While the Elks and Dawsons have attracted major attention, they are just the tip of the iceberg, an anti-missionary expert says.
By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News
The recent unmasking of several Christian missionaries who impersonated Jews and successfully ingratiated themselves in Israeli and American Jewish communities has sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish world.
Father and son duo Michael and Calev Dawson, who spent some 12 years infiltrating Jewish communities across the U.S., and Michael and Amanda Elk, who fraudulently immigrated to Israel and used the last name El-Kohen, presented themselves as observant Jews.
They befriended their neighbors, participated in Jewish communal life, and attended synagogues, with the aim of building up trust so that they could eventually preach Christianity to their social networks.
Rabbi Tovia Singer, who has worked for decades to raise awareness about covert missionary activity, told World Israel News that while the Elks and Dawsons have attracted major attention, they are just the tip of the iceberg.
“What we’re observing in these spectacles…is not an anomaly,” he warned, adding that these large scale deceptions “pose an existential threat to Jewish communities worldwide.”
Beyond the feelings of shock and betrayal that follow the discovery of such a large-scale deception, there are a number of practical, real-world consequences which the Jewish communities that the imposters infiltrated are now working to resolve.
A legal headache
For some covert missionaries, simply masquerading as Jews and subtly attempting to convert their unsuspecting peers isn’t enough. A number have positioned themselves as community leaders and rabbis who perform life cycle events that are explicitly required by Jewish law (Halacha) to be carried out by a Jew.
For example, Michael Elk performed ritual circumcisions (brit milah) which are now considered invalid due to his true identity. Michael and Calev Dawson presented themselves as rabbis, facilitating marriages, divorces, and conversions – all of which are clearly not kosher.
“Families are horrified, angry, and scared at what these now invalidated rituals mean for them. The Halachic ramifications are huge, and in some instances, it is literally tearing families apart,” Shannon Nuszen, founder of the Beyneynu anti-missionary watchdog group, told WIN.
“The Halachic complications are very, very clear…The shechita (kosher slaughter) performed by Dawson, Elk, all these fake Jews…is completely unkosher…it’s like eating pork,” said Singer.
He added that all conversions, marriages, and divorces performed by Elk and the Dawsons are unquestionably invalid.
But why go through all the trouble of falsely portraying oneself as a Jew, spending years building relationships in the Jewish community?
The vast majority of Jews, including those who are secular, will automatically reject obvious Christian outreach, Singer explained. By appropriating Jewish clothing, rituals, and holidays, covert missionaries believe they can create a false sense of familiarity that will make their targets more receptive to their proselytizing.
Their goal is to “blur the distinction between Judaism and Christianity to lure Jews who would otherwise resist a straightforward Christian message,” he said.
“All of it is designed to reach Jewish people in a way they’ve never been reached before.”
Betrayal and practical challenges
Eight months after the true identity of the Elk family was revealed, Amanda Bradley is still reeling from the news.
“I was totally shocked. Knocked head over heels,” Bradley told WIN.
Amanda and Michael Elk, who assumed the last name El-Kohen, claimed descent from illustrious Moroccan rabbi Baba Sali, and lived like Orthodox Jews. For years, they blended in seamlessly with their neighbors in Jerusalem’s religiously observant French Hill neighborhood.
The American family, which included five children, was well-liked in the tight-knit enclave, with Michael Elk serving as a mohel (ritual circumciser) and scribe, writing holy texts including mezuzot and tefillin.
But the Elks’ deception began to unravel after Amanda Elk was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Like many in the community, Bradley supported the family emotionally and financially after Mrs. Elk’s health declined. Considering her a close friend, Bradley stayed by Mrs. Elk’s side while she was in hospice during her final days.
Elk took her secret with her to the grave and the truth about her identity was only revealed after she was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem. After her friend died, Bradley realized that a few key details about Mrs. Elk’s background didn’t add up.
She conducted some research and was stunned to discover that the Elks were actually Evangelical Christian missionaries who’d essentially gone deep undercover, with the intention of one day converting the community which had welcomed them so warmly.
“At first, I didn’t believe it. I thought maybe there was a misunderstanding,” she said. “I felt very confused, and then gradually, as I did more of my own research and accepted the truth, I was very, very angry that they lied to me and to everyone else around them.”
Bradley’s findings were confirmed by an expert genealogist from Beyneynu, and the story quickly made headlines. But the Israeli government has dragged its feet on enacting corrective measures.
“Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, the current Sephardic Chief Rabbi, pushed to have Amanda’s body removed from the cemetery,” said Bradley. “But there has been no official government response – in fact, when this was brought to [former Interior Minister Aryeh] Deri’s attention… he actively ignored it.”
Despite the fact that the Elks have no Jewish heritage and immigrated to Israel fraudulently, the Israeli government has not taken any steps to revoke the family’s citizenship or deport them.
While the community has received some support from the Rabbinate, many families have been left scrambling to fix the damage left behind by the Elks, such as re-circumcising children and replacing Tefillin and mezuzot.
