The Fellowship‘s Senior Vice President, Yael Eckstein, was recently featured on the cover of Nashim (Women) magazine! Here’s the translation of the cover story:
Going to the Defense
by Shira Hershkovitz
Yael Eckstein, daughter of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and senior vice-president of “The Fellowship,” in her first full interview with “Nashim,” talks about coping with the allegations against The Fellowship, her great appreciation for her father, the touching moments during her work with The Fellowship and also answers the most difficult questions
A year ago, the Ministry of Education announced the “Summer of Fellowship” or “Schools of the Summer Vacation,” camps that were supposed to be financed by “The Fellowship” with funds that come from the pockets of Christians, mostly evangelicals, from the United States. The announcement by the Minister of Education, Shai Piron, caused a large reverberation in the religious sector and resulted in a lot of noise and angry reactions from the rabbis, educators, parents and community leaders who called for a boycott of the camps. This re-awakened an ancient debate about accepting donations from Gentiles.
Some, like Rabbi Stav, head of the “Tzohar” organization, maintained that it’s permissible to accept these funds. In a letter which he published, the Rabbi wrote: “At the factual level, the money provided by ‘The Fellowship’ was donated by evangelical Christians. This movement supports the Jewish people and believes that Israel should guard its religion, and the return of the Jewish people to Israel is part of the fulfillment of the Jewish mission.” Rabbi Stav also emphasized in his letter that the donors have no direct personal acquaintance with those who benefit from the money.
Contrary to the opinion of Rabbi Stav other claims arose, such as that of Rabbi Aviner who maintained that if, during the two thousand years of Diaspora, when we were persecuted, poor and unfortunate we didn’t agree to accept missionary funds, then how much more so should we refuse during these times. Last summer Rabbi Aviner also called upon citizens not to enter the mobile bomb shelters donated by The Fellowship and claimed that this is missionary work. In addition to Rabbi Aviner, some claimed that the problem is not the money, but rather the close connection between Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and his donors. There were even rumors, based on a segment from his book, claiming that he himself had become a Messianic Jew. Rabbi Yaakov Ariel and Rabbi Zephaniah Drori were quoted in advertisements against The Fellowship: “We’ve come to warn and caution that any cooperation with The Fellowship is prohibited and dangerous since the objective of The Fellowship is to generate Christian influence on the Israeli public”, the advertisement said. Beyond the halachic Jewish law argument, the rabbis claimed that The Fellowship might also influence the content of the camp programs. For Yael Eckstein, the daughter of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of The Fellowship, it wasn’t the first time she had to cope with opposition to her father’s image.
“I grew up knowing that my father was controversial. For many years I didn’t understand why. I always saw my father as a spiritual mentor and a man with a deep connection with the Almighty and Jewish religious law. He never missed a prayer. During my childhood he would get up every day at four o’clock in the morning to study Talmud and from the time he celebrated his bar mitzvah there has never been a day that he didn’t put on Tefillin. Before Rebbe Nachman became a sage for our generation, my father would seclude himself regularly. Despite the suffering and criticism directed at him, and although there were communities that wouldn’t count him as part of the prayer quorum, he continued to do what he does because of his love for Israel and the Jewish people.”
As his daughter, wasn’t it difficult for you to hear all the criticism against your father? You didn’t feel the need to defend him?
“Over the years, most of the time I didn’t let criticism affect me, because I learned from my father that if you don’t have something you’d die for, you don’t have anything to live for. He believes so strongly in what he does, just like Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
“However, last summer was a different story. In the past there were mainly ultra-Orthodox groups opposed to my father and we didn’t take it hard because we knew that there are other groups that need help and financial or other assistance and we could contribute to them. My father also didn’t want to fight with them. He said, ‘If someone doesn’t want the money, he shouldn’t take it. If someone wants to speak with me, they should come and talk.’ Unfortunately, those who ruled against him have never spoken to him. However, when it came to the national religious public, a public that I’m a part of, the feelings changed.
“At my son’s circumcision we had a Mohel named Ben Ish Chai who is from the national religious public. Last summer he called me and said, “Everyone I know wants to support The Fellowship and believe that you’re not missionaries, but you keep silent when all the Rabbis are running a campaign against you.” At that point I turned to my father and told him that we need to tell our side. My father, who’s a man who runs away from disagreement, didn’t want to get into it, but gradually he realized he had no choice.”
