Fueled By Jewish-Christian Cooperation, Israeli Charitable Group Enters New Season
For 35 years, the late Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein worked tirelessly to bring Christians and Jews together for the common cause of Israel. Now his daughter Yael has taken the lead.
Former enemies becoming friends. Past mistrust being set aside to save lives at risk. It’s the story of one of the largest nonprofit groups in Israel, now entering a new chapter.
“We represent the Christian community who loves and stands with Israel,” says Yael Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ). “The Fellowship helps nearly one and a half million people a year. But it’s one person plus one person, adding up to that huge number.”
Eckstein did not expect to so soon be leading the nonprofit founded by her father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. On February 6, the Jewish statesman died of a heart attack at the age of 67. It accelerated succession plans for IFCJ, already set in motion last year. The charity organization has an annual budget of $140 million and has raised an astounding $1.6 billion for humanitarian aid since 1983.
To achieve common good, IFCJ has forged relationships across difficult divides. The Ecksteins have faced hostile media, skeptical Jews and hesitant Christians. In a phone interview from near Tel Aviv, Israel, Yael Eckstein shares about the rise of anti-Semitism globally, the ministry of IFCJ — or “the Fellowship,” as it’s popularly known — and her father’s legacy.
Venturing Into A War Zone
My condolences on the passing of your father, Rabbi Eckstein. As leaders have paid tribute to him in recent weeks, have you learned some things you didn’t know before?
Yael Eckstein: It’s been interesting to mourn a father and a public figure. Having worked with him so closely on a day-to-day basis, I thought I knew everything about him. Yet a few things came out since his death that have been a source of inspiration and comfort to me.
Two days after he died, a rabbi and his wife came into the Shiva House — the house of mourning. They came up to me and said, “We’re from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. It was so important for us to come here to tell you what you father did for us a few years ago.”
I said, “Oh, I am familiar with it — the Fellowship evacuated the Jewish community when the Russian separatists came into east Ukraine and took over.” There was shelling and people were being killed. The Fellowship immediately went in and evacuated the Jewish community. I actually worked on that plan. They said, “Yes, but I don’t think you know what your father did.”
“We called for help from every organization, and no one responded — except your father. The day he received the letter, he called and said, ‘I’ll be there tomorrow to assess the situation myself.’ We said, ‘Rabbi Eckstein, you can’t come to a war zone! The streets are closed, and the military has taken over.’ He said, ‘Are you there?’ We replied that we were going to be here until every person from our community is evacuated. He said, ‘OK, then I am coming.’
Within 48 hours, he was in eastern Ukraine working out exactly how to get them evacuated. He not only came up with a plan of how to evacuate the community safely and ultimately bring them to Israel. But he worked out a plan for this rabbi, his wife and kids because he knew the last thing they would think about was their own lives.
My father came up with a whole plan of how to evacuate them and make sure they were safe. That really touched me in a deep place. It was very much like him to think not only of the macro situation, but also the individual.
Charity and Impact
Could you discuss the wide scope of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews?
Eckstein: The Fellowship has three different ministries. One is aliyah, where we bring the Jewish people home “on the wings of eagles.” We have sponsored over 750,000 Jewish people to make aliyah, to move to Israel. This is saving the lives of Jews who are living under anti-Semitism, persecution and fearing for their lives.
The second ministry is called Isaiah 58, where we help support the elderly Jews and orphans who cannot come to Israel and are left behind in the former Soviet Union with no support network.
The third ministry is called Guardians of Israel, where within the nation we provide food and medicine to widows and orphans. We provide security aid, such as building 5,500 bomb shelters across Israel. We are the largest funders of basic needs for soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces and their families in need.
Someone from the foreign ministry who travels often across Israel recently said, If you go anywhere in Israel and throw a rock, it will land close to a Fellowship project. The Fellowship is always making an impact across the nation.
Helping Jews Escape Global Hatred
Regarding the rise of anti-Semitism, where do you see the greatest threats arising?
Eckstein: The truth is, it would be a different answer if you asked me that a year ago. Today, it is so widespread that it’s everywhere. Wherever you look across Europe, anti-Semitism is taking over society.
Not long ago, I was in a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He spoke of two different exoduses famous in the history of the Jewish people. There was the exodus from Egypt in the biblical times, and the exodus from the former Soviet Union after Communism and Nazism fell. The next exodus we’re going to see is the exodus from France.
