Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, Bridge-Building Philanthropist


International Fellowship of Christians and Jews founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who died Feb. 6 at age 67, is being remembered this week by politicians, clergy and Jewish community leaders. From all corners of the world, the tributes are pouring in for the New York-born rabbi whose organization raised more than a billion dollars from the evangelical community to support Israel and the Jewish people.

In addition to facilitating immigration to Israel from all over the Diaspora, Eckstein’s IFCJ helped transform the lives of thousands of Israeli residents, including IDF soldiers and their families, adults and children living in poverty and elderly Holocaust survivors, as well as the Jewish poor in the former Soviet Union. In every area where his IFCJ got involved, it did so in a big way, and made a big difference.

The posthumous outpouring might surprise Eckstein, a dual American-Israeli citizen, whose efforts to foster ties between evangelicals and Jews were not always met with approval. Indeed, when he first proposed building alliances between the two groups in the late 1970s, he was met with deep skepticism and even disdain. Undeterred, he founded IFCJ in 1983, and battled to gain credibility for his bridge-building efforts in the “mainstream” Jewish world, even as he cultivated extraordinary relationships with evangelical leaders and their flocks and pulled in eye-popping donations.

Eckstein’s activities gained traction in the 1990s, when he pursued efforts in support of Jews in the former Soviet Union, raising enough funds to facilitate thousands of immigrants to Israel. In the following years, his Jerusalem-based organization became a well-oiled money-making machine with diverse programming – one of the largest charitable organizations in Israel.

But notwithstanding his organizational and financial success, Eckstein was frustrated by his inability to persuade many of his fellow Jews to believe in the purity of his motives and the legitimacy of his outreach to evangelicals. He tangled with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and was criticized by a wide array of Orthodox leaders, liberal American Jews and Jewish organizational stalwarts. Later, he would have a very public falling-out with the Jewish Agency.

In a 2005 profile of Eckstein for the New York Times, Zev Chafets reported that he was focused on getting Jews to practice “the Four As: awareness that evangelicals are helping Israel; acknowledgment of that help; appreciation; and attitude change.”

We have no question that “awareness” and “acknowledgment” have been met. And the posthumous accolades for Eckstein’s extraordinary accomplishments suggest that “appreciation” may have also been achieved. As for the desired “attitude change,” the jury is still out. Part of the problem may have been Eckstein’s larger-than-life persona and related issues that got in the way.

But in the end, all that is overshadowed by the good Eckstein did for the Jewish world, all driven by his deep passion for the Jewish people and love for the state of Israel.

May his memory be for a blessing.

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