Christian Missionary infiltrates Denver Jewish Community

    Issue Number 24, August 1999          
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IJN Assistant Editor

Nathan and Temima Feldman came to Denver’s Orthodox Jewish community, a youthful couple professing a search for deeper, more meaningful Judaism; evincing a commitment to the radical lifestyle changes that come with the decision to live according to Jewish law, or Halachah. They were duly welcomed as such, with open arms, and helped considerably along their way by a community that prides itself on openness and support for those who wish to join its ranks. Within months, the Feldmans became active participants in the religious and social life of that community, celebrating a wedding in the Orthodox custom, having a bris for their infant son, adopting the dress and mannerisms of Torah observant Jews, avidly studying Torah and other Jewish subjects, working and volunteering for several Orthodox institutions, living in the homes of Denver Jews, and apparently establishing close friendships with members of the community.

Ultimately, they applied for aliyah under Israel’s Law of Return, and were initially accepted by Israeli immigration authorities who based their decision on the recommendations of two Denver Orthodox rabbis. But the aliyah was halted suddenly earlier this month — as well as the Feldman’s most unusual sojourn in the Jewish community — when it was discovered that the Feldmans are not Jewish at all, and in fact have close personal ties to a Messianic, Hebrew-Christian congregation in Ft. Collins. The discovery sent shock waves of apprehension and distrust through the Orthodox community of Denver.

* * *

Based on a telephone interview with one of the rabbis involved, Rabbi Aron Yehudah Schwab, a letter from the other rabbi, Rabbi Yaakov Meyer, as well as telephone interviews with Nathan Feldman, with Dr. Anthony Bowman, who initially exposed Nathan Feldman, and with other sources, the INTERMOUNTAIN JEWISH NEWS has pieced together the story of the Feldmans’ integration into parts of the Denver Orthodox community — and its sudden, emotional dissolution. The IJN attempted to learn the views on and the possible connection of Danny Miller, the self-described "rabbi" of Ft. Collins’ Messianic, Hebrew-Christian congregation and Temima Feldman’s father, to the story, but Miller did not respond to telephone messages from the IJN.

Since the time the Feldmans were confronted by the rabbis and then severed their ties with the Jewish community, Nathan Feldman has written a letter of apology to the community. In the letter, he admits, "We lied and have no excuse." He has also made financial restitution to those who lent him money or gave gifts — and maintains that his dishonesty was limited to not being candid about his background. He maintains that he never intended to missionize nor help others do so, and still wants to be an observant Jew.

Confronted on Saturday night, May 8, by the same rabbis who once recommended the Feldmans as candidates for aliyah, the Feldmans admitted the fact that neither of them is Jewish, and acknowledged their tie to the Congregation of the Living G-d, a Messianic congregation in Ft. Collins sometimes called the "Church of the Living G-d" and sometimes by its Hebrew name. Temima Feldman is the daughter of Danny Miller, the leader of that congregation. They also said that they had legally changed their names before entering the Orthodox community, from Timothy Ryan Williams and Amber (Miller) Williams to the Jewish-sounding Nathan and Temima Feldman.

Nathan Feldman has acknowledged to the INTERMOUNTAIN JEWISH NEWS that the couple did indeed lie about being Jewish, but not for the reasons that many might assume. He and his wife, he insists, have never been Christian missionaries, nor did they assimilate into the Orthodox community in order to learn information that would be valuable to other missionaries. They have, at least for the present, also ceased their affiliations with the Jewish community. But the aftereffects of what some rabbis are calling an "infiltration" may linger for a considerable time.

* * *

The Feldmans’ integration into Denver Orthodoxy is a story of amazing patience and determination.

The couple spent at least a year living as Orthodox Jews, convincing rabbis, lay leaders and others of their status as baalei teshuvah, formerly secular Jews beginning to embrace fully observant Judaism. The Feldmans first became known to Denver Jews in the spring of 1998, when they presented themselves as secular Jews from Platteville, Colo., curious about learning more about Judaism. Nathan soon began advertising his services as a "Shomer Shabbos handyman."

The couple quickly began making contacts and friends in Denver. They became frequent visitors to or participants in study sessions of the Southeast Center for Judaism, led by Rabbi Yaakov Meyer, and the West Side-based Denver Community Kollel, run by Rabbis Aron Yehuda Schwab and Shachne Sommers. They received considerable Jewish instruction at classes of the Southeast Center, regular study sessions at the Kollel and through private tutorships.

