A heart of gold

The hotline, based in Jerusalem, receives about 150 calls per week, and is manned by people who speak Hebrew, Arabic and Russian.

JOELLE ECKSTEIN and the late Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein at the Kotel (photo credit: Courtesy)
JOELLE ECKSTEIN and the late Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein at the Kotel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Joelle Eckstein speaks Spanish, French, English and Hebrew fluently. She is an eclectic mix of cultures, identities and talents.
Her mother, from New York, went on a trip to Spain and met her Spanish-Moroccan father at Barcelona’s premier Purim party. In true love story-style, they married and Eckstein’s mother left everything to begin a new life in Spain.
Eckstein grew up in Barcelona. She spoke English and Spanish at home, went to a Jewish elementary school and a French middle school. When she 10 ten the family moved to the States for a year and then returned to Spain. “I was constantly changing schools and moving around. Put me anywhere and I can adapt,” laughs Eckstein.
When she was 15, she heard about a program to go to high school in Israel. “I wanted to do something different, so I went,” she says. Her French school, Lycée Français, had a sister school in Jerusalem with the same curriculum, so the transition was not difficult.
Eckstein loved the country and after high school she went to a preparatory program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and then majored in English literature at Bar-Ilan University. From there she took a travel agent’s course and worked as an agent for Iberia Airlines. At that time, she met her first husband, who was from South America.
“We planned our wedding for the end of January, but the Gulf War broke out, and our families couldn’t get here. We decided to go to Barcelona at the last minute to get married, and got the last Iberia flight out of the country,” she says.
Eckstein and her husband worked together in the travel business, but it was tough going at the beginning of the 90s. They moved to New York with their young son and stayed for two years. Their daughter was born there and shortly after they returned to Israel.
“The tourism industry picked up and my husband and I did many pilgrimage groups and church tours for the Christian market. I got my accounting degree so I could run that side of the business,” she says.
Eckstein’s husband was 17 years older than her, and she felt their interests and lifestyles were drifting apart. At 30, they divorced amicably and remained friends, with joint custody of their children.
In 2003, Eckstein began working at the Latin American desk of Keren Hayesod. It was there, in 2004, that she met Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein z”l, a man who would change her life. Yechiel was the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews (IFCJ) and was on the board of Keren Hayesod. He traveled frequently between the US and Israel, and Eckstein saw him every other month or so.
“We bonded immediately and had a very special relationship which we maintained long distance,” she says. “He was an extraordinary man.”
The couple married in 2007, after Yechiel had made aliyah. Eckstein left Keren Hayesod and studied metalworking, opening her own handmade jewelry studio. “I loved my studio, but running a business is very demanding. I began traveling around the world with Yechiel for the IFCJ, and eventually devoted my time to working with him.”
In 2016, the IFCJ opened its call center, a crisis hotline for people in despair, headed by Eckstein. “Yechiel believed so strongly in caring for people in need,” she says. “No matter how much he gave, and what he did, he never felt that it was enough.”
In February 2019, at the age of 67, Yechiel passed away. Eckstein was heartbroken. She wanted to do something meaningful in his memory and to continue his dream. She founded the Eckstein Fund to focus solely on running a national social hotline for Israel’s most at-risk citizens.
“Our operators are trained to listen to the callers, ascertain their needs and provide them with a direct connection to the social service or organization that can best assist them,” says Eckstein. “At the same time, we help fill basic needs and find immediate solutions for desperate situations.”
“When a single mother doesn’t have the money to buy her little girl a pair of warm boots for the winter, we step in. When elderly people cannot afford to heat their apartments, we are there,” she says. “We are a Band-Aid to help people get through the immediate crisis.”
The hotline, based in Jerusalem, receives about 150 calls per week, and is manned by people who speak Hebrew, Arabic and Russian. It has a database of 700 organizations and services it can refer callers to.
“We assist in nutritional insecurity, medical aid, employment, furniture, housing, clothing, legal assistance and more,” says Eckstein. “We want people to know that in times of crisis they can turn to people who really care.” ■