The shocking discovery of a Christian missionary masquerading as a chareidi Jew for 14 years made headlines around the world in both Jewish and secular media outlets. The story of Michael Elk was then followed by a bombshell about Timothy Buckles, who also infiltrated a community in Jerusalem along with two other messianic families, and then by the story of Michael and Calev Isaacson, who posed as chareidi Jews in a number of American cities. These stories raised many questions, the most important of which was, Where were our counter-missionary organizations? How could they have allowed these dangerous charlatans to hide out for years in unsuspecting kehillos, ticking time bombs with a devious motive to steal our souls?
We revisited the three organizations that originally supplied us with the details of the Michael Elk (Elkohen) case, asking the tough questions our readers have been waiting to hear answered. The perspectives shared here are nothing short of eye-opening, sobering and highly informative.
RABBI CHANOCH GECHTMAN, Yad L’Achim
Rabbi Gechtman has been involved in rescuing Jews from cults and missionaries for close to a decade.
The chareidi world was stunned by a series of revelations regarding missionaries disguising themselves as chareidim. There are complaints that counter-missionary organizations compromised the security of our communities by not revealing the identities of these impostors, allowing them to operate freely for years. How do you respond to these accusations?
There is a very good explanation that will answer this question in full, but in order to address this concern, it’s important to make a distinction between the missionary activity of these individuals, and the falsification of their Jewish identity.
I wish to comment on the Elk case because we spoke to Ami Magazine when that story broke. Michael Elk had been known to Yad L’Achim since 2014, at which time we met with him and seriously investigated his background. We knew that he had a background in missionary work, but based on his own testimony and the accounts of several rabbanim and dozens of other people we interviewed, it seemed that he had done true teshuvah and was no longer involved in missionary activities.
When a person does teshuvah, the Torah obligates us to accept him and love him just like any other Jew. In light of these circumstances, we weren’t permitted to expose his background to the community in which he and his family lived. There have been many Jewish missionaries who came to see the error of their ways and returned to Yiddishkeit; it definitely does happen.
However, and this is a big however, once someone has appeared on the radar of Yad L’Achim, we always keep an eye on him to make sure that the facts on the ground haven’t changed. This is especially so when we’re dealing with missionaries, who regularly engage in countless deceptions and whose sworn purpose is to snatch Jewish souls. For this reason, we kept Michael Elk under close scrutiny throughout the years, even going so far as to try to tempt him to proselytize to test his sincerity. At no point in our ongoing investigation did we ever find proof that he was continuing his missionary activity.
In 2014, when Elk was first under investigation by our organization, we brought up the question of his Jewishness. At the time, the Rabbanut in Israel vouched for Elk and told us they had a document on file that proved he was halachically Jewish and that his status had been verified. When we asked to examine the document, we were refused. Because we are an organization that operates in the State of Israel, which has a Chief Rabbinate responsible for these matters, we relied on the testimony of the Rabbanut and operated under the assumption that Elk and his family were Jews.
Although the media got wind of the story of Michael and Amanda Elk—or Elkohen, as they called themselves—after their daughter proselytized to a fellow classmate in Bais Yaakov in French Hill, things really began to snowball after Amanda’s death, when her Jewishness was called into question by friends. In addition to examining new evidence, Yad L’Achim sprang into action to reinvestigate their true religious status.
We got hold of the document that had been denied to us earlier and then spoke with the beis din in Philadelphia. They explained that the only “evidence” for Elk’s Jewishness was a get they had issued when he divorced his first wife, which in no way vouches for his status as a Jew. It became clear that the authorities in Israel had incorrectly interpreted this document, leading the Chief Rabbinate, our organization and the general public astray.
This set in motion an emergency investigation in which Yad L’Achim’s team of genealogists and researchers worked tirelessly to unravel the tangle of lies to reveal the truth: Michael and Amanda Elk were never Jewish, and they had entered the country under false pretenses. Their aliyah clearly constitutes a case of immigration fraud, which is a crime punishable by deportation. Regrettably, Elk isn’t the only person masquerading as a Jew and as a chareidi person. The current Law of Return, and the fact that the Interior Ministry allows entry to people on the basis of documents they don’t carefully check, contributes to the problem.
As an aside, according to Israeli law, messianic Jews, even if they are born to a Jewish mother, are prohibited from making aliyah.
What is Yad L’Achim’s position with regard to exposing missionaries via the media?
