George Mamo, The Fellowship’s Executive Vice President and Global Chief Operating Officer who worked with Rabbi Eckstein for 20 years, sent us this message from Israel:
Earlier this week, we marked a week since Rabbi was taken from us.
The family “stood up” from Shiva. They gathered at the grave, said prayers that mourning Jews have said for centuries, and reentered the world.
Although it will be a L-O-N-G time before anything feels normal to Yechiel’s family, Wednesday evening “normal” moved from being a town “down state” to – well, you know – normal.
For the first time since I arrived last Friday, I didn’t go to sit Shiva – instead I did “Chicago stuff” late into the night.
Over the last week, hundreds came to comfort Rabbi’s family – not just Israelis. People came from Barcelona to comfort Joelle, classmates from NY for Beryl, Chicagoans and Floridians to be with Yael and Talia, Canadians to be with Yechiel’s sisters. Russians, Ukrainians, Mayors, Ministers, Members of Knesset and hundreds of folks helped by Keren L’Yedidut – but really they all came to honor and thank “Rav Eckstein.”
Over the course of those 7 nights, I was the only man who was kippah-less.
It would have been easy to feel an outsider, to feel out-of-place, to feel I didn’t belong. But that’s not what I felt. Instead, I was at home. At my friend Yechiel’s home. But as I listened I met a different person. A Dad who told his girls’ friends the same joke every time they visited. “Did you hear about the hold-up in your neighborhood?” “Yes, Rabbi Eckstein. The T-shirt was held-up by 2 clothespins” (we can see now why he pursued music instead of stand-up). A grandpa who made plans to do special things with each grandkid, and the time “he made the exploding pickles” – Yechiel in the kitchen?
During Shiva, when we grieve a death and celebrate a life, I met a much more “human” Rabbi than I’ve known for the last nearly 20 years. It both felt good and it hurt.
When Rabbi’s daughter and successor, Yael, came to the office. I gave her a sympathy card from “Chicago.” I tried to say it didn’t have everyone’s signature “because it was already late when we heard about your …” – that’s as far as I got before the tears started.
I was raised at a time when boys were taught, “Big boys don’t cry.” I believed that. I lived that for many years. But trying to just talk to Yael, I couldn’t finish my sentence.
On Tuesday, I tried to tell his other daughters that Christians don’t really know how to mourn. We don’t know when we’re supposed to go back to work or to the movies or when we’re allowed to laugh again. I tried to say that when their Dad completed his year of mourning for his father, I asked him to write a guide for the goyim. I couldn’t finish any of it.
I’m not the only guy crying. Abu Ashraf has cleaned the Keren’s offices since we were on HaHistadrut Street. A powerful, proud, strong Muslim, Abu Ashraf offered prayer for the “rise” of Rabbi’s soul at Al Aqsa Mosque. He also brought a case of dates, and tearfully asked that we say a bracha (and yes, he used the Hebrew word) that Rabbi’s soul will rise to heaven. Abu Ashraf – like me – has been crying at the loss of his friend “Rav Yechiel” – he was at Shiva as often as I. He cried as he told me how he loved Rabbi. Although Rabbi’s calling was to build a bridge between Jews and Christians, he and Abu Ashraf have built a strong bridge too.
What’s next? Yael Eckstein is our President; she was already transitioning into her Abba’s role. She has a clear vision for our future. A vision built on her father’s accomplishments.
The Fellowship is like a “tel” – a city built on a city, built on a city. The past is our foundation. The Bridge isn’t finished. We go on “from strength to strength.”