Many Jewish refugees from Russia settled in Omaha, Nebraska, between the 1880s and World War I. Among them were Debbie Landers’ grandparents. Landers, born Deberah Schwartz in Omaha in 1951, and her younger sister were raised Orthodox by their parents. The Schwartzes were one of just four Jewish families in a primarily Catholic neighborhood.
Unfortunately, Debbie still remembers taunts of “Christ killer” and “dirty Jew” from the neighborhood children. But she has good memories of family holiday celebrations, which included her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. She followed her parents’ advice to always do mitzvahs for others. She considered this the best way to stay in good favor with God.
But her feelings toward God changed when her father died of a heart attack when she was fifteen.
“I thought, How could you take my father from me? How could you do that?” she recalls.
When other important people in her life died over the next ten years, she became still more hardened toward God. She began to wonder, Who’s next? She was especially fearful on Yom Kippur, when she pictured God with a big book with her name in it as well as the names of other people she loved.
Her father’s death did motivate her professionally. She attended college and became a nurse.
“I wanted to be a nurse because I love taking care of people,” says Debbie, “and I wanted to be able to care for people like my father, who had a heart condition.” She worked in the coronary care unit of an Omaha hospital for several years.
Although God wasn’t part of her life, a full-page ad in a major magazine caught her eye when she was in her twenties.
“It was a picture of a guy with dark hair, very handsome,” Debbie says. “It was an ad for Jews for Jesus, and I thought, Wow! What is this!? I wasn’t offended – just surprised.”
When she was 25, she and Richard Pearl were married under the chuppah. They lived in Milwaukee, where Richard worked for the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. They had two children, Laura and Andrew. When Richard’s brother asked him to work for his paint company, the Pearls relocated to St. Louis.
Debbie had begun to experience weakness on one side of her body, dizziness and difficulty walking, and the symptoms intensified after Andrew’s birth. In 1983 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; she sunk into depression.
She and Richard were experiencing much tension in their marriage, and they divorced in 1987. After a lull in her MS symptoms, Debbie joined the singles group at the Jewish Community Center and met Myke Landers, who she married later that year.
“Everything seemed to be going well,” says Debbie, “but then my body went on the blink. I was so sick and miserable.”
One night, when the pain was unbearable, she telephoned her good friend Sue, a Jewish woman she had met a few years before at an MS support group. Sue asked, “Do you have a Bible?” Debbie grabbed her Hebrew Scriptures, and Sue asked her to read the 53rd chapter of the book of Isaiah aloud over the phone.
After reading it, Debbie asked, “Who is this man they are talking about?”
“It’s all about Jesus,” Sue replied.
“You’re kidding me. What? He’s there? He’s in Isaiah?”
“He’s all through the Hebrew Scriptures.”
Until that moment, Sue had never told Debbie that she was a Jewish believer in Jesus. But more shocking to Debbie was the thought that Isaiah might be writing about Jesus. She determined to find out if it was true.
“I told my husband that night,” she recalls, “‘We have to go get a Bible [one that included the New Testament].'” So she and Myke went to a bookstore and the saleswoman showed them a section full of Bibles.
“I didn’t know which one to get,” Debbie remembers. “The Holy Scriptures I owned were in the Masoretic text and hard to read. So I asked her, ‘Do you have a Bible that you can understand what you’re reading?’ So she showed me one called The Book, and we got that.”
Debbie began with the first five books of Moses. In 1988, when her husband was away one Saturday with his military Reserve unit, Debbie and her children went to Shabbat service. After the service Debbie felt ill, so she and the kids left right away. On Monday, the rabbi phoned to ask if there was anything he could do. Eager to discuss the Scriptures – specifically Isaiah 53 – Debbie asked him to stop by.
“When the rabbi arrived,” Debbie says, “I asked him about Isaiah 53. He tried to tell me the passage was about Israel. But I knew it wasn’t. I asked him, ‘Why aren’t our people told that this is about Jesus?’ And he had no answer.”
Soon afterwards, Debbie had another serious bout with her MS.
“I was doing childcare in our house, and I was so sick,” she recalls. “I asked my next-door neighbor to help me put the children down for a nap. I just had to lie down on my bed. Then she asked if she could pray for me. When I said okay, she asked, ‘Do you mind if I pray in the name of Jesus?’ I said, ‘That’s fine.’ She also suggested that I read the Gospel of John in the New Testament.
“So I began to read John, and I didn’t see anything bad. As a child in Sunday school, I learned maybe one sentence about Jesus: ‘He was a rabbi, a good man and maybe a prophet.’ But that was it. So I decided, I’m going to read these other men here – Matthew, Mark and Luke. And I was so fascinated, I could not read enough.”
As she continued to read, she became convinced that Jesus was indeed Israel’s promised Messiah. With the encouragement of another Jewish woman in her neighborhood who believed in Jesus, Debbie decided to follow him.
All was not rosy after that. Her MS got worse over the next couple of years, and her newfound faith amplified problems in her marriage to Myke. They divorced in 1992. Then in 1997, a biopsy of a lump in her neck revealed that she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Debbie worked in a St. Louis bread company at the time, and when she shared the news, a co-worker said, “Oh Debbie, you’re a goner.” Debbie replied, “Oh, no I’m not. I know without the shadow of a doubt that when I die I’m going to live with God in his presence forever.”
Debbie is still going strong. “The cancer is in my bone marrow,” Debbie says. “It is stage four, but all these years it’s been indolent [slow-growing], for which I thank the Lord.”
She returned to nursing in 2005 and now attends to those with dementia and Alzheimer’s at a residential care center.
“I was a mess on the outside,” Debbie says. “But God healed me from the inside out. He changed me over time. And he continues to change me as I go deeper with my Yeshua [Jesus], whom I love so much.”