Back in the late 1960s, among the thousands of protesters at a downtown New York mass rally for Soviet Jewry, a young Yechiel Eckstein sat on the ground, chanting, “One two three four, open up the Iron Door; five six seven eight, let our people emigrate.”
The rabbis of his school, the Yeshiva University High School for Boys, had forbidden the students from attending, Eckstein told The Times of Israel. But already in high school, the subject of Soviet Jewry was important enough for Eckstein — today a rabbi himself and the head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews — to go it alone.
At a flag-waving, dignitary-laden ceremony at Ben-Gurion airport on Monday afternoon, Eckstein will see 226 Ukrainian refugees arrive on his organization’s first “Fellowship Aliya” flight. Alongside Eckstein, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, and Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky will welcome the new immigrants, who join over 5,000 Ukrainians who have fled the country to Israel in 2014 — a 174% increase over last year.
The current widespread Ukrainian upheaval has left over 4,000 dead and some 930,000 displaced persons, mostly from regions bordering Russia. According to the Jewish Agency, there are still more than 200,000 “aliya-eligible” individuals (those who have at least one Jewish grandparent or are married to Jews) in Ukraine.
It is Eckstein’s intention to bring as many of these 200,000 to Israel as possible.
During the summer, while visiting refugee camps and orphanages sponsored by the Fellowship, which commands an annual $140 million budget, Eckstein began pushing aliya to the displaced Ukrainians. He has seen, he said, an increasingly receptive audience, as refugees realize they no longer have homes or jobs to go back to.
For Eckstein, it is time to ramp up aliya efforts and evangelize the Jews there about Israel, the historical safe haven for the Jewish people.
And the Jewish Agency is just not stepping up to the challenge, he said.
“Now you have a situation where it’s not just about accommodating aliya, you need affirmative action to take advantage of the situation and strike while the iron is hot,” said Eckstein on the eve of his Fellowship Aliya flight.
‘We need to convince in whatever way we can that there’s no such thing as a Jewish refugee as long as the State of Israel exists’
“We need to convince in whatever way we can that there’s no such thing as a Jewish refugee as long as the State of Israel exists, and that there are groups of people enthusiastic to help them get there,” said Eckstein.
The Jewish Agency told The Times of Israel it has five senior emissaries and “dozens” of coordinators and activists throughout the country to facilitate aliya.
“The Jewish Agency’s primary activities in Ukraine center on processing thousands of immigrants to Israel and preparing them for life in their new country… In light of the current situation in eastern Ukraine, The Jewish Agency has boosted its presence in order to provide immediate assistance to Jews who wish to immigrate to Israel and to refugees forced to flee their homes, as well as to young people interested in participating in Jewish Agency programs in Israel.”
A comparison between the language of the JAFI’s “facilitating those who wish to immigrate” to Eckstein’s “aggressive plan of action to promote aliya” shows why these two organizations aren’t exactly on the same page.
During a late-night phone call from Ukraine on Sunday, Eckstein explained the need for this new initiative, and how, despite appearances, he has no plans to usurp the Jewish Agency’s historic role in facilitating immigration to Israel.
He who holds the purse…
Some have pooh-poohed Eckstein’s Fellowship Aliya initiative as a public relations stunt catering to his Evangelical Christian base: This planeload of immigrants represents a mere 4% of this year’s immigrants. They say Eckstein’s donors just want to see “the huddled masses of Jews coming off the plane and kissing the ground.”
The Fellowship raises its $140 million a year in relatively small donations from a base of over a million evangelical Christians. It is not a foundation and its board is tasked with annually spending down its funds in support of the Jewish people’s basic needs. Eckstein divides his budget into three areas: fighting poverty, promoting security and aliya.
In the FSU alone, the Fellowship’s annual gift is $25 million for poverty and security support. Until this year, aliya funds there have been channeled through the Jewish Agency, to the tune of some $12-13 million.
In the past two years, however, the Fellowship has drastically decreased its donations, in part, said Eckstein, who sits on JAFI’s executive board, because the Jewish Agency’s focus on aliya has changed.
“The difference between us and the Jewish Agency,” said Eckstein, “is that aliya is at the core of our three mission components — at the top of it.”
‘We have millions that we can and wish to direct to aliya’
Another reason for cutting its financial support involves a well-covered conflict over JAFI’s alleged lack of recognition and acknowledgment of the Christian nature of the Fellowship’s funding.
The Fellowship’s Christian Zionist donator base promotes aliya for religious reasons. These “Torah-true” Christians understand the prophecies in which Jews return to the Land of Israel as a directive and make what Eckstein calls “sacrificial” offerings to see it happen.
“We have money — we have millions that we can and wish to direct to aliya,” said Eckstein.
Carrots, not rockets and missiles
As incentive for aliya, the Fellowship is giving a one-time grant of $1,000 per adult and $500 for each child who comes to Israel before the end of the year. For cash-strapped Ukrainians who fled their homes this summer with only the shirts on their backs, this is real aid.
The December 22 flight quickly filled and another is planned for December 30.
Eckstein’s general plan? Starting in January, every month to have “at least one plane if not two, three, four…”
“Whatever it takes to get them to Israel at a time like this we’ll do. We’ll find the resources — we have them,” said Eckstein.
Eckstein stressed that at this time his initiative is working in concert with the Jewish Agency and government bodies responsible for aliya.
In a statement released ahead of the flight, JAFI chairman Sharansky gave a nod to the Fellowship’s mission. “The Fellowship, which has placed aliya at the top of its priorities, is acting in cooperation with the Jewish Agency to enable us to bring the immigrants to Israel in a concentrated manner,” said Sharansky.
Eckstein called the Fellowship Aliya initiative a “supplement” to JAFI efforts, an added value.
“We have to keep our eyes on the ball,” he said. “It’s not about how big the Jewish Agency logo is compared to ours, it’s the fact that we’re pulling together and increasing aliya, which otherwise wouldn’t happen.”