A Jewish journey that started out Christian

When Jim Stillman met his future father-in-law for the first time, the reception was cool.

“Nancy and I went to her parents’ home in Shorewood to tell them that we wanted to get married,” Stillman said, recalling the encounter some three decades later. “Her father would not give us his blessing.”

It was an awkward moment as Stillman lowered the bar a bit and asked for acceptance. The father – Ralph Sherman, a longtime director of Jewish Family Services – didn’t budge.

Stillman was the divorced father of two daughters, nine years older than his wife-to-be and Christian.

“What if I promise that any kids will be raised Jewish?” Stillman said to his future father-in-law. “His eyes got big and he came over to me and gave me a big hug.”

He was quickly welcomed to his new family and community.

True to his word, Stillman and his wife Nancy sent their two daughters (yes, that’s a total of four daughters for Jim) to Milwaukee Jewish Day School in Fox Point. Both loved it. As parents they were involved in the school and they were also immersed in their synagogue community. Among other things, he started a men’s spirituality group at Congregation Sinai and, with his wife, founded an interfaith group that started with three couples and grew to more than 100 members.

As a longtime public school teacher in Cedarburg, Stillman deeply believes that children need structure, a clear set of values and an identity.

“I had students who went to Lutheran or Catholic (elementary) schools,” he said, adding that he is a supporter of public schools. “I could usually tell within two weeks who went to religious school and who went to public school.”

In 2002, after years of informal and formal preparation, Stillman converted. “My rabbi came up to me one day and said ‘don’t you think it’s time you converted?’”

It was not a difficult decision: “The more I learned about it, the more I loved it.”

December does not present a dilemma for the Stillmans, even though his siblings and children from his former marriage are practicing Christians.

Every year while his parents were alive, he put up a decorated tree and had the family over for Christmas Eve cocktails. And his daughters from his first marriage, who were raised as Catholics, joined their father in celebrating Jewish holidays.

Stillman was born into a staunch Missouri Synod Lutheran family and raised on a farm. Growing up in the 1950s, he knew a few Catholics and only one girl who never acknowledged that she was Jewish. “Her parents were being protective. It was a different time and place,” Stillman said.

His mother, he said, never fully understood what it meant for his family to be Jewish.

“She’d ask me ‘what do you do at Easter, what do you eat?’”

The family would go to the farm for the egg hunt but decline the ham dinner, he said.

Stillman’s brother is Lutheran, his sister Catholic. Celebrating holidays – Christian or Jewish – is a reflection of the love that is at the core of each of their beliefs, he said.

“A lot of Jews believe it’s a slippery slope,” Stillman said. “And it can be. But we need to celebrate our family’s holidays while maintaining our own beliefs. You have to be flexible.”