Before long, the couple was spending Shabbat nights at the homes of Denver Jews. Eventually, they spent the remainder of their time, excepting Shabbat, at the southeast Denver house Rabbi Meyer uses for his own family on Shabbat. In addition to doing various work at homes and institutions, the Feldmans became active volunteers — for the Denver Community Kollel in particular. They handled most of the arrangements and preparations for the Kollel dinner in January. At one point, Nathan Feldman was apparently offered a teaching job at Denver’s Hillel Academy. They were also the recipients of over $1,000 in interest-free loans and charitable gifts, made by members of the Orthodox community.

Their elaborate life of Jewishness came crashing down in early May, however, when the Feldmans were recognized by Dr. Anthony Bowman, a Greeley Jewish cardiologist who had formerly been active with the Congregation of the Living G-d in Ft. Collins. Bowman knew that Temima Feldman is the daughter of Danny Miller, the congregation’s spiritual leader, he told the IJN this week. He informed Rabbi Meyer of this fact only after considerable thought and consultation with a rabbi-friend on the appropriateness of saying something about another person.

When the allegation became known, the result was a dual showdown with the Feldmans which took place on May 8. Having planned the confrontation in advance, Dr. Bowman, Rabbi Aron Schwab and his father, Rabbi Myer Schwab, dean of Beth Jacob High School, confronted Nathan Feldman at the Kollel office. Rabbi Meyer participated by telephone. Temima Feldman was questioned by the younger Rabbi Schwab’s wife at another location. Rabbi Aron Schwab described the confrontation with Nathan as emotional and teary, with Feldman revealing the truth about his lack of Jewish background only in gradual degrees. Only when Rabbi Myer Schwab was planning to call Feldman’s parents — in order to ascertain their Jewishness or lack thereof — did Feldman, according to Rabbi Aron Schwab, break down and acknowledge that the couple’s claim of Jewishness was incorrect. Informed that her husband had revealed the truth, Temima Feldman soon followed suit, said Rabbi Aron Schwab.

Rabbis Aron Schwab and Meyer, who had provided aliyah recommendations shortly before the confrontation, withdrew them immediately. The Feldmans, who had already received government vouchers covering their airfare to Israel, saw those vouchers quickly revoked. The Feldmans apparently gave conflicting answers to their questioners when asked why they had done what they did. According to Rabbi Aron Schwab, Nathan Feldman indicated at one point during the confrontation that they were exclusively interested in learning about Judaism; at another, Feldman said that the Congregation of the Living G-d did have a "plan" concerning the infiltration of Denver’s Orthodox Jewish community, but maintained that he was not part of that plan. Later, he told Mark Powers, director of the Baltimore-based Jewish for Judaism, that there had been a plan and that he and his wife had been part of it.

The existence of a plan was stoutly denied, however, by the Feldmans in an apology letter they sent several days after the confrontation, along with a check which they felt would settle their various debts. "We were serious about striving for Judaism for ourselves in our personal lives. It had nothing to do with any kind of ‘Messianic Infiltration Plan.’" The letter also contained a plainly stated statement of repentance. "We are writing this letter to express our regret and sorrow for the damage we have caused to the Denver Community," the handwritten letter reads. "We realize the implications are far greater than we can foresee. Many people have been damaged, trust has been shattered, and the Kollel has been shamed due to our dishonesty to ourselves and to the people that had opened their hearts and lives to us. We are so sorry. There is nothing we can say in our defense. We lied and have no excuse. We were completely wrong."

* * *

Nathan Feldman, in a telephone interview with the IJN this week, echoed the sentiments of the apology letter and elaborated on the circumstances. "We wanted Judaism for ourselves and our lives, to live as full-fledged Jews," he said. "There was never any other hidden motive as we have been accused of." Feldman says the desire of he and his wife to become authentic Jews came despite the fact that his wife’s father, Danny Miller, leads the Congregation of the Living G-d, which, like all Messianic or Hebrew-Christian groups, is based on belief in the divinity of Jesus. Their decision to pursue authentic Judaism, he says, caused problems between the couple and his wife’s family. The result, nevertheless, was the couple’s act of "disassociating" themselves from the congregation.

