Shockumentary – Undercover Mission

She had beady eyes and, when asked which particular subset of Jews she tries most to attract away from the faith of their fathers, she glanced quickly to the left and to the right. This missionary woman needed to make sure that no one could hear, because what she was doing is actually illegal. And then she responded on video to the documentary maker who had become “embedded” in her group:

“I mostly try to target the young. For it is with them that is the future.”

 

She was unaware that the documentary being filmed, entitled “Christian Outreach in the Holy Land,” was not actually being produced from a Christian perspective at all. Yes, the title accurately depicted the documentary’s content — but it had been commissioned by an organization based in Bnei Brak — Yad L’Achim. The cameraman and editor of the documentary, with his Sennheiser wireless microphone, three-chip broadcast camera, Manfrotto head tripod, khaki pants and a plaid shirt, was actually a chareidi American Rabbi. That man was me.

HOW IT STARTED

 

It kind of came out of nowhere. All of a sudden there was a steep rise in missionary activity in Israel. Investigations revealed that there was a huge uptick in funding for missionary activity specifically targeting Jews. This gave rise to a situation where there were more than 275 fully funded messianic congregations and organizations in Israel.

Yad L’Achim needed to step up its game, and for that they needed funding. They needed to show firsthand evidence of the devastation that was happening. They looked for someone to assist them in getting out their message, who would have both the documentary-making ability and camera skills to do the job — as well as the requisite Rabbinic background. I was interviewed and hired. We decided that it would be best to do it during the summer months — when missionary activity was at its peak and also when my yeshivah teaching schedule was over.

The assignment was to join a number of active missionary organizations in Eretz Yisrael and film their activities from the inside. It was also to find out how they do things and report back to Yad L’Achim. I would be a fresh face — an import from the United States.

We would need to be “embedded” in a number of organizations — not just one or two. And it would not be an easy task. Most of the missionary organizations were very suspicious of outsiders due to Yad L’Achim’s activities.

THE PREPARATIONS

The first order of business was to figure out a way to get accepted into the various missionary organizations.

I had once done a great favor for the publisher and owner of a few newspapers. Now was the time to call in that favor. I asked him to help me get access to missionary organizations in order to prepare a documentary on Christian Outreach in Israel. He gave me newspaper credentials as well as a letter of introduction. He was a person who could be looked up and contacted. He personally did not care what angle or perspective the documentary would pursue. He would back it one hundred percent.

So far, so good. We had obtained full legitimacy. A full success!

The next step was to pose the necessary she’eilos to a Rav and posek. It would have to be a renowned Gadol. Hashkafically, is this correct hishtadlus? What do we do about eating? What about kashrus? What about brachos? What about davening? What about minyanim?

The answers were interesting: Yes, from a hashkafic perspective this should be done. There can be no compromise on eating — only valid hechsherim may be eaten. Brachos have to be made with the head covered somehow. The food can be eaten without the yarmulke on. Sneak away to daven. You cannot not wear any non-Jewish religious icon. If the minyan would in any manner compromise your position, do not attend — but otherwise you should.

(The truth is that I made an error in not following the Gadol’s instructions precisely. I obtained a cap that had the name of a Christian school. I had thought that since many frum people obtain degrees from Christian colleges, it would be permissible to wear this cap. Upon my return from my mission I showed the cap to the Gadol and he did not approve. He believed that it was forbidden to wear it. The lesson I learned is never to make assumptions, and to ask as much of the she’eilah that you can without being a nudnik.)

Step two? A partial success.

The third order of business was the haircut and dress. I trimmed my beard to create a gentile appearance. I purchased clothing and glasses that a typical gentile might wear. I needed two outfits. The result? A near dismal failure, but passable. Oh well.

And now, off to Eretz Yisrael with all my video equipment, my regular clothing, my “undercover” clothing, my sefarim and my computer. It was a lot of shlepping.

I had never done anti-missionary work before, and needed some additional guidance. I had made some preliminary calls and inquiries in the United States, but not enough. I met with three groups of people: Yad L’Achim leaders and personnel; a Jerusalem Post reporter and another reporter who had done an enormous amount of research on missionary groups; and a group of Christians who knew of some of the missionary work that was being done throughout the country.

