Undercover Christian missionary unmasked

The JC reveals the whole truth behind the Orthodox garb and nice smiles of Michael and Amanda Elk


With additional reporting by Daniel Bates in New Jersey

With his bushy beard, ample belly and black hat at a rakish angle, Michael Elkohen looked every inch the strictly-Orthodox rabbi, running his own small yeshiva in Jerusalem.

He acted as a scribe, handed out rabbinical qualifications and even carried out circumcisions. 

Yet last week, the American-born father-of-five, who had lived in Israel for 15 years, was accused of being an undercover Christian missionary.

Investigators have disclosed to the JC that the religious seminary he founded, Yeshivat Yarim Ha’Am, was quietly disseminating a Judaised version of Christianity and ordaining Christian ‘rabbis’ to further spread the gospel.

The revelations have sent shock-waves through the close-knit religious community in French Hill, Jerusalem, where he lived for seven years. As the news broke, Orthodox and secular Jews alike began asking urgent questions.

How could this possibly have happened? What could have possessed Elkohen, 42, to go undercover? Did he really have Jewish ancestry, as he claimed? 
Which organisation was he working for? How many more covert evangelists could be active in the Holy Land? In short: What was the truth concealed by the Orthodox exterior?

Today, after an exhaustive investigation both in Jerusalem and Elkohen’s hometown of Penns Grove, New Jersey, the JC can disclose the bombshell answers to these troubling questions. 

We can confirm for the first time that the apparent rabbi qualified as a clergyman online; has thousands of dollars of unpaid debts to his name in the US; was deeply involved with American evangelical churches; and was born to a Methodist mother and Protestant father.

Speaking to our reporter in the kitchen of her home in Penns Grove this week, Elk’s mother, Patricia Baric, 69, struggled to hide her distress. 

She had no contact with her son for 15 years, she said, after they fell out during the settlement of his late father’s estate.

But of one thing she was certain: Neither she nor Elkohen’s father – Navy veteran William Elk, who died aged 60 in 2006, and whose grave is topped with a crucifix – were Jewish. 

“I’m a Methodist,” she said. “We weren’t really a religious family when Michael was young. I grew up in the church but didn’t go. 

“Michael’s father was not observant as a Mennonite (Protestant).” When asked whether there could possibly be any truth in her son’s claims of Jewish heritage, she simply replied: “No.”

Born in 1978 in Salem, New Jersey, Michael Thomas Elk grew up in Penns Grove, a working-class town with a population of about 5,000 and at least 13 churches – but no synagogues.

As a boy, there was little to prefigure his strange life path that lay ahead. He attended Penns Grove High School and was an enthusiastic Boy Scout, winning the coveted rank of Eagle Scout. 

“He was a good kid. He was no trouble,” Mrs Baric said. “He was his own person. We didn’t have a lot of money so he didn’t get the designer clothes.

“He was involved in football, wrestling, shot put, he loved camp, he was athletic. When he got older, they let him teach at the rifle range, shooting. He became pretty good at it.”

Elk’s journey into spirituality began in his mid-teens, when his father fell ill. By this time, his parents had divorced and he lived with his father.

“Religion entered his life when his father was really sick, and his father decided maybe it’s time he saw the light,” Mrs Baric, now married to her third husband, recalled. “He was baptised around the age of 17. His father was still alive at that point. I think it was a church in Pennsville, a non-denominational church.”

She added: “He didn’t seek religion until he was in his late teens, so maybe he was just searching. I don’t know. 

“He knew the Bible. He definitely knew the Bible because when he was living with me, the minister at the Presbyterian church I was going to had him preach sometimes, when he wasn’t there. He knew the Bible.”

In 1997, when Elk was 18, he signed up for a four-year degree at Eastern University, a private Christian college in St Davids, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles from his hometown.

“He went there to study biological science but he wasn’t getting it, so he switched [to Bible studies],” his mother said. Elk eventually qualified as a Christian clergyman – though “through the internet, not through a seminary.”

