Mike and Victoria Steele’s StoryBy: Tuvya Zaretsky
Tuvya: With us today are Victoria and Mike Stele. Victoria is a high school teacher and Mike is a lawyer from Southern California. Victoria, tell us a little bit about your family and spiritual background growing up.
Victoria: I come from a really large Hispanic/Filipino family. My father was a Vietnam vet, hippie, married my Filipino/Hispanic mother. The home was a lot about karma and positive thinking. My mom was Catholic, but not my dad. My dad had a lot of ideas about just giving me a lot of freedom growing up. My mom wasn’t used to that because she came from a really strict home. So, there was a lot of conflict about me being super wild. I also had a lot of spiritual seeds planted in my life by people who would talk to me about God and about Jesus. I had friends in high school who became Christians. I wasn’t sure what that really meant, but they’d talk with me about their faith. During my first quarter at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, I went to one of those campus fairs where they promoted all sorts of clubs. I connected with a Bible club right then, just thinking about my friends and trying to understand what had happened to them. Then, after one of my final exams, some guy sitting next to me just started talking to me, and he just invited me to church. So, I actually went to church. I remember opening my Bible in church, and right there, it became very clear to me what it meant to be a Christian. So, just like that, during my first quarter of college, I became a Christian. I knew that I had so much bad karma that just wasn’t working out for me. It was so refreshing to have God say, “Cast your cares upon Me,” and that He was giving me full forgiveness in Jesus. That’s my background.
Tuvya: Did you meet any Jewish people growing up?
Victoria: Maybe Dr. Greenberg, our family doctor on the central coast of California. He was Jewish and married to a Hispanic woman. But I really didn’t know any Jewish people personally. As a new believer, I got involved with a summer Bible school in Southern California. The teachers taught that Jewish people are the apple of the Lord’s eye, and they are God’s people. So, I developed such a heart for the Jewish people and had such a reverence for them.
Tuvya: Mike, what was your experience growing up Jewish in Southern California?
Mike: My brother and I were raised as Jews in Anaheim, the home of Disneyland. Our parents were both Jewish. We affiliated with Temple Beth Emet, a Conservative synagogue in Anaheim. I knew I was Jewish, had the identity, Hanukkah, Passover, the High Holy days, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur. I attended Jewish day camp in the summers and later worked as a camp counselor.
Tuvya: I understand your family planned to take you to Israel to celebrate your bar mitzvah. Tell us about that experience.
Mike: Yeah, I was studying to be bar mitzva’d at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. So, a local Chabad rabbi, very Orthodox, was training me to do it in Israel. But, in 1987, the first Arab civil unrest shut down all travel over there. So, we had to cancel the trip. I ended up doing a very Orthodox bar mitzvah in So. Cal. After that, our family attended synagogue less frequently.
Tuvya: Okay. When and how did you and Victoria meet?
Mike: Wow, I won’t ever forget. We met May 31st, 1993. It was Memorial Day. I was in college and was working a summer job as a supervisor lifeguard at a water park and slide in Anaheim. I saw a new person working with us. It was Victoria. I had never met her because she was working the park only part-time. She had another full-time job at a bank. So Memorial Day was our first introduction, and we had an instant connection. We just started talking and working together. Since I made the daily schedules, I always made it so we worked together at the pool as lifeguards on the same shifts.
Victoria: We’ve been married 27 years, and I actually just learned that. I didn’t know you did that. That’s so cute!
Mike: So, we just had this instant connection. And then I found out that Victoria was part of a church that was really strict. I knew she was a Christian, but I didn’t really know much about that.
Tuvya: Mike, when you heard that she was part of, what you said was a strict church, did that present a cultural barrier for you?
Mike: Yeah. I think it was probably more of a barrier to her about dating me. My mom would always say, “If you meet a nice Jewish girl…,” but there was never a sense of obligation with that. If I didn’t marry someone Jewish, it wouldn’t be a problem in my family. My brother married a non-Jewish person long before me. So, it wasn’t necessarily a barrier other than I knew she was a Christian, believed in Jesus, and as a Jew I couldn’t do that. I knew that could be a barrier, but it didn’t really stop me from getting to know her.
Tuvya: You’re saying that your Jewish cultural perspective was that you couldn’t believe in Jesus?