They went through what they believed was a formal conversion to Judaism under the auspices of a man who had served as a consultant to the Congregation of the Living G-d, Nathan Lerer, Feldman says. He said they were unaware that Lerer had already been roundly criticized by Jewish anti-missionary groups. In 1991 and 1992, the IJN ran two long investigative articles on Lerer ("Temple New Israel," Jan. 4, 1991; "Temple New Israel includes ‘Beth Messiah,’" March 13, 1992). These investigations revealed that conversions performed by Lerer — formerly the leader of the Conservative congregation Mt. Sinai in Cheyenne and the Messianic Temple New Israel in Denver — were not recognized by Israeli or American rabbinical authorities.

The IJN also revealed that Lerer’s own ordination to the rabbinate was suspect. It was months after their conversion by Lerer, Feldman says, that the couple learned that their conversion was not accepted. By that time, they had already established contact with Denver Jews, and formed several close friendships and associations. In what Feldman admits was a "mistake," the couple opted not to reveal that their conversion was invalid and to simply pass themselves off as Jews. They maintained this, he said, and elaborated on it, up to the time of their confrontation in Denver. "Because of the position we were in we felt that there was really no way to change at that time period," Feldman says. "We felt basically between a rock and a hard place. Not in terms of Judaism or Christianity. That was never an issue. We initially believed that the conversions were good. When we found out that they weren’t accepted, we felt that it was already too late."

The couple, says Nathan Feldman, felt that if they revealed their story to their new Jewish friends, those at the Denver Kollel in particular, they would not be believed. The fact that Temima Feldman’s father is the pastor of a Messianic congregation would immediately cast suspicion on them, Nathan Feldman indicated. "We felt that because of who my wife is, or rather who her father is, that it would be embarrassing," said Nathan Feldman. "There was never any question that we desired anything for ourselves other than Judaism. We completely tried our best to sever any contact with the Church of the Living G-d . . . but we still had the problem with Danny and Fanny Miller being my wife’s parents and my parents-in-law. Needless to say, it was a little on the difficult side."

Their decision to make aliyah was made several months ago and was motivated, Feldman added, only by the desire for the couple to receive intensive Orthodox education and to live in a purely observant environment. Claims that they wanted to help Danny Miller establish a Messianic missionary community in Israel are "false," he said. Their decision to make aliyah as ostensible Jews, Feldman added, was done purely for financial reasons — they needed the help of the Israeli government, in travel vouchers and absorption assistance, that is only offered to Jews making aliyah. "We’re not wealthy people," he said. "The government’s help was absolutely necessary for us." Feldman concluded with another apology, especially to Rabbi Aron Schwab, who, he said, "was like a brother to me." "My wife and I are extremely sorry; we had never, ever, intended on hurting anybody. Everybody in the Denver community, especially the Kollel, befriended my wife and I, opened their homes to us, and we want to apologize for any hurt that we may have caused them, because we know we have."

Faced with contradictory responses from the Feldmans, Denver Jews and others were left with little choice but to wonder about the youthful couple from Platteville. Admitted Mark Powers of Jews for Judaism, a national anti-missionary project: "We’ve scratched our heads about this one." Powers added, "We’ve seen over a period of years a change from what could be called more Christian-looking to more Jewish-looking, Messianic activity. There’s now a segment of the Hebrew Christian movement they call ‘Torah-observant Messianic Judaism.’ How’s that for an oxymoron?"

Powers told the IJN that he attended a recent convention in San Diego of such a group of Messianic Jews. "If I didn’t know where I was I could have been in Borough Park on a Saturday afternoon," he said. "The attempt to effect the look, to appear Jewish, is clearly what this movement or segments of it are heading toward." Dr. Neil Dobro, director of Colorado Jews for Jewish Identity, described the Messianic congregation in Ft. Collins as relatively small, probably with less than 100 members, very few of whom are actual Jews. It has been locally active with "the normal intensive outreach," often conducted in the Ft. Collins and Boulder areas.

Dr. Anthony Bowman, the man who recognized the Feldmans to begin with, is a former Hebrew Christian himself. He said he is familiar with the missionary’ s desire to work among Jews. "The phrase that comes to mind is out of the Christian Scriptures: ‘I was sent to the Jew first and then to the Greek,’" Bowman told the IJN this week. "Those are the words of Jesus. The greatest prize for a missionary is to convert a Jew." In the Hebrew Christian movement, Bowman said, missionaries are trying to appear more Orthodox in order to appeal to Jews who have minimal Jewish knowledge. "People will look at them and say, ‘You really are a knowledgeable Jew.’ "These people are extremely dedicated and they feel that this is a spiritual imperative," added Bowman.

