reflected our faith.
But let me go back now and tell you how a woman raised in a Jewish home came to be telling other Jewish people about Jesus.
I was born in 1953 in Detroit, Michigan. My parents, Jerry Tilleman and Lois Faren Tilleman, were both Jews of European background. Their families immigrated to the United States through Canada in the 1940s. I have three siblings. Debra is the oldest, born in 1951. I followed in 1953, then Mark in 1958 and finally Michael was born in 1960.
For most of my childhood our family lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My great-grandfather, Morris Singer, was an Orthodox Jew from Russia. He was my mother’s grandfather. I spent all of my summers in Detroit with Grandpa Singer and his widowed daughter, Rose Joffee. Aunt Rose was like a mother to me. I observed my grandpa wrap tefillin and pray each morning, chanting in Hebrew and davening. I would sit quietly across the room in a rocking chair and “daven” in time with him. All I knew was that Grandpa was talking to God. I wanted to talk to God like my grandpa did, so I imitated him. I didn’t understand any of it; I just believed God was real.
By her 24th birthday, my mother had four children and wasn’t equipped to raise them. Mom did not have parenting skills and did not have the support of her family or community. My dad, Jerry, was a master plumber. He worked out of town a lot, leaving my mother alone with four young undisciplined children. We attended a Reform temple, and three of us four kids went to Jewish education classes each Sunday morning. We attended synagogue regularly until I was confirmed at age thirteen.
Then, our family fell apart. My mom left home to make a new life for herself. She was worn out and felt she was a failure as a mother. She just didn’t know how to relate to her own children. When Dad was home, he yelled and screamed at mom and at us. Mom just couldn’t take the stress anymore and she left us when I was in third grade. So now it was dad and four unruly children. Dad continued to work long hours and the four of us were left to care for ourselves. He would leave us money to walk to the grocery store for food. The next five years we moved at least five times, and Dad had a series of girlfriends. Our Jewish education came to an abrupt end, as did our family life. My sister Deb and I were in survival mode. We were charged with cooking, cleaning and caring for our two younger brothers. Mom would visit us once a week for about an hour at the house when Dad wasn’t there.
Those five years were tumultuous. Dad had a terrible temper; he was angry and took it out on us. He kept dating women in the hope of finding a replacement “mom” for us, but each relationship ended badly. I am not sure how many times Dad got married. But a few of his wives left quite an impression. There were suicide attempts by one wife, pot smoking in our house by another and fistfights between that wife and myself. It could be a movie on the Lifetime Channel (I will spare you).
These were terrible years filled with fear and a sense of not belonging to anyone. Three of the four of us eventually moved out of our dad’s house to live with our mom and her new husband in south Florida. As long as we laid low and didn’t make too much noise, we had a roof over our heads and clothes to wear. 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. In high school I started using all kinds of drugs. I managed to graduate in 1972. Then I got in a car with a friend and drove across the country and landed in San Francisco.
For the next eight years 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 temple, 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 (Hindu Book of Knowledge) and a Bible that included a New Testament. I lost interest in the Bhagavad Gita but kept reading the Bible. Eventually I found myself in the New Testament. I really thought Jesus was very cool.
Eventually I prayed and asked God to give me a sign if Jesus was the one I had been searching for. The next day a neighbor gave me a book to read, The Late Great Planet Earth. I read that in a day. 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. She noticed and 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, that you can’t be Jewish and believe in Jesus. 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. My biggest dilemma was reconciling the idea that my wonderful Grandpa Singer was in hell. But over a few visits we settled it(see “Hurdles to Faith” article). And I knew I had to accept Jesus as my Messiah. I did so on May 20, 1980.
My life drastically changed. I began to attend weekly Bible studies at Jews for Jesus. One of the staff also met with me weekly one on one to teach me the Bible. Then a married couple in the congregation I started attending invited me to live in their house as a part of their family. It was a process, but I stopped using drugs and God did a lot of healing in my life and heart. Within a year, Jews for Jesus offered me a scholarship to attend a Bible college on the East Coast, and I never looked back.
Stewart and I have been married more than a quarter of a century now. We had a honeymoon baby in May 1987, nine months and four days after our wedding —Melissa Ruth. I remember counting her fingers and toes and thanking God for giving us a healthy baby. We lived in the Bronx at that time. Soon after, Stewart was asked to lead a Messianic congregation in Connecticut. Each Friday afternoon we would pack up our sweet Melissa and drive to Connecticut for Shabbat services. I taught the children and led the music while Stewart led the Shabbat service. The congregation began to grow. Soon we moved to Connecticut and our congregation, Joy of Israel, solidified. In 1989 Jonathan Samuel was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Our second child was healthy and perfect too! I won’t try to recount all my life since then, but our two great kids are grown up now and living independently (maybe they can tell their story one day too), while Stewart and I continue to tell other Jewish people about Yeshua.
I think if I had not come to believe in Jesus I most likely would not be alive today. But I have found in him a very abundant life!