Rabbi Eckstein’s final interview

I believe that God is calling Christians and Jews together to bless Israel

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein in his office, the day before he died (photo credit: PAUL CALVERT)
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein in his office, the day before he died
(photo credit: PAUL CALVERT)
I am a journalist from the UK who has enjoyed the great opportunity to interview many people in the Land of Israel. There are so many wonderful stories out there of people who are making a difference in their community.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein was one of them. I say was because the day after I got the opportunity to spend an hour with this amazing man, he sadly died – on February 6 at the age of 67 of a heart attack.
He has left a big hole in the organization and people’s lives. As a Christian, it was wonderful to hear how a Jew was reaching out with the hand of friendship to the Christian community.
His daughter, Yael Eckstein, whom he had primed to be his successor, took over the reins of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews (IFCJ) after his death. Established in Chicago in 1983, the IFCJ raises about 130 million dollars a year for its many humanitarian activities in Israel and abroad, mostly from Evangelical Christians.
May his memory be blessed and this interview be a testimony to his wonderful work. We need more Rabbi Ecksteins in the world.
Rabbi Eckstein, what is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews?
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is an organization that I started some 36 years ago. The purpose then and today is to build bridges of healing and understanding and cooperation between Christians and Jews with the emphasis on what they sometimes call Bible-believing Christians – Evangelicals, Pentecostals, fundamentalists – those who didn’t have access to the dialogue of the 1960s and ‘70s with the Catholic Church and with the mainline Protestants.
Over the years our task has grown, as has our organization, which started from nothing, literally nothing. I worked out of the cloakroom of a friend who had a law office and people then said I was crazy: I am going to try and change 2,000 years of history of Christian antipathy and animosity towards Jews, and you know, “Who do you think you are to be able to change history?”
I wasn’t seeing it as trying to change history. I was just seeing it as building bridges, which is what I do. But over the years a few things happened. No. 1, the evangelical community became much more prominent, much more numerous. The Evangelical churches in America and Pentecostal churches around the world are growing and after 2,000 years, most Jews don’t have trust in Christians, even when Christians are doing good things for Israel and the Jewish people. Many Jews are skeptical and, you know, there is 2,000 years of history, of persecution. So what I think has happened over these 36 years – and God has blessed me and the organization and the ministry so tremendously – is that we built a movement, a movement of Christians and Jews all around the world.
Just five minutes ago, I had this leader from Argentina here, wanting to know how they can help the poor in Argentina better than they are. We have 400 programs here in Israel helping the needy, helping the poor, helping elderly and children, orphans, etc., and she wanted to know how we do it.
In the same way, we actually have a whole teaching ministry in South Korea, where we are refocusing, at their request, the churches’ curriculum on how to teach Christianity so that it is successfully passed on to the next generation. The bottom line is that almost every country is struggling with the question of how can we transmit our values, our faith, our community to the next generation and that is something that is a lot more difficult.
In the case of Korea, we talked about the importance of family and of Shabbat and it’s totally restructured their curriculum nationally of how they operate in their churches, how they transmit Christianity, in seminaries etc. So it is giving both communities a chance to work together, and especially giving Christians an opportunity to tangibly bless Israel and the Jewish people.
There are so many Christians who take Genesis, Chapter 12, Verse 3 seriously, where God promises Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” But often they don’t know how to do that or they are politically not part of it. Our organization has stayed away from politics for 36 years. I have known and worked with every prime minister, every head of the army, and almost every cabinet minister for 15 years, but we are apolitical. We don’t do press releases on settlements, we don’t do press releases on abortion; we try to find common ground between Christians and Jews. And today there is so much common ground.
Firstly, in the New Testament, Paul in Romans 9 talks about how Christians have been grafted by grace onto the rich olive tree of Israel. Paul warns, “Don’t be arrogant because remember the root supports the branch, not the branch the root.” So Christians are rediscovering the Jewish roots of their faith, the Shabbat, the importance of the family and charity, etcetera, and as a result, the organization has grown today. We have 1.6 million Christian donors, mainly in the United States but also we have an office in Canada and Korea and Brazil, different parts of the world that we address on radio and television, and the Internet today goes so far. So we are able to continue to grow.
