Interview with Rabbi Daniel Korobkin and Bishop Paul Lanier

  (photo credit: GUY YECHIELY)
(photo credit: GUY YECHIELY)

In the past few decades, enormous strides have been made in Christian-Jewish relations. In many instances, animosity has been replaced with understanding, suspicion with trust, division with unity and cooperation.

At the forefront of this effort has been the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship), which this year is marking its 40th anniversary. Founded by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, z”l, with the express purpose of building bridges between Christians and Jews, today the organization, headed by his daughter, Yael Eckstein, helps more than 2 million needy Jews around the world every year by alleviating poverty, providing security to Jews and Jewish institutions, and facilitating aliyah for Jews from around the world – thanks to donations from a donor base made up mainly of Christians.

We asked Bishop Paul Lanier, chairman of The Fellowship’s US Board of Directors, and Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, the rabbinic leader of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto, Ontario, and also a Director on the Board of IFCJ Canada, to reflect on Christian-Jewish relations, Christian support for Israel, and the current rise in anti-Semitism worldwide.

Rabbi Korobkin, what, in your view, is the future of Jewish-Christian relations? We have come together in some extraordinary ways – how can we continue to foster our unity?

Rabbi Korobkin: Well, those are, I think, two slightly different questions … if one were to ask me, what is the future of Jewish Christian relations, I think that there's a much bigger question –  which is, what is the future as far as the role of the Jewish people among all, that is not only the Abrahamic faiths, but all of the families of man? I believe that in the Christian gospels, the Jews are described as the yeast that ferments the larger dough of mankind. And I do believe that part of the redemption process is that the Jewish people have a role to play in being the light, not only a light unto the nations but trying to be a collective glue that will help fully solidify an entire family of man … 

The second question, I think, is more or less, what do I see is the future of initiatives that we in the Christian communities, in the Jewish communities, can be doing together and should be doing together? You know, being part of The Fellowship, even [in the] very small way I am, I feel extremely proud and honored and gratified to be part of all of the work that is happening in the uniting of Christians and Jews. It's very humbling as well, because what we are seeing is Christians who are offering sacrifice, from their tithes …

I would love to see more initiatives where we find collective purpose, where we find common purpose and common ground with each other, to be able to not only strengthen the Jewish community … but also to work collectively towards common goals, and bringing peace not only to the Middle East but to the entire world, to restoring faith to so many different communities, especially in the Western world where there's a perception that there's a certain decline, not a moral decline, but just the general cultural decline. This can be about helping human beings find a sense of purpose and really working together to find that common sense of purpose that is evident in both of our faith traditions. 

  (Credit:Guy Yechiely) (Credit:Guy Yechiely)

What role do both of you see The Fellowship playing in strengthening and furthering relationships between Christians and Jews?

Bishop Lanier: It is so prophetic in its nature. Looking back, when Rabbi [Eckstein] was searching for persons to stand with him in certain ventures, he was completely blindsided by who he could trust or look to, and by those he had never imagined standing with him. Then they became his best friends and invested in his calling. And in the scriptures, often a generation is 40 years. And so we are stepping into our second generation of ministry with Yael as the face and voice primarily of this fellowship. What's also extraordinary to me is, for example, in the latest crisis in Ukraine, The Fellowship was not reactionary to war, but had been already responding for years.

Rabbi Korobkin: I think the potential is endless. We have only scratched the surface. One of the things I so yearned to do was to meet the average donor. I really, very much believe that the only way that we can look at others as ‘the other’ is if we are looking at them from a distance. When we look at people close up and we have an opportunity to interact, not to proselytize, not to try and convince the other of the merits or demerits of their faith beliefs, but rather just to see each other up close as human beings, that is one of the greatest ways [to strengthen relationships]. 

Bishop Lanier, You came back not long ago from a trip to Israel. You've been there a number of times. If you are a Christian, how do you think traveling to Israel changes your life or your faith?

Bishop Lanier: A lot of us remember sitting in a Sunday school class as a child, hearing about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, about Esther, Moses, and Miriam; all of these extraordinary names and persons of our faith. And then, of course, you get into the Christian scriptures of Jesus and the disciples and the miracles and all the things we Christians believe and embrace.

But something happens when the soul and the soil come together: When a guide can say: this is where Abraham buried Sarah. This is where Jesus was born. That's Mount Tabor. That's Bethlehem. This is where the Temple was for all those years. All of a sudden the names have faces and the faces breathe, and our faith begins to breathe at another level.

So what does this mean now, in the crisis climate of our times, when you can barely watch a newscast without hearing the word Israel or Jerusalem? Well, once you go there, you never watch the news the same again. It's personal.

What role can Christians play in fighting anti-Semitism, which is on the rise around the world?

Bishop Lanier: I often say we can't rewrite history, but we can add new pages. I think all of us are alarmed by the past many weeks, months of the dangerous uptick in anti-Semitism. And so I think the future is being determined. 

I think it was 72% of Nazis who identified as Christian. And for quite a while we looked back at that horrified, astonished, cradling ourselves in the phrase, “never again,” while the new words are probably more like, “here and now.”

I say this with deepest regrets. I'm deeply concerned by how quickly some can and will increasingly flip according to cultural trends. A particular actor or athlete or musician can make a public statement and sway crowds. That's how dangerous it can be. That's how quickly it can change. And so it says to me, none of us can afford to assume the worst is behind us. None of us can assume that the world would never return to those ruins. We have to remain focused and diligent, talking and acting in the direction pursuing redemption.

Faith has to be more than wishes or sentiment – as I said about the number of Nazis who would claim faith. Faith has to be demonstrated relentlessly, consistently, sometimes militantly, in the direction of hope.

Rabbi Korobkin: Certainly, the most important thing that any Christian or any human being could do is not be silent, complacent. Because those who are silenced will eventually be on the receiving end of that if you don’t act. You know there is a famous quote about that. It’s from Martin Niemöller:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

So the first thing is to not be complacent, to take to the airwaves, to take to social media, and to say that this is unacceptable. [Anti-Semitism] is going on at a pernicious level in so many different venues, especially among people who profess and preach the importance of being tolerant and not being bigoted. For some reason it's “okay” to target the Jews, because the Jew is the successful one.

  (Credit:Guy Yechiely) (Credit:Guy Yechiely)

For the younger generation of Christians, support for Israel is not a given – as it is for the older generation. What can both Christians and Jews do to reverse it?

Rabbi Korobkin: There is an active campaign that has been 50 years in the making, that is emitted from the Palestinian Authority to try and propagandize and weaponize the churches. And they've been working; to a certain degree [they’ve been] quite successful. 

And so what is the Jewish community prepared to do about it and what can we do about it? I don't think it's really on the Jewish community's radar. I've been sort of the guy on the soapbox holding up the sign saying, “We've got to create better partners, we've got to make sure that our partners that we might take for granted are still there.” But no one in the Jewish community seems to be listening attentively, because we're probably not that much different from other ethnic minorities that tend to be reactive instead of proactive regarding issues of concern for the community. 

So right now, many of us take for granted that Christians in the Christian world will attend AIPAC, that will be friends of Pastor Hagee, who will also continue to support Israel and The Fellowship. But as much as we may want it to play out [that way], that's not to be taken for granted. I don't think too many people are listening. What can be done about it is, I think we have to identify those factors, those efforts that are actively being dug [up] from the other side to poison the churches against [Jews and Israel]. To directly formulate a strategy. But certainly to formulate a PR strategy that will be louder than the other side.

Bishop Lanier: I think that's one of the main pivot points. What can be scary is that people my age, my generation, either have recollections of the Holocaust, or the memories of it are so fresh and the conversations of it so familiar, that it's real. But young people who are coming along have no recollection of those conversations, much less of the actual tragedy.

To replace that, they have popular voices questioning, challenging, denying the reality of the Holocaust. We see it even with Communism, with the fall of the Soviet Union, those who were born after that in the 1990s. It's very easy to embrace philosophies now that seem utopian and we have no recollection of the horrors they inflicted. Of Stalin, killing 50 million people. So if we're not continuously educating, if we're not continuously in a conversation – not just in a classroom with a professor, but if it's not a part of our table talks with our families around at dinner – then it becomes this ethereal thing. And the Tiktok generation, they can be flipped on a dime. It's going to require caring, continuous confrontational conversations that say: this is how bad it can get. This is how bad it did get. 

It used to seem as if we could leave it up to voices that would reinforce what parents would say in congregations, in classrooms. There was a sense of decency and respect for life. And now many parents are having to contend against those same institutions. And so a mom or a dad can't depend upon societal influences to inform their children about how bad it can be and how much better it must be. Mom and dad have to be on the front line of the dialogue.

This article was written in cooperation with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews