Photo Credit: Rivka Rischall
Jezliah Villarreal

As a child raised in a Sabbath-keeping church, Jezliah Villarreal dreamed of being “a big time worship leader. I wanted to tour and go to a Christian college for the performing arts. That was my dream – to study Christian performing arts.”

Today, she’s a Jewish woman and a wife, mother, olah and co-owner of the Ramat Beit Shemesh Dance and Music Academy in Israel.

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How she got from the Church of God (Seventh Day) to Ramat Beit Shemesh is an inspiring tale. It is about a young woman who “always wanted to do something to bring a message to the world, to be a vessel for God and to inspire people.”

From her earliest days, Villarreal was taught that Israel was important. “When I was in church, we were very connected with what was going on in Israel. We were taught to pray for the peace of Israel.” Despite that spiritual link, the first time she set foot in Israel was when she made aliyah in 2010.

Coming from a Sabbath-keeping church in Texas, the family didn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter.

Despite the fact that her father was a pastor, her mother “felt bored as a Christian and got into the Jewish festivals,” Villarreal explained.

“That got our family into the messianic movement when I was 17. After that, [my mother] decided to look for other Jewish websites and more Jewish resources. She found Arutz Sheva during the Gush Katif evacuations. That was a big factor. She started listening to all the rabbis speaking. She wondered why the Jewish people didn’t believe in JC as messiah.”

One day, Villarreal’s mother was listening to a broadcast with Rabbi Jeremy Gimpel, now of The Land of Israel Network. A Christian caller, commenting on a troublesome time in Israel, said, “You know why this is happening to you? Because you don’t believe in JC.” Villarreal reported that, “Jeremy went into a rage!”

That dispute inspired Villarreal’s mother to take a sabbatical from work. “She locked herself in her room day and night and did research. And she found a lot of discrepancies in the Christian Bible.

“It was my senior year when all this happened. We were so involved in the messianic movement, my mother decided we should all move to Israel, because that’s where everything was happening. This was 2005. We were moving by faith. God wanted us to move to Israel and the whole family was on board. We sold everything.

“One day, Mom called my brother into her room. They talked for a while. She called my sister into the room and talked for a while. I thought she was telling us that my parents were getting a divorce.”

When it was Jezliah’s turn, her mother told her that everything they believed was not true and that, in fact, they have been performing idol worship with Jesus. She told her that the church had “made up a bunch of lies.” I wasn’t sure what to think, but I knew my mother was telling me the truth. I was understanding, but I was in shock. I asked, “But Mom, what about my soul? Because we’re taught that without Jesus, we’re damned.” Her mother reassured her.

Villarreal family

The practical implications of this new awareness were especially dramatic for Villarreal. In keeping with her career aspirations, she was in charge of the music department of her father’s 200-member church in Austin, TX. Her husband Yosef, then known as Jose, was also involved with the music ministry and accompanied the family through their transition.

“My father told me that for the sake of the church, we shouldn’t say anything. As musicians, we continued to lead praise and worship and sing about Jesus and carry on as if everything was okay. We did that for a few months.”

During those turbulent months, Villarreal’s mother gave her husband, the pastor, “a big packet of all the research she had done. She said to him, “Prove me wrong. I so want to be wrong.” He ended up coming back the next day with more stuff he had found. He called all his teachers and was told to just suck it up and keep his job.

While the family figured out their next move, they reached out to a local Chabad rabbi and were invited to spend Shabbat. Coming from her church background, Villarreal recalls being shocked by the lack of music during the prayer service.

“The [Chabad] rebbetzin sat with us. She offered me a job at her Hebrew school. I started working there as an assistant teacher right away. That’s how we kept a close connection with the Jewish community.

“We were still in church. Church was my life. We thought we could convince the church to join us on the path. In March 2006, the church committee and congregants had a meeting to speak against what was going on with my family. That night, my father resigned and that was the last time we were involved with church.”

Though her parents began studying for conversion almost immediately, Villarreal was engaged and in the midst of planning her wedding. She and her husband Yosef decided they didn’t want to rush into anything. They shared Shabbat dinners with her parents, but didn’t start the conversion process until Villarreal was pregnant with her first child. “I was always very spiritual and I stayed very close to what was going on with my parents,” she reported.

Their conversions were completed in 2010 and, six months later, the young Villarreal family made aliyah. “It was very sudden. God was pushing us to make aliyah.”

Despite her deep engagement with music and dance from a very young age, she let go of all of her musical interests and aspirations. “When we got into Judaism, I forgot about that dream. I got married, had a kid and pursued the whole conversion thing.

“At that point, I think I did go into some kind of emotional depression. I lost the way I connected to God. It’s something I didn’t realize I lost until I found it again, living here in Israel. It took a lot to pinpoint what was going on with me. I was in a funk.

“The conversion process was supposed to be a new awakening. I was a person who connected to Hashem through the performing arts. When I came to Israel, I realized I was depressed and sad. My character changed.”

Encouraged by her husband to find an outlet for herself, she started going to a dance studio in Jerusalem three times a week. “I remember the first time I got on a dance floor. That was my awakening moment. I broke down, and that’s how I knew that I had really suppressed a lot of how I was feeling.”

After moving from Jerusalem to Ramat Beit Shemesh, traveling to Jerusalem three times a week became too time-consuming. Instead, Villarreal and her business partner Shaked Sebag opened dance classes in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

In 2011, there were five classes a week and 30 students. Today, there are 200 students attending 25 classes a week. In addition, Villarreal and Sebag have a high-level dance troupe that gets invited to perform outside the city. On top of all that, and while raising her first-born and the three additional children she gave birth to in Israel, Villarreal writes and performs her own music and is in the midst of recording her debut album.

Commenting on the trend in women performance artists in the Orthodox community, Villarreal said, “This year has been a big growth in having women perform. I’m hoping I can be one of those people to show our younger generations. I hope to create high quality opportunities. They need to see there’s a place for women performing arts in the world while being able to maintain Judaism.

“Literally, God took me from someplace where I was something in the Christian world to nothing and then restored me in the Jewish world. I feel that Hashem has a mission for me, this time with a clearer message.”

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