Her close friends stood around her hospital bed, holding her hand as she took her last breaths. For years now, the chareidi community in French Hill had rallied to help Amanda Elkohen in every way possible as she battled cancer. Neighbors fed and bathed her children, bought them clothes, prepared nightly dinners and raised thousands of dollars to enable the struggling family to stay afloat. At her funeral on Har Hamenuchos, a large crowd wept bitterly. Amanda was a close friend to many. She was a devoted mother, a sociable, friendly, likeable person who had forged deep friendships with women across Israel through the various social media groups in which she was highly active. She was a moderator at an intellectual group where women discussed halachah and hashkafah. The entire community mourned her untimely passing and turned their attention to helping her five children and her grieving husband Michael, a sofer, mohel, and kohen who had officiated at several pidyonei haben.
Except that this Sunday, the community’s compassion turned, in an instant, to indignation, fury and disgust. Michael Elkohen and his deceased wife Amanda were allegedly discovered to be messianic Jews who had infiltrated the French Hill kehillah after being driven out of Nachlaot when their true identities were exposed in 2014.
“When I found out that my good friend Amanda was a missionary, my head was spinning. I felt like I was going crazy. I felt like I couldn’t trust what my brain knew to be true. Did she actually have cancer? Did she actually die? It’s so hard to wrap my head around it. This wasn’t someone I barely knew. We were good friends for quite a few years,” says Adara Peskin, who had sat for long hours with Amanda in her final days.
“I knew that she had an interesting background—she had mentioned that she grew up on an Xmas tree farm, but I just assumed that she had a colorful past because her parents weren’t religious. We thought they were baalei teshuvah.”
But in contrast to the shock and horror of the French Hill community, several people have known about the Elkohen family’s façade for years.
In 2013, Judy Lash Balint, an investigative journalist and author, was tipped off by a friend from the Sephardic congregation she had belonged to back in Seattle before she immigrated to Israel. She was told that a couple with ties to a small city near Seattle had moved to Israel and was engaged in missionary operations in Jerusalem. Lash Balint began to put out some feelers about the Elkohens and very soon she managed to put together a very clear picture of their motives and their mission.
“I have a sensitivity to missionary activities, you could say. Ever since I was in college in the ’70s, when there was a movement by Christian evangelicals to convert everyone on campus and we fought against it, these things really raise my hackles,” she explains. “I have antennae; I see things that other people don’t see.” In the case of the Elkohens, Judy Lash Balint’s persistent and relentless investigative work would ultimately culminate in a complete exposé of the family’s devious activities. Her seven years of footwork brought to light facts that are nothing short of mind-boggling.
At the time, back in 2014, Michael Elkohen had not only managed to finagle a smichah ordination for himself, but he had also learned safrus, milah, and was studying in a dayanus track at the prestigious Sefardi yeshivah Nehar Shalom. He claimed he had previously learned in Yeshivat Beit El in the Old City. He boasted about his Sephardic heritage and his holy ancestors, even connecting himself with the famed tzaddik Rav Kaduri, zt”l. He was heavily involved in studying Kabbalah and was a prominent member of the Nachlaot community. He had several active blogs where he posted regularly about halachah, hashkafah and esoteric kabbalistic topics. He also found the time to teach jiu-jitsu and krav maga to children at a local gym—a unique CV for any avreich in the Nachlaot neighborhood. There was just one little problem. Two of them, in fact: Michael Elkohen, whose real name was Michael Elk, was not actually the kohen with a Sefardi background he claimed to be for the simple reason that his father was a gentile and it is unclear whether his mother is Jewish. As for problem number two, at the time Elkohen was reportedly on the books at Morningstar Ministries, an evangelical Christian organization, and actively engaged in messianic work.