Reflecting on her son’s choices that led to the allegations, Mrs Baric shook her head. “That’s not the way he was brought up,” she said. “I just thought his values, morals would be a lot different.”

Elk’s path to Judaism appears to have begun around the time of his graduation. By that time, he was in a serious relationship with Crystal Tracy, whom he had met at Eastern University.

At the time, she told the JC, Elk was attending a ‘Messianic synagogue’ (for Jews who follow Jesus) called Beth Yeshua, in Overbrook, Pennsylvania. 

He also worshipped at a charismatic evangelical church called Vineyard. Yet he was dressing like an Orthodox Jew, always wearing a white shirt, black trousers and kippah.

Speaking from her home in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, Ms Tracy, now 42, described how she became sucked in to Elk’s world.

“I should preface this by saying that I now realise that he was very manipulative, and I made some choices that weren’t the best because of his involvement,” she said. “I tended to believe anything he told me.”

From the beginning, she recalled, Elk identified as a Jew. “Michael swore his parents were both Jewish, and went to synagogue when he was a kid,” she said.

Comparing Elk to Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who sparked outrage in 2015 by posing as black, she went on: “He always said he was Jewish, but he was a Christian. We got engaged in sophomore year and we were going to the synagogue and the church, and he wanted to get more in touch with his Jewish roots.”

After their engagement, Elk started attending the local Chabad outreach centre, bringing Ms Tracy along. 

“It was awkward because I wasn’t Jewish, and the people at the synagogue didn’t know we were engaged,” she said.

After some online genealogical research, Elk persuaded her – wrongly – that she had Jewish ancestry, she said. 

“I’m Pennsylvania Dutch. It’s a very homogeneous, non-Jewish community. It is very not Jewish. 

“He found two resources that said a Jewish woman had married in and converted, and I would be Jewish. I believed everything he told me then.

“We were both living (as Jews) at that point: mikveh, head covering, completely separate meat and milk, kosher. He was very devout in his observance, but he was not a very honest person.

“Through a rabbi, he got a job at a kosher section of a Safeway. While working there, there were questions about his time clock, and he was fired.”

She added: “He was very good at creating a convincing paper trail, and making it seem like, hey, you’re Jewish now, we can get married. He’s extremely manipulative. He’s a gaslighter.”

In 2001, they married. Wedding pictures obtained by the JC show the newlyweds posing in front of a chupah. Their marriage lasted three years.

“He used the Bible to convince me I should stay with him, the first time I broke up with him,” Ms Tracy said. “When he got fired, it snapped me out of it. That’s when I was realising an Orthodox life isn’t sustainable for me. 

“I told him I didn’t want to be Orthodox any more, so he accused me of cheating on him.”

For years, Elk had been involved with a potently evangelical church called MorningStar Ministries in South Carolina, attending prayer sessions and conferences. The MorningStar Ministries website mentions ‘covert missions’, in which evangelists go undercover overseas. When questioned by the JC, its representatives declined to comment.

As time went on, Ms Tracy said, Elk became more and more committed to the group. Elk considered going to their ministry school, she said, and was “very, very devoted” to their teachings. 

“He carried on with MorningStar after the divorce,” she recalled. “They are very much about converting the Jews to bring on the end times. I heard this all the time.”

Elk he bounced from job to job, at one time working in a Jewish private school and teaching martial arts to children.

In 2003, he completed an online course to gain smicha – rabbinic ordination – that was provided by Yeshivas Chonen Daas in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

The couple divorced in 2004, and Elk struggled with alcoholism. But the following year, he married another non-Jewish woman, Amanda Core, whose father ran a logging trade magazine. She later admitted to friends that she had grown up on a Christmas tree farm.

A year later, the couple moved to Israel, changing their surnames to Elkohen. 

The JC understands that Israeli citizenship was granted based on two documents: his smicha, which has since been revoked, and the religious divorce documents from his first marriage – which had itself been granted without proof of his Jewish roots.

