It all started with a question. On what day did Jesus die?
Which led to more questions. Who wrote the Gospels? Is the English translation of the Bible accurate? What is the truth?
“It just started falling apart,” says Gillah Palumbo. Deeply affected by a church trip to Israel, Gillah and her husband Mark grew curious about Jesus’ world. Upon return to their Seattle-area home they got involved in the Hebrew Roots movement, which infuses evangelical Christianity with Hebrew Bible literacy. But as time went on, their Christian faith continued to erode. Ten years after meeting each other at their Pentecostal church, Gillah and Mark completed an Orthodox conversion to Judaism.
The Palumbos are not alone. While statistics are hard to come by, growing numbers of evangelical Christians are leaning toward Jewish theology and practice. Most settle in messianic churches or with the Hebrew Roots movement, which are Christ-centered. But there is also a small, possibly growing number of evangelical Christians who, at the end of their exploring, become Jews. Restlessly pursuing truth, these seekers gather in Facebook groups and download Jewish informational and spiritual videos on YouTube by the thousands. Rabbi Michael Skobac, the education director of Jews for Judaism’s Toronto office, recalls a decade ago receiving one or two calls a month from curious Christians who’d come across his literature or videos. Now Skobac receives, on average, one call a day. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying this if I didn’t hear the same thing from my colleagues,” Skobac confesses. “There’s something going on.”
BY THE 1960s, two thousand years of Christian antipathy to Judaism was wiping off the ashes of the Holocaust, and Israel’s victory over the Arabs in 1967 was viewed as nothing short of miraculous. Christian Zionism was spreading along with premillennial dispensationalist hopes for the messianic era. Supercessionist theology was partly replaced with the idea that God’s covenant with the People of Israel was still binding. At the same time, the breakdown of the age-old Jewish-Christian divide made way for Jewish converts to Christianity and, in an effort to hasten the Christ’s return, missionary attempts got a twentieth-century makeover.
In 1973 Moishe Rosen, a Jew turned Baptist minister, launched the most famous of the missionary organizations, Jews for Jesus, which states its goal as “to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide.” In a revolutionary move, Jews for Jesus invited Jews to Christianity without divorcing their Judaism. To the horror of the Jewish community—which typically regards Christian interest in converting Jews as amusing at best—the new strategy took hold. According to the Jews for Jesus website, somewhere between 30,000 and 125,000 people subscribe to the syncretic new faith worldwide.
“What happens next is what no one expects,” says Rabbi Tovia Singer, director of Outreach Judaism, a Jewish counter-missionary organization. “Christians were going, ‘Perfect! We love everything Jewish. We want to get back to the Jewish origins of our faith. We want to call him Yeshua instead of that Greek ‘Jesus’ thing.’ It became a magnet for Christians who were looking to infuse their Christianity with something more authentic.”
What became known as the messianic Jewish movement began attracting more Christians than Jews, drawing heavily from evangelical churches. For many evangelicals, an interest in the early church—formed by Jesus, a Jew, and his Jewish followers—drew them in. Hillary Kaell, a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal who has written about messianic Judaism, estimates that 70 percent of attendees at messianic congregations are Christians. “The search for Biblical truth or proper translation is very much usually what brings people out of these charismatic churches,” Kaell explains.
“Many non-Jews who became interested in the Jewish roots of their faith became drawn to [Judaism],” Skobac says. “They have the impression that Jesus would be more comfortable in a messianic synagogue than a Baptist church. It’s part of this quest to find out what was going on 2,000 years ago.”
Messianic congregations may or may not actively proselytize to Jews. But realizing the threat of Jews for Jesus, by the 1980s the organized Jewish community launched counter-missionary organizations like Jews for Judaism to empower Jews in their own beliefs. (Jews for Judaism’s executive director in Canada, Julius Ciss, was involved in the messianic movement before returning to mainstream Judaism.) Now, in a doubly ironic twist, the anti-missionary materials put out by Jews—the readings and online resources that promote Judaism—are attracting the interest of Christians. The very materials meant to be a bulwark against groups like Jews for Jesus have become one of the conduits for Christians to convert to Judaism.