There were quite a few people who quoted from your father’s book and tried to prove that he himself was a Messianic Jew and his work is missionary work.
“My father wrote a book as part of the separation process after losing a Christian friend who was dear to him. The book is about a theoretical, imaginary journey to Israel that they actually always dreamed of making together which never came about. There’s a passage in the book where they walk out of the church and my father, wearing a skullcap, laughs and says, ‘They must think I’m a Messianic Jew,’ and then he adds in jest, ‘I believe that Jesus introduced pagans to the monotheistic religion, so in a sense I probably am….’ People took one segment from the whole sentence and highlighted it without regard to any context. The campaign was based on lies,” says Yael, and the huge smile which has shined since from the beginning of our conversation leaves her lips. “In retrospect, my father regretted that he wrote it because it gave fuel to anyone who took it out of context.”
How did you start to respond to propaganda against you?
“Several months ago, 25 ultra-Orthodox rabbis issued a letter in which they wrote that they support The Fellowship. We also have letters from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (who initially turned to The Fellowship and later changed his opinion) and rabbis from the national-religious public. I find it sad that children are suffering because of a political agenda of their rabbis. But does this affect us personally? We try not to let it because we know we’re doing the right thing and are motives are pure.”
To Turn an Enemy into a Friend
Yael comes to our meeting wearing a simple scarf, an Indian tunic that spills onto her tricot skirt, flip-flops and a huge smile. This isn’t exactly the businesswoman I expected to meet. She’s 30, born in the United States and she moved to Israel after graduating from university. She met her husband, Amichai, while she was in school and they live together with their three children in pastoral Pardes Hanna. She describes herself as an Orthodox woman and is very connected to the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. She has degrees in Bible, Jewish studies and sociology, and during the conversation the spiritual side that accompanies her life and work are revealed.
“I was born in Chicago, Illinois. We lived there because after my father graduated from Yeshiva University and then Columbia (considered one of the best universities in the United States), after which he was sent by the ADL (an organization that works against anti-Semitism) for the Nazi march that was to take place in Chicago. He was sent to show support for the community, in which a lot of people are Holocaust survivors, and to strengthen the voice that wanted to stop the demonstration. He came to Chicago and discovered a community that didn’t have a voice strong enough to stop the anti-Semitic march. It was also important to my father to show that this was not just a local problem.
‘Christian clergy began to approach him and offer their support. He was one of the first Jews, and what’s more, a rabbi, who was willing to hear what the Christians have to say. Although he initially suspected them, when he realized they weren’t trying to get him to convert to Christianity, he felt he had discovered a new world and was developing important relationships for the Jewish people.”
Why is this relationship so vital? We can’t do without it?
“Throughout history the Jews were isolated and during dark times like the Holocaust there were hardly any people who stood up and fought our battle. My father understood the potential, that we’ll have millions of friends who have a voice and whose numbers are huge. He also believed it was possible to stand as a united body with shared values even if the religions are different. Once my father realized that it’s possible to turn enemies into friends, he also understood that, G-d forbid, if there’s another major war or disaster, this backing could save the Jewish people. So we stayed in Chicago and didn’t return to New York.”
Despite that the ADL refused to hear this and forced Rabbi Eckstein to resign, the mission for which he was sent succeeded and the march that was organized by members of the KKK (fraternal organizations in the US which espouse white supremacy and anti-Semitism) was canceled.
Rabbi Eckstein then established The Fellowship, which started out with dialogue groups, conferences and creating strong relationships with Christian leaders. That was until the dissolution of the FSU. The Christians, for their part, saw a type of fulfillment of prophecy in their connection with the Jewish people and they wanted to contribute their part. So as soon as the iron curtain was lifted, Eckstein managed to raise millions that were contributed to the aliya of Russian Jews.