We have to be 100% sure of the facts before we declare anything to anyone. There are lives at stake! I’ll give you an example that just happened yesterday. Yad L’Achim’s Missionary Division got a call from someone who had been looking into a shidduch with a 54-year-old man and discovered that he had non-Jewish children in Holland. The caller thought there was something weird about the story and notified us, and we looked into it right away. When we checked this man out, we found out that he’s not a missionary—he’s actually a fraud and trickster of a different kind—but that he doesn’t pose a spiritual threat.
If we are wrong about someone and brand him a missionary, his life is ruined forever. If he was a missionary but has done real teshuvah—and there are many people like that in Israel—then halachically we are never allowed to reveal his past.
There is a non-Jewish woman who works as a taxi driver taking women and their doulas to the hospital to give birth. Over the course of her interaction with these women, which sometimes continues even after they’ve given birth, it was alleged that she had proselytized to them. When we hear something like this, we can’t rely on one person’s testimony and then alert the press. We have to do research and speak to other people who corroborate the story. There are many people who are unwilling to cooperate with an investigation like this because they’re afraid of retribution. So we have to be completely sure, but it’s a process that takes time and effort.
Editor’s note: After investigating further, Yad L’Achim went public with the identity of this car service driver. The woman’s name is Jan Comeaux, and she took advantage of a chareidi woman’s fragile state to try to convert her to Christianity. Yad L’Achim obtained testimony in which Comeaux explains to her church how she preaches to women in distress by showing concern. “They don’t realize that I am bringing them to J—.”
In the case of Michael Elk, despite the new suspicions that arose a few months ago, the rabbanim with whom we consulted advised us to hold off publicizing any details until we completed our investigation. This was out of concern that premature disclosure would make it possible for the man to escape and hide out in another chareidi community, where he would just continue his actions under a different guise. Just as the police don’t expose suspects before completing their investigation in order to gather all the proof they need for a conviction, so too could we not reveal anything before completing our painstaking probe.
We have people on staff who were once missionaries themselves, so they know their modus operandi and are well-versed in Christian theology and are able to spot impostors. The easiest thing would be to run out and cry, “Missionaries!” for every suspicion, but that wouldn’t be wise before we complete our investigation, not to mention that it can ruin the lives of innocent people.
Those who ask why we haven’t revealed certain details until now may not really understand how we go about exposing missionaries and getting them to stop their activities. These are people who work in teams, and when one is caught, all the others start erasing posts and hiding evidence. That is what we were concerned about.
Just recently, a group of missionaries we were monitoring closely and was starting to work its way into a chareidi community went underground. Instead of blasting their story all over the Internet, we now have to deal with missionaries who have gone into hiding and are planning to resurface with a new identity elsewhere.
Every year, Yad L’Achim shuts down missionary communities and evangelical activity among Jews, thanks in large part to our cautious approach. If we had a reputation for being unreliable and crying wolf, none of the authorities we turn to would be willing to help us. Believe it or not, most of the calls we get about “chareidi missionary families” turn out to be false! For this reason, we have to exercise real caution.
This kind of work carries with it a tremendous responsibility. This is especially true in cases like Elk and Buckles, where we’re talking about families with kids who are learning in chareidi institutions. If we publicize information that proves to be false, it would have tragic, long-term consequences for the children.
That being said, when it is clear that we are talking about a proven missionary, we are the first to expose him. We will pursue him or her relentlessly until the danger to the community has been removed. The unceasing efforts, huge amounts of energy and funding we invest in these battles are unprecedented. At any time of the day or night, our field workers and researchers are working to identify missionaries and stop them.
Missionary websites are filled with incitement against Yad L’Achim because of our unrelenting activity. Missionaries appealing for help from their Christian brethren regularly name us as an obstacle when asking for funding to double their efforts in Israel. It would be funny if it weren’t so ironic, but the missionary organizations are so furious at us that the US State Department regularly lists our organization in its report on freedom of religion in Israel!
Are missionaries really willing to come in and be grilled by Yad L’Achim?
Of course not! If we were to call someone up and ask him to come down to our offices for a meeting, he or she would immediately sense that something was wrong and flee. The only time people are willing to come in for questioning is when they insist that they are innocent.
Most of the time, what we do is carefully strategize a casual, non-threatening encounter where we can engage the person in a natural way and strike up a conversation that will give us a clue about how to proceed next. Eventually, the Yad L’Achim guy will either say, “I’m from Yad L’Achim—gotcha!” or he’ll be more subtle and say, “I know someone from Yad L’Achim who would really like to meet you.”
