Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, who died suddenly last month, is widely acknowledged as having been one of the most influential pioneers of Jewish-Evangelical relations.
Having discovered almost by accident a deep reservoir of affection among the Evangelical community for Jews, Eckstein struck out in the early 1980s on a mission to secure this source of support as a critical ally for Israel and the Jewish people.
Meeting with prominent Evangelical leaders, visiting churches across the US, and working to convince the Jewish community that the money was kosher and came without ulterior motives, Eckstein built a huge platform which demonstrated the deep affinity of the Evangelical community to Jews and Israel.
IFCJ raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Israeli poor and ill, as well as Jewish causes around the world, particularly in the former Soviet Union.
Money wasn’t everything though. What Eckstein did was help forge a strategic ally for Israel in the Evangelical world, now numbering some 650 million people across the globe.
But now, with Eckstein gone, what will happen to his life mission? Is there a single person who can fill the role of a man who seemed larger than life? What will the impact of Eckstein’s death be on Evangelical-Jewish relations?
IFCJ is, of course, a well-established behemoth of a fund-raising philanthropic organization, and Eckstein’s daughter, Yael, has been groomed to succeed him, she told The Jerusalem Post.
Yael Eckstein said that IFCJ will continue to do its work and remain an important component of philanthropy for Israel and the Jewish world, including moving forward with its grand new headquarters complex near the US Embassy in Jerusalem designed to increase Christian pilgrimage and tourism to Israel.
“Since his death, we have all been shocked, sad and mourning, and realized that this is the end of an era. But for the organization, the mission goes on,” she said.
Prior to succeeding her father, Eckstein served as global executive vice president, senior vice president and director of program development and ministry outreach. Last year, in the absence of her father, the IFCJ board elected her president-elect of the organization.
“My father always knew he was the visionary, but he couldn’t carry out the mission by himself,” she said. “He was very dedicated to setting up strong protocol to get the aid to the people who needed it without him being directly involved.”
According to Yael, a transition plan was a constant feature of the organization in case of an unexpected event.
“He was supposed to retire about two years ago but pushed it off for another five years, but he really set up the foundation in an operational way which would function without him,” she continued. “He also been transferring the vision to me, where he sees the fellowship in the future, and also encouraging and strengthening me to have my own vision, which he fully supported and appreciated.”
BEYOND IFCJ, who will continue to foster and nurture the relationship with Evangelicals, especially as polls have shown that the younger generation of Evangelicals is becoming less steadfast in its interest in, and support for, Israel?
David Nekrutman, executive director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, based in Israel, acknowledged Eckstein’s deep impact on Jewish-Evangelical relations.
“Eckstein was one of the first Orthodox Jewish rabbis to create a platform for Christians to express their support financially for Israeli and Jewish causes, and so he was a pioneer in that respect,” said Nekrutman said.
But, he said, the relationship between Evangelicals and Jews has now been well established, and has grown over the last 40 years into a tightly linked alliance.
Much credit must also go to another prominent figure in the Orthodox Jewish community, Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of San Antonino, Texas, who also embraced the affection of the Evangelicals for Jews and Israel.
Beginning in 1981, Scheinberg formed an alliance with Pastor John Hagee, who went on to establish the Christians United for Israel lobbying group, which now boasts five-and-a-half million passionate Evangelicals, who are actively involved in lobbying politicians of all ranks across the United States and campaigning for the Jewish state.
According to Nekrutman, now that the relationship is so well founded, the need for the kind of dynamic, charismatic personality that Eckstein had is perhaps no longer necessary.
Nekrutman said that Jews have accepted the relationship with Evangelicals “on an organizational level,” and that partnerships have now been created in numerous fields.
AIPAC, for example, has a Christian Outreach division to “identify pro-Israel Christian leaders in districts with large Evangelical populations” and “encourage[s] their involvement in pro-Israel advocacy,” according to the organization’s website, while the Anti-Defamation League has an Interreligious Engagement department.
Jewish community relations councils are also involved in strengthening ties with Christian communities in the cities in which they operate.
At the same time, individual organizations in need of funding have established their own relations with Christian donors, so there is a Christian Friends of Magen David Adom and of Yad Vashem, and the Leket Israel food collection charity has Christian donors.
Mayors in West Bank cities such as Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel have secured funding from Christian donors by themselves.
“The future of Jewish-Christian relations will probably best be done through a niche oriented way of developing relations, and instead of one particular organizational platform, you’ll have different groups creating different alliances, based on political issues and Israel’s requirements in the future,” said Nekrutman.
