Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein was alone in his home in the Arnona neighborhood doing his regular exercises when, on February 6, his heart stopped. He was found on the floor by his wife, Joelle, and despite attempts at resuscitation, passed away at age 67.
Hundreds of mourners at the funeral and during the shiva mourning period told many unknown stories about a young Jewish boy born in Canada who was close to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and among the first to be ordained by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.
“Yehiel was a great soul,” said Moshe Lefkovitch, one of the people closest to Eckstein. “He touched so many people, Jews and gentiles alike, with his soul, his music, his capacity to see the human being behind every person or task. For example, I recall that when he joined the efforts to reach out to Ethiopian Jews and help with their aliyah, the first thing he did was to learn Amharic, their language.
“He felt that the best way to touch them would be to address them in their own language, to lower as much as possible all the barriers.”
Eckstein was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts. He held master’s degrees from Yeshiva University and Columbia University; was a member of the executive board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; and in 1983, founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to build bridges between the two groups in support of the State of Israel. In 2016, the Fellowship raised more than $130 million from its 1.75 million Christian donors, becoming the world’s largest Christian-supported organization advocating on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people.
“He didn’t run after the largest donors,” Lefkovitch said, “but rather believed in and appreciated little donors, those who sent him regularly $20 or $30 or even less, sums they sometimes saved from renouncing a few little treats – like the African-American woman who wrote to him that since she renounced coffee at Starbucks, she could save a few dollars more for his mission.”
But Eckstein also had his share of grief and frustration. Quite a few people, mostly within National-Religious circles, kept away from Eckstein, and even accused him of Christian missionary activity. In 2003, during one of the most difficult periods in Jerusalem, amid the Second Intifada and a dramatic rise in poverty, then-mayor Uri Lupolianski had to renounce the Fellowship’s support because of heavy opposition from city residents, including from some rabbis.
One of Eckstein’s projects was to give regular sums to the municipality’s welfare administration so it could directly help in emergencies among Jerusalem’s poorest residents. In many cases, those sums meant a family would have something to eat or enough blankets in winter. But even that disturbed those who opposed him, and Lupolianski eventually severed all of the city’s ties with the Fellowship.
One project that Eckstein felt very close to was the Afikim- Family Enrichment Association, which is run by Lefkovitch. The last time Lefkovitch saw Eckstein was in January, when together with Rabbi Benny Lau and other friends, they welcomed runners to the annual Run for Afikim event from Jerusalem to Eilat. “We spent that Shabbat altogether,” recalled Lefkovitch as he burst into tears. “None of us realized that this was the last time.”
After Joelle Eckstein, Lefkovitch was the first to arrive after Yehiel Eckstein’s heart stopped beating. He said the unique story of his friend’s capacity to build bridges – between gentile lovers of Israel, his charity, Jews abroad and in Israel – has yet to be told.
“But above all,” Lefkovitch said, “there was his love for Jerusalem.”