The first order of the day was for someone to reach out to the rosh yeshivah of Nehar Shalom and break the bad news. It was virtually unthinkable that the yungerman with the big beard and black hat, who walked the walk and talked the talk, could possibly turn out to be…Christian! Or was it? After a thorough investigation, Elkohen was summarily expelled from the yeshivah. In an unfortunate set of circumstances, the timing of the Elkohen revelation happened to coincide with a terrible, unrelated scandal that had just rocked the entire Nachlaot community. Elkohen had, in fact, worked as an important activist to help protect the neighborhood; his picture even appeared in the papers together with distinguished mekubalim who flew over the city in a helicopter to recite special tefillos. Now that he had been disgraced and exposed, he could no longer stay in Nachlaot. Capitalizing on the turmoil, the Elkohens quietly relocated to French Hill, murmuring to their neighbors that they had left Nachlaot because they had been “on the wrong side of the machlokes” there. No one had any reason to suspect otherwise.
Quickly, the Elkohens established themselves in the French Hill community, on the border of Ramat Eshkol. Their children were enrolled in local Bais Yaakovs and chadarim; Amanda attended N’shei events and parent-teacher conferences. The warm, chesed-oriented community took the family under its wing, sensing a need for extra support and warmth.
“After Nachlaot, Michael basically went underground,” explains Judy Lash Balint. “Amanda, however, pulled a classic tactic; she took a page out of the missionary playbook. She integrated herself into every single Facebook group for religious women in Yerushalayim you could possibly imagine. She became a moderator on several of them. Her name was everywhere. When she got sick, about five years ago, she needed rides to the hospital, food, money, and people to take care of her kids. People felt very sympathetic. They gathered around and supported her. She ingratiated herself to them. Most thought she was a giyores, so people went out of their way to treat her nicely.” But what was really going on in the Elkohen home? We might never know for sure.
R. is just one of dozens of women left reeling after the revelation of the missionaries on her block.
“The community helped Amanda with money, babysitting, clothing, food, everything they needed. Before Yom Tov, one of the neighbors took up a collection and went out and bought the children designer outfits so that they would have something nice to wear. The picture that’s circulating with the matching outfits—we bought those outfits for them!” she says. “The family was clearly in need. They were not the typical French Hill family at all. The kids were always walking around looking disheveled and dirty; they were always asking for food. The social services department was called in to help during the past year when things got very difficult with Amanda being sick. There was clearly a need and the community gave endlessly,” she says.
“The father was never seen. He was known to be a type of hermit; he kept himself hidden. I knew Amanda for four years before I ever even saw her husband. Now we realize that it was probably by design, in order to avoid blowing his cover. But we knew that she was responsible for everything. She was the one who met with the local kuppah shel tzedakah to appeal for aid, which they gave very generously. No one had any reason to suspect that anything nefarious was going on. Amanda was a doll. Everyone loved her. She was very outgoing and a great mom. The kids were very sociable and they loved pushing my baby on the swings. They were very pleasant people to be around.”
However, the facts on the ground about what, exactly, the Elkohens were involved in during their years in French Hill are extremely unclear. Rabbi Michael Skobac, a counter-missionary with Jews for Judaism in Toronto says that he was heavily involved with the Elkohens story for several years but bowed out after Yeshivat Nehar Shalom expelled Michael. At the time, Michael Elkohen insisted that he had done teshuvah for his messianic actions and beliefs, and he was now living his life as a full-fledged Jew.
“He promised and swore to us that he was no longer engaged in missionary activity,” says Rabbi Shmuel Lifschitz of Yad L’Achim, who has kept tabs on the Elkohens throughout their years in Israel.
Shortly after Amanda’s death, R. received a disturbing call from a mutual friend. This friend had seen suspicious things posted to Amanda’s Facebook page, where people were leaving condolence messages from around the world. As it turned out, many of the messages were of a distinctly Christian tone. While many people would instinctively brush this kind of information under the carpet, R. is cut from a different cloth. Instead, she decided to do her due diligence and find out what the condolence wishes truly meant.
