The Ultimate Kibitzer
On a cold friday evening on Manhattan's Upper East Side, a crowd of 200 gathers to hear Rabbi Yechiel Z. Eckstein speak on the topic, "The Christian Right: Jews' Best Friends or Greatest Adversaries?" Haskel Lookstein, rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun for half a century, introduces Eckstein by quickly establishing the guest speaker's credentials, including that Eckstein's father (the Jerusalem-born retired chief rabbi of Canada) and Lookstein winter at the same Florida stomping ground.
At Kehilath Jeshurun, Eckstein defends American evangelicals with the fervor of a Southern preacher. In a nonthreatening manner, he takes to task the crowd of primarily white-collar professionals for prejudices they may harbor against evangelicals. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), Eckstein's 26-year-old organization, is proficient at raising funds from Christians via direct mail and the Internet. Last year, the organization raised about $88 million, making it one of the largest, most successful religious charities in America.
Eckstein recounts for the crowd a litany of sacrificial gifts evangelicals have made to ensure poor Jews get the help they need: there is the woman who gives from her meager Social Security check; another who switched from lattes to "coffees of the day" on her daily coffee runs and donates the difference; and the family that forgoes Christmas gifts to feed Israeli kids. Over the years, Christians have donated half a billion dollars to an organization founded by the Orthodox rabbi.
The Christian-Jewish connection Eckstein is describing transcends charity, however. Earlier this decade, evangelicals led the way in reviving Israel's dormant tourism industry after lethal terrorist attacks in the Jewish state. Eckstein asks his audience, "How many of you realize IFCJ recently gave at least $500 to every Holocaust survivoran act no Jewish group has performed?"
No hands go up.
If Eckstein hasn't turned his audience into friends of evangelicals by the time he is finished, he has at least made sure they don't hate them. Charming, gracious, humorous, and congenial, Eckstein has become the most familiar Jewish face to countless Christians. It doesn't hurt that he is handsome, nattily attired, tanned, and 6 feet 2 inches tall. He convinces his fellow Jews that conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews share a common enemy: radicalized Islam. He recounts how rockets in Iranian military parades are designated "first for the Saturday people, then second for the Sunday people."
Before his Friday evening address, the 57-year-old Eckstein and I sat down for two hours inside a New York eatery. He explained how he gained his first insights into benevolent evangelicals when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) dispatched him to the Chicago suburb of Skokie in 1977. As an ADL staffer, he rallied Christians to support Holocaust survivors as American Nazis prepared to march in Skokie. The Nazis gave up there and marched in Chicago instead.
A year later, Eckstein met (by providence, he believes) Wheaton College professor Morris Inch, who further countered his preconceived notion of evangelicals as redneck fundamentalists. Inch introduced Eckstein to Ed Hakes of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in nearby Deerfield, Illinois, and the trio soon organized a conference of 30 influential evangelical and Jewish leaders.
With nearly 2,000 years of hostility and misunderstanding between Christians and Jews, evangelicals in attendance were anxious about saying just the right words to foster reconciliation. David Wells, also at Trinity back then, presented a paper on the love that evangelicals held for the Jewish people.