The Jewish Voice Speaks With Judeo-Christian Bridge Builder and Founder of the IFCJ
No stranger to the pages of the Jewish Voice, Rabbi Yechiel Z. Eckstein, the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), has once again sat down with us to update our readers on the wide array of humanitarian efforts that his organization has undertaken.
Having dedicated over 35 years to fostering working relationships and understanding between Christians and Jews, Rabbi Eckstein has not only succeeded in creating broad support for the State of Israel, but he has been internationally recognized as the world’s leading Jewish authority on evangelical Christians. His curriculum vitae is replete with impressive academic accomplishments including his rabbinic ordination and master’s degree from Yeshiva University in New York and his doctorate in Jewish philosophy from Columbia University. He has served on the faculties of Columbia University, Chicago Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist Seminary. He currently holds positions on the executive committees of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
In 1983, Eckstein established the IFCJ in the hopes of helping to create a common ground between Christians and Jews so that they may work together on projects promoting the security and well-being of Jews in Israel and around the world. Serving as a catalyst and inspiration for Rabbi Eckstein at that the time was the work he had done as national co-director of interreligious affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. In that role, he broke new ground by forging partnerships with evangelical Christians and thus, the underlying concept for the IFCJ was formed.
In addition to being a renowned Judeo-Christian ecumenicist, this multi-talented rabbi is also a father and grandfather, the author of six highly-acclaimed books and a popular Israeli musician with has six albums to his credit. Rabbi Eckstein, and his wife Joelle, make their home in Israel.
Speaking candidly of the accomplishments of the IFCJ, Rabbi Eckstein says, “We are now 29 years old and we have grown considerably since our inception. Our income is $120 million a year and we give out about $70 to 80 million a year, as we are a grant-making group with a focus on philanthropy.” Among the organizations that receive funding from the IFCJ are the Jewish Agency, Nefesh B’Nefesh, ORT, Chabad-Lubavitch and the Israel Defense Forces. At the recent Friends of the Israel Defense Forces gala dinner in Manhattan, Rabbi Eckstein outdid his peers, donating $9.25 million in support of the multi-faceted programs aimed at helping Israeli soldiers.
Aiding beleaguered, elderly and poverty-stricken Jews remains the focal point of Rabbi Eckstein’s work as he distributes over $25 million annually for the re-settlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia to Israel. “We provide food, clothing, medical aid, job training, Jewish schools and attend to the welfare needs of thousands of immigrants, and this year alone we built 23 Ethiopian synagogues,” says Rabbi Eckstein. With great optimism in his voice, Rabbi Eckstein noted that for Pesach this year, his organization would be providing food for approximately 40,000 people.
Because Israel is constantly under existential siege by surrounding enemies, Rabbi Eckstein and the IFCJ have stepped in with funds for security projects, including the building and maintenance of 1320 bomb shelters throughout Israel’s northern and southern borders. “We also give millions of dollars a year to hospitals as well as funding MRI equipment,” the rabbi added. Addressing the social and psychological needs of those living in a country beset with terrorism, Rabbi Eckstein also funds shelters for battered woman and youth centers in impoverished neighborhoods.
The IFCJ benefits both Jews and Gentiles, as Rabbi Eckstein’s many initiatives include food programs for Israel’s Arab villages and provisions for home heating fuel for elderly Arabs. He has established over 200 programs for Christians, and special holiday celebrations on their major holidays.
As terrorism aimed at Jews and Israeli targets proliferates throughout the world, Rabbi Eckstein says, “We started funding a project that has really gotten out of hand. We are providing security systems for Jewish institutions that are being threatened in almost every continent. After a synagogue was attacked in Turkey we provide three quarters of a million dollars for security there and after the heinous attacks in Mumbai we are funding even more Chabad houses and provide security for religious Jews to visit Uman every year on Rosh Hashanah.” He ruefully observes that, “in the aftermath of the recent murders in France, we are now getting urgent requests for help with security there. We pick up in areas where there is a void, where there is nobody to provide these essential services.”
Because of the ever growing needs of Jews the world over, Rabbi Eckstein says, “We already have offices in the United States, Canada and Israel and we have opened new offices in Seoul, South Korea, in Australia and in London and next year we are opening offices in Brazil, Germany and Argentina. While most Jewish organizations are struggling financially we are filling in the gap.” Utilizing the media and social networking forums, Rabbi Eckstein’s organization broadcasts its message to over 3 million people every week through daily radio programs that air on thousands of stations. “We broadcast to every country in Latin America, to Japan, to Singapore and in Australia and in many different languages.”
Another project close to Rabbi Eckstein’s heart is the one he’s established to assist Holocaust survivors in Israel. His voice filled with anguish, Eckstein tells the JV, “I think it is irresponsible and shameful that elderly Holocaust survivors in Israel have to live in abject poverty. The international community and the United States Jewish community could not give them money, could not provide for their basic needs, but we stepped in to ensure that their lives will be filled with hope and the dignity and respect they deserve.”
Despite his ceaseless dedication to humanitarianism and chesed towards all, Rabbi Eckstein has been a polemical figure in both the Jewish and Christian world. “In the early years of the IFCJ, I was being attacked in the United States by the liberal segment of the community; the Jewish federations, the reform movement and the secular. They thought that our agenda would lead to an erosion of the Jewish community but when we started organizing and raising money the attacks in the U.S. stopped but I was still persona non grata in mainstream Jewish life,” says Rabbi Eckstein. Because the lion’s share of his funding comes from the evangelical Christian community, many prominent Jewish organizations look upon his work dubiously, with some even asserting that he is a clandestine Christian missionary.”
“Although I work with many evangelical Christians, my iron-clad rule is that I never have nor will I ever work with a Christian organization or personality that engages in missionary work aimed at Jews,” declares Rabbi Eckstein. For the last 10 years, Rabbi Eckstein says that most of the criticism being hurled in his direction has come from a variety of religious Zionist organizations, Chareidi movements and such organizations as Yad L’achim who have branded him a missionary.
“Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of the Lithuanian yeshiva world has declared that it is prohibited to take money from us, so the millions of dollars a years that we were giving to Chareidi institutions are no longer going to them,” he says, adding that, “we also take heat from the Christian evangelical world as well. There are those in the evangelical community who try to convince others in the evangelical community not to support us because we will not work with or support those Christians who wish to evangelize Jews in Israel or anywhere in the world.”
Recalling some instances of being isolated from his community, Rabbi Eckstein says, “I was in a shul in Argentina once and I was called up for an aliya to the Torah and someone there questioned whether I should have a right to an aliya because of who I am and what my organization stands for. There was also a rabbi in the United States who put me into cherem (a form of excommunication), but it doesn’t bother me.”
Rabbi Eckstein postulates that, “Right now, at this pivotal moment in history, there is a growing nexus between America and Israel as we both engage in the fight against terrorism, against Islamic radicalism. Christians are growing increasingly more cognizant that the roots of their faith are predicated in Judaism and they know that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews and are completely supportive.”
He says that what differentiates the IFCJ with other organizations is that they “didn’t come into this with any political posture” and says that, “we didn’t bring along the right wing Christian evangelicals with the right wing Orthodox settlers and we have worked with every government, every prime minister.” Eckstein adds that his objectives now remain the same as they have always been.
“We are here to help those in desperate need. To lend a hand; to provide for those who are suffering, with generosity and with compassion, because by doing so we show the world what true Jewish values are.”