A Tale of Two Evangelists in Israel

Photo: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

This past week saw two stories involving two men who are both making attempts to share the Gospel with Jews in Israel but taking very different approaches.

The first story appeared in the Jerusalem Post and it was, really strange, almost bizarre.

The JPost story gave details about a man named Michael Elkohen who, according to the report, has been posing as an Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) rabbi in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood. His children are all attending haredi schools and he has been ordained as a haredi rabbi by an online course affiliated with a haredi yeshiva network in the US. He has provided services in his capacity as a rabbi including circumcisions for several baby boys in his community, etc.

However, anti-missionary organizations whose members were interviewed as part of the JPost report said that while doing all this, he was also engaging in “covert missionary activity” including writing a blog under the pseudonym “Lev David” which documented his activities. He is also, apparently, supported by an Evangelical ministry based in South Carolina.

The report also said that Yad L’Achim is “investigating” the possibility that several of Elkohen’s students are also “covert missionaries” who are posing as haredi yeshiva students. If that’s true, than it tracks with claims made by the organization which “Lev David” is connected with that they do indeed have many such “covert missionaries” in Israel.

The second story about a man trying to share the Gospel with Jews in Israel wasn’t reported by the JPost, but frankly, it was much more newsworthy.

I am speaking of a video debate held, in Hebrew, between prominent rabbinic scholar Rabbi Chaim Sheitrit and Dr. Eitan Bar of the One For Israel organization. The video, which included a debate on the validity of the “Oral Torah” that Rabbinic Judaism holds to be equal (and even superior) to the Bible, has been viewed thousands of times on different social media platforms and widely commented on. 

Hopefully, a video of the debate with subtitles in English and other languages will soon be available online. But even before that happens, the video is being widely discussed online and, presumably, offline, all over Israel and also among Diaspora Jewish communities.

Here’s what I think about all this.

Until I read the bizarre story about him in the JPost, I had never heard of Michael Elkohen or his pseudonym “Lev David” or the organization in South Carolina he’s apparently being supported by. I have no way of knowing if the accusation that he’s a “covert missionary” are true and even if they are, it would be very difficult to know how effective he has been at sharing the Gospel with anyone.

However, I can say that I have been hearing stories about “covert missionaries” like he is accused of being ever since I came to Israel almost 20 years ago, and people who have been here much longer than I have told me the stories and rumors about it go back much further.

Even today, there are individuals and organizations in Israel attempting to reach their Jewish brethren with the Gospel by adopting the dress, nomenclature, vocabulary etc. of Orthodox Judaism, attending Orthodox synagogues, etc. This, they say, is done in order to “build trust and relationships” with Orthodox Jews so that when the time comes, they will be open to the Gospel. These folks also often claim that this method is the ONLY way to ever reach Jewish people with the Gospel and that any and all attempts by Gentiles or Jews who try to take a different approach is doomed to humiliating failure.

However, the record of this method of sharing the Gospel speaks for itself.

It has been tried for decades, and an enormous amount of time, effort, money and energy have been poured into it. The numbers of Jewish people who have received the Gospel through this method is impossible to know. According to those who insist that it is the ONLY way to reach Jewish people, there are untold multitudes of Jewish people who have quietly embraced Yeshua as their Messiah, but they are keeping their mouths shut about it and continuing to live a haredi lifestyle because to do otherwise would mean being ostracized by their family and community.

Again, it is impossible to know if this is true or not. It’s certainly plausible. But after almost 20 years of living in Israel, I have accumulated a long list of reasons to be very skeptical about these claims.

I am, for instance, personally acquainted with people who are part of haredi families who accepted the Gospel and they immediately shed their haredi lifestyle and very openly and unapologetically began living openly as a follower of Yeshua. Some of them did indeed suffer some backlash from their families, but few were completely ostracized. Even those who were have told me that although they missed their family, they don’t have any regrets because to stay silent about the truth they’d discovered would have been impossible. 

Incidently enough, I have heard similar testimonies from Believers who came out of Islam. They suffered much more than social ostracism from their friends and families, they sometimes had attempts made to murder them. But they could not stay silent about the new life they’d found in Christ.

So the narrative that there are large numbers of “secret Believers” among the ranks of the haredi community here in Israel is just really difficult for me to believe. Frankly, I think that if there are such people, their numbers are actually quite tiny.

My own experience of never making any secret of my faith in the New Testament has never caused me to be alienated from my extended family who are almost all haredi (all my cousins are either Ultra-Orthodox rabbis or the wives of Ultra-Orthodox rabbis) and I also have many friends who are Ultra-Orthodox and they’ve never given me any hassles about it either. On the contrary, I’ve had a lot of very good, respectful and fruitful conversations with them. During some of those conversations, I’ve asked them if they are aware of these “covert missionaries” and their methods.

Here’s what I heard in response to such inquiries.

Those who engage in such “covert missionary” activities are held in derisive contempt because they are, according to my friends, “pretending to be something they’re not” in a “sneaky and dishonest” attempt to peddle deception to Jewish people under false pretenses.

Contrast all of this with the methods for sharing the Gospel employed by Dr. Bar’s organization, One For Israel.

Even the worst enemies of One For Israel (and they have MANY enemies) would never say they are “covert missionaries” or accuse them of being sneaky or dishonest or trying to pretend to be something they’re not. The fact that a highly respected rabbi like Chaim Sheitrit would agree to a public debate with Dr. Bar speaks volumes about how seriously OFI is being taken by the Ultra-Orthodox and even to the grudging respect they’ve earned.

Beyond that, as Jesus Himself tells us in Matthew 7:16 “You will know them by their fruits”

Jesus was speaking in the context of warning about “false prophets” and we’ve certainly had our share of those among the Messianic movement here in Israel. There are organizations which claim to be sharing the Gospel with Jewish people and even using this claim as a fundraising tool, but they don’t have much “fruit” to show for all the money they’ve raised (and presumably spent) on this project.

But the principle holds for true prophets as well. You can, in general, tell a great deal about an individual, an organization, a ministry etc. by looking at the results of their efforts.

Since One For Israel began their online evangelistic efforts, there have been thousands of Israeli Jews who have responded by accepting the Gospel. Many thousands of Arabs in Israel and other Middle Eastern countries have done so as well, in response to their Arabic language outreach.

In conclusion, the past week has included reports about two very different men taking two very different approaches to sharing the Gospel with Jewish people in Israel. The results or “fruit” of these two very different approaches speak for themselves.

If you are a participant and/or supporter of ANY kind of efforts to share the Gospel in Israel, or anywhere else for that matter, you should make the effort to try and find out what kind of fruit those efforts are producing.