In the past 20 years, we have raised 1.4 billion dollars, mainly from Christians who seek to help Israel and the Jewish people, and again it is apolitical help. It’s helping all the people of Israel, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Druze, Circassian, Haredi and secular Jews – they all get the same services.
Rabbi Eckstein welcomes an IFCJ flight of immigrants from France at Ben-Gurion Airport (MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Rabbi Eckstein welcomes an IFCJ flight of immigrants from France at Ben-Gurion Airport (MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tell me more about your projects?
During the winter, we have a project that provides funds and blankets to the elderly who are cold, who don’t have money for electricity; we get calls like that every day at our central call center. Hundreds of people call us every day from all over Israel, and since Israel is an immigrant country, we have people in seven languages answering the phone. We have 25 people, but seven different languages, dealing with all sorts of problems that people have: their electricity was cut off because they couldn’t pay the bill, their water was turned off, they are being kicked out. Last week an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor was being kicked out of her small tiny apartment because she couldn’t afford the rent and she had no place to go so we found a place for her.
The problems are many. The government of Israel, in my opinion, does not do enough. It can always say that a large portion of its funds are being directed towards the military and defense, but now Israel is booming as a technological start-up nation, and yet when it comes to the OECD measurement of poverty in Western countries, Israel is at the bottom.
So it is this clash between the image of Israel that is modern, technologically innovative and the reality. It’s true that people in Israel live longer than in other countries and they are happier here despite everything and yet one out of every three children goes to sleep hungry at night, and one out of every four elderly lives below the poverty level. They get a meager pension, many are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came with nothing, no pension, no savings and now they are totally dependent on the government pension, which is meager.
Even the government itself admits that the pension that they give for the poor is only able to cover roughly 40% of the basic needs of the people. So we help in a variety of ways. We provide not just food to help alleviate poverty. We also have two other major programs. One is aliyah, where we have brought roughly 800,000 Jews from every part of the world to Israel, to live here. We are now operating in 29 countries and we bring thousands of Jews to Israel and then we help resettle them here and the third area, other than poverty and aliyah as it’s called, is security.
We have built or refurbished here in Israel over 5,000 bomb shelters and command centers and we help the poor soldiers, we don’t help politically or militarily but Israel’s army is a reflection of the society and you have a lot of poor people who are drafted into the army and need help not only for themselves, they need help for their families. Often this 18-year-old boy or girl is also the provider of funds and food for their parents and the parents rely on that. There are people who came from Ethiopia, the black Jews of Ethiopia, and the parents barely speak Hebrew so they rely on the younger generation to help them financially. The way we found out about it is because we found a disproportionate number of Ethiopians during the three years that they serve having to go to military jail for what is called in America AWOL, for going off and leaving the base. We did a study; it just didn’t sound right. Why are Ethiopians going to jail for going AWOL in disproportionate numbers? Because they are black and they are being mistreated? We found out that these people almost always went home to help their parents in the little kiosk that they may have and that the father is sick and needs someone to do it, and that is their only source of income, so we help there too.
We also provide security all over the world to Jewish institutions that are threatened, everywhere except in the United States, England, Canada and Australia, and the reason we don’t provide funds there is not because there is no antisemitism or terrorism. We all know that there is, but because we expect those nations to be able to care for their populations’ security and not to have to rely on outside sources. But we do provide security to Jewish synagogues and Jewish schools in over 200 cities around the world, including all of India, all of Thailand, all of China. Wherever there is a Jewish community and it is threatened, we provide security.
The bottom line is Christians have found and are finding, through our ministry a way in which they can tangibly, meaningfully bless Israel and the Jewish people. Every year we help 1.4 million people around the world. It’s unbelievable and it is causing Jews to have trust, to break down the walls of suspicion that Jews have of Christians.
Today, as opposed to when I began 36 years ago, Christians – true, Bible-believing Christians – are seen by Jews as our best friends. In fact, perhaps our only friends! And then when you travel around the world, you see we have friends everywhere. In South America, when I was there 20 years ago – and even long after – the evangelical Pentecostal population was maybe 5-10% in each country. Today there isn’t a country in South America that doesn’t have at least 30% Pentecostal Evangelicals and many of them are entering public life and political life, like in Brazil and in Guatemala, where Evangelicals are becoming president and church pastors, key pastors. There’s a lot of room for continued help.
We help roughly 110,000 elderly Jews, many of whom are Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union alone, and we have supporters in the Far East. There is such great potential. Yet there are so many Christians today who want to do good, want to help Israel and the Jewish people, and they don’t know how, or who are not politically or ideologically motivated
That is what the Fellowship tries to do. We have 400 projects, so if you are interested in adopting children, we can arrange that. If you are interested in helping orphans, we give to that. We run soup kitchens, and it causes people like this woman from Argentina with the largest non-profit helping the poor and who is close with the president of Argentina, to come all the way here to Israel to see our projects and to meet with me to see how we can help them do better.
I believe that it is the combination of the two – the Jewish community sitting down together in cooperation with the Christian community and with the blessings of the government. I don’t know what the situation in England is, but I just learned, for example,  that in Argentina, you can only get a 5% tax deduction on your gift to non-profits and that is terrible, because there is no incentive then for the business community to help the poor.
So there are things that can be done legislatively that would help the situation of poverty, certainly in Israel and the former Soviet Union and around the world, but the key thing I would say is that for 36 years the Fellowship has been one of the key bridges between the Jewish and Christian communities around the world, and helping Christians bond with Israel and the Jewish people. We see it as a partnership. It’s not just Christians giving money to help orphans or whatever. This is a partnership of Christians and Jews, Israel and the United States and Canada, and wherever it is coming next.
Where is that?
The only thing I want to finish with is that Britain has a specially unique role to play, not just because if I can call it making amends, like the president of Austria who was here yesterday just made a statement that it took them too long to acknowledge the role that Austria played in the Holocaust. At least they acknowledged it. The president is acknowledging that it was evil and that it took them too long to apologize. You have a situation in Poland and Hungary and other parts of Europe where antisemitism is coming again, in the same way: They say Jews control the world, Jews control the banks and it is happening right in front of our eyes. I believe England plays a special role. I believe England has to admit their mistakes and some have. I’m not sure I believe Prime Minister Theresa May. She may have been the one to say that it was an error, a mistake not to allow Jewish refugees in during the Holocaust, during World War II, and allow them to come to Israel, instead of being abandoned in their ships. And the United States, too. In the United States, the St. Louis ship left Europe and the Holocaust and went right past Cuba and New York and was sent back, and the people were killed in the Holocaust.
Today we are seeing that same pressure in a different way, Just the other day I saw a piece on the 15,000 or so people who have lost their lives trying to flee Northern Africa by boat and dying at sea and nobody even knows about it. You have a huge refugee problem today and, frankly, Europe doesn’t know how to deal with it.
No one knows how to deal with it and it is bringing down governments who are too liberal and causing a nationalistic reaction of keeping our borders secure, which, of course, is important but not welcoming for the strangers and the people who are fleeing oppression.
There is just so much darkness, unfortunately, in the world and we Jews thought that it was over for us. You know, the Holocaust taught the world a lesson: Never Again! And here we are today in 2019 seeing pronouncements of pure antisemitism once again, every day. It’s in the papers, about how the Yellow Jacket movement in France has been talking about pure antisemitism, that it’s the Jews’ fault.
We have it in America too, and we never thought that it would get to America. England is where Christian Zionism started. I am not sure if people are even aware of that, but in the late 19th century, Christian Zionism started with Pentecostal Evangelical ministers and today some 110 years later or so, Christians Zionism is flourishing, which leads me to believe that all this is the work of God. Yes, I spent 36 years working and toiling and others did too, but ultimately if God wouldn’t bless it then it wouldn’t happen and God wants to bless such efforts. “How good and how pleasant it is when Brothers dwell together in peace!”
I believe that God is calling us all on a mission and in the case of Christians and Jews to do that mission together, to bring more light into the world of darkness, to help those who need their basic foods and medicines and heating. I am very grateful to God that He put me in this place, that He gave me this challenge, that He held my hand during the years because I was vehemently opposed by pretty much the entire Jewish community in those earlier years.
I even had to have bodyguards sometimes, not from Christians but from Haredi Jews, and right-wing Jews who like to keep it very simple: “Christians hate Jews!” And there are still those who live in those two thousand years of history with that same mindset, and I think that what has happened in the last 36 to 40 years, not just thanks to me and the Fellowship but thanks to many Christian ministries and others, is that today there is reconciliation, there is cooperation.
The Bible says that two are better than one and so if one falls the other can lift him up. I believe that God is calling Christians and Jews together to bless Israel, to bless the Jewish people and to bless the vulnerable and the needy and the insecure and the refugees. How to do that and for a country to stay financially solvent and how to build multiculturalism with groups of people that don’t want to adjust to the social mores of the country? You know, when Jews came to America mainly between 1880 and 1930, the idea was to become American, not to speak Yiddish or be Jewish, to learn English, to send your kids to public schools so that they can be American. Many of those who have immigrated to western Europe don’t believe in multiculturalism. They don’t want to blend in with the culture of the country. Many of them want shari’a law to be ruling.
How can we be open and compassionate to the refugees and to the poor when there are all these obstacles. When there are hundreds of thousands and even millions fleeing Syria with no place to go, how can you avoid this situation of the Exodus ship that the British wouldn’t allow to come into Israel and the refusal by England, which controlled Palestine at the time, to allow Jews to escape the Holocaust and come to the one place that could conceivably give them respite and freedom. I believe England has a lot of atoning to do.
Rabbi Eckstein and his daughter Yael at Mount Arbel (IFCJ)Rabbi Eckstein and his daughter Yael at Mount Arbel (IFCJ)
It sounds like at the very beginning you were doing a lot of pioneering work and Jews weren’t really liking what you were doing. How was the response from the Christian community at that time?
The response from the Christian community from the very beginning has been thirsty, hungry, they want to learn more about the Jewish roots of their faith; they want to know what is this Passover that Jesus commemorated at his last meal; Christians often don’t even realize that when  Jesus was asked what are the two most important commandments, he said, “To love God and to love your fellow man.” Both of those are references to the Hebrew bible, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul with all your might,” which Jesus said was the most important one, and the second, “To love your neighbor as yourself.”
How to do those two things and to emphasize that Christianity has been so open to it. I must say that even within Christianity though there were and are some groups, small, but some groups who vehemently oppose us and that is mainly coming from the Messianic community that feels that they should be the ones to lead this movement of bridging Christians and Jews. And here we are, the largest organization with the biggest budget, and headed by a rabbi, even though most of our donors are Christian and we teach at Christian seminaries all over America.
I once spoke at the House of Lords with Baroness Cox, a wonderful woman. I haven’t been in touch with her for a long time but she was a woman who cared. She cared about refugees. She cared about Israel. She cared about Ethiopians, she cared about the poor. And there was a conference at the House of Lords, and they asked me to come and speak and then do some interviews for the BBC and everything. The truth is we, as a Fellowship, have not emphasized western Europe; we have not really extended our outreach to western Europe. Why? No. 1 because you can’t be everywhere and you can only do so much, but No. 2 because the growth of the movement of Pentecostals and evangelicals is not in western Europe. It’s in the Far East, with 70 million Chinese born again Christians. By the way, we also have a program helping persecuted Christians. That is something I cannot believe that Christians themselves don’t do more for – to help persecuted Christians. You know, when it is Jews, the rest of the Jewish community from around the world will help some black Ethiopian whom they have never met or some white Russian Jewish person; they will help them. We have a program helping Christians, refugees who fled from Syria and from Iraq and are in Jordan. We established two medical clinics there in Jordan for Christians at two different churches and we provide roughly half a million dollars to a million dollars a year for food and for housing. Christians who fled to Jordan are in a precarious situation; they are not accepted as refugees by the UNHRC, and so therefore they don’t get any of the benefits of refugees, and one of the benefits of being a refugee is that you look forward to being resettled in a Western country.
These Christians are not regarded as refugees by the United Nations and so they are not only not being transferred to other countries, Western countries, they are also not allowed to work by the Jordanian government because they don’t want to have all these refugees taking jobs from the Jordanians. So here you have roughly 15,000 Christians who fled ISIS and the most terrible kinds of situations in Syria and in Iraq, who fled to Jordan, but don’t see a way to move forward for two and a half years.
They have been sitting there, not regarded by the UN as refugees, unable to work. I was with some kids there in Jordan a few months ago, wonderful kids, a guy 18 years old, a girl 17 years old, Christians. They stay at home, they can’t work, they can’t go to school, they don’t have a horizon of when this will end and how it will end. So it is important to me personally and to the Fellowship that this be a mutual thing, that Jews help Christians, that Christians help Jews and that together we help the needy of any religion.
But you are right. For those first 20 years or so, I was a pariah in the Jewish community for reaching out to the Evangelical community. There had been Catholic-Jewish dialogue and Protestant-Jewish dialogue with the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches for years, going back to the 60s and the Vatican II movement under Pope John XXIII, of blessed memory; but nothing was going on.
So over these years, evangelicals became more important. Certainly in America they became more politically active and they are the ones who brought in Trump. There is an advisory council of evangelicals, a faith council, so the point is that evangelicals in America, let alone in the Far East and in South America, have grown in numbers, grown in influence, grown in impact on political life; and we caught the wave, so to speak. We created or helped create the wave of Christian Zionism and of Christians together with Jews, going forward. Now we are building a new building [in Jerusalem] that will be our global headquarters and that will actually be the only Christian visitor center in Israel.
It’s going to be the Christian home. I want Christians from England and from everywhere to come to Jerusalem and feel like they have a home here, a spiritual home and that is what this building will do. It’s a constant teaching through Internet and TV and radio to build that relationship between Christians and Jews.
Some in the Messianic community still don’t like us and try to block us, and there are some in the Orthodox Jewish community, mainly here in Israel, who already lost the war of trying to block us because we are too big and we are too impactful in every aspect of society. Everyone now knows who we are. So we have proven our bona fidas. But there are still four cities in Israel that won’t accept our funds. We help 200 or so cities and towns in Israel, including 44 Arab cities.
We help all the people of Israel but there are some Haredi, right-wing Orthodox institutions and cities that refuse to accept our funds and our help and it’s wrong. It’s wrong for a child to go through the winter without boots and without a coat because the rabbi of that community says you can’t accept money from Christians because Christians hate Jews.
So we have accomplished a lot but there is more in the next phase and that is why I am in the process of phasing out to my daughter, who caught the vision many years ago. She has been with us 12 years and she was selected by the Board of Directors as the global executive vice president to take it to the next generation because we know that the young, the next generation of Jews, according to the polls, has reduced support for Israel. On the campuses, the young Jews and the fight against BDS and antisemitism and terrorism have taken a toll and the polls indicate that there is a lessening of support.
The same thing is happening among evangelical Christians, unfortunately, in America. I don’t know about England or the Far East, but it is still strong in South America and among the younger generation of evangelicals in America and in the Western world. It’s not like in the good old days of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and the people who really made this movement happen.
We have a project to reach out to the colleges, not to fight BDS but to the Christian colleges and seminaries in America, places like Regent University and Liberty University and Oral Roberts University and different Christian seminaries, to teach the next generation, to bring them to Israel, to the home that we are building, to feel a part of this international movement, to help those in need and give feet to our prayers for helping the vulnerable. We provide a way in which to do so, morally, ethically and apolitically.
Is it the Bible that is bringing Jews and Christians together?
One hundred percent. It’s the Bible that is the starting point because the Bible isn’t political. You can have political disagreements and that is valid. Here in Israel, we are going to elections shortly and there are, I don’t know, dozens of parties, each one differing slightly from one another and forming really into two camps, one that is called the right and one that is called the left.
We have never and I have never been in either of those categories. We are centrist. We are bridge-builders, and the only battle that we would engage in is a battle for shalom, for peace. Somebody once told me this line, I think it’s a great line: The problem today in our societies in the Western world is that often the committed lack tolerance and the tolerant lack commitment. That is the challenge for us today with the next generation, with our children.
To help them feel committed and care for their community, for their faith and for their values, but at the same time to be tolerant of other people and loving, even if you totally oppose their opinions and their views. We can disagree in an agreeable manner and there is a lot more work to be done, but it’s definitely in the Bible that the Jewish people are God’s people, and the Gentiles are called upon to support them. Isaiah talks about, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.”
Today there is a way in which Christians can fulfil that mandate of Isaiah of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, not averting our eyes from our flesh and blood, and comforting my people. The exciting thing about it is that this drama, based on the Bible, is still going on and still has a few chapters to be written.
We know from the Bible and from history that Christians are called on to bless the Jewish people, and today in 2019, you witness the antisemitism that is around, which everyone thought was over. It happened in the Holocaust. I don’t know how it happened, and can’t figure it out, but we are seeing the beginnings of that now. You know, the Holocaust didn’t happen in one second or one year. It began from 1933 until 1938, Kristallnacht, when the doors of Germany were closed and antisemitism became rampant. From 1938 on, there was still persecution of Jews, concentration camps, etcetera, but it didn’t really get carried out until towards the end of the war. Six million Jews were murdered in 1942 and 1943 together.
The point is these things don’t just suddenly happen. There are traits, there are trends, there are signs of what, God forbid, could happen.
Even in a Western country like England and like America and like Germany and like Italy, we know how nationalist fervor can overtake the moral sensibilities of a population and even a government, and just carry out its horrible dictates against Jews.
It can happen and, to different degrees, each country reacts to antisemitism in its own way. I wish every country had a zero tolerance for antisemitism.
Finally, what is your prayer for the future relationship between Christians and Jews?
My prayer and my belief , you know when I first started, actually I started 40 years ago. I was head of Christian-Jewish relations for a group called the Anti-Defamation League and then I started the first evangelical-Jewish dialogues and then I started the Fellowship 36 years ago. My hope then was that Christians would demonstrate, through tangible, meaningful apolitical deeds, their love for Israel and the Jewish people.
That has happened and it is growing. At the same time, my hope and my prayer for Jews is: a) that Jews become aware of the fact that there were Christians standing with them; b) that they would acknowledge it publicly; c) that they would appreciate it, and say, “Thank you very much, Christians, for your help”; and d) an attitude change of  each community toward the other.
It’s a total attitude change of Christians and Jews realizing we are in this battle together, and by battle I don’t only mean the spiritual battle of good against evil, but I mean the political battle against rising radical Islam, which is against Christians as much as it is against Jews.
If we didn’t learn our lesson in the past about what is ethical and what should be the rule of law, we need to learn it now before it’s too late: That we are in this boat together, Christians and Jews, and we need to stand up together for our values, our Judeo-Christian heritage, the centrality of the Bible and the partnership of Christians and Jews in bringing greater light to the dark world.
The writer can be contacted at: Paul [email protected]