Hundreds of people attended the funeral on Thursday at the Eretz HaChaim Cemetery in Beit Shemesh of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), after he passed away suddenly on Wednesday night at age 67.
Several dignitaries were in attendance – including US Ambassador David Friedman, MKs and former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, along with Rabbi Berel Lazar, head of Chabad in Russia and one of the country’s chief rabbis.
Eckstein founded the IFCJ in 1983 and raised more than $1.6 billion, according to the organization – mostly from Evangelical Christians – to help hundreds of thousands of low-income Israelis, ailing and poor Holocaust survivors in Israel and the former Soviet Union, and low-income Israeli minorities, including Arabs, Bedouin and Druze.
Lazar gave the first eulogy at the funeral service, speaking of how Eckstein dedicated his life to helping other Jews through the organization he established.
“Yechiel was like the sun that shines on the world, and he shone on all Jews everywhere,” said Lazar.
“He knew his task was to save people. He never cared what others would think and he always went further than others thought possible.”
Eckstein’s brother Beryl also gave a eulogy, describing his closeness to his older brother, his admiration of him and his devotion to helping other Jews and building bridges between the Christian and Jewish worlds.
“Yechiel was a dreamer and a visionary, and all such people are controversial,” said Beryl Eckstein.
“Your lifetime of service to the Jewish people and to the State of Israel is now complete,” he continued, saying that this service had now merited him with the accompanying angels that bring tranquility. “May God bless you with peace,” he concluded.
Eckstein’s daughter Yael spoke emotionally about her father’s devotion to his family, as well as his work.
“Your life was dedicated to other people’s happiness… you dedicated your life to hessed [acts of kindness] and you will be praised for doing so,” she said.
The IFCJ has been widely praised for its work helping poor Jews and Israelis, as well as directly helping more than 17,000 Jews immigrate to Israel from 31 countries.
Eckstein and the IFCJ did, however, generate controversy, with some expressing suspicion as to the motivation of Evangelical Christian donors to Jewish and Israeli causes.
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the late leader of the haredi community, ruled in 2009 that taking donations from IFCJ was forbidden since he and other rabbinic authorities held Christianity to be a form of idolatry and said therefore that aggrandizing Christians who give to Jewish charities was itself “close to idolatry.”
Senior rabbis in the hard-line wing of the national-religious community, such as Rabbi Dov Lior, also forbade accepting funds from IFCJ, saying that it was forbidden to receive money from Christians.
Not all Orthodox groups agree with this interpretation, such as the Chabad movement, which continued to work with and accept donations from IFCJ, as did many others.
Eckstein also fell out with the Jewish Agency in 2014 – to which the IFCJ donated tens of millions of dollars – over what he said were failures by the organization to react quickly enough to demand in Ukraine for immigration to Israel following the outbreak of that country’s conflict with Russia.
He also argued with the Jewish Agency over what he said was its failure to acknowledge the source of the funds the IFCJ provided it.
Tributes nevertheless poured in following the announcement of his death from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, ministers, rabbis and Evangelical Christian ministers who Eckstein had worked with such as Pat Robertson and Pastor John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, the pro-Israel lobbying organization.
In response to his death, Rivlin described Eckstein as “A great man, a great Jew and a great Zionist,” while Yisrael Beytenu leader and former defense minister Avigdor Liberman said that he had been “a man of dialogue and pleasant ways,” and that many immigrants to Israel had realized their dream of coming to the Jewish state because of his work.
Hagee said Eckstein had an “impact on the State of Israel and on bringing Jews and Christians together, which will be felt for generations,” while Robertson – founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network – said he had been “a pioneer and champion of Christian/Jewish relations for decades.”