In the last couple of days, the larger Jewish world, and especially the Israeli Anglo-Jewish world, found out what I have known for the past couple of months: that my good friend, an ostensibly dati/Haredi American olah with five children, was actually a Christian who made aliyah with her husband as covert missionaries, with the intention of infiltrating the Jewish community, remaining quiet and undetected for up to 20 years if necessary, before acting to proselytize.
I am angry about a lot of things about this story, but one of the biggest ones is the blindness that allowed this entire episode to take place at all.
First, a recap. I’m not allowed to use their real names, so we’ll go with Mr. Reuven and Mrs. Shimona.
Shimona was a good friend of mine, whom I got to know a couple of years after I and my family made aliyah. She was diagnosed with cancer in about 2016, and, sadly, she died earlier this year. We’d become friends through Facebook, but thanks (?) to her cancer, we spent a lot of time together in “real life” too, because I spent a lot of time visiting her while she was recovering from surgery, and accompanied her to most of her oncology appointments. Anyone who has had anything to do with cancer treatment will agree that you spend a lot of time waiting around, and for us, that was chatting time.
Shortly before the last Shabbat of Shimona’s life, she was admitted to the ICU. She had five young children and her husband needed to be at home to care for them. She told me she was scared, and I offered to spend that Shabbat with her in the ICU. It was tough. I helped her through the night until she was sedated and intubated on Shabbat morning. She never regained consciousness, and when she died a couple of days later, I comforted myself that she was out of pain, and that I had done all I could to help her.
You may be able to imagine my shock when, a day after her shiva ended, I found out that she and her husband had come to Israel as covert missionaries, intending to stay hidden, build trust, and wait until the Jews “returned” to Jesus. At that point, I confronted my friend’s husband, Mr. Reuven, about the allegations, and he admitted to me that it was all true, but added that they had “done teshuvah” and it was all in the past. He also insisted that both he and Shimona were born Jewish, and that he really and truly is a kohen from an illustrious Moroccan family that is related to the Baba Sali and descended from the Ari (R. Yitzhak Luria).
I couldn’t quiet my doubts. What he claimed did not match the bits of evidence that had come my way. I did my own research for a while, and then got in touch with the anti-missionary organization Beyneynu, which had more information.
Most of the results of their investigation has been publicized via social and traditional media by now, but to summarize: it turns out that Reuven and Shimona came to Israel in about 2006 as covert missionaries, sponsored by an evangelical group. For years, they lived as secret missionaries, carrying out messianic activities, like officiating at weddings, ordaining messianic “rabbis,” and speaking at conferences on trips to the US, while pretending to be Jews in Israel. Reuven learned at a kabbalistic yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Their double life was discovered in 2014. A well-known anti-missionary organization confronted Reuven with evidence of all his Christian activities in the US. At that expedient moment, Reuven confessed to it all and said that he wanted to do teshuvah. He and his wife, he said, had seen the true beauty of a real frum traditional Jewish way of life and wanted to live it entirely. For some reason, the organization and the administration of his yeshiva simply accepted this declaration at face value. Reuven was not required to make a public statement about his previous beliefs and activities. No one checked his Jewish status, or that of his wife, or whether he really was a kohen. No one kept an eye on Reuven and his wife. All that was needed was for him to leave his kabbalistic yeshiva, and their secret could remain safe.
Things continued like that until about 2019, after an independent journalist and Beyneynu opened up their own investigation. By then, Shimona’s cancer was terminal, and not long after that, the coronavirus hit. It was hoped that the matter would be raised after Shimona recovered, but, as you know, that never happened.
Since Shimona died two months ago, the investigation stepped up a notch to get enough information to prove everything that I’ve referred to here (and more), to verify their Jewish status and also if they had really done teshuvah. The matter was scheduled to be addressed this week. But then one of Reuven and Shimona’s children told a schoolfriend at her Haredi school about Jesus, and the whole story exploded out.
Back to what’s bothering me most, or among the most, about the whole thing.
