Criticism of prominent rabbi possibly scrubbed from internet due to fraud – report

Investigation finds someone linked to International Fellowship of Christians and Jews may have paid to have posts panning salaries of Yehiel Eckstein and his daughter Yael removed

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and his daughter Yael at Mount Arbel in Israel’s Lower Galilee region. (Courtesy of IFCJ via JTA)
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and his daughter Yael at Mount Arbel in Israel’s Lower Galilee region. (Courtesy of IFCJ via JTA)

JTA — Did someone associated with the late Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein’s nonprofit pay a company to remove criticism of his and his daughter’s salaries from the internet?

That’s the question being raised by a recent Washington Post investigation into the allegedly fraudulent activities of a firm that launders clients’ online reputations.

The large organization Eckstein founded, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, raises funds from evangelical Christians and other donors for impoverished Jews. It also facilitates Jewish emigration to Israel, including from Ukraine. Eckstein founded the group in 1983; he died in 2019.

But the issue of his compensation came up last week in a Washington Post expose about a company that allegedly makes baseless claims to protect the reputations of public figures. The Post reviewed nearly 50,000 records of the company, Eliminalia, documenting its activities on behalf of almost 1,500 clients over six years. Some paid more than $200,000 for the company’s services.

In the Eckstein case, Eliminalia is accused of demanding that the publishing platform WordPress erase two blog posts criticizing Yechiel and Yael Eckstein’s salaries as excessive, on the fraudulent basis that the posts were plagiarized from other sources.

The blog posts were written by Geri Ungurean, whom the Post identifies as a 71-year-old retiree in Maryland, and who also appears to identify as a “Jewish Christian.” Both posts, published in 2015 and 2018, were titled “Why Christians Should Not Give Money to Rabbi Eckstein of IFCJ.”

Publicly accessible tax documents show Eckstein’s total compensation in 2018 was more than $700,000, and that his daughter Yael Eckstein, who then served as executive vice president, earned more than $400,000. In 2019, the year the elder Eckstein died, his total compensation jumped to roughly $3 million, which an IFCJ spokesperson, Shavit Greenberg, said was due to a death benefit paid out to his widow. The nonprofit’s revenue in both years exceeded $100 million. A Haaretz article published in 2017 also questioned the size of Yechiel Eckstein’s salary.

The top salaries of Jewish nonprofit executives and their employees has long been a topic of discussion and concern among Jewish groups. In 2017, the Forward counted 18 CEOs who were earning more than half a million dollars. The introduction to the survey said that since the Forward’s previous survey of CEO compensation, “the gender gap at Jewish non-profits has only widened and a few non-profit executives are receiving extraordinary payouts.” This year, a survey of Jewish nonprofit employees by Leading Edge, which focuses on workplace culture at Jewish groups, found that fewer than half of respondents said their “salary is fair relative to similar roles at my organization.”

In a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Greenberg said the organization “has never engaged Eliminalia or any firm that engages in unethical practices.” She said that IFCJ asked the Post to send documentation of the payment to Eliminalia but did not receive it.

Greenberg’s statement added that the organization could not say whether Yehiel Eckstein paid for the service himself — though it did not rule that possibility out. If Eckstein did have a role in hiring Eliminalia, it would have been well before the company’s alleged activity on his behalf took place: The Post article made clear that Eliminalia was hired on the Ecksteins’ behalf in 2020, more than a year after the elder Eckstein died.

“If there is a record of Rabbi Eckstein making such payment over five years ago, it was a personal decision made completely independent of The Fellowship,” Greenberg said. “Rabbi passed in 2019 and is the only one able to comment on the alleged payment to Eliminalia.”

Asked about the discrepancy in dates, Greenberg wrote via email, “The Fellowship nor our current president has ever engaged with Eliminalia and had never heard of the company until the article.”

The Post wrote the expose with the assistance of Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based consortium of investigative journalists. Forbidden Stories had obtained internal documents detailing Eliminalia’s methods. Eliminalia did not respond to the Post’s requests for comment, citing “business secrecy.”

Eliminalia’s techniques, according to the Post, include burying negative stories in search results by supplanting them with positive ones from fake news sites — a practice that media watchdogs see as unethical, but not illegal. What is illegal is another practice: making false claims to web hosts that content on their sites has been previously published by other outlets, and is therefore copyright protected and should be erased.

That, according to the Post, is how Eliminalia approached WordPress about Ungurean’s blog in 2020. Two companies claimed copyright of Ungurean’s 2015 and 2018 blog entries. According to the Post article, those companies show no sign of existing other than to make those claims.

Eliminalia was paid roughly $6,400 for the action, the Post reported. Ungurean shared emails with the Post from Automattic, WordPress’s parent company, that said the company ignored the requests, finding them suspect.

Nonetheless, the 2015 post disappeared. The 2018 post is still online. Automattic told Ungurean that someone using her log-in erased the 2015 post in January 2022. Ungurean told the Post she did not erase her content and believes her account was hacked.

The Post compared two searches on Yahoo for “Yael Eckstein salary,” one in October 2020 and one from last month. On the 2020 search, the 2018 blog post by Ungurean shows up fifth; last month’s search did not turn up the blog post in its first 100 entries. Among the top posts, however, is an advertisement entitled “Yael Eckstein: Salary, Spending and the Non-Profit Double Standard,” in which the younger Eckstein posits that non-profit executives should get salaries commensurate with the for-profit sector.

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