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.
"The response was, 'If you really love us, just leave us alone. We've had our fill of your love for 2,000 years,'" Eckstein recalls one Jewish leader saying. "Wells turned and said, 'But I can't.'"
That exchange exposed long-standing tensions between evangelical Christians and observant Jews greatly worried about the viability of their faith, families, and communities. Other conferences followed, and Jewish-Christian relations began their slow thaw.
There were icebergs along the way. In 1980, Bailey Smith, then president of the Southern Baptist Convention, proclaimed, "God Almighty doesn't hear the prayer of a Jew." His comment created a firestorm among Jews already suspicious of the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Rather than lash out, the irenic Eckstein invited Smith to accompany him to Israel. Smith later apologized for his declaration; Eckstein spoke and received a standing ovation at Smith's church. When he began IFCJ in 1983, Eckstein had few friends in either the Jewish or Christian world. He worked alone, took no salary, and had no health insurance. Eventually, Eckstein came to appreciate the differences between Baptists, Pentecostals, charismatics, and evangelicals.
With a new level of understanding, Eckstein evolved into an intermediary and supporter. His resumé of accomplishments on behalf of evangelicals is impressive by any measure. "I became the interpreter and defender to the Jewish community and secular press against common stereotypes of evangelicals," Eckstein says. "I saw my calling as transmitting this information to which only I in the Jewish community was privy. I knew these Christians and I loved them."
Undeniably through IFCJ, Eckstein has constructed a bridge linking evangelicals, Jews, and Israel. He has been a trailblazer on an uncharted path of showing ways the two faiths can cooperate on behalf of shared biblical concerns. He has brought evangelical and Jewish politicians together in Washington, D.C. He has spoken out against religious persecution abroad and has traveled to China on behalf of imprisoned Christian pastors.
Major Turning Point
For much of the first decade, Eckstein ran IFCJ with the assistance of only a secretary, a small salary, no pension, and a modest budget of about half a million dollars. In that span, IFCJ had about 1,000 donors, 80 percent of them Jewish.
The turning point for the organization came in 1993, the year it produced a 30-minute infomercial narrated gratis by Christian celebrity Pat Boone. The infomercial stayed on the air for a year, generating a response that tilted the ministry's database heavily toward Christians, especially Pentecostals. Today, IFCJ has a giving list of 800,000, 98 percent of whom are Christian.
"Our donors are those Christians who genuinely believe Jews and Christians share a biblical view and ought to come together for the sake of their shared vision, [part] of which is Israel," Eckstein says. Now, other Jewish and evangelical groups have jumped on the bandwagon to raise evangelical support for Jewish causes. These days, the bridge Eckstein built is crossed by everyone from televangelist John Hagee to the Israel Ministry of Tourism.
Half a dozen organizations with goals similar to IFCJ's set up booths at last year's annual National Religious Broadcasters Convention. Eckstein, who for many years toiled among Christian broadcasters as an anomaly, isn't sure that the motives of all the other groups are altruistic. Ironically, some view IFCJ as competition. "Some Christians see me as taking too much of the pie that belongs to them," Eckstein says. "There is resentment and jealousy."
Based in Chicago, IFCJ has 70 employees, 90 percent of whom are Christian. The Israeli office has 25 people, all Jewish. Two years ago, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Eckstein as a goodwill ambassador. Two days before we met in New York, he had spent an hour with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Eckstein's strategy of personal relationships and networking continues to bear steady dividends of respect and goodwill. "He understands the deep well of support in the evangelical community for the Jews in general and Israel in particular," says Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "He has been a groundbreaking figure in helping the Jewish community understand it has nothing to fear from evangelicals."
Jack Hayford, president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, calls Eckstein a gracious communicator with pure intentions. "He had a sense of commission to establish relationships with Christians from out of the Orthodox Jewish community at a time very different from today," Hayford says.
The twenty-member board of IFCJ has been playing catch-up lately to financially reward Eckstein for his early years of doing without. In 2007, in addition to approving Eckstein's yearly salary of $400,000, the board set aside another $400,000 as the first installment of his delayed pension plan so he could have the option of retiring at 62. "The board wanted to take away financial worry from me," Eckstein says. "I don't take offerings for speaking at churches; it goes to the fellowship." According to a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey of 249 large charities, the median executive salary was $326,500 in 2007.
'Love As Jesus Loved'
Eckstein, in his New York synagogue talk and in many other instances, carefully avoids mentioning the name of Jesus. He makes repeated references to "you know who." But what does this rabbi, who can quote passages from the New Testament better than most Christians, really believe about Jesus?
"I am as far as anyone can go and continue to have Jewish bona fides," Eckstein says. "Jesus, in some way, was sent by God in a divine appointment to bring what Christians call salvation to the Gentiles. He was a way to be grafted onto the olive tree of Israel. But the Jewish covenant continues to be valid. The roots support the branch."