“Before taking any action whatsoever, my husband and I approached Rav Samet, of Ohr Somayach, who’s an expert in shemiras halashon. We explained the situation to him and were given very clear guidelines about how we should operate. It was very reassuring to get daas Torah about how and what we could do and what we needed to avoid.” Armed with the necessary halachic guidance, R. and her husband began to do a little reconnaissance of their own. What they discovered left them reeling.
There was clear evidence that the Elkohens—or Elks, their real last name—were active members of a messianic community and ministry. Michael appeared on Christian TV, giving an hour-long sermon during which he asked viewers to pray for the religious Jews in Jerusalem that they should be “saved.” He even went deeper, spelling out his plan in a Christian newsletter, to carry out “covert missionizing” by building trust in an Orthodox community with intent to proselytize them. Amanda, too, had several Facebook accounts where she openly posted about her messianic activities and Christian beliefs. The evidence that R. and some others were able to piece together led them to believe that the Elkohens had grossly misrepresented themselves to the French Hill community.
“With Google, we got to the bottom of the situation in three months,” says R. “This guy is a con artist!”
Now what to do? This was a sticky situation, involving young, innocent and recently bereaved children, plus a host of other complications—legal, logistical, practical and halachic. Furthermore, there were other organizations that had been keeping tabs on Elkohen for several years and had sensitive information that perhaps he was operating together with other groups of messianic Jews who had infiltrated other communities throughout Israel. Exposing Elkohen might scare off these other individuals and enable them to flee somewhere where they couldn’t be traced.
After a spate of high-profile meetings with community leaders, rabbanim and counter-missionary organizations, a plan was crafted for how to deal with the Elkohens in an effective, fair and relatively mess-free manner. What was hoped for was a peaceful resolution to a decade-long problem.
But no one could have predicted what was to happen next.
Last week, a young Bais Yaakov girl from French Hill came home from school with a confused look on her face.
“Ima,” she said hesitantly, “A girl in my class told me that J loves me and accepts me exactly as I am.”
Immediate panic and pandemonium broke loose. One of the Elkohen children had blown the family’s cover to bits. The news spread like wildfire and there was no stopping it. Every media outlet picked up the story, from the chareidi to the secular. In the midst of such utter upheaval, one person was strangely calm and silent: Michael Elkohen.
“He was still taking his children to school, to the bus stop,” says R. “While our community was feeling totally betrayed and defrauded, he was acting like nothing was wrong. Everyone is outraged. The kuppah has frozen the money that was collected for tzedakah, and we’re all just really trying to work through our pain and disappointment at being so deceived.
In the midst of the turmoil, Adara Peskin reached out to Michael on WhatsApp.
“I felt like I really needed to get to the bottom of it. I wanted proof of whether he had really done teshuvah like he said and had given up the missionizing, or whether he was still involved with the Christians,” she says. “I have screenshots of my conversation with him. He was very evasive. I just couldn’t pin him down. I couldn’t get him to say, ‘I am for sure not a missionary any more.’ I asked him repeatedly whether he had renounced Christianity, but all he kept saying was that I should talk to Rabbi K. at Yad L’Achim and he would vouch for him.”
Rabbi K., it turned out, was very difficult to reach. When she finally was able to get hold of him, Adara discovered that he no longer worked for Yad L’Achim, although he is still active in counter-missionary work. Instead of backing Elk, as Elk had adamantly insisted he would do, Rabbi K. refused to vouch for him. “I haven’t had contact with him in years. I have no idea what he’s up to,” he told Adara. Elk has given Rabbi K. as a reference to a number of other people as well. Adara also discovered that the gym where Michael teaches children is actually owned by a messianic Christian and is alleged to be a hotbed for missionizing.
Judy Lash Balint says she also kept looking for that “smoking gun” that would prove, conclusively, one way or another, what the couple was up to, and she believes she found concrete proof of their culpability. “Michael kept saying, ‘We did teshuvah, we chose Judaism.’ I had no concrete proof, but now we know that the daughter clearly was exposed to Christian beliefs very recently.” In 2019, Amanda Elkohen made a fundraising pitch to a certain Christian organization. The platform she used was discovered to be a subscription-only site for missionaries. “That was a complete giveaway. Someone who tells you in 2014 that they renounced Christianity would certainly not be allowed to subscribe to such a website if they did not remain active in the church anymore,” Lash Balint asserts.
Rabbi Lifschitz of Yad L’Achim says that his organization was actively monitoring Michael and had stepped in whenever they thought there might be a threat to other Jews. He said that some of the teachers in the children’s schools had been apprised of their background in order to prevent any damage from occurring. He believes that the Elkohens have not actively harmed the beliefs of any frum Jews throughout their years in Israel. Rabbi Lifschitz added that, to his knowledge, there have not yet been any confirmed reports of pidyonei haben performed by Michael, nor is he aware of any tefillin or mezuzos that Michael actually wrote. If any do turn up, their halachic status would have to be investigated.
The question about how, exactly, the Elkohens were able to move to Israel and whether or not they are actually Jewish is one that needs to be thoroughly probed. While Amanda told her friends that her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, it seems that she is not Jewish. There is an allegation that the couple may have made aliyah with forged documents, or they may have been helped by messianic organizations that offer legal aid to enable missionaries to gain a foothold in the country. It will be left to the Ministry of the Interior to decide how to deal with the Elkohens and whether they can remain in Israel—and under what circumstances. If they are, indeed, found to be active missionaries who falsified documents, they may eventually be deported; despite the powerful, wealthy arm of fundamentalist Christians who openly, heavily support Israel, there have been a few instances of Christian missionaries who were quietly deported by the Israeli government.
According to a US State Department report from 2010, proselytizing is legal in Israel, and missionaries of all religious groups are allowed to proselytize all citizens; however, a 1977 law prohibits any person from offering material benefits as an inducement to conversion. Proselytizing to children is also illegal.
Rabbi Tovia Singer, a world-renowned counter-missionary, addresses the reality of proselytizing both in Israel and around the world. “There are 70 million evangelical Christians in America. They are Israel’s best friends. These people are completely committed to converting the Jews because they believe that J cannot make his ‘Second Coming’ until the Jews are converted and in Israel. So that is their life’s work. Are they successful in the frum community? Sadly, it does happen. On the Jews for J website, they talk explicitly and openly about their program to evangelize chareidi jews. They write, ‘Please pray for this [chassidic] woman because she has accepted J but she is alone; she knows that her community will reject her if they find out.’ I have people who have infiltrated Jews for J, and they’ve heard them talking about raising money to help support the many ‘Orthodox rabbis’ who have come to know J.”
The revelation about the Elkohens has led to panic and fear: Is this just one instance of an elaborate plan for imposters to proselytize in frum communities? “Missionizing is very bad here,” says Rabbi Singer. “It’s Stage 4 cancer here in Israel. There’s a much higher concentration of missionary activity here, but the good thing is that you have more power to fight it than in the States. You can shut down TV stations, and you can have the missionaries thrown out of the country sometimes.”
Judy Lash Balint, who has done a phenomenal amount of footwork on the story, sends me a link to a website with the warning, “Take a look at this website (not advised before meals!)” My jaw literally drops at the headline: “Observations on Messianic Jewish Aliyah”! The article—indeed, the entire website, is devoted to helping messianic Jews achieve aliyah in order to proselytize to Jews in Israel.
Still, it is unlikely that people like the Elkohens had hopes of actively converting the chareidim around them. “The chief role of people like Elkohen who have infiltrated frum communities is to train non-Jews on how to effectively speak to Jews to try to get them to convert,” says Rabbi Singer.