WHEN MARK PALUMBO suggested they join their Pentecostal pastor’s church trip to Israel in 2007, Gillah shrugged off the idea. “Why Israel?” she wondered. “I think we can see the Bible in 3-D!” was Mark’s reply. To both of their surprise, the connection to the land was so strong that returning to Washington felt like leaving home. “We were never the same,” Gillah says. “We were sojourners back in the U.S.”
The Palumbos joined a small group of Christians studying Jewish scriptures. It was the first they’d ever heard of the Israelite feasts and other practices that affected Jesus’ life and form the basis of Jewish life today. What started as a study group of 50 to 75 people grew in 10 years to El Shaddai Ministries, a Hebrew Roots church led by Pastor Mark Biltz in Tacoma, Washington. On average, 600 people turn out for El Shaddai’s Saturday services, but according to El Shaddai’s webmaster, the streamed sermons receive around 10,000 hits a week from viewers around the world, not including the YouTube videos, which in a month’s time bring in some 47,000 more views.
But the Palumbos weren’t satisfied. Then they discovered “Let’s Get Biblical,” Rabbi Singer’s 24-part audio series directed to Jews that comprehensively dismantles Christian claims. Thirsty for knowledge, they drove around the Olympic Peninsula for eight hours listening and discussing his points. When they finished, they pointed the car toward eastern Washington and did it again. When Rabbi Skobac came to Seattle for a weekend in 2013, they and six friends met with him to discuss the options for living more Jewish lives. Skobac encouraged them to look into the Noachide movement—the diffuse movement of non-Jews committing to the seven Noachide laws—but that didn’t feel like enough. They wanted to talk about conversion.
Conversion to Judaism through the Orthodox movement is a notoriously grueling process that involves first getting accepted as potential converts, followed by a crushing literary review, oral exams, and drastic lifestyle changes, including: moving to a Jewish community, swearing off non-kosher food, observing Shabbat and myriad holidays, sometimes changing names and dress, and often losing an entire network of friends and even family. Gillah, who changed her name from Jill, says she sent an email out to every rabbi in the Seattle-Tacoma area expressing her interest to convert. Only one responded. “If he hadn’t replied, we’d still be out there,” she says wearily.
The Palumbos had just finished renovating their dream home when they learned that to become Jews, they had to move within the geographic parameters of the Orthodox Jewish community in Seattle. “We had just put $100,000 into our house,” recalls Mark, who also goes by Moshe. “You’re telling me we’re going to move?”
It’s no wonder their friends who were also interested in conversion fell away. “It’s a real financial hardship,” Mark says. They now live in a squat brick house on a small lot worth twice as much as their large home outside the city. He estimates the transition to a Jewish life cost them $250,000. “Our friends bowed out because they couldn’t handle it,” Mark says.
Rabbis, Singer says, are not usually prepared to deal with Christians, and they are ill equipped for large-scale conversions. That’s why so many Christians come to him — including a group of Koreans who had called him the morning we spoke. “If Judaism would make it easier to convert, they would smash the doors down,” he says. “The only reason they’re not is because the rabbis are saying this is a long process.”
For those Christians who don’t go through with conversion, some remain in their former tradition, some end up as Noachides, some continue searching, and others fall away completely. A small number of seekers are also drawn to the Karaite movement, an ancient Jewish community that adheres to the literal Torah but not the rabbinic tradition. Since 2007 a small American Karaite community in the Bay Area has converted some 70 people—many of whom are former Christians.
