Eckstein 'vindicated' by JA

Declaring himself "vindicated" by his late December appointment as the 26th member of the executive board of the Jewish Agency, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says he no longer feels he has to justify his "mission" - raising support and funds from Evangelical Christians for Israel and indigent Jews in the former Soviet Union. Eckstein has long been the target of sharp criticism from certain Jewish groups for raising funds from Evangelical Christian groups for political and religious reasons. Known to be politically right-wing, many Evangelicals espouse eschatological beliefs, according to which all mankind will eventually accept Jesus. Eckstein says these beliefs are part of a religious theology and he does not work with missionary groups. "Here I draw the line." Till now Eckstein, whose ICJF contributes $8-10 million to the Agency annually, had observer status on the executive committee. He will also become a full-fledged member of the Agency's 121-member Board of Governors and join several other Agency committees. According to its 2006 financial statement, ICJF raises some $85 million annually from Evangelical Christians, some 80 percent of which is spent on immigration, absorption, welfare and security projects in Israel and the FSU. In exchange for Eckstein's elevation, ICJF will donate $45 million to the Agency's core budget over the next three years and thus cover a shortfall, created by diminished donations from the United Jewish Communities, an umbrella group representing several American Jewish Federations, which contributes some $140 million to the Agency annually. Calling the partnership with Eckstein "a badge of honor" for the "non-Jewish communities around the world who support and believe that strengthening Israel is a top priority," Agency chairman Zeev Bielski skirted larger questions about the implications of Christians paying for aliya. Eckstein told The Jerusalem Report that the Agency appointment underscores the Jewish world's acceptance of his 30-year-old argument that "Jews alone can't support" various Zionist initiatives, and must rely on help from concerned Christians, and firmly acknowledges ongoing support of his estimated 600,000 Christian supporters in the United States and, increasingly, Latin America. Complaining that he has been bashed personally and professionally for his work, Eckstein, who made aliya some four years ago and now lives in Jerusalem, added, "Now I no longer have to prove anything." Indeed the new Agency appointment represents a sea change in the Jewish establishment's attitude toward Eckstein. In the mid-1990s, then-Agency chair Avrum Burg accepted financial assistance from Eckstein but refused to be photographed with the rabbi; the UJC refused to grant him a seat on the Agency board (where it controls some 30 percent of the membership) and he joined under the aegis of Keren Hayesod (which controls 20 percent of the seats and to which he has been a contributor of Latin America funds). Today, he still has his detractors, including National Religious Party Jerusalem councilwoman Mina Fenton and Rehovot Chief Rabbi Simcha Hakohen Kook, who have independently spoken against accepting ICJF funds and the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Ne'eman, against whom Eckstein is threatening legal action for allegedly calling him an apostate. But numerous Jewish and Israeli organizations accept funding from ICJF, says Eckstein. These include Hadassah Medical Organization, which receives some $1 million annually for a dental program for indigent children; the Joint Distribution Committee; Chabad-Lubavitch; and tycoon Lev Leviev's Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS. Nefesh B'Nefesh, which has also cut into the Agency's mandate by extending cash grants to North American immigrants, initially accepted ICJF funds but no longer does, relying instead on Jewish donors. Eckstein says ICJF also funds pet social welfare projects of cabinet ministers Avi Dichter, Yuli Tamir, Ruhama Avraham, as well as initiatives in some 120 towns and municipalities, excluding Jerusalem, whose mayor Uri Lupolianski, declines ICJF support. (City Hall would not comment on its reasons for declining ICJF support.) A cabinet member critic who refuses to accept ICJF support is Interior Ministry Meir Sheetrit, who opposes projects which ease immigration for Third World groups claiming to be of Jewish descent, but resonate with ICJF donors. Despite pressure from religious groups, Eckstein notes, however, that influential rabbis have not come out against his work although Adina Bar-Shalom, a daughter of Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, no longer accepts an ICJF annual grant of $150,000 for her women's institute in Jerusalem and Kiryat Shmona chief rabbi Tzfania Drori has warned residents not to use shelters renovated by ICJF. But the Agency has no such compunctions and has accepted grants from Eckstein's ICJF for a number of recent activities, including the arrival last November of some 216 converts from India known as the Bnei Menashe. Separately, Eckstein's group provided cash grants of $10,000 per capita, for 40 Iranian immigrants who arrived in Israel in a flurry after many feared Eckstein's offer would expire. A source familiar with Jewish communal funding says the recent agreement between Eckstein and the Agency does not have the U.S. Jewish establishment cheering quite as enthusiastically as it may seem but that few will criticize him publicly because "he comes up with the money and they can't."