There were six organizations in which I decided to attempt to embed myself. Four were chosen in advance; two more were decided on the spur of the moment.

“King of Kings” in Yerushalayim was the first, originally housed in a living room and then in the YMCA. Eventually the group purchased its own property and opened a bible college.

Although not the organization’s founder, the mission was being run by a man named Ray Gannon. Gannon decided to focus on Israeli Jews. This group’s gatherings attempt to use music and extensions of friendship to recruit secular Israeli Jews to abandon Judaism and embrace Christian worship. Gannon can alternate between being very sweet to potential adherents and very mean to others.

This organization has numerous people in various “soft” missionary activities throughout Israel that recruit for them. They teach English, coach, and otherwise seek to lure Jews to join their classes and prayer sessions.

They currently have ministries throughout Yerushalayim, Herzliya, Ashdod, Haifa, Hebrew- and English-language ministries in Tel Aviv, and more. They are actively pursuing Russian Jewish immigrants who have no Jewish background. They oversee some 17 other ministries and are well-funded.

The second organization in which I was embedded has as its goal mass baptisms. They invite Israelis who are on shaky ground in their religious beliefs to become “baptized” in water, usually at a beach or in a private pool. These gatherings have a devastating effect on the ruchniyus of Israelis who participate, and even on others who are merely present as it takes place.

Like the first organization, they are actively pursuing Russian Jewish immigrants. This organization essentially handles baptisms for other ministries, although it is also a ministry in and of itself.

(JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

They were somewhat suspicious of me, notwithstanding my credentials. They would not allow me to film the actual baptisms with my broadcast camera. They were concerned that it could get into the wrong hands. I had another hidden camera in my shirt, which I was later able to put together with the audio from a tape recorder. Placing the three-chip camera back in the case threw off any suspicion that I was wearing another camera.

It is my belief that this organization was one of two that actually called to verify my credentials.

The third organization caught on to me. This was the group that had the beady-eyed woman. At the point when I was discovered, I was tired and had slipped up. As I had entered the office of the person in charge, my hand automatically lifted to kiss a nonexistent mezuzah. The instinctive move caused my host to give me an instant look of suspicion. I tried saving the situation by turning my movement into a stretch rather than an attempt to kiss a mezuzah — but it was too late. They refused to cooperate with me further and would not allow me to continue filming their activities.

I decided that in the future I would have to hold my hand tightly to prevent such an action. When I was carrying my tripod and camera, I would tuck my hand in on the other side to avoid another mistake.

On the positive side, the beady-eyed woman had slipped up by breaking Israel’s law against giving out enticements to lure converts. I reported her to some government officials at the Ministry of the Interior and they promptly deported her for violating her tourist visa.

The fourth organization focused on finding disillusioned religious Jews. They offered them compassion, food, clothing and educational opportunities. They enticed these vulnerable people with kind words.

It was a difficult task getting those in the organization to open up and, to a large part, my efforts were ineffective with this group. The hidden camera also broke at this point, so much of it was time wasted — with the exception of learning some important lessons in what not to do with one’s children: Try not to yell at your kids. Try not to take out your frustration on them.

I did pose a moral question as to whether they felt bad or guilty targeting those who were so clearly disenfranchised. They looked at me incredulously and answered, “We are like Oskar Schindler — trying to save as many Jewish people as possible. If the religious ones are so stubborn that they refuse to see [the “light”] — then maybe if their son does, they will come around eventually.”

The fifth organization was structured in a very strange way. They came from abroad in order to help out local ministries recruit people through music. They stayed in a local Yerushalayim hotel and went to different areas throughout Israel to hold concerts, where they sang Christian religious songs. Standing nearby were representatives of local ministries.

I got myself embedded with this organization and they welcomed me with open arms.

