Father and son performing sacred rituals in series of Jewish communities deny being secret missionaries
A father and son practising as Orthodox rabbis in America have been accused by anti-missionary investigators of being secret evangelical Christians.
The claims over Michael and Calev Isaacson — who have changed their family name from Dawson — would cause disastrous halachic problems for the Jewish community if true.
Sacred rituals performed by the two men include writing holy scrolls, washing the dead, and conducting weddings, divorces and even conversions.
Investigators allege neither man is Jewish, making any rituals in which they took part invalid.
They are suspected of being a “sleeper cell” of evangelical Christians who may ultimately attempt to make aliyah and embed themselves within Israeli society.
The Isaacsons have been accepted and welcomed in a number of Orthodox Jewish communities in locations across the US.
Extensive research has uncovered no evidence of traceable Jewish heritage or any official conversion by members of the Isaacson family.
An investigation by the JC has revealed that Michael Dawson grew up in a Lutheran home and he and his wife were married in a Lutheran wedding.
An aunt of Michael Isaacson was shocked to hear about his professed Jewish identity, telling the JC she found his claims over his background “bizarre”.
There is no evidence that the Isaacsons are attempting to convert Jews to Christianity, but when confronted over their true faith they have refused to renounce their belief in Jesus.
The Isaacsons currently reside in Phoenix, Arizona. The family was based in Texas between 2014 and 2016, when Michael Isaacson worked as a supervisor in the Houston Kashrut Association.
They have also lived as Orthodox Jews in Portland, Oregon and Milwaukee.
Blending into each community in which they have lived, the Isaacsons have led prayers, blown the shofar, given religious lessons and hosted Orthodox Jewish guests.
Investigators at anti-missionary organisation Beynenyu claim the family always move on when confronted by suspicious rabbis and fellow members of their community to escape being uncovered.
Rabbis have told the JC of their fears that the Isaacsons are Messianic Jews, who live outwardly as ordinary Orthodox Jews while maintaining a belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Messianic Jews want to convert Jews to Christianity in the belief that will bring about the second coming.
The explosive claims come after the JC in May revealed how a fake rabbi and his family were operating in Jerusalem, alongside a network of other Messianic Jews embedded in Israeli Orthodox communities. The new allegations reveal how the problem may now extend into American Jewish communities.
According to a letter sent by investigators at Beyneynu to the Israeli chief Rabbinate’s office, the Isaacson family were questioned in the past by suspicious rabbis who have heard rumours of their Christianity. The letter says: “They do not deny their beliefs in Jesus and give detailed explanations regarding their belief that Jesus is the Jewish messiah.”
Beyneynu says that immediately after these confrontations, they have more than once fled the community, only to resurface elsewhere.
During their travels, the family has acquired documentation from rabbinical authorities attesting to their Jewish identity without proper checks being made to ensure their claims were accurate. This has enabled them to build an identity as Jews, which Beyneynu fears they plan to use eventually to make aliyah.
Suspicions were first aroused about the Isaacsons after a post appeared on the website of a known Messianic group, the Gates of Zion. The post announced a Shabbat event at which the Isaacsons would be present, mentioning they had previously worked with a known messianic pastor called Guy Cohen and with the ministry in Israel at which he is based, Harvest of Asher.
In email exchanges seen by the JC between the Isaacsons and various rabbis challenging them about their beliefs and ancestry, the family insists they are not Messianic missionaries. They acknowledge having had “the privilege of working with” Guy Cohen, and describe him as a “long-time family friend” but say they were involved with “humanitarian aid”.
They wrote that although Guy Cohen is a messianic Jew “he does not promote missionary tactics but rather works together with the local Jewish community in humanitarian aid”.
When pressed as to their own beliefs they say: “We do not reject Yeshua [Jesus] the Jewish Messiah,” adding “We have no doubts concerning the identity of the Messiah.”
However, they insist theirs was an “ongoing process of return” to Judaism, rather than a conversion or a deception.
They write that they “do reject missionary tactics and do not support any person or organization who seeks to target or convert Jews away from the Jewish faith, heritage and birthright”.
In an email to another concerned contact who had themselves originally been from a messianic Christian background before converting to Judaism, they wrote that they had “left the religion of Christianity when the truth of its pagan practices was revealed to us by G-d, however, we will never reject or deny the name of the Messiah. If that means we are outcasts and alone than [sic] so be it for we know that HaShem is with us.”
They insisted they “were not here to missionize, but to learn”, saying that is why they “kept silent and only answered the questions that we were asked”.
The family has given a written history of their family background and Jewish involvement to various Jewish individuals and authorities, including members of a Bet Din in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they had aroused suspicions, leading to a meeting with the local community rabbi.
They showed him a document outlining their history of involvement in various Jewish communities, and their claim to being halachically Jewish by birth.
The document says that Michael’s family originally came from Finland, where his mother’s family had been called Isaacson. It claims they “fled Europe in 1937 through Finland to New York”, but Michael’s aunt has told the JC the family arrived in the US many years earlier.
The document also says that his maternal grandparents spoke Yiddish, and maintained Jewish traditions, including making challah. The aunt also disputes these claims.
In August 2019 the Dawsons filed to change their family name officially to Isaacson.
The JC spoke to Michael’s aunt, Marlene Gruenfelder, on the porch of her home in Centreville, Maryland.
The 65-year-old seemed bemused to hear of her nephew’s claims over the family’s roots.