Mike: Exactly. I mean, through the sixth grade, I went to the Orthodox Hebrew Academy of Lubavitch. Among all the Jewish education I had, I learned Jews can be anything you want, but you can’t believe in Jesus. I heard reasons growing up like, “Well, if Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, there should be peace on earth, and there isn’t peace on earth, so, He must not be the Messiah.” They taught us things like that, and hearing that as a kid, and you don’t question the source. So, believing in Jesus was one thing I knew we couldn’t do.
Tuvya: But the idea of marrying somebody who wasn’t Jewish wasn’t the same sort of barrier?
Mike: From my perspective, no, it wasn’t.
Tuvya: Victoria, you’re a serious Christian and you meet this Jewish guy while working at the water park on Memorial Day. What happened next?
Victoria: The struggle for me was definitely coming from pressure in being part of my church culture. Mike and I were really attracted when he just said, “Well, maybe we should be together.” I told him, “The only way I could be with you is if I married you.” I mean, I was living with a family that were church leaders. They would have kicked me out of the church just for being Mike’s girlfriend.
Tuvya: Was that because he is Jewish or was it because he wasn’t a believer in Jesus?
Mike: The church leadership had a problem in that I was not a Christian. My Jewish identity was never a barrier for them.
Victoria: Right. In my mind, I just thought, Well, he believes in the same God, and the same Old Testament, and I believe in the New Testament. It’s fine. We’ll just teach each other.
Tuvya: Okay, I’m going to sit back and let you tell the rest of this story.
Mike: So, yeah, like we said, we just talked and just developed this relationship. Victoria said, “I can’t be with you unless we’re married.” That’s because from her perspective at the time, her church wouldn’t advocate divorce once she’s married because God hates divorce.
Victoria: Yeah, at one point I finally said, “Look, I can’t be with you anymore. I can’t see you.”
Mike: After that, she quit her job at the waterslide. Her elders were advising her to, “Break it clean off.” On that same day, a Wednesday, I wrote her a letter, and put it on the windshield of her car at where she worked. I wrote, “I need to be with you.” I also said, “Look, I’ll even convert to be with you.” Honestly, I didn’t really know what that meant, but I put it in there thinking that would be a way to win her. That was on a Wednesday, and she came to me at work on Saturday. She just said, “Let’s go get married.” I said, “Okay,” and told my boss I was leaving work because I wasn’t feeling well. My best friend, who was working with me, gave me a little plastic ring from the ski ball game prizes. I went home, changed, and just told my parents, “I’m leaving. I’ll be back later.” This was before cellphones, so I just left and called them later from the road.
Victoria: They had never really met me, but maybe once.
Mike: We stopped halfway and made calls just to let the people know that we wouldn’t be home so they wouldn’t worry.
Tuvya: Did you tell me once that you got a speeding ticket on the way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas?
Victoria: Yes. It was after midnight, in the early morning. The officer was an older guy. I want to say he was just like this angel. I told him, “Oh, we’re going to get married!” And he was like, “Well, you guys, you don’t want to go get married with tubes and stuff coming out of your bodies. So, you’ve got to slow down and be careful. You’re going too fast.” He was just a really sweet man. Then he gave us the speeding ticket.
Mike: So, we drove straight to the first wedding chapel we saw in Las Vegas. It’s called the Candlelight Wedding Chapel. We went in there, and they asked if we have a marriage license. “No.” “Oh, well you need to go get one.” We’re thinking, It’s like 2:00 in the morning. They told us, “Oh, no problem. They’re open 24 hours.” So, we drove to bureau and got the marriage license. We went right back and got married. I think it was like $95 total. We didn’t want to pay extra for music or flowers.
Victoria: I mean, it was 2:30 in the morning, so, yeah just the ceremony.
Mike: One of the reasons we got married that morning was because Victoria said she didn’t want to get two separate rooms. And we knew we couldn’t have one room unless we were married. So, we got married.
Victoria: The whole time, I’m stress gagging as we leave the wedding chapel, because that’s what I do. When we got to the hotel, I was in the bathroom asking myself, What is happening? What am I doing? Yeah, so we walked down the aisle, got married, and just said, “Yeah, divorce isn’t an option. This is the thing. This is it. You have to make this work, no matter what.” Mike was so reassuring. He told me, “Yeah, yeah, I get that.” So, the next day I called my parents. My mom said, “Oh! How fun! Well what’s your new last name?” You have to understand, my mom and dad met and married in two weeks, and my grandparents met and married in two days. They sat on a Greyhound bus. They got on together and then got off, got married and got back on. So, it’s kind of this weird thing in my family. And then Mike called his mom.
