Evangelicals have lost a major partner and friend from the Jewish community, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who died suddenly today at his home in Jerusalem. He was 67.
Inspired by God’s promise in Genesis 12:3 to bless those who bless Israel, Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) worked for decades to improve relationships between the two faiths and raise more than $1.4 billion for projects in the Holy Land, mostly from evangelical donors.
“His impact on the state of Israel and on bringing Jews and Christians together will be felt for generations,” said John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel and one of the biggest voices for Christian Zionism in the US, in a statement to The Times of Israel. “I pray God brings comfort to the Rabbi’s family during this very difficult time, and I know that his memory will be a blessing to us all.”
Eckstein engaged more than 6,600 US churches, with more than a half-million people, around understanding and advocating for Israel and its people. Because of IFCJ, more than 730,000 Jews moved back to Israel, including Eckstein himself, who moved to Jerusalem in 2002.
“Undeniably through IFCJ, Eckstein has constructed a bridge linking evangelicals, Jews, and Israel,” CT wrote in a 2009 profile of Eckstein, nicknamed “The Ultimate Kibitzer.”
“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.”
Eckstein founded IFCJ in 1983 as a small organization with a mostly Jewish donor base. Thanks to his outreach, networking, and inroads with evangelical figures (including a particularly effective 1993 infomercial with Pat Boone), the organization ballooned into the largest source of Christian support for Israel and the Jewish people.
A decade ago, 98 percent of IFCJ’s 800,000-person giving list was Christian. In recent years, Eckstein has followed the growth of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity abroad to develop partnerships with believers there; IFCJ now has offices in Seoul, South Korea, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, and boasts nearly 2 million supporters.
“Israel and the Jewish people have long played a key role in the religious imagination of many evangelical Protestants. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein knew how to help us turn that into concrete action, channeling our affection for the Jewish people into resettlement efforts for Russian Jews and other philanthropic projects,” said David Neff, former CT editor-in-chief who convened an ongoing national dialogue between Jews and evangelicals.
“More than any other Jewish leader I have known, he had an intuitive sense for relating to evangelicals.”
While evangelicals have grown more supportive of Israel, politically and spiritually, some observant Jews have remained suspicious, concerned about their proselytization strategies and motives. Eckstein worked for decades to build trust and friendship between evangelicals and Jews, focusing on their shared concern for the Holy Land.
“Jews started to realize that they were friends of Israel, and then the Jewish community by and large became very myopic in their thinking,” Eckstein toldThe Washington Post last year, as the Trump administration’s pro-Jerusalem policies drew more attention to longstanding evangelical support. “They are good for Israel, they are giving them money for their projects…. For a lot of Jews it was, let’s call it utilitarian.”
The late philanthropist was slated to be honored by the US Congress this May for Jewish American Heritage Month, for his work bringing together Christians and Jews.
Popular American rabbi Shmuley Boteach remembered Eckstein, who had spoken at his son’s bar mitzvah two nights before, for having done “incalculable good.”
As one Israeli politician said in tribute, “A heart that gave and gave and gave stopped working…. May his memory be a source of blessing for all who knew him and were touched by him.”
CT’s 2009 profile explains more about why Eckstein was evangelicals’ favorite rabbi.