The Fellowship has sponsored aliyah from France, from England and various European countries because this is really critical right now before it gets worse.
Why is this ministry of aliyah so important?
Eckstein: Going back to the words of the prophets, we see this was of utmost importance to them. Aliyah is biblical prophecy coming to fruition. When they saw the days ahead — the days we are living in right now — they all talk about an ingathering from all four corners of the earth.
“They will come home, and we will carry your sons in our arms and your daughters on our shoulders,” states Isaiah 49:22. Jeremiah speaks about needing to flee the land of the north. When we talk about the days of final redemption, we see it is synonymous with the Jewish people coming home to Israel.
I look at this through practical eyes as well. For Jews, the world is getting scarier and more dangerous. The Fellowship only sponsors aliyah from countries where Jewish people are at risk, places like Ukraine, Russia, Yemen, Turkey and across the Middle East. Others I cannot speak about because they are secret operations.
Israel is the only country in the world that has a government and army with one concern: protecting the Jewish people. As we see anti-Semitism growing rapidly, at a scary pace, it is as the prophets saw: If the Jewish people don’t come home to Israel, that’s it. There won’t be Jewish people in those countries anymore.
When Brethren Dwell Together
How has the Fellowship been able to mobilize Christians and Jews to work together?
Eckstein: It’s really a God thing. He is our starting point. My father had this vision of uniting Jews and Christians in shared values. The concept of Judeo-Christian values comes from the Christian Bible, which says in Romans 11 that Christians are grafted on to the rich olive tree.
That’s where our shared values come from — we’re part of the same tree! Once we recognize that two is better than one, as the Bible says, when we work together I believe God blesses us. We are able to see things we haven’t been able to see in 2,000 years. Only God has the ability to bring biblical prophecy to fruition. In unity, we’re creating a space that God can come and dwell in. Then we see these miracles happening.
Christians in China, Brazil and across the world are waking up. They say: In order to connect to my roots, I need to be able to understand where my roots are. That’s where you start studying the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and connecting to Israel.
You find that Israel is the spiritual homeland of the Christian community. Suddenly, Christians around the world have been able to understand themselves and their faith in a deeper way.
Bridging Deep Divides
How do you respond to your Jewish brethren who are skeptical of working with Christians?
Eckstein: That was very hard for the first 20 years or so after my father started the Fellowship. The Jewish people have never had friends in the history of the world. It’s understandable the Jewish community says: “Wait, you want to be my friend? Why? What do you want from me?”
They only thing they knew about Christians was what they read in the history books. My father would say, “No, this is a new generation. These Christians who stand with Israel would say those people who persecuted the Jews were not acting Christ-like.” The Jewish community did not quickly recognize this fellowship as authentic, real and godly. Over the past 35 years, the work of the Fellowship has affected and made better every area of life for Jews in Israel, in the former Soviet Union and around the world.
Now the Jewish people have come to see without question: Our greatest friends are Christians. Christians have been so respectful, consistent, persistent and passionate, the Jewish community has begun to see them not only as friends but strategic partners. To the point that, Prime Minister Netanyahu recently said: “The only friends we can rely on are orthodox Jews and Christians.” It’s a radical statement that shows how far the Fellowship has come in 35 years.
Hope for the Future
As the Fellowship moves forward without your father leading, what is on the horizon?
Eckstein: Reaching out to the next generation is critical. Today, young Jews and Christians feel isolated and unengaged. They question, Why should we dialogue across faith lines?
The success of the Fellowship reflects where the world of Jewish-Christian relations is. In order to see real success, we need to engage the next generation to show them why it is so important that we stand together. Young Christians should care about Israel and what happens there.
Under my leadership, I really hope and pray we will be able to engage young adults in a way that is real, alive and relevant for them.
Why do you believe it’s important to pray for peace in the Middle East?
Eckstein: It’s actually not me who says it’s important to pray for peace in the Holy Land, that’s God — and I don’t mess with him! God specifically tells us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Psalm 122 tells us what happens if we do: we will be comforted and receive peace and joy.
There is no denying that God has one country he gave a name to and he himself blessed. Do we understand it? No. But if you believe in God — and that when God makes a promise, it’s forever — then you believe that Israel has a special place in God’s heart. The way we tap into that blessing is through standing unified in support and prayer for Israel.
It’s not me saying, Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. It’s not me saying, When you tap into Israel, you’re tapping into blessings. Those are God’s words. I just believe it.