Crossing the narrow bridge

A new biography of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein makes compelling reading.

Yechiel Eckstein (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Yechiel Eckstein
When the Yom Kippur War broke out on October 6, 1973, the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yechiel Eckstein had been praying in a Canadian synagogue. Despite a parental put-down that there was nothing he could do to help, the 22-year-old’s first impulse was to get on a plane to Israel and volunteer.
Although he had no military training, a Golani officer organized a tour for the tall and handsome singer to entertain IDF troops.
“His performances were one-man shows, just him and an acoustic guitar,” writes best-selling author Zev Chafets. “His first show was for a hospital ward full of badly wounded soldiers. He walked in feeling self-conscious, but his mood lightened up when one of the patients called out, ‘It’s Tom Jones!’ and everyone cracked up. He sang a set of Israeli songs, closing with his hit of the previous summer, ‘Narrow Bridge.’ When he finished, one of the soldiers told him he had thought of that song while guarding a bridge over the Suez Canal.”
Accompanied by an army jeep driver, Eckstein performed at bases on the Syrian front during the war, and on one visit, he came under attack while singing. “It was his baptism of fire,” writes Chafets. The story is quintessential Eckstein: fearlessly rushing to help Israel during a crisis.
The whole world, for Eckstein, really is a very narrow bridge. And the bridge he has chosen to build is a really important one – connecting Christians and Jews after two millennia of mutual mistrust.
Chafets quips in his Author’s Note introducing “The Bridge Builder” that he had once referred to Yechiel Eckstein as “the rabbi with the biggest Gentile following since Jesus.” But while Eckstein’s lifelong shlichut (mission) to forge an interfaith partnership has proved to be enormously successful, it has earned him both close allies and harsh critics, blessings and bans. He has been vilified for using Christian donations for Jewish causes, and vindicated through several prestigious awards, including from the Joint Distribution Committee, the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, Hadassah and The Jerusalem Post, for his immense contribution to Israel and the Jewish people.
ULTIMATELY, WHETHER you agree with him or not, Eckstein has turned the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which he founded in 1983 (albeit under a slightly different name), into the biggest philanthropic organization in Israel. He has garnered support for Israel among evangelicals, and provided funding for a wide range of social services in the Jewish state, from feeding and sheltering the poor to bringing Ethiopian, Russian and Ukrainian Jews on aliya. Over the High Holy Days, the IFCJ provided vouchers to 44,000 needy families throughout the country, enabling them to purchase food and clothing. As the organization’s budget soared to about $150 million this year, Eckstein himself has taken on the role of a shadow minister of social welfare, distributing the money wherever he sees fit, from providing food, medicine and heat to the poor, the elderly and Holocaust survivors, to funding shelters in communities along the border with Gaza and life-saving MRIs at the country’s hospitals.
“Eckstein proudly confirmed that the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews – which he referred to as his ‘ministry’ – was raising vast amounts of money from evangelical Christians for Jewish charities,” Chafets writes. “But he wanted me to understand that his ‘mission’ went far beyond that. He was building a bridge between Jews and Christians, who had been divided by animosity and mutual incomprehension for two millennia.”
In telling Eckstein’s fascinating life story, Chafets portrays a complex character who is both charismatic and controversial.
Eckstein, whom Chafets describes as being built more like a retired NFL quarterback than a rabbi, comes across in the book as a heroic figure who is all heart and faith, both fighting and working with the establishment for what he believes is right.
He experiences extreme ups and downs, agony and ecstasy, in charting his course across continents to bridge the interfaith divide and help those in need wherever they are.
He views himself as a spiritual guide, teaching Christians how to re-establish their biblical connection to the Land of Israel, and sacrificing some of their income for the Jewish people.
“They see me as someone through whom they can bond with the people, the land, and the God of Israel and discover the Jewish roots of their Christianity,” Eckstein tells Chafets. On the flip side, Eckstein realized early on in his career that “among the conventionally Orthodox I would always be an oddball, a square peg.”
