It is one thing to save a life. It is another to affirm life, again and again and again.
Both are the legacy of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, z”l, whose untimely death this past week has been mourned by leaders of the Jewish people, Israel, and Evangelical Christians throughout the world.
One group, who are too often forgotten by others, have particular reason to remember Rabbi Eckstein because of the incalculable difference he made in their lives: the poor, elderly Jews of the former Soviet Union. They are the poorest Jews in the world, and Rabbi Eckstein understood the urgency of their needs. He was a tireless advocate for their plight among both Christians and Jews.
In making the case for these impoverished people — for example, by raising millions of dollars for them from countless Christians who generously supported his Fellowship’s good works — Rabbi Eckstein dug in, heart and soul, and went to the problem personally.
For Rabbi Eckstein, it was not enough to show the poverty, to recount the tales of Nazi brutality and Soviet oppression, or to describe the desperation of tens of thousands of Jews who in some cases live on as little as $2 a day.
No, Rabbi Eckstein went to visit them. And when he was with them, they were all that mattered to him.
Several years ago, he traveled to a sparse and sad hovel in Ukraine. He was visiting several elderly Jews as part of a short film he was shooting. On that visit, Rabbi Eckstein’s overwhelming and transcendent humanity served as an invaluable lesson for all of us in his company, including one of the authors of this piece.
At the first stop, it was already clear that the carefully crafted schedule, created to visit a certain number of elderly and to collect a minimum of broadcast material, would have to be jettisoned. The time allotted for Rabbi Eckstein at each apartment was not nearly enough.
To the consternation of the film crew, a professional and dedicated group, he was so overcome with emotion at each of the visits, that he could not be pried away in time from each in order to meet the filming goal.
Indeed, before cameras were set up and he was miked to test sound, Rabbi Eckstein was often on one knee enveloped in intimate conversation with a total stranger, a Jewish woman in this case whose geography, language, and deprivation otherwise separated her from him in countless ways.
In that dark room Rabbi Eckstein held her hand as she cried, and he cried with her, as she recalled the difficulties she had faced in her life. When she started to talk about the help that sustained her over the last few years — the food, medicine and homecare — she suddenly broke out in a wide smile.
In that moment, as they smiled together, he turned to us and quite sternly said: “We talk too much about numbers. Our assistance has kept this one woman alive and given her a sense of dignity. Every Jew in the world today should know about this. One is the number that matters. One, a hundred-thousand times over. That is what we do.”
That was Rabbi Eckstein’s abiding message to us all: human suffering was not acceptable. We must change the world, human being by human being.
And he set the example by loving them, by reaching them in their loneliness and despair, and by singing with them with a fervor that demonstrated what he felt for them.
It is no small thing to say that Rabbi Eckstein’s compassion and capacity for caring in those moments were then translated into a boundless generosity. His organization provided more than $160 million dollars of critically-needed care for those poor Jews in a cherished partnership with our organization, which would come to be known simply as “The Lifeline.”
It is that living embodiment of ahavat Yisrael, of the love of his people, even amidst his other towering achievements, that we should all hold fast to as we mourn his loss.
For this loss is felt not just by his beloved family, his colleagues and partners, and countless others who came into his orbit. It is felt most profoundly by a woman in Ukraine with one less hand to hold.
In Rabbi Eckstein’s name, we must rededicate our efforts to care for her, and so many others like her.
May we be blessed to do it with even the smallest drop of tenderness, empathy, and benevolence that was, in him, an overflowing spring.
And may his memory be for a blessing, as his life surely was.
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