Rabbi Eckstein Was a Bridge to Christians

The Fellowship  |  February 7, 2019

Rabbi Eckstein giving a speech in a church.
Phil Lewis 313-706-1912

As The Fellowship and Stand for Israel mourn the passing of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, we are heartened by the remembrances by the many he touched during his life. Here, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin remembers his friend and “all that he did, and that that he got others to do”:

American Jews like to argue over the nature of Christian evangelical support for Israel.

Many of those arguments center on Christians United for Israel — their political and theological agenda, and some of the more problematic pronouncements of its founder and executive director, Pastor John Hagee.

Forget CUFI, for a moment.

Let’s talk about another organization — the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Quite simply: this is an organization that reaches out to Christian evangelicals, and encourages them to support Jewish needs and the state of Israel. Rabbi Eckstein focused, specifically, on the need of poor Jews in Israel and in the former Soviet Union.

I first became truly aware of this group when I read this article in the Sunday New York Times magazine. I was fascinated, especially by its leader, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who has died at the age of 67.

I mourn him, and I pay tribute to his vision — and his menschlicheit.

In contrast to CUFI, Rabbi Eckstein’s organization has no political agenda.

Its purpose is clear: getting Christians to become part of the unfolding path of Jewish history, and to support Israel, financially and emotionally.

And what a story Yechiel told!

I will never forget his public dialogue with then-president of the URJ, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

Yechiel told the story of Christian kids who ask their parents not to give them Christmas presents, but rather, to send the money instead to Israel.

Impressive. And, enviable.

As my colleague Rabbi Avraham Bronstein recently wrote about a sermon that Rabbi Eckstein gave at the Great Neck Synagogue. he quotes Rabbi Eckstein:

My name is Yechiel Eckstein, and I raise money from Christians for Jewish causes and the State of Israel. