Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein leans forward on the gray couch in his new office in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, as photographs of him at various charitable functions adorn the wall behind him.
“We are larger than any Jewish group that I can think of,” the founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews remarks.
Known to Israelis for his radio advertisements, in which he exhorts them to donate money to help their country’s poor – in American accented but fluent Hebrew – Rabbi Eckstein has become a major force in Israeli philanthropy, raising millions of dollars every year from Christian donors in the United States to help ameliorate the social ills plaguing Israel’s least fortunate.
“When I came here and started the IFCJ 13 years ago, the idea was to essentially take the funds that we were raising from Christians in America and the goodwill that we were building in America and Canada and around the world for Israel.” RabbiEckstein and his organization have a “fourfold commitment” in the areas of immigration, immigrant integration, poverty and security, he explained, adding that a significant but unspecified amount of his annual budget goes towards helping those who “fall in [between] the cracks of the system.”
With his growing budget and aggressive plan to expand direct operations, some in the Israeli media have dubbed him the shadow welfare minister.
Rabbi Eckstein says that he works well with the government, but it does not always work efficiently, and he steps in to take up the slack in areas like food security.
His new “title” as informal welfare minister has created some tensions, he said, but it really depends on the specific ministers with whom he is dealing.
As IFCJ became more pervasive and began to supplement the government’s welfare efforts, Eckstein said, “some ministers feel not threatened… but for the most part we work with the government – we work with the Prime Minister’s Office on lots of things,” including providing security for Jewish institutions and Chabad houses in the Diaspora.
Referencing the recent conviction of cult leader and polygamist Goel Ratzon, Eckstein asked rhetorically “who do you think is supporting the wives and paying for their college education? “We fund things that people don’t know about.”
The IFCJ plans on making a number of changes in its operations over the coming year, including a stronger emphasis on the Christian sources of the money that it donates, and the way in which it spends its budget.
In the beginning “we were small, we were giving away money to [many] organizations including the Jewish Agency and JDC, and we had 400 projects” and while the IFCJ still donates a great deal of money, especially for the JDC’s efforts to provide for Jews displaced and impoverished in Ukraine, it will make an effort to move to acting on its own rather than through intermediaries.
The time has come, he explained, to move away from the model in which “[we] were giving away money to all these organizations to, instead, doing it ourselves.”
Rabbi Eckstein has reduced his donations to the Jewish Agency due to his disagreement with its strategic shift towards strengthening Jewish identity in the Diaspora, especially in the West, which he sees as coming at the expense of aliya.
With a shrinking budget, the Jewish Agency is “going through a difficult period” and the Jewish Federations of North America, which provides a large chunk of its budget, is giving millions less every year.
“I would even venture to say that one of the primary reasons that the Jewish Agency changed its strategic plan was because its main funders are the American federation system and they are interested in programs like Birthright and Masa and youth identity,” he said.
Both Taglit-Birthright and Masa Israel Journeys are programs partially funded by the government that are open to young adults and professionals in the Diaspora with the aim of strengthening Jewish identity and ties to Israel.
A member of the Jewish Agency executive and the former head of the aliya committee of the agency’s Board of Governors, Eckstein has decreased the IFCJ donation to that venerable body.
The money that his donors give is restricted to aliya, and Birthright and Masa participants from Westchester or the Five Towns do not “need the help of a Christian woman from Florida or Mississippi who is giving 10 percent of her social security in order to help Israel and the Jewish people.”
While he will continue working with the Jewish Agency, he recently announced plans to try and bring several planeloads of immigrants from Ukraine to Israel through the IFCJ, without Jewish Agency involvement.
As the Jewish people approach Rosh Hashana, Eckstein says that “our strategic change is yes we’ll work with government offices and [the] Jewish Agency but we are no longer going to be dependent on their cooperation.”
One wonders if the appeal of the IFCJ for donors is the belief that those who bless the Jewish people will themselves be blessed. Yet Eckstein said that Christians are donating to his Rosh Hashana appeal not to receive a favorable judgment on the holiday, which they do not celebrate, but because they want Jews to be able to celebrate with dignity.
“The Christians who are helping fund our campaign for Rosh Hashana are doing it not so much for the new year and reflections on that, as much as its to help Jews in need to celebrate their holiday,” he explained.
During the new year, he concluded, the IFCJ will make a concerted effort, controversies among some Orthodox groups about accepting Christian money aside, to making Israelis aware that they have friends among the nations.
“We are hoping in the coming year to increase the exposure of the people of Israel to know more that we have friends around the world and that they are helping with tourism, with public diplomacy and other things,” Rabbi Eckstein said.