Holier than thou?

Donations from evangelicals are critical to welfare funding, but rabbis are divided on whether it is kosher to accept money from messianic Christians.

evangelicals 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
evangelicals 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish American songs for Shabbat, the High Holy Days and Jerusalem play in the background as one waits for the phone to be picked up at the Jerusalem headquarters of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ). The warm and soft voice is that of organization founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. Eckstein raises funds from evangelical Christians, who are convinced that acting as a donor base for Jewish causes is exactly what Jesus expects them to do. Asked why American Christians should contribute to the welfare of the Jewish state even though it isn't considered a poor country, Eckstein starts off by noting that such a question isn't voiced by his evangelical public. "But nevertheless, this is a question we can and should all ask ourselves," he continues. "In which case, what I say is that first, I'm not into politics. And secondly, I draw attention to facts on the ground: Yes, the government could probably do more, could improve the situation of the elderly, of needy children, but the burden of the security budget is so huge that total improvement is not within reach now. "What should we do when we see a man who cannot afford a meal? Should we send him to the government, or should we, as I believe, provide him with the best we can and support him?" he asks. "Of course it is our duty to help and support, and this is exactly what evangelical Christians who support Israel think, too." For Eckstein, relations with Christians is nothing new. In the Seventies, in his hometown of Chicago, he was responsible for forging connections with Christians within the Anti-Defamation League. Back then, he says, the Jewish community in America was traditionally close to the Democrats and the Left. "They [American Jews] were involved in the civil rights movement, where they met the Protestant leftist Christians, those who later on, after the Six Day War, criticized Israel and began to support the Palestinians," he recalls. "After I left the ADL, I began to meet evangelical Christians, who until then constituted neither a sizable nor an influential sector. And most of the Jewish community at the time didn't like them very much as they were considered right-wing fundamentalists while most of the Jews were liberals. "But I decided to continue deepening ties with them, and in 1980 I launched Operation Independence, an extensive program of Christian tourism and support to Israel," he says. "The main aim was to expose them to the Jewish roots of their faith, and it worked. It worked also because these people were much more interested in securing religious freedom than in the fight for civil rights. "Their view, their position was different. In those days, they were not yet dominant in the Republican Party, as they have become since, but their growing influence certainly began then." Eckstein began bringing large groups of evangelical Christians to Israel, where they discovered the footsteps of Jesus, their religious roots and a new objective in their lives: helping Jews. "It was the beginning of the '90s," recalls Eckstein. "Jews from the former Soviet Union began to swamp the country, even the Scuds of the Iraqis didn't prevent them from coming here, and I thought that supporting them was just the kind of involvement that would fit their [evangelical Christians'] dedication to the people of Israel. "We began to raise money through a special TV program we created and aired in the US called On the Wings of Eagles. We raised about $150 million for Soviet Jewry. The money was used through the Jewish Agency, and later on it allowed us to enlarge the evangelicals' involvement and donations," explains Eckstein. According to IFCJ officials, in 2007 the organization raised $47m. The projected amount for 2008 is $70m. "We worked to change what we called the four As: awareness, acknowledgment, appreciation and attitude. Today, the vast majority of evangelical Americans know and appreciate what we do and are willing to take part in it." But American liberal Jews were not the only ones who have had reservations about Eckstein and his fellow evangelicals. In Israel, evangelical donations have met opposition from both sides of the spectrum, although apparently such opposition has not always been expressed by a refusal of such funds. "DURING THE days of Avraham Burg, former chairman of the Jewish Agency, the money was accepted, but not publicly," says Eckstein. The IFCJ is a member of the Jewish Agency board. However, recently its board member status was questioned by other members, who argue that the IFCJ hasn't donated enough to hold a seat on the executive board. "We will never stop funding and supporting the Jewish Agency," says Eckstein. "Until now, we have given our annual share - up to $8m. We might raise the sum to $15m. if the Jewish Agency approves the new program we submitted and for which we await its decision, but the basic donation of $8m. is assured in any case." Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz clarifies: "Rabbi Eckstein has been a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for a long period, on behalf of Keren Hayesod representatives, which form 20% of the board. "Last year, his position was upgraded to a member of the executive board of the Zionist Management, which consists of 15 members," continues Jankelowitz. "His new appointment was voted on unanimously by all the members - there was not even one abstention." As a result of this new appointment, Eckstein has raised the annual sum the IFCJ donates to the Jewish Agency's programs from $8m. to $15m. Different groups of haredim, according to Eckstein, have not been always eager to acknowledge the origin of the money, but still accepted it. This pattern continued until it aroused the anger of city councillor Mina Fenton (National Religious Party), who is neither liberal nor haredi. Fenton, a prominent anti-missionary activist, succeeded in ending the cooperation between Eckstein's organization and the municipal Welfare Department by the end of 2004 - about a year after Mayor Uri Lupolianski was elected. "I went to the rabbis, I talked to them, I brought them proof of what I see as missionary material, quotes, sayings, their gatherings," explains Fenton. "I know that they [evangelical Christians] are even involved in a large-scale purchase of real estate in the holy city. "I brought evidence that no one could disregard, the rabbis believed me and I succeeded in persuading some of them to issue a halachic decree against receiving money from Rabbi Eckstein," she continues. One of the first rabbis to join Fenton's camp was Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva head Rabbi Shlomo Aviner. According to Aviner, he didn't issue a halachic decree against Eckstein's foundation; rather he joined an appeal to forbid contact with organizations connected with missionary activity. "It is well known that missionaries' major aim is to turn Jews into Christians, and though these days this activity is done through pleasant outlets, we shouldn't allow it," says Aviner, noting that he wasn't referring specifically to Eckstein. "I don't know him personally and I have never met him. There's nothing personal against him in this [appeal]," he says, adding that all the IFCJ material he received was from Fenton, and that before that he hadn't heard about Eckstein. Though the municipality now no longer officially accepts money from the IFCJ, its Welfare Department accepts funding directly from Eckstein. "At first, we didn't realize the magnitude of the problem," says a high-ranking employee of the Welfare Department. "There was something about a photo-op with the mayor and Eckstein presenting a check for a large donation that was postponed for unclear reasons. Later on, we all understood that the mayor felt uncomfortable being photographed in such circumstances. "The next step was a total withdrawal of collaboration with Eckstein's foundation. In the department we were so frustrated. The foundation enabled us to help so many elderly and needy residents, but we couldn't do anything," continues the employee. "Today, we do not receive any direct help from the foundation, only money donated by Eckstein to and through the Local Government Center." Eckstein's foundation is involved in almost every kind of social welfare initiative, locally and nationally, including heating and lodging for the elderly, welfare programs for children of olim from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, supporting young olim, school kits, winter clothing and shoes for needy kids, and housing for new olim from Ethiopia. One of the foundation's most successful initiatives has been the Kupat Yedidut (Friendship Fund), which enables social workers at the municipality to provide direct financial aid to families in urgent need, despite heavy cuts to the welfare budget. "Without this money, we wouldn't be able to buy a washing machine or a stove or a fridge for very needy families. This is an important tool for our support work with needy residents. I don't even want to think what would have happened here without it two or three years ago, when we had to face a terrible rise in the numbers of needy families," says a municipal social worker. This winter alone, 4,000 needy elderly in the city received a donation from the IFCJ to fund the heating of their homes. Strangely enough, however, the logistical aspects of the project, including even the actual distribution of the funds in accordance with the Welfare Department's instructions, was done directly by the IFCJ, apparently because of a staff shortage at the department. SINCE 2000, the IFCJ has operated mainly from its offices in Jerusalem, headed by Eckstein and CEO Dvora Ganani. This year, the organization marks its 25th year of activity, in both the US and Israel. "From my window at home, I can see Givat Hamatos, which is one of our largest projects here, enabling olim from Ethiopia who lived there in caravans to relocate to apartments in the city - a goal achieved in large part through