With additional reporting by Etan Smallman
Four members of a “sleeper cell” of alleged undercover Christian missionaries who infiltrated Orthodox communities in Jerusalem have been unmasked in dossiers passed to the Israeli government, the JC can reveal.
They are from a group of 10 fake Jews who followed evangelical ringleader Michael Elk — calling himself Rabbi Michael Elkohen — whose Christian upbringing was exposed earlier this month in a special report by the JC.
Elk had set up a seminary in Jerusalem called Yeshivat Yarim Ha’am, teaching a belief in Jesus. He gave students a ‘Messianic’ smicha, making them rabbis.
Elk himself has now fled. A recent photograph shows him sporting a hipster haircut and sculpted beard.
Now that the lynchpin has been unmasked, the Israeli anti-missionary group Beyneynu has set its sights on the other members of the covert group.
This week, Beyneynu sent two dossiers to Israel’s Ministry of the Interior naming four suspected missionaries, calling for an inquiry into how they gained Israeli citizenship.
The first dossier focuses on Timothy and Anna Michelle Buckles, an American couple who made aliyah in 2017. Both were close to Elk.
The couple met at the Bellingham Chabad House, Washington, where the alleged undercover Christian was so knowledgeable that he led Rosh Hashanah services.
Investigators believe that Anna Buckles’ family had a legitimate conversion at the Chabad House, making her halachically Jewish.
But her husband is believed to have “converted” through a “beth din” established by Elk. In 2012, he flew back from Israel to officiate at their wedding at the Beit HaShofar messianic congregation in Tukwila, Washington.
Buckles, 41, then set up a messianic yeshiva, Tzemach David, 25 miles north of Seattle, the dossier claims. It was registered as a church — but under the category “Judaism”.
Shannon Nuszen, director of Beyneynu, said: “The Buckles ran the American side of things. After Elk married them, they founded Tzemach David, the American branch of Elk’s yeshiva.”
Traces of Buckles’ true ideology were found online by Beyneynu activists. On the website of First Fruits of Zion — a group dedicated to a “Messianic Jewish reading of the Bible” — Buckles, under his Hebrew name Ami, is listed as a Jerusalem-based “support staff member”.
He is also the author of Avram and the Idol Shop: Growing disciples of Yeshua, a storybook for messianic children. And he has written articles for the evangelical Messiah Journal, most recently in November last year.
In 2017, the Buckles made aliyah. Both found work at Green Good Food, a strictly kosher café in Jerusalem popular with religious American immigrants, Beyneynu activists said.
They left their jobs, however, after their true identities were revealed to the managers.
Their missionary activities were only just beginning. They allegedly set up an Israeli version of Tzemach David — the messianic yeshiva they had founded near Seattle — in order to spread a Christianised Judaism to Jews.
Orthodox people living in local communities began to find missionary pamphlets mysteriously pushed through their letterboxes and magnets promoting messianic websites placed on their bins.
The second dossier handed to Israeli authorities focuses on fellow Americans Jeff Adelman and his wife Katelyn.
Adelman’s Jewish journey appears to have begun in 2019. He only started attending synagogue a few months before he made aliyah, in November that year, the dossier said.
Adelman told the congregation at the Seattle Jewish synagogue he attended that he was a ba’al teshuvah, whose interest in Judaism had been sparked in Los Angeles.
Earlier this month, a rabbi in Seattle revoked a 2019 letter recommending Mr Adelman for aliyah. The rabbi, who has asked not to be named, said:
“I am officially retracting the contents of that letter, due to inaccurate and misleading information that I was provided with. I cannot attest to the Jewish identity of Jeff Adelman.”
After moving to Israel, the Adelmans presented themselves as relatives of the Elks, with Jeff Adelman claiming to be Mrs Elk’s second cousin.
“They claimed to be related but it was not true at all,” said Amanda Bradley, an Orthodox friend of the undercover evangelists who was shocked to learn of their true identities.
“I got to know the Adelmans. They moved into my community in Ramat Beit Shemesh about two months ago. But two weeks back, after Michael Elk was exposed, they fled the city in a hurry, with months left on their apartment lease.”
Mrs Bradley added: “I myself told the Adelmans everything I knew about the Elks not being Jewish, and actually being Messianic, before the story broke publicly.
“I didn’t want them to leaern about it through the shock of a newspaper article, if they had also been lied to.
“They really didn’t seem surprised at all. The only time that Jeff looked shocked was when I told him I knew that Amanda wasn’t Jewish. I think he was shocked I knew.”
When Mrs Bradley discovered that the Adelmans were also secret Christians, she reacted with disbelief. “I wanted to know more proof, and I kept looking to find out more before I believed it,” she said.
“I had turned to Jeff Adelman to help explain the web of truths and untruths I had heard about the Elks, but I just got more lies.
“It was upsetting to find even more people you can’t trust.”
Mr Adelman’s wife, Katelyn Whitaker, is believed to have first visited Israel as a volunteer with Christian Friends of Israel in 2014 and returned the following year with Bridges for Peace, an organisation for “Christians supporting Israel”.
She eventually entered the official conversion programme of the Rabbinate of Jerusalem, via the Machon Ora seminary in the city.
Shannon Nuszen, director of Beyneynu, said the network was “like a sleeper cell”.
Describing its methods, she said: “They are supposed to embed themselves, pray for the Jews and when God finally removes the blinders from their eyes, they’ll be in place and influential to be able to bring all Jews to Jesus.”
She added: “Missionary activity is legal in Israel. There are over 300 messianic organisations that operate with a stated goal of bringing Jews to Jesus. But this is about honesty and mutual respect.
“The deceptive tactic of masquerading as Orthodox Jews is simply offensive.”
The JC has attempted to contact the Buckles by telephone and WhatsApp, with no reply. But a spokesperson for First Fruits of Zion, the missionary organisation that lists them as “support staff”, denied they were missionaries.
In an email to the JC, he said: “First Fruits of Zion is an educational organisation that provides Messianic Jewish teaching for Christians and Jews.
“Tim Buckles does work as an illustrator for our organisation. If Tim Buckles were involved in any form of proselytization or covert, deceitful evangelism, he would not be associated with our work as we denounce such activity.
“While we cannot speak on behalf of Tim and Anna, we can say that our impression of their practice of Torah Judaism seems as if it is motivated by personal conviction and not as undercover missionaries.”
The spokesperson added: “If they are secret missionaries, they are incredibly inept and unsuccessful at proselytising. We don’t know of any Jews that have become Christians (or to not give way to semantics: Messianic Jews) because of Tim and Anna.”
When approached by the JC, Mr Adelman denied being a missionary but said “no comment” to further questions. Mrs Adelman could not be reached.
Buckles First Aliya
Buckles Second Aliya
Buckles Third Aliya