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Rabbi with a gift for fundraising among evangelicals mourned as friend

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein died on Feb. 6, 2019. Photo courtesy of Yossi Zwecker

(RNS) — Soon after Southern Baptist leader Bailey Smith famously said “God Almighty doesn’t hear the prayers of a Jew,” he got a call from a U.S.-based Orthodox rabbi challenging Smith to join him on a trip to Israel.

That rabbi on the line was Yechiel Eckstein, who single-handedly worked to develop deeper ties between evangelical Christians and Jews.

On Wednesday (Feb. 6), Eckstein, 67, died of heart failure in Jerusalem, and on Thursday he was buried there.

But the friendship formed between Eckstein and Smith nearly 40 years ago on that joint trip to Israel, where both were given the royal treatment including a one-on-one with Israel’s then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, has led to enduring ties between evangelicals and Israel.

Though Eckstein had been pursuing better ties with evangelicals for some time, he felt he was able to bridge the gap with Smith and create newfound solidarity not only with Southern Baptists but with evangelicals of all stripes.

“That was the turning point,” Eckstein said in a 2005 New York Times profile.

To many in evangelical circles, Eckstein was the spark that ignited an appreciation and even love for Israel and for the Jewish people. Since the founding of his International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in 1983, evangelicals have contributed well in excess of $1 billion toward Jewish causes, mostly in Israel.

Today, the fellowship is considered Israel’s largest philanthropy. It funds a range of social programs for young, old and poor and has helped thousands of Jews — from the former Soviet Union to Ethiopia — immigrate to Israel. It also provides food and medicines to elderly Jews living abroad, especially those in the former Soviet bloc. (In 1993, Eckstein’s efforts to help rescue Soviet Jews led to a 30-minute infomercial narrated by Pat Boone. “On Wings of Eagles” aired on multiple U.S. Christian stations.)

On Thursday, Eckstein was remembered as a pioneer and a visionary in reaching out to evangelicals.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, addresses the landmark Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit in January 2016. Photo courtesy of Phil Lewis/The Fellowship

John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and the founder of Christians United for Israel, said in a statement that Eckstein’s “impact on the state of Israel and on bringing Jews and Christians together will be felt for generations.”

Pat Robertson added, “Words cannot express the sorrow I feel at the untimely passing of my dear friend.”

Eckstein was not so beloved by Israel’s rabbinical establishment, which viewed with suspicion his desire to befriend Christians. Older generations of Orthodox rabbis who came up in the shadow of the Holocaust refused to set foot in churches and saw Christians as contributing to centuries of anti-Semitic hostilities. Many denied Eckstein the honor of speaking in their synagogues.

But younger rabbis appreciated his efforts.

“He foresaw that evangelicals would emerge not only as friends but the most reliable and stalwart friends and supporters of Israel in the entire world,” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. “It was an act of vision and foresight that was almost prophetic.”

Boteach said Eckstein, who was a family friend, attended the bar mitzvah of Boteach’s son last week in Israel.

Born in New York in 1951, Eckstein moved with his family to Ottawa at the age of 1, after his father was appointed a rabbi there. As an adult, Eckstein returned to New York to study for the rabbinate, graduating from Yeshiva University.

He worked for several years for the Anti-Defamation League but quit to establish his own organization after it became clear to him that the ADL was uncomfortable with his evangelical outreach, according to the New York Times profile.

Eckstein’s genius was an ability to persuade many millions of Christians to contribute small sums of money (about $76 per donor) to his organization. In 2017, the fellowship raised $130 million, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, much of it through TV ads on Christian channels.

Though nonpartisan, the fellowship was interested in developing partnerships with evangelicals wherever they were found. Lately, that has been mostly in Republican circles.

Last year, Eckstein’s organization held a fundraising gala at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort to mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of Israel.

Though headquartered in Chicago, the fellowship had offices in Israel too, and after 2002 when Eckstein received his Israeli citizenship, he increasingly worked from there.

Eckstein was eulogized Thursday by his daughter Yael as a “rebel with a cause.” She will succeed him at the fellowship, where she has served as global executive vice president.

Eckstein also is survived by his wife, Joelle, and two other daughters.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

4 Comments

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  • According to the writer, “Eckstein’s genius was an ability to persuade many millions of Christians to contribute small sums of money.” How did Eckstein persuade them?

  • You’ve assumed that this was a pavane to Eckstein, and therefore your question would be relevant.

    It isn’t.

    The operative sentence in the entire article is:

    “Though nonpartisan, the fellowship was interested in developing partnerships with evangelicals wherever they were found. Lately, that has been mostly in Republican circles.”

    RNS has an editorial fixation on “evangelicals” and Republicans. In particular follow Yonat Shimron the author of this piece and Mark Silk.

    The general leitmotif was that “progressivism” was about to overtake religion in the United States, and the coming election of Hillary Clinton was going to bring about the millennium.

    When that did not happen, the secular press focused on collusion with Russians as an explanation, but the vaguely religious left jumped on “evangelicals” as the cause.

    This article is part of the prolonged post-mortem.

  • According to you, the writer of this article intends by it to allege that evangelicals caused the defeat of Hillary Clinton, so my question is irrelevant.
    Well, the writer of this article did make an assertion about Eckstein and that assertion prompted my question, the answer to which would be relevant to the writer’s assertion about Eckstein.

  • Have it your way.

    Btw, I did not suggest that the writer of this article intended by this article itself to allege that evangelicals caused the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

    What I suggested was that she, Mark Silk, and others shortly after the election jumped on the bandwagon that the stunning and unforeseen defeat was the result of 80% of the ‘evangelicals’ voting Republican, and for over two dozen months there has been article after article mixing, dicing, slicing, and parsing this supposed reason. This article was just more of the same.

    Since I was the only one to respond to you, and after this response to your post will be blocking you,

    https://help.disqus.com/commenting/user-blocking

    I wish you luck on your quest for an answer which I seriously doubt will be forthcoming.

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