Mike: Yeah, I called her the next day and said, “I got married.” First, she said, “Without me?” And I said, “Yes.” Then, she said, “To who?” And I said, “Victoria.” My mom had only met her once. We never really dated. I’d just mentioned her as “a friend from work.” So, after a couple days in Vegas, we drove home. My parents took us to a Costco and got us all the dishes and stuff we needed for the house. My parents had a party for us, and we started to meet some of the family.
Victoria: When we got to his parents’ house, his aunt and uncle were there. His Jewish aunt came up to me and she said, “Welcome to the family. If you want to go to church with me on Sunday, you can come with me. We go to Magnolia Baptist in Anaheim.” I was like, “Okay. Yeah, sure.” Until then, I didn’t realize Mike’s uncle, his mom’s brother, was a Messianic follower of Jesus and even had contact with Jews for Jesus. So, it’s right then that I discover Mike’s aunt and uncle and their four kids were all Messianic believers.
Mike: Yeah, I knew my aunt and uncle were Christian, and I spent a lot of time with my cousins when I was growing up. I occasionally went to church with them a couple times. I found out much later that my parents gave a directive to my aunt and uncle, that my brother and I wouldn’t be able to go to their house if they ever talked to us about Jesus. So, they never shared their faith with us, though they were allowed to bring us to church a couple times when we stayed with them over a weekend.
Tuvya: Your mom is a traditionally Jewish, and her brother is a believer in Jesus?
Tuvya: So, you bring your new Christian wife, Victoria, home and your Jewish family immediately embraced her.
Mike: Everyone embraced Victoria, including my parents.
Victoria: Yeah, his mom ended up being my best friend. I became a school teacher and she was a high school counselor. Amazingly, I ended up working under her at her high school. When it came to identity, she just really didn’t want to lose any of her Jewish identity. And I honored that, and yet she allowed me to share my faith with her. I wanted our family to preserve Jewish identity, so we sent our boys to Jewish preschool. We kept all the Jewish holidays as part of our family life, and we still went to church on Sunday. We went to the synagogue with his parents occasionally, mostly on the Jewish holy days.
Tuvya: After you married, how did you experience your new identity as a couple together, yet with real spiritual differences?
Victoria: I went to church on Sunday, and I invited Mike to go with me. He didn’t want to go, but when he did join me, it was fine. He took to the pastor who was also an avid golfer. Mike enjoyed playing golf with him, and I didn’t pressure him about that. Seven years into our marriage, I attended a Christian women’s retreat where the leader asked me, “Why are you married to a non-Christian?” I explained how it “just kind of happened when I just was a new believer, and it’s a long story.” I wasn’t sure about what was coming next, but then she recommended I contact Jews for Jesus right away to get some spiritual support.
Tuvya: So, you’re married for seven years and balancing spiritual connections with Victoria’s Christian faith and with Mike’s Jewish family traditions. You now have two little sons who are going to acquire a spiritual outlook on life. What were they seeing you doing to synthesize those two worlds?
Mike: By the time we had the boys, I was going to church with Victoria pretty regularly. We were involved in a young-married couples’ group. I went mostly because it was important to Victoria. It was a little easier because my uncle was an elder at the church and my cousins were there too. That made it feel more familiar. I would listen to the pastor’s messages, and I would try to apply what I learned to be a good person. I really didn’t have a connection of Jesus as the Messiah. I was just trying to learn about being a good person like Jesus taught. I don’t need Christianity as a crutch. And when I played golf with the pastor, he would bring up putting faith in Jesus and I would shut him down immediately. He was never offended, stayed so patient, and then would ask me to play again.
Tuvya: Did people at the church accept you as someone who wasn’t a believer, but nevertheless respect and welcome you?
Mike: Yeah, I felt safe. Looking back, when everyone else bowed their head to pray, I didn’t. And during activities like people getting baptized, I wouldn’t pay attention. When the people were singing hymns, I wouldn’t sing the songs. So, I definitely felt comfortable being there, though I wasn’t fully engaged. We were blessed to be led to that particular place because the people just took us in and loved us.
Tuvya: So, what brought about the spiritual change in you?