Eckstein at times sounds as though he is tutoring believers in evangelistic methods. "Christians don't convert anyone. That's the Holy Spirit's job," Eckstein tells me. "The mission should be to share the love of God through Christ. Let God work on the individual. The Christian's task is to love as Jesus loved."
In his 2001 book, The Journey Home, Eckstein wrote, "I still don't believe in Jesus as the Christ … I view him instead as a Jew who brought salvation to the Gentiles. In some respects, that is exactly what I have become: a Jew for Jesus."
Nevertheless, proselytizing around the IFCJ office is not tolerated. In 2005, a New York Times reporter quoted Sandy Rios, who just days earlier had been hired as vice president of programming, as saying, "The truth is, Christians do want to convert Jews"; and, "We love Jews, notwithstanding their rudeness and hatred for us." Eckstein describes Rios as a wonderful woman and says he respects her convictions, but concedes that she did not fit in. She resigned.
Eckstein steadfastly opposes efforts to single out Jews for outreach. "My red line is with those who proselytize through coercion, deception, overzealous techniques, and targeted missions toward Jews, those who go door to door looking for the Goldbergs and Steinbergs," Eckstein says. "Are they doing actions that are deleterious for Jewish survival?"
Christian outreach that is focused on Jews and Messianic Judaism remains a point of tension. Land remembers Eckstein becoming upset when the Southern Baptist International Mission Board launched a prayer initiative for different people groups, starting with Jews. "It helped when we went on to pray for Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists," Land says.
Hayford withdrew his endorsement from certain IFCJ fundraising appeals because he says the ads spoke against Messianic Jews. "His system of thought doesn't allow for the possibility of a person [being] a believing Jew who receives Jesus as Messiah," Hayford says. "I understand that."
Eckstein bases his outreach programs on Genesis 12:3, where God covenants to bless those who bless Israel. The flagship Wings of Eagles program returns Jews from around the world to Israel. Since 1993, IFCJ has helped 350,000 Jews—mostly from the former Soviet Union, but also from countries as varied as Ethiopia, India, and Argentina—resettle in Israel.
The Isaiah 58 program eases hardships for destitute elderly Jews and orphans in the former Soviet Union. IFCJ provides food, heating fuel, medicine, and clothing. The Guardians of Israel effort pays for Israeli bomb shelters, drawing on Romans 15:27: "For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings."
Occasionally, there is a demonstration in Israel against IFCJ, inspired by rabbis who view money from Christians contributed to Jews as an anathema. "Any time we do a project, we do it in the name of Christians who seek to unconditionally love and bless Israel," Eckstein says. "It's a real witness when secular or religious Jews get a coat for their children or bread and know it's from Christians."
Good works have permitted Eckstein to reach détente with leaders of Jewish organizations who now realize that even though they have theological differences with evangelicals, the two groups share many values. Eckstein is currently on the boards of the three largest U.S. philanthropic Jewish organizations.
"With an almost laser-like intensity, he has homed in on a particular slice of the evangelical community," Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Community, says of Eckstein. "Rabbi Eckstein is well-respected within the American Jewish mainstream. Until he came along, evangelicals and Jews were like ships passing in the night."
Lowering the Wall
In 2002, Eckstein fulfilled his lifelong dream and moved to Israel. He continues to shuttle between Jerusalem and Chicago every few weeks, when he's not leading an IFCJ cause somewhere else in the world. His daily five-minute Ask the Rabbi program is on 430 Latin American radio stations.
Evangelical leaders born in the 1930s like Hayford and the late Jerry Falwell persuaded followers that defending Israel was a priority. But younger leaders often have other issues on their agendas, such as fighting AIDS and global poverty. While the administrations at Liberty, Regent, and Oral Roberts universities remain strong friends with IFCJ, Eckstein is uncertain that his cause resonates at other evangelical campuses. Eckstein hopes to follow the example of Falwell and Robertson in establishing an organization that won't disappear after its founder is gone. "This is not called 'Yechiel Eckstein Ministries,'" he says. "I hope I have created an institution, a cause, and a movement that will survive me."
Eckstein remains keenly aware of suffering Christians. In December, IFCJ donated food and clothing to poor Christians through churches in Bethlehem, Jericho, and Nazareth. Eckstein believes it's imperative that Jews in Israel recognize evangelicals as their most reliable ally in fighting radical Islam and terrorism.
A segment of Jews remain suspicious, believing the only reason evangelicals support Israel is to help fulfill biblical prophecy of the Second Coming. "Some in Israel don't like me because I'm lowering the wall, and they don't want to trust Christians," Eckstein says. "They feel that I'm softening up the Jewish community to try to bring Jesus through the back door."
Eckstein isn't dissuaded from pursuing his cause. "I'd like to see the point where there is true fellowship in the IFCJ, where Christians would be better Christians, where Jews would be better Jews, and where the world would be a better place."
John W. Kennedy is a CT contributing editor and news editor of Today's Pentecostal Evangel magazine.
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