The Bridge Builder

I know Yechiel Eckstein. We are friends. Yechiel completed Shas together with me and about 20 others doing Daf Yomi in 
Rabbi Yosef Bechhofer's Shiur (10th cycle).

He started doing Daf Yomi in the Chicago Community Kollel (Lakewood) and was expelled when he one day blurted out that he founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) and was partnering with Evangelical Christians. The Roshei Kollel asked a Shaila about whether they should allow him back into the Shiur. They were told they could. But the Avreichim at the Kollel boycotted him - walking out of the Shachris Minyan  there - which he attended every day after the Shiur. That caused him tremendous hurt and embarrassment.

He searched for another Daf Yomi Shiur and found us. He was a marvelous and quite brilliant participant in that Shiur.

(After completing Shas, Yechiel sent Rabbi Bechhofer a profoundly grateful letter. Which Rabbi Bechhofer read to our Shiur soon after we began the new 11th cycle. It was an amazing expression of Hakoras HaTov!)

To say that Rabbi Eckstein is controversial is an understatement. But I happen to believe that he is getting a bad rap from most of the Orthodox world. And that they are mostly mistaken about him. Although I can surely see why they would be suspect of what he does.

In his role as the director of the  IFCJ, Yechiel has raised tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars – almost all from Christian sources. While I do believe that he has crossed some lines in doing so (lines similar to those crossed by Open Orthodoxy and its flagship institution, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah) I do not think he is anywhere near being guilty of what he has been accused of: supporting Christian missionary work to the Jewish people.

But his close personal relationship with many Evangelical preachers, his preaching to Evangelicals in their churches and  at their rallies; and some of the things he’s said has made him seem like one of them.  A Jewish rabbi (with Semicha from Yeshiva University no less) who is now an apostate that in reality wants to convert us to Christianity.

He is not like that at all. He is a sincere and devout Jew that in my view has made errors in judgment. But he has not God forbid secretly converted to Christianity with a mission to convert us. That is the furthest thing from the truth. His complimentary words about Jesus are not much different than Rabbi Shlomo Riskin referring to Jesus as ‘Rabbi Jesus’.

Nonetheless, with this negative image in mind, he has been boycotted by just about the entire rabbinic leadership in America and Israel. Based on what I believe to be bad information from Askanim (community activists) - they believe that Yechiel does in fact does contribute to their missionary work, whether intentional or not.

The most respected Charedi rabbinic leader of his time, Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, ZTL, forbade any Orthodox institution from accepting money from the Fellowship. He said that accepting money from them was tantamount to supporting missionary work! This was followed by many other religious leaders from a wide cross section of Orthodoxy who jumped on to Rav Elyashiv’s bandwagon. All saying the same thing.

This did not stop Yechiel. He has a good heart and does not discriminate. Where he sees poverty, he tries to help. It is no secret that the Charedi world in Israel is among the poorest segments of the Israeli population. He has therefore attempted to give them money. A lot of it. But it was refused because of what I believe was a mistaken belief about him.

I personally think that Christian money that is given without any strings attached should be accepted and put to good purpose. Along with gratitude to Yechiel and his Christian donors. It's a shame that this community won’t take advantage of it.

It is true that Yechiel has an ego problem. He has actually admitted to that in a recent JTA article. He wants recognition for what he has done. And he has been refused that recognition.  But I think recognizing him and where that money came from is not only a small price to pay - but the right thing to do for the millions of dollars the Torah world would get.

It is a sad commentary on the character of those who would take Fellowship money in spite of the ban as long as they don’t have to publicize where they got it. Here are a few examples, taken from an authorized biography by Zev Chafetz.

Nefesh B’Nefesh the widely touted organization that generously finances Jews of all religious stripes to help them make Aliyah was co-founded by Yechiel. It was financed entirely by the Fellowship in its inaugural year. But in all their publicity about it, they did not mention Yechiel or the Fellowship at all. Despite the fact that it was completely financed by them.

Rabbi Dovid Grossman, of Migdal Ha’Emek happily conducted tours for Christian donors who came to see their money in action. With Yechiel’s help, the institution flourished.  But when he announced he was going to run for Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem he dropped Yechiel’s support and publicly promised to stop taking Fellowship money.

In 2012 when the Sephardi part Shas (founded and led by Rav Ovadia Yosef who denounced Yechiel and his ‘tainted’ money) was excluded  from the governing coalition, Yechiel started receiving messages welcoming him to come visit.

In 2006, Charedi Kenesset member Meir Porush approached Yecheil to help fund a seniors’ home in the Charedi town of Emmanuel. Yecheil agreed to give him $30,000. When that was made public, Rabbi Porush was embarrassed into admitting who gave him the money and claimed it was a big mistake, not having realized where Yechiel got his money. He then severed any connection he had to Yechiel.

Three years later, Rabbi Porush asked for another meeting with Yechiel. There he asked him for money for an Ashkeanzi girls school in Emmanuel. Rabbi Porush was reminded of his earlier condemnation of Yechiel and his Fellowship calling them Christian missionaries.  He denied it. Yechiel than sent him a copy of the newspaper article in which he attacked their work in Israel. Needless to say, Rabbi Porush did not get the money.

As  indicated at the start of this post, I do think Yechiel has crossed some lines. But at the same time, I believe his money is Kosher. And so too, must those who approached him privately for funds after attacking him publicly.  They would never have done that if they truly believed they were supporting missionary work. I think the ban should be lifted. And that Yechiel should get the respect he deserves.