the money raised by our foundation from evangelical Christians," says Eckstein. Lance Dillenschneider, 56, is a typical IFCJ donor. He is from Lee Summit, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. Married and with no children, he's been a donor for the past eight years. "I am a Bible-believing Christian. My church has a strong commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. It is the church's strong commitment to the Bible and its commitment to Israel and the Jewish people that drew me to that church, which offers, among other things, ongoing teaching related to the Jewish roots of Christianity," says Dillenschneider. "I believe that God put it in my heart to love Israel and the Jewish people. This love has been a part of my life for a long time. When I learned that Rabbi Eckstein and the fellowship were doing work to help Jews who didn't have the resources to leave difficult places like the former Soviet Union and return to Israel, I decided to give to help do 'what is right' for Jewish people. "Another very important reason why I got involved is that I feel that, as a Christian, Jewish people are like brothers and sisters to me," Dillenschneider continues. "My giving is a very tangible expression of my love for the Jewish people. Also, supporting the fellowship allows me to 'give from the heart.' What I mean by that is that I am giving to a cause where I will get nothing in return other than the knowledge that I am making a meaningful difference in someone's life. "I'm not giving to get my name on a plaque. I don't get recognition at the office. I'm not getting anything in return other than the knowledge that I have helped someone who I will never meet. To me that is giving with a pure heart." Social welfare efforts in Israel, and in Jerusalem in particular, are also carried out directly by Christian foundations, many of them with a special focus on helping to bring and establish new olim, whether from Ethiopia or Russia. Today, these Christian Zionists are also playing a significant role in the political debate over US Middle East policy. The recent founding of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) by John Hagee, pastor of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, who visited the country accompanied by a few hundreds of his supporters in 2006, is another example. "Think of CUFI as a Christian version of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee," Hagee told The Jerusalem Post in February 2006. "We need to be able to respond instantly to Washington with our concerns about Israel. We must join forces to speak as one group and move as one body to [respond to] the crisis Israel will be facing in the near future." Hagee is not alone. The well-known Pat Robertson and other Christian evangelical leaders were among the first to visit during the last war in Lebanon. After a meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who sent them, including Eckstein, to help the civilian population in the North, money began to swamp the local and regional councils of the shelled cities and villages of northern Israel. Among the local veteran Christian organizations supporting Israel is the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. "We have special programs going on, besides funding to finance these programs, mostly in welfare issues, like for example the bomb shelters in Sderot, or special activities with Holocaust survivors," says spokesman David Parsons. "This year we launched a program in which Christians around the world adopt a Holocaust survivor living in Israel, including financial and social support. "There are lots of needs here. Israel is situated in a tough neighborhood and it is our duty to help." Parsons says that while most of the focus is on helping Jews - whether needy families or new olim - money is also slated for programs for non-Jewish Israelis, Arabs included. "We provide vans and logistic support for organizations which dispatch hot meals in Jerusalem and also in the northern Galilee and whatever other help is needed," he says. Eckstein acknowledges this specific aspect of the Christian support for Israel, and the evangelicals who donate to his foundation are certainly part of this attitude, but for him, these activities are not at the center of his attention. The support for everyday needs of needy and elderly are the focus of his foundation. NOT EVERYONE is happy with this new message of friendship between Christians and Jews. Rabbis, whether haredi or Zionist, are divided on whether it is kosher to accept money from Christians who openly admit that their plan is to save the Jews and bring them to the Holy Land in order to quicken the coming of their messiah. One of the most vocal opponents to cooperation with Christian Zionists - with or without donations at stake - is Fenton, who heads Emunah, the religious women's movement, in Jerusalem. "It's all a large plan, well prepared and thought out, to take over our [Jews'] souls and install a Christian domination," says Fenton. "There is nothing innocent and clean in this whole issue, and I am outraged to see rabbis who collaborate with this threat." Among Fenton's supporters are high-ranking rabbis of the Zionist movement such as Dov Lior, chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba and Hebron, and Aviner, who issued halachic decrees forbidding the acceptance of donations from the IFCJ. Still, there are other public figures, some of them even haredi, who think differently. "My organization has been cruelly hurt because of her [Fenton's] irresponsible actions," says Meir Panim soup kitchen founder Rabbi Dudi Zilbershlag, whose organization recently had to stop accepting donations from the IFCJ because of a decree by leading Ashkenazi halachic authority Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv prohibiting it. "Rabbi Eckstein is a holy Jew and a personal friend with which I care to maintain a tight friendship bond. "These are warm and dedicated people, who supported and helped us so much, and now, because of Mrs. Fenton's activities, I have had to renounce their funds - it's a disaster," continues Zilbershlag. "This woman has lost her mind and she has managed to exhaust us in this misguided battle, which drove me even into an unnecessary fight with Rabbi Aviner, whom she drafted to her cause. "It's a very sad story: here is a man, Rabbi Eckstein, and I also met his father, himself a warm Jew dedicated to his people, who's ready to help, who works in the most gentle and delicate manner. Not even once was I asked to deliver the names of recipients, let alone their addresses, and now it's all lost, all lost." Fenton disagrees. "I fight against this financial crusade," says Fenton. "In my eyes this is even more dangerous than the Katyushas and the Kassams because it steals our people's souls. Have we come here [Israel] in order to support the process of bringing back here their [Christians'] messiah?" Fenton is convinced that any cooperation with Christian Zionists spells destruction for Israel. She is particularly concerned with rabbis, whom, she says, are "sinners and stain the community, like in my own party, MK Benny Elon, who serves even as chairman of the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus. What a disgrace!" Prof. Eliezer Jaffe, founder of the Hebrew University School of Social Work and the Israel Free Loan Association (IFLA) disagrees. As long as money from Christian evangelicals is raised for welfare matters, using it shouldn't be a problem, he says. "I have heard about Rabbi Ecsktein's work. I heard he managed to bring in large sums of money, and above all, he succeeded to make that money used for welfare goals - this is very important," he says. "If someone doesn't want to work with some organization, there's nothing I can say, it's up to them. But in my eyes, as long as there's a serious investigation of what stands behind it and we are sure that the money and the commitment are for welfare issues, I don't see any problem at all. "I have met Christians who support Israel, I have talked to them - these people are really committed and want to help. I don't see anything wrong with that." Elon did not respond to In Jerusalem's phone calls, but a press conference three years ago in Jerusalem attended by representatives of Christian organizations who support Israel, Elon declared in response to a question regarding missionary activity: "We have a lot of work to do now, these days. When, with God's help, the messiah comes, I will simply ask him: 'Is this your first visit here?' And all our questions will be answered." Sources at the municipality and in religious circles admit that Fenton has forced her opinion on some rabbis who originally were not opposed to accepting donations from Christians. "It's not that the IFCJ accepts donations from just anyone," says a high-ranking official at the Jewish Agency. "After all, Eckstein is an Orthodox rabbi, a graduate of Yeshiva University. He is very careful from whom to accept the donations. There was no need at all to interfere and to try to harm his work. "There's also quite a lot of jealousy here. Lately, donations from Jewish communities have been shrinking due to the financial crisis," continues the official. "At the same time, Eckstein, who fund-raises as little as $10 or $18 from a Christian donor who loves Israel, brings in every year more money. To put it mildly, these people don't like him very much, and it's out of sheer jealousy." SITTING IN his large and comfortable offices by the Haas Promenade, Eckstein doesn't seem particularly fazed by opposition to his organization nor Christian Zionists' ulterior motives. Most important "is that we keep on bringing help from Christians who love Jews and help our people," he says. "It's a wider issue, not specifically connected to the IFCJ," says Jankelowitz. "People are not aware of the tremendous impact of these Christians' donations on the status of the State of Israel in the world. Every Christian in the world who donates $10 or $18 or $1,000 to Israel and the Jews becomes first and foremost a supporter of Israel and its people. "These are millions and millions of people in the States and everywhere who stand up for Israel and support us. It's needless to say how important it is, far beyond the issue of money."