The Story of Yechiel Eckstein: How Christians Went From Enemies to Friends
Many good people work to strengthen the Jewish people and the State of Israel. But few did more than my friend Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who died tragically and suddenly on February 6 at the age of 67.
Besides his many personal virtues, what made Yechiel stand out from the crowd was his commitment to work with Christians to raise tens of millions of dollars for Ethiopian Jews and other Jewish and Israeli causes.
Yechiel founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) in 1983, and devoted his life to building bridges of understanding and cooperation between Christians and Jews.
His organization raised an astounding $1.6 billion for Jews in Israel and more than 58 other countries. The organization now takes in more than $127 million annually from its nearly two million Christian donors.
Christians as friends of the Jews was never an easy sell. For 2,000 years, Christianity had identified the Jews as Satanic creatures who murdered god. True, Saint Augustine, the greatest of Church fathers, said they ought not to be murdered. But this was so they could remain perpetually in a subjugated state that demonstrated their rejection by God.
Christian crusader armies murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews, and fake Catholics — like the arch fraudsters Ferdinand and Isabella — expelled all their Jews, and burned thousands at the stake.
And for those who say that this was Catholicism and not the Protestants, let’s remember that Martin Luther’s writings on the Jews are as hateful as have ever been written.
But with the rise of American evangelicals, a new movement was born, one that went back to Scripture to establish the eternal Jewish connection to the land of Israel and the Jewish people as God’s chosen nation. Where Christianity was plagued by “replacement theology,” which says that the Jews were supplanted by Christians as God’s chosen ones, evangelicals emphasized the eternal and unchanging character of God’s relationship with the Jews as promised by Scripture. God is forever. He doesn’t change His mind.
As for the Catholic Church, its 180-degree turn toward the Jews began with the great Pope John XXIII, who followed “Hitler’s Pope” Pius XII. He absolved the Jews of the charges of deicide, and initiated a new period of good will toward his Jewish brethren. This was then expanded through great men like John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.
I began to see these changes in the late 1980s, when I became the rabbi at Oxford University. Thousands of Christian students not only flooded our Friday night Shabbat tables, but were at the forefront of volunteering to help our organization grow and defend Israel.
Yechiel was at the forefront of leveraging this new friendship into a joint and tangible project of partnership between Jews and Christians for the sake of the Jewish people and Israel. The breadth of his vision was extraordinary.
It was Yechiel who initiated the “On Wings of Eagles” project to raise money to support the mass immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. His organization was also at the forefront of providing assistance to Ethiopian Jews. His obituary in The New York Times noted that he also helped the poor, elderly Holocaust survivors, and Israeli Druze. His organization also helped build and upgrade bomb shelters, provided MRI machines to hospitals, donated fire engines, and gave surveillance drones to Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and near the Gaza border.
Like me, Yechiel believed passionately in promoting Christian-Jewish dialogue and promoting religious freedom around the world. He started his organization with a mission but little money. When Yechiel started the Fellowship, he had, as was widely reported, no salary, no medical benefits, and a pregnant wife.
What he built over the decades is truly remarkable. For years, he did his work from Chicago, but he made aliyah in 2002 and continued to grow the organization. He was recognized on several occasions as one of the most influential Jews and rabbis in America, and given numerous awards. Upon his death, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called him “a great man, a great Jew, and a great Zionist.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying, “The prime minister is deeply pained by the death of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein who did great work for the welfare of Israeli citizens and for strengthening the connection between Christian communities and the State of Israel.”
His success, however, did not make him popular with everyone. Some were jealous of his fundraising prowess. Others criticized his outreach to Christians. This was frustrating to him. I understood his exasperation, as I too recognize that the Jewish people are not just a small minority who need the friendship and support of non-Jews, but have a Biblical mandate to be a light unto the nations. And like me, he recognized that many Christians are great lovers of Israel and want to help.
Many American Jews are uncomfortable with evangelicals, fearing that they are motivated by a desire to see Jews ultimately convert to Christianity. While some may have this largely outdated ideology, the leading Christian Zionists do not.
In an interview, Yechiel expressed disappointment at the “cynical, negative view” Jews have of evangelicals. “They’re not religious fanatics, and they don’t have ulterior motives,” he said. “These are good, religious people who love Israel and want to help. What’s the matter with that?’’
As his brother Beryl wrote, Yechiel was not worried about his critics. “He prized results over good intentions. When he saw need, he acted first and dealt with the repercussions later.” His brother also said he was a generous and gentle human being. “Yechiel was a hugger, a giver, a builder, and a man of his people.”
Yechiel will be missed, but he will also be remembered as a tzaddik — a righteous person and hero of the Jewish people.
May the Lord comfort his wife, Joelle, his mother Belle, and his daughters, Yael, Tamar, and Talia, along with his entire family.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books, including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. He served as Rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.