Jezliah Villarreal, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, knows what it’s like to live in a fervent religious community. Born into a Texas family dedicated to evangelical Christianity, religion resonated in every aspect of her life. Her father, grandfather and uncles were all pastors in the Church of God (Seventh Day), and her mother organized and planned church activities, including music, teaching and outreach programs.
Today, Villarreal, 29, a busy mother of four, is a fully committed Jew, together with her husband and her parents, who also live in Ramat Beit Shemesh. As co-founder and co-director of the RBS Dance Academy, she channels her passion uniting girls and women from different backgrounds into expressing themselves via dance and creative movement.
Born in San Antonio, Jezliah Castellanos was raised in Austin, but her family’s roots extended further south to Monterrey, Mexico, where her mother was born. “My whole family was part of the ministry,” she says. “We were really religious growing up.”
Their church, unlike most, observes the Sabbath on Saturday, does not observe Christmas or Easter, and is very pro-Israel. In 2005, her mother, dissatisfied with their minimal amount of holiday observances, became interested in Messianic Judaism. The family visited a Messianic congregation in Austin, and incorporated several Jewish customs and songs into their church’s practice.
In August of that year, Jezliah’s mother began to follow the story of the evacuation from Gush Katif via the Internet. She came across the Arutz Sheva website, and felt heartbroken about the goings-on in Israel. She wanted to visit Israel, but Jezliah’s father feared for her safety, and he went instead, along with Jezliah’s then-boyfriend, Jose Daniel.
The two traveled to Israel that summer, but were not allowed to enter Gush Katif. When her father and boyfriend returned, they found that her mother had sold most of their furniture, because she wanted to move to Israel.
Her mother took a sabbatical from her work as a pharmacist and spent three months, says Villarreal, “locked up in her room day and night.” By November, she told her children that during her months of study she had concluded that their faith was false. She confronted her husband, the church’s pastor, with discrepancies between their New Testament and the Jewish Bible.
Jezliah’s mother reassured her children that if they would be good people, and serve and love God, all would work out for the best. Her boyfriend, Jose, agreed with her mother’s conclusions. “I knew we were doing something wrong the whole time,” he said.
In January of 2006, Jezliah, then 18, visited a Chabad center in Austin, together with Jose, and her sister and their parents. The wife of the Chabad director offered her a job as the kindergarten teacher’s assistant, and it was there that she began to learn the basics of Judaism.
The family did not tell the members of the church of their crisis of faith, and her father continued to serve as the pastor of the church until March 2006, when a church member in whom they had confided revealed their secret.
At that point, they were forced to leave the church. By then, her parents had decided that they wanted to convert to Judaism and did so via Chabad in 2007, joining the Jewish community of Austin.
Jezliah and Jose were married in 2006, but were still not Jewish. For them, the turning point came in August 2007, after she had become pregnant. Her mother, in the course of a phone conversation with her daughter, lamented that her grandson had asked her, “Who is God?”
“It broke my heart,” she told her daughter, “that my family doesn’t know about God.” Villarreal and her husband did not want their child to grow up not knowing about God, and they decided to convert to Judaism. In January 2010, after completing their course of study, they converted, together with their one-and-a-half-year-old son, in an Orthodox conversion in Houston, Texas. “We wanted purpose in our life again,” she says.
Her parents moved to Jerusalem in December 2008, and in July of 2010, Jezliah and Yosef (Jose) followed, moving in with her parents. After the initial euphoria of aliya had worn off, she found herself at a loss. She had no idea what to do with her time and missed her life in the US.
Her husband suggested that she look for a dance class that she could join. Villarreal, who had extensive training and experience in jazz, ballet and contemporary dance, joined the Jerusalem dance studio of Rachel Factor and enjoyed it immensely. It was there that she made friends with another recent immigrant, Shaked Sebag, who was also a proficient dancer.
A few months later, Villarreal’s parents moved to Ramat Beit Shemesh, and Jezliah and Yosef, together with their children, followed. She had stopped attending the Jerusalem dance class, but bumped into her friend Shaked, who encouraged her to resume her dancing. Together, they became members of an advanced dance class in Jerusalem, attending twice a week.
Eventually, Jezliah and Shaked found it too difficult to travel, and looked for dance programs in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Unable to find a place that suited their style and what they wanted to accomplish, the pair rented a studio and founded the RBS Dance Academy for women, which opened in September 2011. Enrollment the first year was 25 students, and the numbers have grown steadily each year. Today, some 200 students enjoy dance classes at all levels.
In addition to its regular classes, the academy stages annual shows for large groups of between 500 and 600 women.
Says Villarreal, “The academy has grown because of the professionalism that we bring to the school. The girls enjoy it. It has been a big blessing to come from where I came from, and establish this business with my friend.”
She is proud of the fact that the girls come from different backgrounds, ranging from Modern Orthodox to more right-wing Bais Yaakov backgrounds. “We want to bring everyone together,” she says. “You have a purpose in this life, and when you bring someone together, you don't think about what school you go to, or what kind of dress you have on… We see girls from Bais Yaakov backgrounds become really good friends with girls who come from more modern homes… it's been very positive.”
“Dance,” says Villarreal, “comes from the bottom of one’s soul. It is very expressive and connects us with our true selves.” Jezliah Villarreal, happy and busy in her life, is fully connected.