Journey Paper: Dr. Vered Hillel

I want to tell you the story of how I went from being a good conservative Evangelical Christian girl to a Conservative Jewish Believer in Yeshua. I praise HaShem for the journey he has led me on for the past 60 years—the good ones and the bad ones, as together they make me the person I am. I want to relate some high points of this journey, but before we begin let me tell you about the person I am today. I am a wife of 41 years, a mother of 3 children, and a grandmother of 7, ranging in ages from 10 to 18. I am a kind person, a servant who loves to teach, study, do research and to talk. I also love sports, especially baseball and American football.

As with most people, my story begins at birth. I was born into a loving, but hurting family with many secrets. My mother z’’l was Jewish by birth, but tried to keep it a secret, and my father z’’l was an American. When I was born, everyone in the family said I was a gift of HaShem sent to comfort my family after the death of my three-month old sister the previous year. It doesn’t matter whether this is proper theology or not, the fact is that my family treated me this way. As a result, from my earliest memories I have loved HaShem and wanted to know and serve him. In fact when I was little I wanted to become a nun because they were the only examples I saw of women serving God. I greatly respected and appreciated them and wanted to be like them – a servant of HaShem.

I grew up in a working class, ethical family with Judeo/Christian values and mores where God was somewhere in the background. We did not have any specific traditions other than American ones. We did celebrate Christmas and Easter, but not as religious holidays, simply as American holidays. However, we also visited some of my parents’ Jewish friends at Chanukkah and Passover. We did not attend Church or Synagogue, never read the Bible and rarely ever said a blessing before we ate. The ambiguity of tradition, coupled with my hunger for HaShem, left a question mark inside of me as to who I really was. I was so different from the rest of my family, both in coloring and thought processes, so much so that I actually thought I was adopted. It turns out that my brothers were the ones adopted by my father after he and my mother were married. My identity became an issue that plagued me for most of my life. In fact, I very vividly remember lying on my bed one night when I was five-years-old crying and crying, pouring my heart out to HaShem, asking him why he didn’t make me a Jew. Little did I know at that time that HaShem was smiling down at me with a twinkle in his eye. He knew something about who I am, that would not be revealed to me for another 30 years.

The next major event in my journey occurred when I was thirteen-years-old. A friend invited me to Sunday School at her Baptist Church and surprisingly my parents consented to let me go. This was a life-changing experience. The Sunday School teacher was awesome; she knew all the genealogies. She knew who was married to whom, who was the uncle, the second cousin, etc. Her detailed knowledge of the Scripture showed me her love of HaShem and Scripture. Consequently I knew I could trust what she said. When she explained to me that Yeshua was the King of the Jews and the Messiah, I believed her. I remember the incredible feeling of forgiveness that I experienced that day. I had felt like the worst sinner in the world. My life felt so heavy and dark. It is funny to me now because I was a really good and obedient child. I always tried to do what was right and please my parents. I was very innocent and naïve. But that didn’t matter at that time. I could sense the transformation that took place inside of me. No longer was I the little girl that felt out of place; I was a child of God. But what did that mean? Working it out practically, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually and spiritually has been a journey for me.

My high school years were filled with academics, band, clubs and sports. I thoroughly enjoyed these years. Then just as I started my journey as a single adult, I met my life’s partner, Michael, and we began our adulthood as a family. We married at age 19 and by 22 we had three children. I was a stay-at-home mom and thought that this was my identity and that my role as wife and mother would fill the gaps inside of me. But, Mike was in the Marine Corps and they felt that if he was supposed to have a wife they would have issued him one. That removed any sense of identity I received as his wife. Furthermore, HaShem used my children to strip away my self-righteousness and to show me in a real and tangible way that I cannot gain my identity from any external factor, not even being the perfect Proverbs 31 woman. I am a perfectionist, so everything I did, I did well and gained approval for this, including learning the Bible, memorizing verses and living according to the Bible as interpreted by Evangelical Churches. In other words, I was a good Christian woman, with a lot of hidden self-righteous.

Our first-born son exhibited his strong will from a very early age. We used to joke and say that he was born with his hands on his hips (you know, with a huge attitude). At age 12 he decided to run as far and as fast from God as possible, and he did. And as far as he ran, he had to walk back. I have many stories to tell, especially about how HaShem changed me through it all, but most important is that our son is now walking with the Lord and the consequences of his decisions are being redeemed and restored. Another challenge was that our daughter was born with serious medical problems including rheumatoid arthritis, immune system difficulties and cystic fibrosis. Complicating the issue was that when she was born, Mike was in Okinawa and I was alone in Texas with two toddlers, a sick baby and no family. Suffice it to say that during that time I learned the importance of community and relationships. Baruch HaShem; he eventually healed our daughter and she is a wonderful mother of three pre-teen and teenage children.