Victoria: Well, after the women’s retreat, I called the Los Angeles Jews for Jesus office. A staff worker named Rob called me. He helped me understand some of the cultural barriers that Mike probably faced. Then he asked how I felt if he and Mike met for a conversation. He asked, “Would Mike be interested in meeting with me?” Rob is a Messianic Jew. Mike was okay with that. So, he and Rob just started meeting to talk and have lunch. They kept on meeting about once a week for a year. One day, we were in the car, and Mike said, “You know, I would say that I’m a Christian.” And I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, in my heart, I believe it. I believe that Jesus is the Messiah.” I knew there was a change. And I saw it the first time I prayed, and he was with me in the prayer. And then I remember when he prayed. I could see he had made Jesus Lord of his life. I specifically remember the minute he said, “Lord.” I knew we were okay. That was what needed to happen. It signaled the final reconciliation of his heart and his mind. Mike is just a great guy. I’m not saying that he’s perfect. I’m just saying he’s a great guy. It’s hard for a guy who tries to do the right thing all the time to see a need for Jesus. It’s hard for them, but I’m just so thankful that he did, that he did see his need, cause it’s easy to just be a good person and be like, “Yeah, I’m a good person.” I’m super thankful he did that. He patiently sat in church for seven years, and when Jesus’ message was clear to him, he had given his life to God. I had a lot of help from a loving church family, a patient and wise pastor, and Rob from Jews for Jesus. It was something that I couldn’t do alone.
Tuvya: Mike, what helped you the most?
Mike: I definitely think going to church for seven years helped the process. The idea that “Jews just do not believe in Jesus” was so ingrained in me. When I met with Rob, he respectfully challenged me about what I’d heard about Jesus growing up. I found it wasn’t necessarily true. I asked lots of questions like, “If Jesus is the Messiah, why isn’t there peace on earth?” Our discussions mattered to me personally. He wasn’t talking down to me or trying to pressure me with things like, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to hell.” And the stories told by Christians often emphasized how they were down and out. I thought, Well if they hit rock bottom, I could see why you would need Jesus. I’ve always tried to be a good person. I was a Boy Scout. I played sports in high school. I never got into alcohol or drugs. So, I didn’t see the personal need for Jesus. Rob related to me on the same cultural level as a Jew. He helped me to see the gospel in a way that was unique, like I had never heard it before. In my private time, I was reading the Bible on my own. In Luke’s gospel is the story of Lazarus and the rich man. The parable is about an arrogant and uncharitable rich man who dies and is in torment, separated from God by a chasm. He sees a poor man Lazarus in the safe company of the holy patriarch Abraham. The rich man realizes he is reaping the rightful outcome of his foolish life choices. He asks Abraham to send lowly Lazarus back to tell the rich man’s family not to follow his bad example. In the parable, Jesus puts these words in Abraham’s mouth, “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:31 NASB). As I read that, it was like the scales fell from my eyes. I had instant recognition that everything I was learning about Jesus was true.
Tuvya: And that was a definite change from what you had been taught about Jesus growing up in the synagogue?
Mike: Until then, even if the Bible indicated Jesus was the Messiah, I would make an excuse. I was just looking for a perfect answer, and it had already been provided to me. Rob continued to meet with me as I grew in my faith. I really appreciate that about the Jews for Jesus ministry. I was someone with whom Rob took time. He heard my objections and continued to help strengthen my faith.
Tuvya: You both have had a wonderful role in caring for the children of Messianic families through the Jews for Jesus children’s program and Camp Gilgal. You’ve raised two really wonderful young men who are both now married. And you continue to live out your lives as people of faith in Jesus and who preserve Jewish culture, spirituality, and traditions. You have hosted Passover seders at your home almost every year except 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Victoria: We did celebrate it with the few with whom we quarantined. We have a Hanukkah celebration every year, too. We lost Mike’s parents in 2007 in a car accident. That was our first summer that we helped out at Camp Gilgal. The Jews for Jesus community really came alongside of us during that very difficult time. But we’re just super thankful for them all.
Tuvya: I’m thankful for you telling your story. I think it’ll help a lot of folks, who for whatever reason, end up together, where one is a believer in Jesus, and one is not. You two are a terrific example that it’s possible to find spiritual harmony in spite of all the cultural icons, community ideals, and family restrictions that we grow up with. I’m really grateful for you taking the time to tell the story.