While much is being said about Michael Elk and Timothy Buckles masquerading as frum when they aren’t even Jewish, does it really if they are Jewish once it is confirmed that they are missionaries?
When a missionary isn’t Jewish, it’s much easier to stop him simply because he isn’t allowed to be in the country legally. So it makes our job much easier when a missionary is found to be not Jewish because we can then work to have him deported.
But there’s another aspect to this, which is that in addition to investigating missionaries, Yad L’Achim has an entire division devoted to converting the Jewish ones back to their Jewish roots! Our Theological Division will debate with the missionary and show him the falsehoods he’s been fed, analyzing the New Testament in a way that will reveal the real truth. We try very hard to bring him back to Yahadus.
In many cases, the missionary will not only concede that he was wrong and embrace Torah Judaism wholeheartedly, he will also make a video explaining how he was misled by the Christian missionaries and explaining the lies in their “sources.” We then use that video as a powerful tool to convince other missionaries to stop peddling their sham.
Of course, we will only do this if the missionary is a halachic Jew. If he isn’t Jewish, it’s not our job or our charter to disabuse him of his theological beliefs. That’s why it’s always important to know with whom we are dealing. We don’t want to divert resources to be mekarev a Christian; our job is just to stop his missionary activity.
It’s important to note that a lot of Yad L’Achim’s work happens behind the scenes even before a missionary comes to Israel. We follow the ministries and find out who’s planning on coming and notify the authorities in order to try to block them from arriving. Of course, if someone enters the country illegally and fraudulently, we work to have him deported.
Are there really cases of chareidim who have converted to Christianity because of missionary efforts?
Usually, the people who fall prey to missionaries are individuals who are in great distress and are therefore vulnerable. It is obviously not a normative thing to do among chareidim, so it takes some kind of serious emotional issue or other enormous stressor to cause a Torah Jew to fall into the trap of belief in J—. Unfortunately, we do get one or two cases every year, but we work relentlessly with the victims to extricate them.
If there are hardly any cases, how much of a threat do they really pose?
If not for organizations like Yad L’Achim, there would be many more than the 10,000 missionaries who are currently operating in Israel! And the fact that no one is fully immune.
The chareidi population in Eretz Yisrael stands at one million. Let’s say that even only a tiny percent are in enough distress to make them vulnerable. That’s already a great risk. Imagine if there were double and triple the number of missionaries here—the risk would increase exponentially! So the fact that we don’t see many chareidim falling victim isn’t “proof” of the inefficacy of the missionaries. It’s proof of the efforts of the counter-missionary organizations that curtail their nefarious activities and watch these people like hawks.
Another terrible aspect of missionaries posing as chareidim is that when they proselytize to non-religious Jews in our garb, they are much more successful in their efforts, since Torah Jews are seen as sincere. This is a calamity, of course, especially when they are astonished to find that “rabbis” believe in J—!
Is there much missionary activity in other parts of the world?
Missionaries target Jews everywhere, but Israel and the United States are definitely the hardest hit. While Yad L’Achim works mostly in Israel and has a branch in America, we are also involved with rabbanim in Russia, where missionaries are exploiting the precarious financial situation of many Jews. There are also other organizations in America and Canada that fight missionaries, such as Jews for Judaism and the like.
Accusations have been made that the Israeli government turns a blind eye to missionary activity at best, and actively enables it to continue at worst. Do you think it’s due to the funding they get from Evangelical Christians?
Definitely, without a doubt. Evangelical Christians have ample funds, and they are donating entire hospital wings and ambulances to Magen David Adom, among other things. The government doesn’t want to lose their financial support. This is obviously misguided. By strengthening the missionaries, they are weakening the Jewish people and the State!
Yad L’Achim was founded more than 70 years ago by a Chabad chasid, Reb Sholom Ber Lifschitz, who learned in the Ponevezh Yeshivah. His son, Reb Shmuel Lifschitz, runs the organization today. Yad L’Achim, which used to be known as “P’eylim” and has always enjoyed the support of all gedolei Yisrael, runs a massive network of centers throughout Israel, combating a wide range of threats to the Jewish people. In addition to its ceaseless counter-missionary work, Yad L’Achim has an entire division devoted to rescuing Jewish girls and women who have fallen into relationships with Arab men.
In a candid interview with Shannon Nuszen, founder and director of the Israel-based Beyneynu organization, we not only get a whole new spin on the recent stories, but a shocking glimpse into what counter-missionaries face in their fight for the faith of the Jewish people in the State of Israel—of all places.