The shuk on Ben Yehuda Street. (Flash90)

The first session I attended was on Ben Yehudah Street. There was singing and some of the passersby began to gather to see what was happening. However, a number of religious Jews gathered spontaneously and began shouting, “Go home. This is our home! How dare you try to convert Jews in their very own home! We do not come inside your home and try to convert you. Stop this. It is immoral!”

In the meantime, a mother of one of my former students had also stopped there with her husband. She told her husband that she believed the guy in khaki pants standing there with no yarmulke and a camera was Rabbi ___ from their child’s yeshivah. Her husband responded that it cannot be, and that he just looks like him. She was upset that her husband did not believe her and confronted me. Pointing her finger directly in my face, she said in a very loud voice, “You are Rabbi ___!”

I nodded in agreement and lifted my index finger to my lips, indicating that she should be quiet. I then motioned her to follow me to the side beyond earshot of the group. I explained to her what I was doing and that Yad L’Achim had hired me to produce a documentary. Thankfully, the group did not notice her identification of me.

In the meantime, the group continued strumming and singing, ignoring what was happening with the protestors. And then the IDF came. There were approximately eight soldiers, along with their commanding officer. The sergeant started barking orders in Hebrew at the group. Everyone else in the group ignored the IDF sergeant completely.

I, however, was listening attentively to what he was saying. This was perhaps a mistake. The IDF sergeant realized that I was listening and probably understood him. He then started threatening me with immediate arrest unless I personally got my group out of there immediately. I decided that it was best not to say “I am not with them” and rather go along with the officer ’s demand.

I told the group, “Oh boy! We better get out of here — they are going to arrest us. Let’s go back to the hotel.” They ignored me. I repeated my statement. They ignored me again. Finally, I grabbed one of the leaders and told him, “You don’t understand. We are all going to be spending two nights in jail and it will be your fault! Let’s get out of here now!” I made the same announcement to the rest of the group. Now, suddenly, they all listened. We left toward the direction of the hotel.

I then went back to explain to my student’s parents what was happening. They were very gracious and offered me a ride back to Har Nof, where I was staying with family.

The sixth group had a very specialized ministry. They had spent enormous sums developing a “moving” video depicting the life of the founder of Christianity. They had translated this multimillion-dollar video into Hebrew and were trying to show it at different venues throughout the country. The film was funded by the Hunt Brothers, and this group of people had come to find contacts and venues in which to show the film. In this, unfortunately, they succeeded.

THOUGHTS AND IMPRESSIONS

Many of the missionary organizations attempt to ensconce themselves in key areas of the various Jewish communities throughout Israel. They do so by working as teachers of English, caterers, musicians, mechanics, singers and in other professions. They try to develop relationships to lead to what they call “transformations.”

The warning cry as to what they are doing and how they are going about it has not been sufficiently sounded.

(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The missionaries will often engage in deceptive tactics. (“Z.P.,” a famous half-Israeli, half-American missionary, tells people that he studied in a yeshivah. Research, however, reveals that this is a fabrication. Further research reveals that he actually stole money from one of the American-based missions. They decided, however, not to act on any accusations against him because they felt it would not be in the best interests of Christian outreach to do so. In the past, he was involved in various criminal activities.)

Overall, I had the following thoughts and impressions about my mission: Many of the Israeli missionaries are primarily doing what they do for the money that they receive from Christian organizations in the United States. The hardline approach of Yad L’Achim is to try to block their efforts with in-your-face tactics. The downside is that occasionally this type of behavior arouses sympathy for the missionaries from the Israelis they are trying to attract.

What are the implications for the United States of the missionary scene in Israel? It is an unfortunate reality that there are more “messianic synagogues” in the United States than there are Agudah shuls and Young Israel congregations combined. The tactics employed in Israel to curtail their efforts, however, cannot be reproduced here. In Israel there are laws that have been passed limiting missionary activity, but that is not the case here.

Confused, needy souls, those who are ignorant of their Jewish heritage, those who have fallen by the wayside — missionary groups target these vulnerable people, trapping them in nets of falsehood. It will take our brightest and best minds working together to win this war, to return our brothers to the true birthright of Sinai.

The author can be reached at gideonfeinstein@gmail.com.