Fifteen years ago Yael Eckstein was putting stamps on envelopes at the Jerusalem headquarters of the Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Now she runs the organization.
“I always say that my life has turned out to be everything I’ve never dreamed of,” Eckstein, 36, told The Times of Israel recently, sitting behind an imposing desk in a swanky executive office. She laughed — a common occurrence in our hour-long conversation — and said that a decade and a half ago she’d been committed to being a stay-at-home mom, living close to her mother and sisters in the United States, and one day becoming a veterinarian.
Today Eckstein heads one of the largest philanthropic organizations in Israel, while her husband is a teacher and the point-person for their four children.
The Fellowship was founded in 1983 by Eckstein’s father, Yeshiva University-trained Orthodox rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who died a year ago. While working as the national co-director of inter-religious affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, Eckstein saw sparks of a potential relationship between the Christian and Jewish communities. Until that time, Jews and Christians hadn’t shared much with each other beyond mutual suspicion and a love of the Hebrew Bible.
Today the organization raises over $125 million a year from Christians all over the world for programs that help Jews in conflict zones immigrate to Israel; aid poverty-stricken Israelis, including Holocaust survivors; and bolster the security of Israeli citizens, as well as unprotected Jewish communities worldwide.
But when she arrived at the Fellowship shortly after having immigrated to Israel from Chicago with her sabra husband 15 years ago, Eckstein’s father told her to go to law school. Likewise, Eckstein said she hadn’t really understood what the organization was about. “I had no clue what my father did, growing up,” she said.
In a wide-ranging conversation, which can be heard on this week’s Times of Israel podcast, Eckstein explained that she experienced a lot of negativity surrounding her father as a child, because his work as a bridge-builder between the two communities was “a new concept” for Jews and a step into a forbidden zone, filled with echoes of blood libel and anti-Semitic hatred.
Before her father had commenced direct communication with Christian leaders, she explained, he too hadn’t really known about the deep spiritual love that his generation of Protestant and Evangelical Christian leaders has for Israel. After he realized that “for the first time in Jewish history, we really had friends,” she said, he pursued his work with the Christian community full time. “He felt it was a calling,” said Eckstein.
The first stage of the Fellowship, she said, was getting the Jewish community to recognize “that Christians love us… So it was basically him against the world,” said Eckstein. The next stage of the Fellowship began in 1986 with its vast immigration assistance program, “On Eagles Wings,” which initially supported Jews leaving the former Soviet Union. Today, the Fellowship aids in the immigration of Jews from dozens of countries.
The third stage, said Eckstein, is being felt now: It is the grassroots Christian support for the State of Israel. The Jewish community is increasingly waking up to the fact that the strategic relationship between the Christian community and the Jewish community goes well beyond fundraising, she said.
“It doesn’t matter if we raise a billion dollars. The opportunity that we have right now in partnering with the Christian community is showing its benefit,” she said, naming tourism, and perhaps more significantly, political support.
“The American embassy moving to Jerusalem — it wasn’t because of the pressure of the Jewish community; recognizing the Golan Heights,” she said, adding Christians who are fighting global anti-Semitism to her list. “I look at this third stage that is just beginning as being so much larger than money.”
Yes, but what do the Christians really want from the Jews?
At the beginning of the Fellowship’s work, said Eckstein, Jews maintained a certain level of suspicion and asked, well, what do they really want in return for this money. She said the community asked a” lot of uncomfortable questions,” but thinks that this is overall a positive defense mechanism.
“The Jewish community should have guards up. I don’t think that the Jewish community should ever drop all of its guards… it’s something healthy that we need to hold onto, while still being open enough to be or lagoyim [a light to the nations],” she said.
After 15 years of working very closely with Christians, she said she has connected to much of their spiritual ideology. “I remember the first time a Christian said to me, ‘You’re the Chosen People.’ It was uncomfortable. What does it mean? I’m not better than anyone else,” she said. But then she delved into her own tradition for the answer.
“It says in the Torah — in my Torah — that there’s Chosen People! I had to find my own understanding of these really difficult concepts that I believe are also deeply rooted in truth,” she said.
The motivation for most Christians in helping Jews, she said, is not to speed up the second coming of the Messiah or create the conditions for the Rapture. Rather it is two ideas taken from the Hebrew Bible: God’s promise to Abraham — “I will bless those who bless you” — and from the books of the prophets.
“We are living in the time of the prophets,” said Eckstein, “who foresaw this day that the Jews would return to Israel from all four corners of the earth… what a merit!”
‘The daughter of’
In 2018, Eckstein was tapped to head up the Fellowship upon her father’s future retirement. The plan was that he’d shepherd her during a three-year hand-off period. Her father’s sudden death on February 6, 2019, changed those plans and Yael headed to the office straight from the seven-day shiva mourning period. There, she said she told the staff that it was time to “question everything” and begin using metrics and data mining — bureaucratic details her visionary father tended to shun — to plan their strategic steps forward.
“We’re moving from a mom-and-pop shop to a properly functioning organization,” she said, adding that most of her efficiency measures had already been approved by her father. But her father, she said, was a dreamer. He wasn’t one to perform market research or write up strategic five-year fiscal plans.
“But what I saw is that there’s a point that you have to transform to having a different mentality. Of really operating in very strategic manners, given the data, analytics, field studies… My father totally believed in that, but he operated in his own way and I always respected that completely and even loved it in him, that he knew, ‘yeah we should be doing this, but now is not the time,'” she said.
“So it was after he died that I said, ‘Number one: there are no sacred cows.’ We are questioning everything, internally. Externally the message is obviously the same, we’re not changing, but internally we’ve really been able to come out of this year stronger than ever,” she declared, adding that the organization’s donor revenue has seen an increase from the same period last year.
In stepping into the role of CEO, “I really felt confidence in the fact I wasn’t going to try to fill my father’s shoes, I was going to try to wear my own and the more I would try to fill my father’s shoes, I would fail and the more I would wear my own shoes I would succeed,” she said.
But instead of facing executive challenges for being a young woman, the one bias she has been fighting, she said, is that she is “the daughter of.”
“It’s my name, Yael Eckstein… Only my results will decide on my merit,” she said.