One of the things the French Hill community has to come to terms with was how their natural instincts of rachmanus, gemilus chasadim, and being mekarev a family that seemed a bit non-mainstream was so tragically exploited. While am Yisrael is enjoined to judge favorably, to welcome converts, and to avoid speaking lashon hara, many are left trying to find a balance between “kabdeihu” and “chashdeihu” in the wake of this story. As a global community, how can we protect ourselves against the threat of messianic Christianity, especially when the perpetrators are so well-schooled and elusive?
Shannon Nuszen, a former Christian missionary who has long since converted to Judaism and founded Beyneynu, a counter-missionary organization in Israel, was very active in helping with the Elkohen case. She is candid about the fact that the Christians have special tactics to use on frum communities where more boundaries are in place and there is more suspicion towards anything that doesn’t smell just right. “They know that the only way to get access to the frum world is to be covert. You have to disguise yourself because straightforward Christianity would be outright rejected.”
Indeed, Michael Elkohen writes about this in a Christian newsletter dated several years back:
“If you get the feeling that we don’t really know what we are doing in this Covert Missions endeavor, you are right. We don’t, not really. There is no manual as to how to go about it, at least not yet. There are not previous generations that we can learn from. We are essentially just stumbling in this whole process…Our successes and, more importantly our failures and mistakes will serve to pave the way for those to follow.
“One of the…let’s call it a road bump, that we have run into is the lack of community that’s inherent in this whole situation. Most of us are not going to countries where we can immediately start evangelizing the streets and…churches to build a like-minded community. In fact, as Covert Missions are still in its infancy, and considering the nations that we wish to penetrate, for us it will probably experience a prolonged ‘pioneering stage’…..primary focus is on building trust within the target….community and actual evangelism is put on a somewhat back burner…”
Just seeing the organized method of infiltration and ingratiation laid out so candidly for so diabolical a purpose gives a sense, on some level, that the evangelical manifesto would be a spiritual equivalent of the heinous Mein Kampf.
Shannon Nuszen says, “I’m shocked at how widespread this proselytizing actually is. Through Elk we’re finding many other families who are engaged in this type of activity, and many of Elk’s students have infiltrated other communities. As we uncover this story, we’re finding more and more messianic communities in the States than I experienced when I was involved with messianic Judaism. These are people who know Hebrew, daven from a siddur, and learn Daf Yomi. They dress like frum Jews, and they can walk into a shul anywhere and are automatically assumed to be Jewish because they know exactly how to act.”
Both Shannon Nuszen and Rabbi Singer emphasize that the most vulnerable and susceptible people to fall prey to Christian missionaries are those who have been traumatized in some way and have felt rejected by their own communities. “The ones who have been through a bad breakup or divorce, people who are depressed or have been abused or are down and out. These are the people who are going to be taken in when a very loving, very nice and supportive person takes an interest in them. When you have vulnerable Jews trying to find their identity or struggling in any way, they’re easily reached by the brand of kindness that missionaries provide,” says Nuszen.
The Seventh Day Adventists who show up on porches in frum neighborhoods and the missionaries distributing pamphlets in the streets look downright laughable compared to a messianic Jew with a black hat who learns Daf Yomi and performs brissim. Indeed, Rabbi Singer explains that it’s possible that someone like Michael Elk never intended to try to actively convert the frum Jews in his neighborhood. Instead, he operated like a sleeper cell, living among the Orthodox and praying for the day when his Christian view of Moshiach would come true and he could rise up within the community to lead them in believing in J. A chilling mission in and of itself, made all the more horrible because no one actually knows with certainty what the scope of his activities were and continue to be.
“I have no idea what Michael Elkohen is doing right now in terms of missionary activities,” Rabbi Skobac says. “It’s possible that he served as a mentor for other messianic Jews, because it seems he had started a kind of online ‘yeshivah’ for a group of them back in Washington State. It may be possible that he wasn’t actively trying to convert people in Israel but that he was still involved with advising, aiding and teaching other people within the messianic Christian movement because he might be part of a growing movement to try to combine an Orthodox lifestyle with some kind of belief in J.”
Rabbi Skobac, who is considered a world expert on missionary activity in the frum world, explains that the fact that Michael Elkohen gravitated towards Torah learning, Kabbalah, and a chareidi way of life is not necessarily as rare as we might think—for an allegedly messianic Christian gentile.
“Over the past 100 years, there’s been a growing interest in the Christian world—there’s something about Judaism that is fascinating to them; it draws them like a moth to a light bulb. I can’t explain why. This is independent of their tactics to convert Jews. Fifty years ago you’d never see a preacher with a tallis or a shofar, but today they’re all doing it. There is also a growing number of Christians who are trying to deeply study the more esoteric and transcendent parts of Torah—chasidus, Kabbalah, commentators like the Vilna Gaon, not your everyday fare that your typical balebos even knows. They are drawn to study it, on their level, and they’re trying to use these Torah sources to bring proof to support their Christian beliefs. There was a guy in Toronto who seemed very sincere. He was going from shul to shul and tried to convert through the beis din. What was he learning? Sefarim that could be distorted to sound like they supported Christianity and pointed to J! We shut him down…
“There is a growing movement where the Christians believe that the more Gemara and chasidus and machshavah they learn, the more it supports their ideology. Of course, for many of them this is combined with an evangelical agenda,” Rabbi Skobac asserts, “but that’s not necessarily the main purpose—it’s not necessarily some new shtick to convert Jews.”
Judy Lash Balint is frustrated with the lack of awareness about Christian infiltrators in frum communities. She has evidence that a couple married by Michael Elk back in the States now lives in Yerushalayim, where the husband, a frum-looking messianic Jew with a doubtful conversion, worked in a mehadrin restaurant. When Lash Balint confronted the owner about the true nature of his employee, the man said he felt bad for the worker who was “a new oleh and a nebach” but that he would speak to his rav; ultimately, the missionary continued to have unlimited contact with frum people all day long.
It’s difficult to gauge the fallout and the ramifications of the Elkohen debacle. As Shannon Nuszen of Beyneynu puts it, “Everyone has their role to play in this matter. We put together the information, we did the investigation, we have a lot of evidence, and now we bring it to the decision-makers. I don’t envy any of these decision-makers right now.”
Rabbi Lifschitz of Yad L’Achim tells me that he is scheduled to meet with Rav Asher Weiss to decide how best to proceed. Rabbanim in French Hill are set to address the community and try to help process the damage that has been done. There are also many halachic factors that come into play. The Rabbanut will have to decide what to do about Amanda’s body being buried on Har Hamenuchos. The Ministry of the Interior will have to do a fair bit of detective work—and perhaps a bit of soul-searching—to piece together how an actively evangelizing couple with perhaps no conversion certificate or proof of Judaism was allowed to make aliyah. Then, of course, there’s the matter of all the money raised by good-hearted Jews in the French Hill community and through various crowdfunding campaigns. Was there fraud involved in the plea for help, and if so, can the funds be recovered?
Adara Peskin, who has also worked tirelessly to get to the bottom of this case, cautions against making rash judgments in the wake of this incident. “Witch hunts do happen. There are messianic Jews who actually did real teshuvah, and we can’t suddenly become suspicious of everyone and everything. We have to remember that we can’t automatically cast aspersions on people without really investigating things.”
As for R., she has another take-home message: Don’t turn a blind eye when something strikes you as strange. “A lot of times, we’re afraid to make waves, or we say, ‘It’s lashon hara!’ But you should always ask your rav. Don’t ignore a red flag. You have a responsibility to look into something. If it comes your way, don’t ignore it. If you feel like you can’t deal with it, at least give it over to someone else to investigate.”
At the time of the writing of this article, the Elkohen children had been seen getting onto a train holding large suitcases, headed for an unknown destination. It is unclear where their father is currently located and what his future plans might be. ●