ECKSTEIN’S OWN roots can be traced back to Hungary, where his ancestors changed their name following an edict issued by Emperor Joseph II in 1787. They chose Eckstein, which means “cornerstone,” because for generations the family had produced rabbis, religious judges, mohels, cantors and scholars. Yechiel, too, would become a “cornerstone” in the relationship between Jews and Christians.
Yechiel’s father served as the rabbi of the Beth Shalom congregation in Ottawa, but he grew up feeling a lack of money, self-worth and parental appreciation. He was mortified to overhear his mother begging her husband to ask the president of the congregation for money to replace the threadbare carpet in the parsonage.
Yechiel was sent to study in New York, where he received a sound Orthodox education. While attending Yeshiva University High School, he also became an outstanding musician and basketball player. After graduating in 1968, he studied for two years at Kerem B’Yavneh, a yeshiva in Israel, and returned to New York to receive his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and complete his post-graduate studies at Columbia.
Eckstein and his first wife, Bonnie, had three daughters, Tamar, Talia and Yael.
Two years after their marriage in 1974, the couple moved to Chicago, where he began his first interfaith job in the Anti-Defamation League. He broke away from the ADL to establish The Fellowship, which he quickly turned into a major player in Jewish-Christian relations. He also developed a reputation as a demanding boss with what Chafets calls a “compulsively quotidian management style.”
“I can turn into a monster,” he candidly concedes. “I can be a very bad manager when I get upset by incompetence or lack of attention to detail. I intimidate people.”
While attending a swearing-in ceremony for the first ambassador under the new International Religious Freedom Act at the State Department in Washington in 1999, Eckstein made a life-changing decision.
“My dream, ever since I can remember, was to live in Israel,” he tells Chafets.
“I was 49 years old, and I said to myself ‘If not now, when?’ I love America. But it didn’t really feel like home. Right there, in the Roosevelt Room, I decided that it was time for me to make aliya.”
The rest, as they say, is history. He ended his marriage to Bonnie, moved to Jerusalem, and slowly but surely became involved in just about every aspect of Israeli communal life. The IFCJ established four categories of aid: immigration, resettlement, welfare and security. He worked with prime ministers, mayors, rabbis, the Jewish Agency and other officials to cut through the bureaucratic tape.
“The idea was to help the helpless, but there was no theme to the giving,” writes Chafets. “Instead, Eckstein spun a web of freelance philanthropy based on little more than his optimism, his charitable instincts, and his good intentions.”
In the interim, he fell in love with Joelle Medina, whom he married in 2007.
Although Joelle and his daughters urged him to cut down on his workload because of a heart condition, Eckstein could not stop himself. Wherever he heard a cry for help, he did not hesitate to become the savior. “I’m like Michael Corleone in The Godfather,” he says. “Every time I’m almost out, something calls me back.”
PERHAPS THE culmination of his career came, as Chafets suggests, in December 2014, when the IFCJ opened its own independent aliya operation. After flying several times to war-torn Ukraine, Eckstein began funding flights to rescue Jews in distress. The first flight arrived on the sixth night of Hanukka, with a logo of the IFCJ painted in large letters on the side of the El Al plane.
It’s clear that the book, an authorized biography whose royalties will go to the IFCJ, is written with affection and admiration for Eckstein, but it’s hardly hagiographic.
Chafets describes Eckstein as he sees him, warts and all. He concludes, however, that Eckstein “has changed the conventional wisdom about what Christians and Jews can accomplish together.”
This, then, is the Eckstein legacy. At its core is the rabbi’s notion of tikkun olam – repairing the world.
“We still have a duty to engage in the blessed act of tikkun olam,” Eckstein once wrote. “That is why The Fellowship, thanks to the overwhelming outpouring of generosity by our donors, is providing regular Freedom Flights to Israel for Jews in war-torn Ukraine. It is why we continue to expand our work in Israel, providing those in need – Jews and Christians alike – with essential services they so desperately need.”
“I have seen for myself the good Rabbi Eckstein does with the money he has raised,” writes Chafets. “I have watched him wrestle with his enemies, his critics, and, most of all, his own personal doubts and demons. I have even, on occasion, been vicariously moved by his spirituality.
I don’t really have a rabbi. I’m not the type, I guess. But if I did, he’s the one I would want.”