Rabbi Tuly Weisz, founder and CEO of the Israel365 organization, largely concurs with this view.
“Rabbi Eckstein accomplished a lot, and it’s hard to imagine anyone accomplishing as much as he did. He was visionary, a pioneer, who changed the arc of 2,000 years of bitter history between Jews and Christians, and it’s hard to imagine anyone stepping into his shoes,” said Weisz.
But, he said, the IFCJ model has “challenges.” In the 1980s and 1990s, the only real way to reach Christian Zionists en masse was through television advertisements, which IFCJ used extensively. But Weisz said that TV ads are no longer necessary, and Christian donors can be reached through the Internet in a more direct manner.
Israel365 itself helps individual Israeli charities connect with Christian donors, and helps those donors contribute to the causes they are most passionate about, says Weisz.
“This is happening every single day, and more organizations are doing this,” he said.
“Rabbi Eckstein did the heavy lifting and built the bridge between Christians and Jews, and now many people are walking across that bridge,” Weisz added.
David Parsons, a senior official in the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, a venerable pro-Israel Evangelical group, is of similar mind, although with a more spiritual twist.
He praised Eckstein for having reached out to Evangelicals when mainstream Jewish organizations were very wary of them, saying that the rabbi “showed US Jews that Evangelicals could be trusted as friends.”
The issue of trust at the outset was, and perhaps still is, an important issue. Jewish organizations were worried about possible ulterior motives of Evangelicals in their benevolence toward Israel, particularly that it was part of efforts to convert Jews or due to a belief that the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is a precursor to the coming of Jesus and “the end times.”
Indeed, a poll by the LifeWay Research organization in 2017, a Christian polling institute, found that 80% of Evangelicals believe that the creation of the State of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles were “fulfillments of Bible prophecy that show we are getting closer to the return of Jesus Christ.”
But, said Parsons, “The door is much wider open on the Jewish side now, while on the Christian side support for Israel has gone mainstream in the Evangelical movement, and is exploding in Latin America and Africa.”
He attributes much of the success to God Himself.
“The love for Israel is already in their [Evangelicals’] hearts. It’s a work of the holy spirit of God, “ru’ah hakodesh,” and it will continue even with the loss of Rabbi Eckstein,” Parsons said.
“No single organization or person can take responsibility. It is even written in the prophets that God would do this work among gentiles,” added Parsons. “It’s a holy work from Heaven.”
OUTSIDE OF the fund-raising and philanthropy realm, there are several figures – both Jewish and Christian – who are actively engaged in tending to the relationship on the political level.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the municipal rabbi of Efrat and a renowned educator, has made great efforts in building bridges with the Christian world, and established the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding & Cooperation in 2008 within his Ohr Torah Stone network of institutions as the first Orthodox Jewish institution dedicated to religious dialogue and cooperation with Christians.
Riskin has since retired from his position as president of Ohr Torah Stone, and Nekrutman is now heading up CJCUC’s activities.
Nekrutman notes that Malcolm Hoenlein, the influential executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has a strong relationship with Hagee as well, and also mentioned Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a respected National Religious rabbi in Israel, who has built ties with Evangelicals.
On the Christian side, the veteran Evangelical leaders such as Hagee and Pat Robertson remain a potent force in advocating and lobbying for Israel and reinforcing the alliance with Jews and Israel in the Evangelical world.
Another Christian leader is Mike Evans, founder of the Jerusalem Prayer Team organization and the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem. Evans is an ardent and prominent leader in the Christian Zionist community who uses the Friends of Zion Heritage Center in Jerusalem to highlight the role of Christian Zionists in the establishment of the State of Israel.
Robert Stearns, founder of Eagles’ Wings organization, is another figure who has grown in prominence and whose activities have taken on significance in recent years.
Eagles’ Wings has several projects promoting Jewish-Christian understanding, including an initiative to bring young Christian clerics to Israel, Israel solidarity events in the US, pro-Israel advocacy courses, and a philanthropic arm supporting meal centers for the poor in Israel.
Nekrutman notes that, in his opinion, there may no longer be a need for any one particular figure to step into the shoes of Eckstein, because the relationship between Evangelicals and Jews and Israel has grown “organically.”
“We won’t have a personality-driven model; the era of personality-driven organizations is going to fade,” he said. “The founding fathers created the path; now it’s for us to grow.”
After Yechiel Eckstein did much of the groundwork in forging the relationship between Evangelicals and Israel, his legacy will continue to be felt and to grow for many years to come, even in his absence.