Meanwhile, Bradley said, Michael Elk has not faced any serious consequences for his actions.
“Michael moved to a lovely big new apartment in Mevaseret Zion and had to leave his ‘job’ teaching jiu jitsu. The children had to change schools,” she said, summarizing the extent of the punishment that Elk faced.
The revelation about the Elks has made many French Hill residents wary of new families, Bradley said.
“For the community in general, there is a strong sense of betrayal. And a reluctance to help anyone in the future as readily and generously as they helped the Elks.”
A kosher stamp on deception
For years, members of the Bukharian Jewish community, who trace their roots back to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, heard whispers about Rabbi Michael Aminov.
The Phoenix, Arizona-based rabbi was widely believed to have signed off on quickie conversions to Judaism, in exchange for hefty fees of up to $50,000.
Insiders who spoke to WIN alleged that he was open about his conversion business, admitting to others that he accepted payments in lieu of requiring converts to study the Jewish religion and prove their sincerity.
Eventually, rumors about Aminov’s unethical practices reached a fever pitch and caught the attention of the community’s rabbinical authorities.In 2012, the Bukharian Rabbinate released an unprecedented public warning that Aminov could not be trusted and officially revoked his rabbinical ordination.
Despite this, he continued working as a rabbi and leading a congregation, with minimal interference from the Bukharian Jewish leadership.
But what landed Aminov in hot water and resulted in the nullification of all his previous rabbinical work was his partnership with covert missionaries Michael and Calev Dawson.
The exact details of the relationship between Aminov and the Dawsons are murky. But one thing is clear – Aminov certainly knew that there was something fishy about the pair.
Several years ago, a local Chabad rabbi warned Aminov about the Dawsons, telling him that they were Evangelical Christians masquerading as observant Jews, and that they likely had nefarious intentions in trying to infiltrate the Jewish community.
For unknown reasons, Aminov chose to turn a blind eye to the information. He enabled and facilitated the Dawsons’ deception, and even granted them rabbinical titles.
“Rabbi Michael Aminov gave semicha (rabbinical ordination) to the Dawsons, and although the greater Phoenix community does not accept this rabbi, the aftermath is not limited to just this small congregation,” Nuszen said.
Jewish life cycle events performed by the Dawsons are null and void, which creates major issues in the lives of Jews who trusted them.
“When it comes to conversions, weddings, and divorces that are not valid, these are serious Halachic ramifications that affect the entire Jewish world,” she said. “These children grow up believing that they’re Jewish, and that their parents are married – only to find out that is not the case. It’s a mess!”
And it’s not only the victims of the Dawsons who are worried.
In recent weeks, Baruch Babaev, Chief Rabbi of the Bukharian Jewish community in the U.S., made a statement declaring that all rituals and life cycle events supervised by Aminov are now invalid.
“Divorce is by far the most serious Halachic issue” posed by the Dawsons’ and Aminov’s deception, said Singer. “The divorces must be redone. The consequences could be staggering if the divorcee has remarried. That’s where the greatest danger comes from.”
Women who received a get (decree of divorce) facilitated by Aminov years ago could be considered, halachically, to still be married.
Believing they were legitimately divorced, these women may have since remarried. But under Jewish law, children born during their subsequent marriages could now be classified as mamzerim (bastards.)
The same cancellations apply to those who circumcized their sons under Aminov’s supervision, and for couples whose weddings he officiated. The full extent of the blanket nullification of these major rituals is still unknown, but likely affects hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
The revelations about the Elks and Dawsons have also worsened things for sincere converts to Judaism who may already face scrutiny from established Jewish communities.
“Not only is this causing converts to be looked at under a more intense microscope, but this has also caused suspicions on converts who have already joined the Jewish people,” she said.
“The trauma is great, and the feeling of betrayal and distrust this caused is far reaching.”
Both Singer and Nuszen said that drawing clear distinctions between Judaism and Christianity is the key to preventing these types of deceptions in the future.
Singer urged Jewish communities to practice greater vigilance when an outsider “pops up out of nowhere” and wants to assume critical roles in the community “which require stellar knowledge,” such as writing Torah scrolls, performing circumcisions, or acting as supervisors of kosher slaughter.
He clarified that he is not asking for a background check when a stranger is counted in a minyan, but noted that in the case of the Dawsons, some Jewish communities chose to ignore warnings about the pair.
“When you’re warned there’s a missionary in your community, heed the warning,” he said. “Don’t ignore the signs. That’s the big take-away here. Pay attention to things that don’t fit.”
Nuszen said that Jewish communities must not be afraid to establish firm guidelines around interactions with Evangelical Christians.
“Although their love for the Jewish people is quite sincere, it is not without an agenda. Because of the overwhelming amount of support they offer the Jewish world, I think many people tend to minimize this,” said Nuszen.
“We should see these cases as a warning and opportunity to educate ourselves on this threat and put an end to blurring of these lines.
“Rather than a full-on embrace of Christianity because they show us love and support, we need to insist on honesty, integrity, and respect…Healthy boundaries are necessary in any relationship.”