Rabbi who nurtured evangelical love for Israel courts black churches

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Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, addresses the landmark Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit during the Martin Luther King Day weekend. Photo courtesy of Phil Lewis/The Fellowship

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, addresses the landmark Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit during the Martin Luther King Day weekend. Photo courtesy of Phil Lewis/The Fellowship

(RNS) The rabbi who has for decades painstakingly and successfully nurtured evangelicals’ love for Israel now extends his hand to African-American churches.

And many are responding with as much enthusiasm as the white heartland congregations into which Yechiel Eckstein first ventured more than 35 years ago.

“I felt the need to reach out again, to the African-American Christian community,” said Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which collects more than $125 million annually for social welfare projects in Israel, mostly from Christian donors. “The potential of beginning dialogues and fostering cooperation between blacks and Jews in America is great.”

Eckstein aims for a partnership with historic resonance, one that recalls the support many American Jews gave to blacks during the civil rights era. “At the same time you had people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was very, very supportive of Israel,” says Eckstein, an American who now lives in Israel.

The Orthodox rabbi, who has taken thousands of Christians and their pastors to the Jewish state, in August hosted his first trip organized exclusively for clergy from a traditionally black denomination, with about 20 ministers from the Church of God in Christ.

Now, 22 pastors from the Progressive National Baptist Convention are on a similar tour with Eckstein, where they are visiting the holy sites and the Fellowship’s welfare projects. Pastors from the National Baptist Convention of America have signed up for a May trip, and their colleagues from the Global United Fellowship will take off in September.

The relationship is not only about travel.

On the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Detroit, Eckstein joined the pastor of the historic Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church as the congregation celebrated the day with a local synagogue and gave its entire collection plate to refurbish a bomb shelter in Israel.

Eckstein has found Russell Street’s pastor, the Rev. DeeDee M. Coleman, an exceptionally willing partner in his new outreach program, which he also plans to extend to Latino churches.

Coleman traveled on the summer trip with Eckstein to Israel and saw communities with not enough bomb shelters to protect them from rocket fire. Some of the existing ones were dilapidated.

“I knew that this was what I needed to do,” Coleman recalls of her visit to one shelter with broken vents. “If my church could repair one bomb shelter it could mean life or death for a Jewish family, or a Jewish person, and it just touched my heart.”

On the MLK Sunday when Adat Shalom Synagogue members came to Russell Street and sang “We Shall Overcome” with the church choir — as well as the Israeli national anthem — the collection for the bomb shelter topped $6,700.

Both Eckstein and Coleman — who sits on the national council of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby — have taken flak for their work.

American Jews — more liberal as a group than most Americans — have criticized Eckstein for forging ties with evangelical Christians with whom they may share few values besides their support for Israel. Others question the motivations of the evangelicals, some of whom believe in a fiery eschatological end for Jews who don’t convert to Christianity. Still others resent that Eckstein solicits money from Christians who may have little to spare for their own communities.

Eckstein is “selling the dignity of the Jewish people,” Abraham Foxman, the Jewish civil rights leader, once said.

But Coleman views her church’s donations to Israel in religious terms.

“Russell Street is a missionary Baptist church. We are a global church. And if we can build a well for the lives of individuals in Africa, then surely we can build a bomb shelter for the safety and security of the Jewish people in Israel,” she said. “According to what my church believes, and what I have taught them, Israel is the holy land of God, the people of God, and we are to honor them.”

And as Eckstein had hoped, African-American pastors are also thinking of their alliance with the Fellowship in reference to a previous generation’s partnership with Jews.

“I’m looking at it from the historical perspective, that Jews were supportive of African-Americans during the civil rights movement,” said the Rev. James C. Perkins of Detroit’s Greater Christ Baptist Church, who is traveling on this week’s Fellowship trip to to Israel. He said he was touched to see that one of the first events on the tour is a service in honor of the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rabbi Aaron Bergman, who brought his progressively minded congregation to Russell Street Missionary Baptist earlier this month, similarly harks back to the struggle for black equality.

Members of the Church of God in Christ denomination pray during a boat ride on Israel's Sea of Galilee with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews last summer. Photo courtesy of Phil Lewis/The Fellowship

Members of the Church of God in Christ denomination pray during a boat ride on Israel’s Sea of Galilee with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews last summer. Photo courtesy of Phil Lewis/The Fellowship

“I’m really happy that black churches and synagogues are reconnecting in a better way,” he said. Though impressed by the joint Martin Luther King Jr. Day service, and the money raised for the bomb shelter, he wants the partnership between Adat Shalom and Russell Street Missionary Baptist to deepen — especially, he says, given the nation’s recent awakening to the unfinished business of the civil rights era of 50 years ago.

“We’re reliving the 1960s all over again,” he said.

But some African-Americans, including members of the Black Lives Matter movement who have aligned with “Free Palestine” activists, may look skeptically upon Eckstein’s work. The rabbi does not focus on Muslims or the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Neither does Eckstein’s Chicago and Jerusalem-based Fellowship expend energy on predominantly white mainline Protestant denominations. Several, including the Presbyterians (PCUSA), have in recent years passed resolutions critical of the Israeli occupation and have withdrawn church investments from companies that they say support it.

“We don’t get involved with issues like (West Bank) settlements, or in issues like abortion or school prayer or homosexuality,” said Eckstein. “The hot issues that can divide: That’s not our calling, that’s not what we do.”

What the Fellowship does pay for, among other projects: soup kitchens, clothing and medical care for poor Israelis and Jews in the former Soviet Union, and assistance for Jews around the world to migrate to Israel. In this way, Eckstein says, the Fellowship connects Christians with their Jewish roots — the faith from which theirs sprang.

“The key verse for Christians is Genesis Chapter 12:3,” Eckstein says. “God promises Abraham: ‘I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.'”

(Lauren Markoe is a national reporter for RNS)

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  • It is good for Christians to learn from Jews about the very roots of Christianity, which is Judaism. It is also good for Jews to learn that Christianity from the very beginning was made up of almost entirely Jewish believers. That has changed over time but still today there are many Messianic believers in Yeshua/ Jesus. This can be a blessing. I pray for the peace of Israel, and may many come to find peace with God and forgiveness of sins through faith in Yeshua HaMashiach. Shalom

  • Margaret Sjoholm-Franks

    If Black churches saw how they treat Jews from Ethiopia in Israel they would not give single penny

  • Pingback: Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein Builds Biblical Bond Between African-American Churches and Modern-Day Israel | BCNN1 – Black Christian News Network()

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  • Jack

    Anyone who brings people together across racial and religious lines for humanitarian purposes is doing a good thing. God smiles down from Heaven.

    Eckstein has hit a home run on this, in that he is achieving several good things at once.

    Yet there will always be nay-sayers who are afraid of the inevitable change that comes out of big ideas translated into action. They will point to all sorts of risks, some imaginary and some quite real. But you can’t fear change or risk. Any time you attempt anything big in life, you’re taking a risk. Taking no risks at all is a risk.

    Some people literally make a living being professional skeptics about any bold moves on anything. They can appear wise and realistic, but if everyone heeded their advice at all times, human progress would come to a screeching halt. They have their place, but it should be nowhere near center stage.

  • Jack

    As far as Abe Foxman is concerned, instead of criticizing Eckstein for mobilizing non-Jews to help needy Jews, maybe he should ask himself why he and his establishment friends have spent so much money on politically correct causes that have nothing to do with Jews, and comparatively less money on helping needy Jews.

    Maybe he doesn’t like Eckstein because Eckstein’s work unwittingly highlights that very point.

  • Susan

    Mark, there are no Jewish believers in Jesus. They are deluded or uninformed. What you are actually praying for is the spiritual genocide of the Jewish people. If your prayers came true, there would be no Jews on the planet.

  • Pingback: Daily Kickoff: Israeli Drone Feeds Hacked by British & U.S. Intelligence | Iran flew drone over U.S. aircraft carrier | Rabbis on faith in politics | Jewish Insider()

  • D Young

    Wow–look at the source of this article Lauren Merkhoe’s news feed shows such clear bias in favor of Muslims over Jews. All interfaith articles on Muslims are positive. Most on Jews are completely negative and stereotypical. I hope you make a better selection for who covers such a constructive venture next time.

  • D Young

    sorry–Markoe

  • Jack

    Yes and no, Susan. Yes, in that for 18 centuries, the Jewish & Christian communities, especially of Europe, were two separate, mutually exclusive nations. Sociologically & geographically, you were either one or the other.

    But no, in that the first Christians were observant Jews who believed their rabbi was the Messiah. And no, in that, while Jewishness pertains both to peoplehood & religion, it’s dangerous to insert a religious test to the “who is a Jew” question. That would mean Jews who reject Judaism, from atheists & New Agers to Buddhists, would all be considered not Jewish. That would lead to the question of what is Judaism & who defines it. If the Orthodox did, would that mean that all non-Orthodox Jews would not be considered Jews?

    Finally, if faith is the test, what happens when someone wavers between faith and doubt? That would mean that in the course of a single day, a person could change from Jewish to not Jewish to Jewish again.

  • Garson Abuita

    If anyone’s bias is shading their reporting, it’s you, not Lauren. She’s one of the best reporters on Jewish news in the country. I have a pretty keen eye for anti-Semitism in the media, and it’s not coming from her or anyone else at RNS.

  • Full fill Genesis 12:3