There is nothing quite like walking down the gangway to or from an El Al plane at Ben Gurion airport and seeing poster after poster lining the passage, touting the work of the International Fellowship of Christians & Jews — with a larger-than-life photo of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein in nearly every one.
My daughters and I have joked for years that we were so surprised to see those posters after each trip any of us took to Israel. Because I have known Yechiel for over 25 years — since the early days of the Fellowship, when he lived in Chicago and we would often meet when he visited New York. Even though I shared his critics’ reservations about accepting millions of dollars from evangelical Christians, whose motivation was, Yechiel insisted, just to follow the passage in Genesis in which God tells Abraham “I will bless those who bless you,” thinking that they were doing so for their own eschatological and geo-political beliefs, I was very fond of him.
Since he began the Fellowship in 1983 Eckstein and his organization raised more than 1.6 billion – with a B – dollars, according to a statement the group sent out today after its founder died of apparent cardiac arrest, at age 67, in his home in Jerusalem.
He was as excited as a schoolboy while he planned to make aliyah, which he did in 1999. I remember meeting with him in the offices of JTA, where I then worked, and being charmed and touched by his heartfelt enthusiasm. For Yechiel, who was an ordained Orthodox rabbi, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
I watched his organization grow from start up to behemoth, as his — perhaps justified — sense of importance — grew alongside. But somehow, it always seemed to me, his unbridled enthusiasm for his work made him a charming guy with a down-to-earth quality that never disappeared.
Now, with Yechiel gone, his daughter Yael, who is already the Fellowship’s global executive vice president, is expected to continue his work.
Yechiel pioneered raising money from Christians for the benefit of Jews, with late-night television commercials that still seem ubiquitous if you turn on late-night television and played constantly on Christian radio stations. In his marketing the Fellowship Jews are poor and needy – he asks for his Christian viewers’ donations to support elderly Holocaust survivors and those living in the former Soviet Union. His Jews are not brawny sabras IDF veterans or startup geniuses creating tech to sell to one of the world’s major app or software companies. The Jews in his marketing are babushka-clad wizened old people freezing in the former Soviet Union. You can see his TV ad here.
He was the face of Jewry to much of the American evangelical Christian community – the only Jewish figure some would ever “meet,” through his television ads and appearances on the Christian Broadcasting Network. And he cut an appealing figure, with a combination of boyish looks and sincerity. The Fellowship’s website includes all sorts of educational material for Christians, about Jewish holidays, the Holocaust and angels.
Yechiel had the unique ability to bridge the Jewish and evangelical worlds, because he spoke the language of both. He would move easily from talking about a sense of being called to bless others, to using that combination of Hebrew and English slang specific to Anglo immigrants to Israel while expressing frustration with Jerusalem’s municipality, for instance.
Yechiel was funding the Aliyah of more immigrants than even the Jewish Agency was, at one point, and he wanted recognition that the Israeli establishment was loath to give. So he ended up breaking away and starting his own aliyah program, at times filling planes with new immigrants.
When I visited Yechiel with my daughter just over a year ago at the Fellowship’s HQ in Jerusalem, he was eager to tell me about the many programs his work was funding around Israel as well as in the FSU – ranging from soup kitchens to day activity programs for poor senior citizens and the disabled just across the street from his office. He would regularly go to give hands-on help at that center, he said.
For all my unease with Yechiel’s closeness to people like Rev. Pat Robertson and Rev. John Hagee, whose views on things like abortion and the civil rights of minority groups, as well as Israel’s hoped-for peace process, are in diametrical opposition to mine and those of most other American Jews, I could not help but be impressed with the work he was doing funding programs for the needy that even Israel’s own government was not.
Within minutes of meeting my daughter he had given us two autographed copies of his biography and offered Aliza, who was in Jerusalem for a gap year between high school and college, an interesting-sounding internship. That was Yechiel – both his ego and his generosity could be on display in the same moment.
Yechiel was larger than life — he had tremendous and enthusiastic energy for his work and a sincere belief that he was repairing the world. And even though I felt uneasy about the motivation and influence of some of the people he considered his closest allies in the work, one thing was clear to me: he was.
He will be missed.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes from New York for Haaretz and is a contributing editor at The Forward.
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