The Fellowship is currently considered the largest independent philanthropic organization in Israel. It manages to raise close to $150 million annually. The list of donors, “Friends of The Fellowship,” consists of 1.4 million people and the average gift is a $50 donation. The Fellowship believes that when there are a lot of small donors, it allows stability over time. There are four central funds: one is a general fund. The second is the “Guardians of Israel” fund which is designated for operations in the country. The third fund, known as “On Wings of Eagles,” is intended for aliya. Among other things, The Fellowship has supported aliya from Ethiopian, the aliya of the Bnei Menashe and special aliya operations to bring Jews from Arab countries. There is also the fund, from which The Fellowship began, that is designated to assist the Jews of Russia and support the Jewish organizations that are active there.
Why specifically there?
“When the communist government in Russia fell, it was clear why the aliya of Jews was an important goal to assist in. But there are still 500,000 Jews living there. Only three generations have passed since the Holocaust and many Jews have assimilated. Many scientists now argue that if had we lost the third generation, then Judaism would be lost there. Also, many Jews there need humanitarian aid of one type or another. I fly there and meet Holocaust survivors aged 90 who don’t have running water at home. They draw water from a well and don’t even have bathrooms in their home. It’s hard to believe that there are Jews who live like that. So I’m happy that I have the privilege of going there and bringing kosher food, medicine and aid for different types of needs. In addition, we conduct summer camps for children and youth to strengthen their Jewish identity, and we assist the local Chabad, the Chamah organization and the JDC which is also active in Russia. The goal for us is to save Judaism which is disappearing there.”
How did you get involved in working at The Fellowship?
“My father always encouraged me to study law. I really wanted to be a housewife like my mother had been for many years. When I made aliya I looked for work and asked if there was any job I could have in The Fellowship’s office. They paid me 25 shekels an hour and I put stamps on envelopes. The moment I saw all the important things The Fellowship does, I longed to be a part of it. For two years, until my oldest daughter was born, I did secretarial work.”
People didn’t see a kind of nepotism in your entrance into The Fellowship?
“When my daughter was born I left my job, but after a while I was at the crossroads and I wanted to go to work and earn a living. So I turned to my father and he told me in a very sharp and clear way: ‘For 20 years we haven’t been accused of anything. I don’t want people to say that this is nepotism.’ Despite his strong opinion I wanted to be a part of the organization and I turned to the Chicago office to see if there was anything I could do by remote control. They told me, ‘You know what, the relationship with the donors is very important to us. It would be wonderful if you could thank them on behalf of your father and talk to them.’ That’s what I did for two years.”
“Then the Second Lebanon War started and we decided on the bomb shelters project. They sent me to the north to see the shelters and to understand the needs of the residents who live on the border in order to later present it to the donors. I wrote them a report about what I saw and we raised over ten million dollars. I started writing these types of ‘reports’ for donors on a regular basis – the situation in Israel and The Fellowship’s activities. At the same time I started working on projects. In 2011, I was appointed senior vice-president of The Fellowship by the Executive Board in Chicago.
The Spirit in Israel
In this role, Yael has established an office in Brazil, she works with teams that raise money and has become the voice of the donors in Israel. Yael continued to write to donors and launched a Facebook page. She has over 20,000 followers and her posts often get 500,000 hits.
Tell me about the moments when you feel the most connected to The Fellowship’s work?
“Every year in the winter we distribute heaters to the elderly. We conducted a survey and learned that one out of every four elderly did not turn on the heat in the winter because they’re afraid they won’t be able to buy food. Approximately 30 percent of the elderly take showers once a week in the winter because they can’t afford to turn on the boiler. Last year we decided to distribute 25,000 checks in the amount of $100 so the elderly would be able to turn on the heat.
“For one of the check distributions I came to the home of an elderly Holocaust survivor. She was in a room on the top floor with no insulation and no elevator. I brought her a check for home heating and a blanket. She started crying and said she had asthma and could not go up and down the stairs. The only way she gets food is because of the eight hours of help she gets each week from the National Insurance. She told me her asthma becomes more severe in winter and because she has no money to turn on the heat she’s afraid she won’t survive. A week after the visit I got a telephone call and they told me she had died from a severe asthma attack.
“The story awakened and shook me. Following the event we decided to distribute emergency bracelets that are connected to a Fellowship Call Center for Holocaust survivors across the country so they can call and order everything they need. They can also call for an ambulance and instead of paying $100 it only costs them $5.”