MUCH OF THE fluidity of individuals moving between Christianity and Judaism is due to the Internet and social media, and during the spiritual search, the Internet often stands in for community when individuals have nowhere to express their struggles. Aprill Nefores is the founder of the public Facebook group “Leaving Christianity and Finding the Truth,” as well as a private group for individuals not ready to expose their doubts. In December 2014 the former Baptist appeared on the Israeli radio program “A Light to the Nations,” hosted by Ira Michaelson and former evangelical pastor Rod Bryant (now also known as Reuven Dovid, who co-runs the outreach organization Netiv). When Nefores began questioning the tenets of her faith, she felt her pastor wasn’t able to answer her questions adequately. “The answer was always the same: you need to go on faith,” she said in the interview.
Nefores began studying with a friend coming out of the messianic movement, and describes her journey in strikingly hybrid Christian-Jewish language. “She and I came out of idolatry together, baruch Hashem [thank God],” she told her interviewers. “I could no longer go back to my church. Every time I drove by one it was just graven images and idols. I felt ill going by them.”
Lonely and confused, Nefores figured others might be going through the same thing. So she launched her Facebook groups. Both have around 1,000 members now. “It’s absolutely mind-blowing,” she said on the radio. “I can’t keep up with how fast it is growing.”
Nefores also discovered Jewish lineage she didn’t know she had. Her father was Jewish, but only in her own spiritual quest did she discover her maternal grandmother was, too, which precluded her from conversion. (Judaism traces lineage through the maternal line.) “It’s like being born again, again, but for real this time,” she said.
Discovery of Jewish roots is a common part of the self-discovery narrative and can take a number of forms, says Kaell: actual discovery of a Jewish relative, a hunch that a grandparent was hiding his or her Jewishness, a suspicion that one’s family is descended from converted Jews, or simply the sense of a “divine Jewish spark” from within. Whether or not the claims are proven true or simply deduced, finding Jewish heritage can validate a Christian’s interest in Judaism, and it can serve as a “born again” moment—as a Jew. “The [evangelical] Christian idea is a sudden discovery of self, where one’s true self is there, but you need that moment of recognition to know it’s there,” says Kaell.
Gillah Palumbo was adopted and does not know her biological origins, and Mark hasn’t found evidence of Jewish roots in his family. But something strange happened on their third trip to Israel. At the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, they found the name Palumbo on a list of victims from the island of Rhodes. “That struck me hard,” Mark says. He sports a fading eagle tattoo on his right forearm and admits his only friends since leaving Christianity are his old biker buddies. He doesn’t like to cry. But, he says, “There was a tear out of the old eye there.”
OUTREACH PROFESSIONALS like Skobac and Singer admit they never intended to be counseling Christians in crisis. To begin with, Judaism shuns proselytizing to non-Jews, focusing instead on bringing secular or lapsed Jews into the religious and cultural fold.
“I have to confess, when I went into this work it was just to help Jewish people in the Jewish community,” says Skobac. “I never expected this to come out of it.”
Given his extra workload, Skobac speculates that in 20 years there could be full-time Jewish professionals devoted to incoming Christians. “It’s just the beginning,” he says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Singer, like his colleague Skobac, claims not to have any stakes in the game. His work, as he sees it, is altruistic. “Many of these people are losing their families, their friends won’t talk to them, their siblings cut them off,” he says. “They think I’m just being humble, but they gave up everything.”
Mark and Gillah Palumbo not only gave up their dream home, but they also lost most of their friends and some of their family. Gillah’s adult children think they’ve joined a cult. Their friends accused them of “crossing over” to Judaism, and their pastor didn’t lead trips to Israel for a number of years, for fear other parishioners would return a little too inspired. Yet as converts they say they haven’t been fully absorbed into their new community, either.
In spite of it all, the Palumbos say they wouldn’t change a thing. “We wouldn’t go back,” says Gillah. “Once you find the truth, how can you go back?”
Emily Alhadeff is a writer and editor in Seattle whose writing has appeared in Tablet, Moment, and The Times of Israel. She holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.