Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of Fellowship of Christians and Jews, dies at 67

Eckstein passes away from sudden heart failure; his IFCJ has raised $1.4 billion in donations for Israel, mostly from evangelical Christians

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein exiting the first aliyah flight organized by the the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, December 2014. (Courtesy of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews)
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein exiting the first aliyah flight organized by the the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, December 2014. (Courtesy of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews)

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, passed away suddenly Wednesday afternoon at the age of 67.

The American-Israeli rabbi died from sudden heart failure and his funeral will be held in Jerusalem on Thursday.

Eckstein was an author, philanthropist and activist who served on the boards of various Jewish organizations, including the Joint Distribution Agency, Jewish Agency and Anti-Defamation league.

He brought in $1.4 billion in donations for Israel, mostly from evangelical Christians, since founding the IFCJ in 1983.

In addition to assisting with Jewish immigration to Israel, the organization arranges trips and activities for immigrants inside Israel, job market guidance, child care solutions and help for those in need. The IFCJ also helped lone soldiers — Israel Defense Forces personnel, many of them new immigrants, who either have no family in Israel or are not in contact with their families.

Rabbis Yechiel Eckstein, left, and Moshe Sebbag at the Grand Synagogue of Paris, June 27, 2016. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

He was honored on May 23, 2017, at a US Congressional tribute event marking Jewish American Heritage Month, for his work to build bridges between Christians and Jews.

Tributes poured in for Eckstein, from both Israel and abroad.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Eckstein “worked very hard to benefit the citizens of Israel and to strengthen the connection between the Christian communities and Israel. May his memory be a blessing.”

President Reuven Rivlin eulogized Eckstein as a “great man, a great Jew and a great Zionist.”

The IFCJ said that millions of people owe their gratitude to Eckstein, whose legacy was “the construction of bridges between the Christian and Evangelical communities in the United States and elsewhere in the world for support and cooperation with the State of Israel.

“From the fruits of his efforts over the past forty years, Israeli citizens enjoy tourism today, Israel’s diplomatic boom and a social contribution of billions of shekels,” the organization said in a statement.

Isaac Herzog, whose Jewish Agency handles key aspects of immigration by Jews to Israel, and serves as a prime beneficiary of Diaspora donations to Israel, paid tribute to Eckstein for his work with the Jewish community.

“The Jewish People have lost Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, a leader who worked tirelessly on their behalf. I worked with Rabbi Eckstein on social welfare, diaspora and Aliyah. My deep condolences to his family and the entire International Fellowship of Christians and Jews,” Herzog said in a statement.

Rabbi Shlomo Gopin (left) and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein at the Ukrainian ‘displaced persons’ camp for Jews. (Olivia Pitoussi)

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach tweeted that Eckstein “did incalculable good” and noted that he had spoken at Boteach’s son’s bar mitzvah just two nights earlier.

In a statement, Pastor John Hagee paid tribute to Eckstein for his work in bringing Christians and Jews together.

“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. His impact on the state of Israel and on bringing Jews and Christians together will be felt for generations,” the Christians United for Israel founder said in a statement. “I pray God brings comfort to the Rabbi’s family during this very difficult time, and I know that his memory will be a blessing to us all.”

Dr. Jurgen Buhler, President of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem extended his condolences and paid tribute to Eckstein’s work and its impact.

“Rabbi Eckstein foresaw, like few other Jewish leaders did, the strategic importance to Israel and the Jewish people of forging ties with the global Evangelical community,” Buhler said in a statement. “The generous aid that he gathered from Christians around the world brought vital assistance and tremendous blessings to countless Israelis.”

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein in Ukraine (courtesy)

The IFCJ worked closely with the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union, and in 2016 pledged $52 million to provide food and medicine to elderly Jews living in the former bloc countries, to be dispensed via the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In a statement, the JDC said, “As our staunch partner… Rabbi Ekstein and IFCJ worked with us on behalf of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union who are the poorest Jews in the world. We cherished his stalwart passion for the Jewish people, Israel, and for aiding the neediest among us. His vision, dedication, and urgent call for the ongoing relief of Jews in need serves as a lesson to us all and will serve as a legacy for generations to come.”

The Jewish Federations of North America said, “Rabbi Eckstein had a deep commitment to Israel and the Jewish people, especially those living in poverty in the former Soviet Union. He raised significant resources that helped many. May his memory be a blessing.”

Born in New York in 1951, Eckstein moved with his family to Ottawa, Canada, at the age of one after his father was appointed chief rabbi.

He attended New York’s Yeshiva University, where he was ordained as a rabbi by leading Orthodox thinker Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, before joining the staff of the Anti-Defamation League.

According to a 2005 New York Times profile, Eckstein was sent by the ADL to Skokie, Illinois in 1977 to help rally opposition to a threatened rally by Nazis. During his time in Chicago, Eckstein realized that the evangelical Christian community was willing to stand alongside the Jewish community.

Eckstein left the ADL and tried to convince Jewish organizations to create ties with Christian groups, but the idea was rejected by most within the community. So in 1983, Eckstein founded the IFCJ and began to build relationships, quickly realizing that many evangelical Christians wanted a way to make financial donations to Jews in Israel.

Despite the posthumous embrace from the Jewish establishment, Eckstein had a thorny relationship with Jews from across the political and religious spectrum.

He clashed publicly with the Jewish Agency, to which his group had donated many millions of dollars over the years. The funding stopped in 2014 amid a fight over recognition for the ICFJ by the agency and Eckstein’s long-held reservations about the agency’s efficiency in fulfilling its main task: facilitating immigration of Jews to Israel, or aliyah.

That year, Eckstein had the ICFJ start its own aliyah operation. He offered every new immigrant a $1,000 grant on top of benefits offered by the Jewish Agency. And he helped bring thousands of immigrants from Ukraine during its conflict with Russia, France, Venezuela, Yemen and other trouble spots for Jews.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, President of the IFCJ, visiting Tikva children’s homes in Odessa. He was moved to tears as he spoke about these children who, after so much trauma already, were now in this new crisis. (Photo courtesy of Tikva)

But Eckstein’s outreach to Christians to make that happen made him a pariah for many years for Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

In 2001, Israel’s then chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Avraham Shapira, published a letter condemning Eckstein’s use of Christian money to “expand Christian missionary propaganda.” Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, an influential haredi Orthodox Talmud scholar, signed a letter forbidding cooperation with Eckstein, calling it “close to idolatry.”

Eckstein, who dismissed the Chief Rabbinate’s attacks as not worthy of a response, angered some of his nationalist critics with his group’s support to the tune of millions of dollars for Israeli Arabs, Christians and Muslims.

Abraham Foxman, former director of the ADL, has accused Eckstein in the past of “selling the dignity of the Jewish people” by pandering to Christians.

His work also came under criticism from liberal Jews, who make up the majority of the American Jewish community and bristle at evangelicals’ ties to the political right and their support for Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank, a major sticking point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Eckstein pushed back against Jewish leaders who distrusted evangelical support of Israel. “[T]he majority of evangelicals are passionately pro-Israel because it is part of their theology to love and support the Jewish people,” Eckstein wrote in 2002. “I could not accept the conditional love of those who expect a payback on behalf of my people. I could not embark on a relationship that would compromise my personal integrity and ideals or that of the Jewish community I represent. But having been the first — and most often the only — Jew to build bridges with the right-wing Christian community, I have a view and understanding of their pro-Israel fervor that most people ‘on the outside’ lack.”

Eckstein is survived by his wife Joelle, daughters Tamar, Talia and Yael, mother and grandchildren.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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