Yael wants to tell me about another instance. “Four years ago I went to deliver food packages in Tzfat. I was on my way to the apartment of an elderly woman in a dilapidated building without an elevator. I couldn’t remember the number of the apartment and found myself in the wrong apartment. There was an elderly woman in that apartment who was sitting alone and who looked as if she were suffering. It turned out that she had hip surgery two days earlier and she has no children. She’s a Holocaust survivor, a woman who survived Auschwitz and she’s sitting alone in a frozen apartment a day after surgery. I opened her refrigerator and it was empty, so I went to bring her food. Following this experience it was decided to distribute food boxes to 50,000 elderly on a weekly basis. The distribution is done through emissaries so the elderly also have company.”
Do you miss life in the United States?
“I fly to the United States a lot and just as there’s a difference between the hours in Israel and other countries, I also feel a spiritual difference. I love Israel, the people, everything except the politics which thankfully I’m not involved in. The main problem of Diaspora Jewry is assimilation. Judaism there is mostly devoid of spirituality and depth so the young are looking and turning to other places. They want something different, colorful, and most communities don’t have it. Those who are religious – I say to you, ‘Way to go’ – because there’s little to hold on to. It’s a completely different situation here. Young people in Tel Aviv gather to make Shabbat together and in my eyes this is a type of beginning of the redemption. In general, there’s beauty and soul in Judaism here and many varieties, ways and choices. When people stop complaining and they open their eyes, they discover that this is the most amazing place in the world.
“We’re captive to the feeling of wretchedness that prevents us from seeing the hope and becoming stronger in faith. I believe when we’re connected to our Jewishness and love ourselves and the world, then the Gentiles also come and say, ‘Wow! Tell me about it’! They want to learn from us. The light from our achievements should illuminate the whole world. The Torah didn’t just affect the religious and if we take a monopoly on it what kind of world will this be?!”
What motivates you in your work?
“I believe we came into the world to differentiate between the sacred and the profane, and to raise everything to the level of holiness. No matter what you do, there’s always the possibility of raising the profane to the level of holiness. I try to live this way and teach it to my children. People live in a world of achievements and materialism, but when they achieve their goals they feel empty. When I look at the role that G-d gave me, to show people that there’s holiness in everything, then I feel fullness and hope. This relates to the smallest details, even food.”
The Really Important Things
When Yael speaks of spiritual eating, she means it. Besides her work with The Fellowship, Yael recently released a cookbook called “Spiritual Cooking,” healthy recipes with intentions that Eckstein wrote on the basis of verses from Psalms and the Torah. Within a short time the book climbed the “Amazon” bestseller list and Yael is already starting to think about the next book.
There’s something a little confusing about you – on the one hand you’re the VP of a huge organization which you represent around the world – you deal with multimillion-dollar projects, and on the other hand you convey simplicity, talk about spirituality and live in the bastion of hippies in Israel, far from the city noise.
“Many of my friends don’t even know what I do,” confesses Yael. “I’m glad it’s so because I don’t want my business successes to define who I am. I don’t want the success to go to my head or that this should be the most important thing about me. There’s more to life than being a successful woman. To me, the real success is knowing how to balance all the important things. This is true feminism. This doesn’t mean an attempt to be strong as a man or to always present the face of a successful woman. To me, women who are always at home with the children work harder than the husbands who go to work.”
In Yael’s case, her husband who works from home is the one who spends most of the time with the children while she goes to meetings in the Jerusalem office or to other assignments in Israel and the world. However when she gets home, she tries to make a clear separation between home and work.
“I constantly remind myself that my children don’t care if their mother is famous or rich. It doesn’t matter to them if I’ve met government ministers or world leaders. It’s important to them that I be a good, attentive and loving mother who’s there for them. They don’t need a manager, they need a mother. So since I became a public figure, I really try to separate the two. As Yael Eckstein I’m a businesswoman. I raise money, manage teams in four countries, plan various projects and implement them. At home I’m a mother. I disconnect from work and go in pajamas to the park next to our home with my kids, sit on the ground with them and play with them. This keeps me balanced and happy.
“I feel that the only way I can really succeed and enjoy life is if I do the best job I can, but never forget that being a mother and wife are my most important tasks in life."