Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein holds a check for $1 million — a surprise donation to Hadassah on Tuesday night.
Hadassah honored Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, with its Man of Distinction award at Tuesday's banquet. National president Nancy Falchuk presented the award — which was a complete surprise for Eckstein, who had come only intending to give a speech.
"I got a call from Nancy a few months ago," he said. "She asked, 'Rabbi, do you believe in free speech?' Of course. 'Well, I'd like you to give a free speech.'" He came to the banquet with a message for Hadassah members, not an acceptance speech.
In his talk, Eckstein spoke of his early work in Christian-Jewish relations at the Anti-Defamation League, taking a group of Christians to Israel, and his concerns over what his parents, an Orthodox rabbi and rebbetzin from Canada, now living here in Hollywood, Florida, would think of his work. But he felt it was the right decision. And he emphasized the mission of his organization in working together with the Christian community for the betterment of Israel and Jewish people worldwide.
"There are going to be issues where we're going to differ," he said. "Let's differ respectfully. Issues like Israel where we'll agree, let's do it cooperatively and always keep the bridges open."
Eckstein's organization, which 13 years ago had three employees, now has 100 and has raised over $750 million since its founding in 1983. He told of Christian donors who give small donations that pose a sacrifice for them and the stories they tell of why and how they give to Israel and the Jewish people. He told of the joint effort his fellowship makes with Hadassah's dental school to give free treatment to poor Israeli children. He spoke of the work that still needs to be done, of a community that needs to work harder to sustain its spiritual resources: religious schools, institutions and programs.
Then, Eckstein brought some encouragement. He praised Hadassah as "a way of life, expressing and embodying the values we hold dear. Hadassah is the bridge for hundreds of thousands of Jews to Israel and the Jewish people. We in the Jewish community need Hadassah more than Hadassah needs us."
As if his words weren't enough, Eckstein then presented Hadassah with a check for $1 million. He was then joined onstage by Falchuk, who graciously thanked him for his words and his donation. Then his parents and other family members stood up and applauded with the entire audience.