Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein not only distributed more charity for the Jewish people than anyone else in history, he brought about a revolution in Jewish-Christian relations.
Yechiel – as he liked to be called – made a powerful impression on everyone he met through his larger-than-life personality. It’s hard to fathom how much he accomplished in his much-too-short lifetime.
I clearly remember the first time I met him, shortly after my aliyah, at his Jerusalem office. His office had a coat rack, and hanging next to his navy blazer was a tallit. I had never seen a tallit hanging in an office before, and it struck me that as he was the most recognized rabbi in the world, his tallit was a part of his uniform.
Before he started the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews 35 years ago, there was mistrust, if not outright hostility, between the Christian and Jewish communities. However, through his outreach, media appearances and his books What Christians should know about Jews and Judaism and A Gift of Jewish Wisdom for Christians, Eckstein taught a new generation of Christians to embrace the Jewish people in genuine friendship.
The tallit hanging from his coat rack symbolized to me that Eckstein was that Jew whom the Prophet Zechariah described long ago: “In those days it shall come to pass that 10 men from the nations shall take hold of the corner of the garment of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zechariah 8:23).
But in Yechiel’s case, he did not stop at 10 men: millions of men and women from the nations had taken hold of the corner of his tallit, for he had shown them for the first time that God is with the Jewish people.
Yechiel not only took seriously his role in teaching Christians about Jews, he also knew how to deliver a strong message to Jews about Christians.
Having achieved extravagant success in galvanizing Christian support for Israel, Yechiel earned a seat at the table of the most important Jewish organizations. His resources were behind the critical issues of our day, including the aliyah of Jews from the former Soviet Union, an initiative near and dear to his heart. However, when he felt that the Jewish community was not willing to properly recognize or show appreciation toward his Christian donors, he walked away – from the organization but not the cause. In recent years, Yechiel became even more committed to assisting aliyah.
He was adamant about teaching hakarat hatov (gratitude) to the Jewish people. He made all of Israel aware – on the airwaves and in the airport – that Christians willing to make financial sacrifices on behalf of the Jewish people deserve our immense gratitude.
The fact that so many non-Jews are passionate about supporting aliyah is not something the Jewish community should be embarrassed about or try to dismiss.
Here again, Yechiel was helping facilitate the words of the Tanach: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will lift up my hand to the nations, and raise my sign to the peoples; and they shall bring your sons in their arms, and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders’” (Isaiah 49:22).
Yechiel believed that bringing non-Jews into the miraculous rebirth of the State of Israel was part of our divine mandate as a nation and his personal calling.
Those of us who are trying to follow in his footsteps by working to strengthen Christian support of Israel realize that none of us would be doing what we do but for him. As such, many of us at Israel365 were especially distraught this past week at the terrible news of his sudden death.
I WAS sharing some of my personal memories about Yechiel with my colleague Eliyahu Berkowitz who told me that out of all the people he has interviewed, no one was more personable than Yechiel.
Berkowitz once interviewed Yechiel about one of his latest initiatives, either “On Eagle’s Wings,” “Isaiah 58” or “Guardians of Israel.” However, Yechiel was more interested in hearing the details about Berkowitz’s own family. He told me that he felt like the one being interviewed and was deeply moved that Yechiel was so genuinely interested in the personal life of a stranger.
Yechiel treated everyone with such respect, but especially so when it came to Israel’s neediest and most vulnerable.
While most Israelis love celebrating our latest technology breakthroughs, Yechiel constantly reminded us that we must not forget the more than 20% of our population that lives below the poverty line. Only someone who loved his fellow Jews as much as Yechiel could have dedicated his life to building such an enormous legacy of charity and kindness.
Yechiel ’s fingerprints are all over Israel, and every Israeli has benefited in some way from his largesse. For anyone involved in Jewish-Christian relations, or for anyone who has benefited from his contributions to Israeli society, we can carry on Yechiel’s legacy by recalling some of his life lessons.
Whether we are wearing a tallit or not, we must always remember that we always represent the Jewish people and Hashem.
We must be adamant that our fellow Jews show basic appreciation toward our Christian friends.
And finally, we must not rest until all of Israel’s most vulnerable citizens are provided for.
Let us internalize these lessons from the life of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, and may his memory be an eternal blessing.
The writer is the founder of Israel365 and the editor of The Israel Bible, all of which are aimed at strengthening Christian support for Israel and the Jewish people.