Reunited couple relishes time spent together
For 14 months, they lived in California. Then Jesse was transferred to McGuire Air Force Base, and he and Jill have called this region home ever since.
Jill & Jesse Arnstein
Jill Stahler and Jesse Arnstein met at Rutgers-Camden School of Law on a fall Sunday in 1991. She was 22, he was 21, and while their classes hadn’t started, they already had homework.
“A bunch of us met in the dormitory to discuss some case law written in the 1700s,” Jill remembered. “I thought Jesse was cute.”
“She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life, and within a couple of days I fell head over heels in love with her,” said Jesse.
Jill agreed to meet up with him at a law school gathering that Thursday, and then it got better: “We went back to her dorm room and I kissed her,” he said.
The first thing Jill said after the kiss: “I have a boyfriend.”
She and that boyfriend had been seeing each other all through undergrad, but things were rocky then, said Jill. “And I was in this new place, with all of these nice, new people.”
It wasn’t great news, but whoever this boyfriend was, he was not the one kissing Jill that night. “I really didn’t care that much,” Jesse said.
Throughout September, October, and November, Jesse, who grew up in South Orange, N.J., and Jill, who grew up in Manalapan, N.J., were either studying or exploring South Jersey and Philadelphia together. They went horseback riding and apple picking. They hit city pubs and restaurants. He made her a Shabbat dinner.
“In my mind, things were going great,” said Jesse.
“I had genuine feelings for Jesse, but I was very conflicted,” Jill said. She was in Jesse’s room when her roommate called to say her boyfriend had called from the lobby.
Jill knew this wasn’t fair to anyone — she had to make a decision between the good guy she’d been having fun with for the past three months and the good guy she’d been dating since her freshman year in college, her first love.
After the holiday break, she told Jesse, “I’m sorry.”
“We couldn’t be friends anymore, and we had been best friends. It sucked,” said Jill.
Jesse dated other girls after Jill broke up with him, but at the end of every semester, he would find Jill to tell her he still cared for her.
Jill found it annoying that he made things so awkward and that he looked so good in his Air Force ROTC uniform. She stuck by her decision.
At the end of their final year, Jesse had two social engagements and chose the ROTC Ball. Had he attended the Barrister’s Ball instead, he would have seen Jill accepting her boyfriend’s proposal.
Jill, who is now 53, married her first love and worked as a commercial litigation lawyer for a small Plymouth Meeting firm.
The Air Force shipped Jesse, who is now 52, to Minot, N.D., where he was stationed for three years. Inspired at first by boredom, he became a long-distance triathlete. Sometimes while running or biking through fields of sunflowers, he thought of Jill. He dated other people, but he did not marry.
In late 1997, Jesse learned he was being transferred to Los Angeles Air Force Base and fit in a trip home first. He met a friend from law school at a West Orange, N.J., bar on New Year’s Eve. They were getting ready to call it a night when his friend shared a bit of gossip: “You know what I heard? I heard that Jill Stahler is getting divorced.”
“The very next day, I wrote a letter to her,” Jesse said. He didn’t mention the divorce rumor, writing only that he was thinking of her, and was about to move to L.A. He didn’t know where Jill was but persuaded someone at the law school to provide her work mailing address.
Jill was in her office when her secretary handed her what was obviously a personal letter.
“I opened it, and I just kept saying ‘Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!’ and she kept asking, ‘Who is that?’ and we went to lunch and I told her the whole story.”
Jill’s letter to Jesse included her phone number, which he quickly used. “I was impressed with all the things he was doing, and I really liked talking to him,” Jill said.
“I was elated,” said Jesse. “But I had sought the counsel of women in my unit and they advised me to take it slow.”
Coincidentally, Jill was already planning a trip to California to visit a friend in Santa Monica. Five months after their phone call, they spent a few days together. All the caution Jesse intended evaporated.
“It was like somebody threw a gallon of gasoline on a fire that had been burning in my heart,” he said. “I knew she was the woman I wanted to marry.”
Jill’s heart heated up, too. “I knew this was something special, but my divorce wasn’t final yet, and I didn’t want Jesse to be a rebound and then I end up hurting him again,” she said. They saw each other about every six weeks, and Jill quickly realized how terribly she missed him when they weren’t together.
Within four months, they were exclusive.
In January 1999, Jesse flew to New Jersey so they could attend a wedding together. Jesse suggested they visit Sandy Hook, where he had been a lifeguard in college. The lighthouse was closed for the season, but Jesse got special permission to go inside. At the top, he pulled out a small keyboard and began to play and sing “Against All Odds,” by Phil Collins.
Then he knelt and asked Jill to be his partner for the rest of their lives.
“Yeah, but so soon?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Yes,” replied Jill.
Building a life together
They couple wed Sept. 5, 1999, at Congregation Oheb Shalom in South Orange -— they were happy to discover that the rabbi who married them had also married Jill’s parents decades before. A reception for 100 was held in the reception hall.
For 14 months, they lived in California. Then Jesse was transferred to McGuire Air Force Base, and he and Jill have called this region home ever since. His work required Jesse to spend a lot of time away from home — which he and Jill agree was the biggest challenge for both them and their children, Aaron and Sarah.
After serving as a JAG, Jesse became an antiterrorism specialist. He spent seven years as deputy commander, then commander of a unit that responds to terrorism attacks that employ weapons of mass destruction. His job took him to more than 20 states, sometimes for a month at a time. Jesse also served in Afghanistan for seven months in 2014.
The family stayed in touch through emails and letters and, when they could, phone calls. Jill sent care packages stocked with whatever she saw that reminded her of Jesse: magazines; red, white, and blue boxers; and a back scratcher to stand in for her until he was back home.
“It all took a toll on us, and on our children. She was a single mom a lot,” said Jesse. Jill also worked as a legal recruiter and, until recently, as an employment specialist for young adults with disabilities at Jewish Family Children’s Services in Cherry Hill.
“We also took a lot of pride in what he was doing,” said Jill. “We all knew how important it was.”
In July 2019, Jesse retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel. Jill left her job at Jewish Family Services in 2021. The couple, who live in Voorhees, love to travel. Recently the whole family went to California, and another trip is on the horizon. Jesse and Jill enjoy riding their tandem bike, gardening, and practicing their Jewish faith together. Elaborate holiday celebrations with family and friends are among their favorite activities.
“Jesse is a unique individual with a good sense of humor and a very positive outlook,” said Jill. “He helps me if I’m worried about something. He’s fun. He’s very generous and very sweet. He will still bring me flowers, and write me little notes.”
“She’s not just beautiful on the outside, she’s exquisite on the inside,” said Jesse. “She’s always trying to do what’s best for somebody else. I’m so blessed that my children have a mother who dotes over them, cares for them, and will do anything for them and for me.”
The two have been working hard and saving their entire married life to make this time together possible. “We decided that life is fragile, and that time, once it’s gone, you can never get it back,” Jesse said.
“We are making up for lost time together,” said Jill.