During our child-rearing years, I was dedicated to pleasing HaShem as a wife and mother. We were at services everytime the doors were open. We had Bible study and prayer with our children daily. I taught Sunday School, prepared Wednesday evening meals before services, participated in evangelism, visitation, and prayer groups, interpreted for the deaf, worked in children’s, youth and women’s ministry and helped establish new congregations. Mike and I shared the same desire of serving HaShem with all our hearts, mind and soul. As a result, Mike left the Marine Corp and we prepared for the mission field. During our two years at Bible School we trained for Muslim ministry and were headed to Egypt. Two weeks before we were to leave for Egypt, we received a message telling us not to come. HaShem was at work again. A dear Israeli friend and fellow student introduced us to a ministry that worked with Muslims in Bethlehem. Within days we had been accepted with this ministry and were on our way to Israel. We arrived in Israel September 1987 with one-way tickets, everything we owned, $300 in cash and $100 a month support. Our children were 10, 11 and 13. Little did we know how foolish this was, but we were absolutely convinced that we were walking in obedience to HaShem’s call. Baruch HaShem; he is faithful. We have been in Israel for 25 years and owe no man anything.

Our stay in Bethlehem was limited to three months because of ministry conflicts and the first Intifada. However, Bethlehem was a strategic layover in my journey of identity. My short stay in Bethlehem awakened my dormant cry of being Jewish. This time I was old enough to do something to resolve the issue. After assorted communications with my grandmother, it was revealed that my mother was Jewish because my grandmother and great-grandmother, were Jewish. However, my great-grandmother, and my grandmother and my mother, had all three married non-Jewish men. So I had to claim the Jewishness otherwise it would be lost to all future generations. I was so excited to learn that I was halakhically Jewish, but what did this mean, what was I to do with this information? HaShem opened the doors for Mike, our children and me to make aliyah quickly and easily in April 1988.

This began an entirely new phase of our family life. Me, the good “Christian girl and woman,” was really Jewish. Yet I felt isolated, disconnected from my people because I did not understand the traditions, the history, the liturgy. None of this was part of who I was. I had to make it part of my core being. Our family plunged into an orthodox Jewish lifestyle. I wore head covering and skirts; Mike and the boys wore kippah and tzittzit and the children went to religious schools. We were shomer Shabbat to the point of not using electricity, cooking, spending money or driving. We attended a Masorti (Conservative)synagogue that leaned toward orthodoxy, as well as a Messianic Jewish congregation. The leadership of the Synagogue knew we were Yeshua believers and still welcomed us, even to the point of giving us leadership responsibilities. The doors remained open for us to participate in this synagogue for about five years. We learned and loved much. During this time I was also a nursery school teacher for three-and four-year-old children from orthodox families. I was hired to teach the children about HaShem and Judaism. It was a wonderful time for me as I grew in my understanding of who I am as a Jew right along with the kids. I learned prayers, about the moadim, mitzvoth, Shabbat, and other Jewish tradition. all from having to teach the children. HaShem knew what He was doing.

Our shift in lifestyle and identity from Arab ministry to observant Jews caused quite a stir among segments of the Believing community. Although we had spiritual covering and prayer as we walked through the changes in our life, we did not share the details with everyone. Those looking on from the outside could not see our hearts or the facts of the process. Some Believers began accusing us of lying about our Jewishness and deceiving the Israeli government. This was tragic for me. You have to understand, I grew up in a home full of secrets and untruths. My mother was such a hurting person that she lived in a world that she built to protect herself from others. It was full of secrets and her reworked version of the truth. As a result, I grew up placing extreme value on integrity. So the words of these believers wounded me deeply; they touched my integrity and relationship with HaShem. I was very confused. When I sat beforeHaShem, I knew I had not lied and that I had a pure heart. But what about before man? I began to question my own integrity.

The Scripture teaches to be right before HaShem and mankind (Acts 24:16; 2 Cor 8:21). So to resolve the issue, we chose to go to the chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem. In Israel the Rabbinic court has the authority to decide who is a Jew. At our court appearance, the Rabbinate declared both Mike and me Jews. As such we needed to be married by a rabbi, with a ketubah. We consented and were married (remarried) by one of the leading Rabbis in the Jerusalem rabbinate. Only later would we understand how important these decisions and actions were. At the moment, the important issue was that I could stand before HaShem and all mankind with clean hands and a pure heart, and with confidence proclaim, I am Jewish. I am a Jewish Yeshua Believer.

Once again HaShem was guiding my journey in ways that I could not see or even imagine. Not long after that court decision, we were expelled from the synagogue we attended by the new rabbi who could not handle our faith. Soon after that I was fired from my job as a nursery school teacher because of my faith in Yeshua and a bit later Mike and I were taken to Rabbinic court for our faith in Yeshua as Messiah and King. The Rabbinate could not declare us non-Jews; after all they had already declared us Jews and even married us. Instead, they put a cherem on us, which essentially banned us from the orthodox Jewish community. This cherem hurt very much. We love Jewish liturgy and synagogue life; we love being part of a practicing Jewish community. Despite the pain, we also saw HaShem’s hand of protection. Again, he solidified my identity, this time as a Jewish Yeshua believer, not just as a Jew. These were difficult times, but worth every relationship, decision and outcome.

