Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines: Christmas Finds 20 Percent of American Jews in the Pews

Lanie Poisson is one of an estimated 1.2 million people in America who were born Jews but who will be celebrating Christmas.

That is roughly one-fifth of the American Jewish population.

About half of these have converted to or actively identify with a faith other than Judaism, which in America is almost always Christianity.

The other 600,000 describe themselves as Jews by ethnicity or culture, but not by religion, according to data from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey.

And “those Jews who say they’re not Jewish by religion tacitly adopt Christian culture,” said Samuel Klausner, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Jews who identify with other faiths.

“These people are, by and large, lost to the Jewish community,” he said.

In practice, they do not behave much differently than Jews who have formally converted to Christianity.

Although they will describe themselves as “secular” or having some Jewish attachments, they are rarely, if ever, found in synagogues and are thoroughly assimilated into American liberal Protestant culture.

They have Christmas trees in their living rooms, wreaths on their doors, go to church on Christmas, have few Jewish friends and give to Christian, rather than Jewish, philanthropies, Klausner said.

Further, the Christian community does not think of them as Jews, he said.

“Within a generation or so,” Klausner said, “they become fully members of the Christian community.”

Lanie Poisson was born Ilana Fox. Now 35, she is deeply involved in a fundamentalist Christian church.

Born to Holocaust survivors, she did not find a spiritual home in Judaism.

DID NOT FIND SATISFYING ANSWERS

Poisson said that in her home in an all-Jewish neighborhood of Queens, New York, her parents’ Jewish connection focused on politics and Israel.

The family would go to synagogue twice a year, on the High Holy Days, and would have a Passover seder. On Chanukah, the family would light a menorah and exchange presents.

When she and her sister were asked if they wanted to go to Hebrew school, they declined.

As a teen-ager, Poisson began asking existential, spiritual questions of religious Jews in her extended family, and of non-Jews she knew through school. She did not find any satisfying answers but put aside her search for a few years.

A decade ago, an acquaintance who was part of a fundamentalist Christian church challenged her to read the Bible. She read the Jewish and Christian Bibles and went back to rabbis with questions about messianic prophecy.

“I found that I didn’t get answers to my questions because they weren’t knowledgeable about it, and my faith grew more in seeing how the Scriptures fit together,” she said.

“I always wanted to make a difference in the world, and never associated it with anything spiritual before I began to read,” she said.

Four months later, she was baptized.

A couple of years later she married the man who had first introduced her to the church, and today their lives, and those of their children, revolve around the church.

Poisson’s story illustrates the search of many converts.

“These are Jewish people yearning for something meaningful spiritually in their religious lives, and the Judaism they knew was empty,” said Rabbi Tovia Singer, director of Jews for Judaism of Greater New York.

Klausner said part of the responsibility for the conversions and Jews’ identification with Christianity lies with churches.

“They are in collusion with this. They have become very lax about their own requirements for membership. They don’t ask you if you’re baptized anymore, so Jews are just sitting in churches,” he said.

Klausner does not fault missionaries from evangelical and “Hebrew-Christian” churches.

“Evangelizing is an opportunity for people who already have the tendencies to move out,” he said.

COMMITTING TO A MORE STRINGENT SYSTEM

While Jews who become Christians often say they feel liberated from “the whole picture of Judaism,” they usually are making a transition from less commitment and involvement to a more stringent system, said Klausner.

The reason Jews seek out Christianity, he said, is the breakdown of Jewish religious authority, he said. “People seek meaning by going to another, more structured system.”

“The freedom is really the discovery that there is order in the world,” he said.

“By the second and third generation of Jews who identify more with Christianity than with Judaism, people move into fundamentalist churches” where they become committed, he said.

According to Singer, many converts from Judaism to Christianity become “born-again” Christians. “Our studies have found that 67 percent of ‘Hebrew-Christians’ went to Hebrew school. It’s that little bit of information that turns Jews off,” Singer said.

“Many say the first time they felt they had a personal relationship with God was with Yeshua,” or Jesus, he said.

Judaism’s “spiritual elements are often not taught and transmitted,” he said.

“Liberal denominations sometimes throw out our most precious fruit, our personal relationship with God,” said Singer.

In contrast, “ministers tell them that every word of the Bible is God’s and that’s exactly what they want to hear,” the rabbi said.

“It’s ineffective to transmit this nebulous Judaism,” he said, “and it’s been the evangelical community that’s reached out to them.”

The flow of Jews into Christianity will increase as intermarriage does, warns Klausner.

According to demographer Egon Mayer, of the Center for Judaic Studies at the City University of New York, about 60 percent of the people who say they were born Jewish and are now a different religion are themselves the children of an interfaith marriage.

Few children of Jews identifing themselves as having no religion or as Christian will be connected to Judaism, said Klausner and Mayer.

NEXT STORY