* * *

Rabbi Aron Schwab admits that he really has no idea why the Feldmans made such an effort to be accepted as Jews in his community. "I’m very confused," he told the IJN this week. "I don’t believe that anybody in the world can say with full confidence what is in anybody else’s heart." He acknowledges the possibility that the couple started off as infiltrators, only to become enamored of Orthodox Judaism over time. "My guess is that they started off insincere, and maybe it became sincere later on," he says. "We have proof pointing in both directions. But we have no right to believe them today, because of the amount of lies they told. As much as we would like to believe it, we are not allowed to believe it."

Rabbi Schwab has no knowledge that the Feldmans tried to actually proselytize at the Denver Kollel. He admits that he assumed that an Orthodox environment is the last place a Christian missionary would attempt to spread the word. "That was our assumption and our mistake," he says. "The new wave is that [Messianic Jews] have two stages in their missionizing. One is to go and learn all you can so you can soak up all the movements and motions of the Orthodox community — the clothes, the way the hat is worn, everything. The idea is to learn all the exterior trappings . . . and then implement that and trap other innocent Jews who are looking for what they think is true Torah religion."

Amazed at the Feldmans’ success in portraying themselves as Jews, Rabbi Schwab offers an unusual compliment. "Nathan is a tremendously talented fellow. They were very well liked, very nice people, and the Feldmans did a tremendous job in covering up their background." Schwab is still shocked, however, that during his confrontation with Feldman, before Feldman admitted to being a non-Jew, the rabbi asked him if he would be willing to denounce his belief in Jesus. "He denied Jesus in my presence," the rabbi says. "It’s very frightening that he was willing to go that far." Feldman, in his conversation with the IJN this week, said that Rabbi Schwab’ s portrayal of the question is completely accurate — he acknowledged openly that he did deny the divinity of Jesus. But he insisted that he meant it wholeheartedly when he said it. * * * How, then, should the Jewish community respond to the youthful couple? Neil Dobro says the issue should be kept in perspective. "There is really no important damage that’s been done to the community," he says. "While they have ripped off the Kollel and Rabbi Meyer for time . . . there is no other damage to the community. The apparent attempt to gain aliyah to Israel under the Law of Return has been stopped. The knowledge that they gained is freely available to everybody. In fact, Judaism is in the business of dispensing that knowledge. That won’t hurt us at all. "The only way that this can be destructive to the community is if the community reacts by closing down and being leery and fearful of newcomers who come around and say they have an interest in Torah. "Such a reaction would be antithetical to Jewish teachings and traditions. We’re from the tradition of having the tent open on all four sides to welcome visitors, like Abraham did. If we close down even one side of that tent, then these people would have done a tremendous damage to the community."

The two rabbis who have been central to the story, meanwhile, worry about another sort of reaction to the deception. "I don’t believe there should be a witch hunt toward anybody who comes into the community," Rabbi Schwab said. "We have to continue our outreach and not let one couple ruin it for all the others. We don’t want our children pointing their fingers and saying, ‘Is this one Jewish or not?’ We should be accepting of everybody, as the Orthodox community has been and is." Rabbi Meyer shares his colleague’s concerns about the ways Jews might respond to the unusual incursion into the Orthodox world. "It has come to my attention," he wrote in an open letter to the Jewish community dated May 14, "that in the wake of the recent revelations about the Feldmans, there have been rumors circulating about certain other individuals and/or families. There is no justification for spreading unsubstantiated rumors. We must not allow the guilt of two individuals to cause us to irresponsibly damage innocent people. Any spreading of rumors is Halachically forbidden."

Finally, Rabbi Schwab managed to extract at least one positive lesson from the strange episode. A poignant moment occurred in his confrontation with Nathan Feldman, he said, in which Feldman asked him in emotional terms not to "take it away from me," meaning the Torah Judaism he had come to know and — perhaps — to appreciate and value. "This is a message for all of us," Rabbi Schwab says. "We should appreciate what we have." In an ironic twist, Feldman himself echoes the same thought. "My life is over," he said, referring to his hopes to live his life as a Torah-observant Jew, and expressing the wish that he and his wife might one day still be able to realize that dream. "There’s a void in my life without it."

This article was reproduced with the kind permission from the INTERMOUNTAIN JEWISH NEWS who can be reached at


from the August 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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