Elk’s second wife appeared to embrace his double life in Jerusalem. They had five children, and she added to the cover story, telling friends that she had relatives who died in the Holocaust.

Amanda Bradley, an Orthodox friend of the couple who did not know until recently that they were Christian, said: 

“They never had much money. She was raising money both here amongst her Jewish friends to help pay for them to be able to go back and visit her family, but also amongst her Christian community.”

Elk told her he was a Jew of Moroccan heritage, she added.

In many ways, the couple was hiding in plain sight. In 2008, Elk reportedly wrote a book entitled The Triumph of Justice about Messianic Judaism and wrote a blog about being a covert missionary, under the name Lev David. The book was published by MorningStar Publications, credited to “An Orthodox Jewish Rabbi” and “Lev David Ministries.” 

For her part, Mrs Elk had two Facebook pages, one as a Jew and the other as a Christian. And in 2011 her husband appeared on MorningStar Ministries TV, dressed in Orthodox garb.

In the interview, he openly praised Jesus and prayed together with other Christian devotees. The Jews, he said, needed to be “stirred to jealousy” until they followed Christ.

The following year, Elk apparently decided that the time had come to fulfil his mission. He founded a seminary called Yeshivat Yarim Ha’am, which taught a belief in Jesus.

According to Shannon Nuszen of Beyneynu, the anti-missionary group that eventually unmasked him, Elk had about 10 students and gave several a ‘Messianic’ smicha, making them rabbis. 

He almost pushed it too far. In 2014, while living in Nachlaot in central Jerusalem and studying at a yeshiva in Beit El, Elk was unmasked by the anti-missionary group Lev L’Achim, which brought him to the attention of the kabbalistic yeshiva he was attending. 

When confronted by the rabbinical authorities, however, he confessed — but claimed to have repented. In a transcript of his confession obtained by the JC, Elk said that he was being paid up to $500 (£360) per month from Morningstar Ministries. He then moved his family to the Jerusalem neighbourhood of French Hill, where he and his wife maintained their double life, away from scrutiny.

In addition to teaching his students and carrying out circumcisions, Elk found work as a scribe, writing tefillin and mezuzot. His children attended local Charedi schools.

Five years ago, Mrs Elk was diagnosed with colon cancer. The community rallied around the family, raising money for her treatment. But by this time, anti-missionary investigators from Beyneynu were looking into the family.

Their cover fell apart last month, when the Elks’ oldest daughter — whose bat mitzvah had been funded by the community while her mother was battling cancer — told a schoolfriend that Jesus “accepts everyone”.

Rumours began to spread. In February, Mrs Elk passed away at the age of 42, and was buried in an Orthodox cemetery. 

There are now widespread demands for her body to be exhumed.

Mrs Bradley, one of Mrs Elk’s closest Orthodox friends, told the JC that it was “very painful” to find out the truth about her late friend. 

“It felt like a betrayal,” she said. “Once you know that someone lied about something this big and this important, you don’t know what you can trust at all from what they said. You end up going over all your interactions and reassessing them. Was this real? Was that real?”

Elk, who is still living in Israel, refused to comment and deleted his What’s App profile picture when contacted by the JC. His community, meanwhile, is in a state of shock.

This week, the head of the yeshiva that granted him smicha, Rabbi Daniel Channen, revoked the qualification. 

And the mother of a boy who was circumcised by Elk, and has now gone through a ‘revision’ procedure, told the JC: “I feel like someone punched me.”

For investigators, the focus now turns to Elk’s disciples and colleagues, in an effort to root out the other missionaries undercover in Orthodox communities.

One suspect has even written an evangelical children’s book, which is available on the website of a well-known ‘educational Messianic Jewish organisation’.

Three covert Christian families are under investigation, a Beyneynu spokeswoman revealed, and are due to be unmasked imminently.

For Elk’s mother, the story has brought her nothing but sorrow. Elk even refused to see her while she was on a trip to Jerusalem a few years ago. “I think he was searching for his purpose in life, what he was supposed to be doing,” she said.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive