Reaching out

Walking a fine line between Jewish philanthropy and his Christian supporters, Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein has raised millions of dollars for welfare projects here.

311_Yehiel Eckstein (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi)
311_Yehiel Eckstein
(photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi)
As soon as he walks through the doors of Jerusalem soup kitchen Carmei Ha’ir, Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein is greeted with the reverence due a king.
While it is clear that the veteran North American immigrant, founder and director of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), is most certainly a vital financial lifeline for this small charity, what quickly becomes evident is that his charismatic and equally down-to-earth demeanor toward everyone he meets has also allowed him to reach such stature.
“Good morning, what’s your name?” Eckstein asks a young man, a volunteer, who offers us some cold water as we sit down to start this interview. The man feels good and answers him with a laugh; Eckstein responds: “That’s great, keep up the good work.”
Located just a few minutes from the hustle and bustle of the capital’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, it’s lunchtime at the soup kitchen and a growing line of people, a mix of pensioners, immigrants and haredim are already waiting patiently outside to receive one of the 450 hot meals prepared here daily.
Inside and upstairs, in a separate room above the distribution point, Eckstein and his public relations staff are busily preparing to hold a press conference to raise interest in a NIS 13.5 million welfare project recently launched in conjunction with the Jerusalem Municipality.
It’s an intimate affair, Eckstein tells me, for a select group of journalists.
While such press gatherings are not unusual for the IFCJ, what stands out is that this event has managed to draw the attention of the international press – The New York Times, the Associated Press and CNN – which usually have little time or inclination to hear about such social welfare projects aimed at helping the country’s poor, preferring to focus almost exclusively on the regional conflict.
In an instant it dawns on me that for such journalists to take a break from the conflict, even for a few hours, to hear about soup kitchens, growing poverty and the plight of struggling new immigrants returning to the Jewish homeland is quite an achievement and is more likely to do with Eckstein the man, than with the hundreds of worthwhile humanitarian projects he supports.
“It’s a blessing for me to be able to give away millions of dollars to help Israel and Jews in need,” says Eckstein, highlighting that most of the $100 million raised by his organization each year comes from US-based Evangelical Christians. “What keeps me going strong is the desire to raise more money to help more Jews in need and to know that I can help out at a time when the Jewish philanthropic world is in an economic crisis.”
“But really there are two components,” emphasizes Eckstein, 59, who grew up in Canada. “Of course there is the part about bringing in money to help Jews in need, especially in Israel, but it is also about the importance of Christian-Jewish relations.
“I believe that Evangelical Christians can be strategic partners for the Jewish people and in securing the State of Israel. There are millions of Christians out there and if we reach out to them, they will stand with us and fight against anti-Semitism.”
Eckstein sounds convincing and with several multimillion dollar projects run jointly with the Israeli government currently in various stages of development, as well as numerous awards and international recognition for his work, it certainly seems as though he has succeeded.
Click for full Jpost coverage of the GA 2010
Click for full Jpost coverage of the GA 2010
Even though the IFCJ has been contributing to welfare projects for more than two decades, until fairly recently it was all but shunned by the organized Jewish community in America because of its association with the Christian right. Often, over the years, Eckstein’s Judaism, his motives and those of his non-Jewish supporters were called into question, with suspicions raised that his Christians cohorts want to convert the Jews or worse.
“I have always had one red line: that I would never work with any group involved in missionary activity targeting the Jewish community,” insists Eckstein. “However, if there are groups that believed in the end of days or that all the Jewish will eventually turn to Jesus, but in the meantime they see it as their obligation to share with us a love for Israel, then that is acceptable to me. I still have my red lines today and I will never work with groups like Jews for Jesus or Messianic community.”
ECKSTEIN’S WORK with the Evangelical community started in the late 1970s when he was sent by his then employer, the Anti-Defamation League to Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, to rally support against a march by Nazis in a neighborhood populated by Holocaust survivors.
It was then he discovered that there were Evangelical Christians prepared to support the Jews and Israel and not long afterward organized the first Evangelical-Jewish conference in 1978.
“After the first conference, there was a second one and the second one became a third and before I knew it, there was a growing relationship between Jewish religious leaders and the Evangelical leadership,” recalls Eckstein, whose work in developing such relations was not wholly supported by his ADL bosses.
He explains: “The challenges became very clear at that first meeting. There were various Evangelicals who were saying, ‘We love the Jewish people’ and then a rabbi stood up and said, ‘If you really love us, then you will leave us alone But the problem is that the Evangelicals simply cannot leave us alone, even if they wanted to. It’s part of their mission.”
While the parameters of the dialogue between Jews and Evangelicals were made clear from the beginning, what struck Eckstein at that time was that the support “was like a mountain waiting to be conquered.”
“Here was a growing movement and until that point, there really was no relationship between the Jews and the Evangelical community,” he says.
At that point his path was clear.
In the ensuing years, a sequence of events ranging from Jimmy Carter, a self-publicized Southern Baptist, being elected as US president and incongruous comments made by the then head of the Southern Baptist Convention announcing that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of the Jew.”
“Suddenly everyone, including the Jews, was interested in this Christian community,” recalls Eckstein, adding that he decided to cement his relationships with it and brought a delegation of Southern Baptists to Israel.
Around the same time he quit his job at the ADL to focus on building bridges with the Christians who so clearly wanted to be part of Israel’s development.
“I was walking in what was clearly a minefield. It was a mountain that had not yet been conquered and here were tens of millions of people looking to establish a relationship with us when almost no one else was willing to do so,” he says.
Eckstein points out that while he received some support from those involved with AIPAC, the Republican Jewish Coalition and other pro-Israel activists, for the most part he was on his own.
For the first 12 years of its existence, the IFCJ, operated with a yearly budget of $500,000, was supported by roughly 1,000 Jews and 100 Christians and the total staff was Eckstein and three colleagues.
“I knew every person who donated over $100,” quips Eckstein, smiling broadly and adding, “Today we operate on a budget of $100 million and have a staff of 80 in Chicago and 20 in Israel. We donate between $60m.
and $70m. a year.”
As well as the obvious financial achievements, Eckstein has also managed to cultivate a viable Jewish- Christian relationship now embraced by most in the organized Jewish community, is involved in bringing thousands of Christian tourists to the country each year, offers outreach and educational programs about the Jewish homeland, funding for Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union and hundreds of welfare programs in Israel.
“Initially, the Jewish community was institutionally not responsive,” he recalls. “When I brought Jerry Falwell to speak to at my synagogue in Chicago 22 years ago, I had my head handed to me by the Jewish community, but two years ago, when Falwell died, I attended as a representative of the Israeli government.
“Jewish community support has come a long way. Five or six years ago we tried to purchase an ad in Hadassah magazine to show what the Christians are doing and how they support Israel, but we were turned down. This year we were the honorees at Hadassah’s annual convention after we gave them a gift of $1 million.”
WITH ECKSTEIN’S place in Jewish philanthropy now solidified, the question remains as to whether his work has been accepted because of his aptitude for fund-raising – his millions of supporters donate small amounts that add up, as opposed to classic Jewish philanthropic methods that focus almost exclusively on large donors – or is it because others are coming around to his way of thinking? “There are those who get it,” Eckstein says. “They just realize that we Jews are a minority and that there are millions of Evangelical Christians around the world, especially in countries where there is no Jewish force, such as Peru, Brazil and more, and they realize that it’s important to have allies... They also realize today that it’s possible to build alliances without compromising the integrity of the Jewish people.”
With the majority of American Jewish institutions and the Israeli government convinced, Eckstein says the last major obstacle to his success is convincing a handful of haredi rabbis here that his work is legitimate and to urge them to allow their followers to accept his organization’s charity.
“Initially our problems were in the US and not in Israel, but today it is different; there has been a backlash from haredi community and others, with specific rabbis refusing to accept financial support from us,” he says.
“It has been going on for 10 years, but over the last few years this has increased. It is only a few people, but they have a lot of influence. They have told individuals and followers not to accept our help or our donations.
“We have underestimated the power of these individuals who have devoted their lives to applying pressure on others not to work with us and not to accept our charity, even though they certainly need it.”
Eckstein claims he has attempted to meet with these leaders to explain to them that his intentions are honorable, but so far his calls have fallen on deaf ears. Now, however, with his support strong in the mainstream Jewish community and his recognition by Israeli officials at an all-time high, he is hopeful that he will be able overcome this latest in a long line of challenges to building a bridge between Jews and Christians.