She said: “No, my family is not Jewish,” adding that Michael’s mother Linda was raised a Lutheran.
Told about the Dawsons’ current lives as Orthodox Jews, she said: “I don’t keep up with him much,” adding that Michael is “not one for communicating”.
She said: “His brother is Lutheran and is married to a Lutheran minister.
“I remember that they had their wedding in a small Lutheran church near the house my sister has by a lake in Michigan, and shortly after that Michael and Summer got into the Jewish faith.
“When they went to the lake to visit my sister she had to keep all the food separate, it had to be wrapped up, silverware had to be different.”
Asked about Michael’s mother, Linda, Marlene said: “She’s a very devout Lutheran, her son John as well, he’s a Lutheran and his wife is a Lutheran pastor. You have one brother this way and the other brother this way.” Michael, too, was raised a Lutheran, she said.
“He used to like to act, he took acting classes in high school and used to send head shots of how he looked in different performances. My mother used to love seeing the pictures. He was in Oklahoma! one time and he used to sing it to her and she loved it. My mother was the one who kept everybody close. The oldest person in my family is my sister, she’s the matriarch.”
Looking over the documents in which the Dawsons claimed to have Jewish heritage, and also their official registration for changing their names, Marlene mused: “It’s strange… This is bizarre. So this is legitimate? Their name is Isaacson now?
“It’s shocking to see he’s changed his name and the kids. It blows my mind.”
Reading Michael’s claims of Jewish heritage, she scoffed as she read out loud: “Maternal grandparents spoke Yiddish.”
She said: “My mother was born here. Her father was Finnish. My father was born in Finland but he was Swedish. They didn’t speak Yiddish, they spoke Swedish.
“Growing up in high school our teacher always called us Jacobson. My name was Isaacson and he’d say it’s one of those Jewish names.”
In response to Dawson’s claims that multiple family members can attest to being Jewish, Marlene laughed derisively.
Denying the family had observed Jewish rituals, such as making challah, she said: “No. My father would make a similar bread, a braided bread at Christmas time, it was sweet with cardamom in it. But not every Friday.”
Contradicting Michael’s claims that his maternal grandmother fled Europe in 1937 through Finland to New York, Marlene bluntly insisted: “My mother is a New Yorker, she was born in The Bronx.”
Marlene said her mother’s family name had not been Isaacson, as Michael has claimed: “She was a Mattson. She became an Isaacson when she married my father. When my father came to this country they screwed up his last name because his last name wasn’t Isaacson, it was Bjorndahl. Which sounds so much nicer than Isaacson. There’s so many variations of how they spelled his name, that’s why it’s hard to do research.”
A wedding announcement in 1995 in a Palm Springs newspaper shows that Michael and Summer Dawson were married in Trinity Lutheran Church in New Era Michigan. They would later obtain a Jewish marriage certificate in 2013 from a Rabbi Rich in Dallas, having told him they became religious after their non-Jewish marriage. At their request he carried out a Jewish wedding for them. Rabbi Rich has since told investigators he was unaware of their true background and would “readily renounce his signature”.
In the years following their wedding, they started to appear in Jewish communities around the US, presenting themselves as Orthodox Jews, starting in Houston, Texas.
Talking to the JC, an Orthodox teacher in America who wishes to remain anonymous says he met the couple multiple times, even welcoming them into his home. The couple told him they were planning to move to Israel and make Aliyah.
“I would have no reason to suspect that they were anything more than just sort of California-style Ba’ale Teshuva,” he said.
He says that when the couple was later confronted by the rabbi of their community, “they essentially disappeared over the course of a weekend, not telling anybody where they were going”. The couple moved out in the middle of the night, he said.
“This is not normal behaviour for anybody, people don’t move that way. Especially, stand-up, responsible people, people who have a normal job. Nobody does that. They broke the lease, they moved on the lease and left the landlord hanging.”
He believes their ultimate aim is to create “a backstory” that will allow their children to marry Jews. Ultimately, he thinks they are part of a wider Messianic plan to create a sleeper-cell of fake religious Jews in Israel: “There is some movement afoot… for some reason, they need there to be an Orthodox looking, observant, Christian body in Israel. I don’t know exactly how this fits into their Messianic scheme, or the whys, but this seems to be what they’re doing.
“It’s very important that they all become rabbis, that they all have beards and peyot like they have to be full-on Hareidi. It’s very important that they all have this look, they do this dance, and yet they don’t.”
Jewish community members say that Michael Isaacson or Dawson’s wife Summer claimed she had Marrano heritage, which would mean her family originated in the Iberian peninsula and had been forced to convert from Judaism in the 15th Century under the Spanish Inquisition. Many Marranos or Conversos continued to keep some Jewish traditions.
However, the JC has seen genealogical research into Summer Dawson’s family that shows a direct maternal line to her great grandmother’s baptism in Mexico. That would require a conversion to Judaism to have taken place at some point since for Summer to be considered Jewish. According to the genealogical report, there is a string of Baptisms and Christian marriages in Summer’s family. Summer Dawson’s maternal great-grandfather was called Jesus De La Rosa.
The report also shows that Michael Dawson’s maternal grandmother Helen Mattson was married in 1916 in Messiah Lutheran Church in the Bronx, a Scandinavian church. Another of his ancestors is buried in St Michael’s Cemetery in the Bronx.
Michael Isaacson has not responded to requests for comment by phone, email and registered letter.