With our identity as Jewish Yeshua Believers firmly established and the doors to the non-Yeshua believing Jewish community closed for us at that time, we once again found ourselves seeking HaShem’s guidance as to what to do. We desired to join a traditionally observant Messianic Jewish congregation, but the opportunities in Israel at that time were very limited. I began working for an English-speaking congregation in Jerusalem and the indigenous Bible College they founded. At that time I worked in administration but desired to change from administration to teaching. I returned to university and finished my BA in Bible and Theology, MA in New Testament and the Backgrounds to Early Christianity, MA in 2nd Temple period and a PhD in 2nd Temple Period literature in a matter of 13 years. I also completed my MA in Messianic Jewish Theology at MJTI in 2014. One of the highlights of my life was standing for the singing of HaTikva during my PhD graduation ceremony from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and being overwhelmed with a sense of awe and pride that I had joined the ranks of the many Jewish scholars who have gone before me, and of representing the Jewish Yeshua Believing Community in such an endeavor.

I loved, should say, love studying. I grew in self-confidence and in knowledge way beyond anything that I had ever dreamed. Furthermore, I increasingly realized the many ways HaShem had invested in my life and blessed me with multiple talents and opportunities to grow in him. Some of those opportunities have been joyful and full of pleasure, while others have been painful challenges filled with tears, anxiety and anger,. All of them have culminated in joy, strength and a deeper knowledge of the character of HaShem and in my relationship with him. This deeper understanding of myself and my abilities, desires and gifting along with my knowledge of Judaism, Jewish history, and literature deepened my desire to be part of a practicing Jewish community, which created conflict. I wanted to teach what I had learned, to make the Scripture come alive to others, especially in a non-supersessionist way. But, I am a female Jewish Yeshua Believer in a male dominated society and Body of Messiah.

When I began teaching at the indigenous Israeli Bible college, I was elated. My responsibilities grew from being part-time faculty to full-time faculty. I then took on oversight of the International Program, created and headed the MA program, became associate academic dean and kept student records. Later, I also developed an online program for the college, but was not involved in the launching of the program. These tasks were fulfilling, but teaching empowered and challenged me. The more I taught, the more I craved to learn. More and more I saw things through Jewish spectacles; my thoughts, theology and desires changed. Once again I felt out of place. I only knew Messianic Judaism from Israel, and had Israeli perspectives and attitudes toward American Messianic Judaism. I began to question my desire for a practicing Jewish community, for my theology as it was developing and for my guilt of not being perfect. At this time I also felt isolated because I could not discuss my theological questions and queries with the Yeshua Believers with whom I worked and worshipped because my thoughts and questions challenged the “orthodox” parameters. This was tragic for me, because I am a verbal processor and need to talk things out to work through them. With no one to wrestle with concerning various theological issues, they became looming thoughts that plagued me. About this time, HaShem in his providence, brought Mark Kinzer into our lives. Mark was a breath of fresh air. He sat in our living-room for hours patiently discussing so many of these issues. Even when I disagreed or challenged him, he was not offended or flustered or judgmental. He simply discussed the issues with me, provided different perspectives, gave me things to read and challenged me. It was refreshing to meet a Believer who was able and willing to discuss theological issues critically with no condemnation. Through our encounters with Mark, Mike and I gained the freedom to be practicing Messianic Jews, and to return to a Masorti (Conservative) Synagogue. Mark also showed me that my antipathy toward theology was misplaced. It was not theology that I opposed, but the apologetic manner in which I had seen it discussed and developed.

Since my first meeting with Mark, HaShem has opened so many doors for me to grow as a Jewish Yeshua believer. One ofthese opportunities was in meeting Elliot Klayman when he came to Israel to teach a class at the Bible college where I worked. Elliot showed me and Mike a different view of American Messianic Judaism and encouraged us in so many different ways. I value Elliot’s and Mark’s friendship very deeply.

Another strategic event was attending my first Hashivenu meeting, where I saw for the first time respectful critical dialogue over theological issues, and where I met some wonderful Jewish Believers who have impacted my life since then. Among Mark, Elliot and HaShivenu, I developed a craving to know more about Messianic Jewish theology, so I started studying with MJTI. These classes changed my life completely. They helped shed some of my wrong theological foundation and to build a new one. They established my theological and biblical understanding of Messianic Jewish theology, practice and community to the point that I developed new visions and dreams. These dreams led Mike and me to move on from our positions at the Bible college to start something new. The question was – What? Once again we found ourselves seeking HaShem for his direction. After almost two years of sitting, we have received new direction, open doors, hope and excitement. Our new vision is three-fold: 1) to build Messianic Jewish theology; 2) to improve the working relationship between the Messianic Body in Israel and the Galut; and 3) to build the bi-lateral ecclesia as an eschatological sign. My journey is not over, but I have arrived at the point that I am comfortable in my own skin and excited about the future.