The threat of missionaries to the Jews is real. It’s something that a lot of people, particularly English-speaking Jews, tend to wave aside as somewhat medieval. They think that because we have great Jewish education today (arguable of course), if anyone gets taken in by missionaries and converts to Christianity, it is a sign that our education failed. These Jews have been fooled by the lie of tolerance into thinking that if we stop missionaries from preaching to the Jews, we are being intolerant and even fascist.
We spend so much of our time as a nation and a state combating people who want to physically destroy us. Plus, talking about spirituality and religion somehow isn’t “cool” any more. But the goal of missionary Christians, including messianic Jews, is no different from that of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Bolsheviks, or of the Catholic church for centuries: to replace every other religion in the world with belief in their own religion. In Israel specifically, for missionary Christians, that goal is to convert the Jews to recognize Jesus as the son of God, and hasten the Second Coming.
Make no mistake, missionary Christians want to destroy the Jews as a nation.
But you know what is the other, maybe even greater, damage that secret missionaries like Reuven and Shimona cause to the Jewish nation? They damage our trust in each other.
“Missionary blindness” is the bigger problem.
There are many things that make me angry about this whole story. I am angry that I was fooled, duped, hoodwinked, and used.
I am angry that I was lied to.
But I am most angry that in the first 24 hours after the story broke, two anti-missionary organizations have asked me whether two separate families are also secret messianic Jews.
That’s right. Two families, four adults whom I know personally, who are halachic Jews, who keep Torah and mitzvot, have had doubt cast on their Jewish status and their intentions by people who are scared of being fooled again.
I can’t blame the people who asked. They didn’t start a witch hunt. They came and asked privately. They are scared because Reuven and Shimona fooled them so completely that now they don’t know who they can trust any more.
I have had a number of conversations with other former close friends of Shimona’s over the past two months, other former friends who also learned the truth when I did, about how we can know who to trust any more. I have said, and only half-jokingly, that maybe I should only trust people whom I know are FFB (frum (religious)-from-birth) and where I know their parents and wider families.
One friend, who is a convert, told me that she is scared that this will encourage people to be even more distrustful of converts and baalei teshuvah (the newly religious) who are open and honest about their backgrounds and their origins. And she’s right to be scared.
I blame Reuven and Shimona. I blame them for destroying our trust in each other.
I also blame all the so-wise, so-superior people who do not know Reuven and Shimona, or don’t know them well, and either are claiming that they “always knew there was something odd about them” or that “the whole story is a lie and Reuven and Shimona really are Jews because there’s no way that a Christian could pull this off.”
I can tell you that, no, you did not always think there was something odd about them, and also no, the whole story is not a lie. This was an exceptional couple who blended in exceptionally well.
And you know who else I blame? I blame the Ministry of Interior for examining Reuven and Shimona’s documents not once, but twice (when they applied to make aliyah and when they changed their last name to indicate kohen lineage*) and not checking them out properly.
We all know that every Ethiopian or Russian or convert that tries to make aliyah under the Law of Return gets grilled, raked over hot coals, and has their citizenship suspended for months or years while the Ministry of Interior goes over their proof of Jewishness with a fine-toothed comb.
But when they see an American couple, dressed like Orthodox American olim dress, talking the way Orthodox American olim talk, they don’t check anything at all. I was part of the investigation into Reuven and Shimona’s true identity, and I can tell you that if the Ministry of Interior had used half the rigor they take to Russian/Ethiopian/convert applicants to investigate Reuven and Shimona, they would have found enough to make them suspicious enough to finish the job properly.
A type of color-blindness, maybe you could even call it racism, is what led the people who are supposed to be vigilant against exactly this kind of swindle to be so color-blind as to let Reuven and Shimona slip in.
Now there’s a risk that we’ll all learn the wrong lesson and attack any convert or baal teshuvah from a Christian upbringing, just because they remind us of Reuven and Shimona. Last night, just to underscore the point, someone else asked me if a recent arrival to our neighborhood, who has been open about their past, is also a secret missionary.
We need to learn a healthy suspicion of Christian missionaries at the same time as we learn to trust each other. I can’t say it’ll be easy. But being able to trust our gate-keeping institutions would be a good start.
* Apparently, if you change your name to a priestly one (like Cohen or Katz), you have to prove that you are a kohen. Reuven duped the Ministry of Interior that time too.