Many good people work to strengthen the Jewish people and the State of Israel, but few did more than my friend Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who died tragically and suddenly on February 6 at the age of 67, just two days after attending my son’s bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. Besides his many personal virtues, what made Yechiel stand out from the crowd was his commitment to work with Christians to raise tens of millions of dollars for Ethiopian Jews and countless others ignored by the Jewish establishment.
Yechiel founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) in 1983 and devoted his life to building bridges of understanding and cooperation between Christians and Jews. Zev Chafets wrote a biography that was suitably titled The Bridge Builder: The Life and Continuing Legacy of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
Yechiel’s organization raised an astounding $1.6 billion for Jews in Israel and more than 58 other countries. The organization now takes in more than $127 million annually from its nearly two million Christian donors.
Christians as friends of the Jews was never an easy sell. For 2,000 years, Christianity has identified the Jews as Satanic creatures who murdered God. True, Saint Augustine, the greatest of Church fathers, said Jews ought not to be murdered. But that was so that they could remain perpetually in a subjugated state that demonstrated their rejection by God. Christian Crusader armies murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews and fake Catholics – like the arch-fraudsters Ferdinand and Isabella, referred to till today almost comically as “the Catholic monarchs” – expelled all their Jews and burned thousands at the stake.
And for those who say that this was Catholicism and not the Protestants, let’s remember that Martin Luther’s writings on the Jews are as hateful as any that have ever been written.
But with the rise of American Evangelicals, a new movement was born, one that went back to Scripture to establish the eternal Jewish connection to the Land of Israel and the Jewish people as God’s chosen nation. Where Christianity was plagued by “replacement theology,” which says that the Jews were supplanted by Christians as God’s chosen, Evangelicals emphasized the eternal and unchanging character of God’s relationship with the Jews, as promised by Scripture. God is forever. He doesn’t change His mind.
As for the Catholic Church, its 180º turn toward the Jews began with the great Pope John XXIII, who followed “Hitler’s Pope” Pius XII. He absolved the Jews of the charges of deicide and initiated a new period of goodwill toward his Jewish brethren. This was then significantly expanded through great men like John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Frances.
I began to see these changes in the late 1980s when I became the rabbi at Oxford University. Thousands of Christian students not only flooded our Friday night Shabbat tables, but they were at the forefront of volunteering to help our organization grow and defend Israel.
Yechiel was at the forefront of leveraging this new friendship into a joint and tangible project of partnership between Jews and Christians for the sake of the Jewish people and Israel. The breadth of his vision was extraordinary.
It was Yechiel who initiated the “On Wings of Eagles” project to raise money to support the mass immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. His organization was also at the forefront of providing assistance to Ethiopian Jews. The obituary in The New York Times noted that he also helped poor, elderly Holocaust survivors and Israeli Druse. His organization also helped build and upgrade bomb shelters, provided MRI machines to hospitals, donated fire engines and gave surveillance drones to Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and near the Gaza border.
Like me, Yechiel believed passionately in promoting Christian-Jewish dialogue and promoting religious freedom around the world. He started his organization with a mission but little money. When Yechiel started the Fellowship, he had, as was widely reported, no salary, no medical benefits, and a pregnant wife.
What he built over the decades is truly remarkable. For years, he did his work from Chicago, but made aliyah in 2002 and continued to grow the organization. He was recognized on several occasions as one of the most influential Jews and rabbis in America and given numerous awards. Upon his death, President Reuven Rivlin called him “a great man, a great Jew and a great Zionist” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying that “The prime minister is deeply pained by the death of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who did great work for the welfare of Israeli citizens and for strengthening the connection between Christian communities and the State of Israel.”
After the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem, Yechiel said that he played a role in “changing the 2,000-year history where Christians were our biggest enemies, to the point that they are today, I would say, our greatest friends.” In his biography, Chafets wrote, “No Jew since Jesus has commanded this kind of gentile following.”
His success, however, did not make him popular with everyone. Some were jealous of his fund-raising prowess. Others criticized his outreach to Christians. This was unfair and unfortunate and, understandably, frustrating to him.
I understood his exasperation, as I, too, recognize that the Jewish people are not just a small minority who need the friendship and support of non-Jews, but have a Biblical mandate to be a light unto the nations. Like me, he recognized that many Christians are great lovers of Israel and want to help.
As Chabad rabbi at Oxford, our Oxford L’Chaim Society had thousands of non-Jewish, Christian members, including Cory Booker, who became my president and is today running to be America’s president. I was severely chastised for bringing in non-Jewish members – and it ultimately cost me my job with Chabad, right after the Rebbe’s passing (I do not believe this would have happened while the Rebbe was alive, as he was adamant about Jewish outreach to non-Jews).
Many American Jews are uncomfortable with Evangelicals, fearing they are motivated by a desire to see Jews ultimately convert to Christianity. While some may have this largely outdated ideology, the leading Christian Zionists do not.
In an interview, Yechiel expressed disappointment at the “cynical, negative view” Jews have of Evangelicals. “They’re not religious fanatics and they don’t have ulterior motives,” he said. “These are good, religious people who love Israel and want to help. What’s the matter with that?’’
Because most American Jews are liberal, many are also put off by the conservative positions Evangelicals take on the issues and their support for President Donald Trump. From a purely pragmatic political point of view, however, Jews need to ask themselves whether six million Jews have more influence on US Middle East policy, or six million plus the roughly 80 million Evangelicals who are pro-Israel. AIPAC understands this, which is why leading Christian Zionists such as Pastor John Hagee have been invited to address their annual conference.
As his brother Beryl wrote, Yechiel was not worried about his critics.
“He prized results over good intentions. When he saw need, he acted first and dealt with the repercussions later.” He was also a generous and gentle human being. “Yechiel was a hugger, a giver, a builder, and a man of his people.”
I, too, had the joy of seeing this side of him as he and I enjoyed a nearly two-decade friendship and many shared projects. He was the first speaker at our annual “Champions of Jewish Values Awards Gala” seven years ago. This year, with the gala taking place on March 28 at Carnegie Hall with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as keynote speaker, we intend to honor Yechiel with a special posthumous award.
Yechiel will be missed, but he will also be remembered as a tzaddik, a righteous person and hero of the Jewish people.
May the Lord comfort his wife, Joelle, his mother Belle, and his daughters, Yael, Tamar and Talia, along with his entire family.
The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books, including his most recent, “The Israel Warrior.” He served as rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years.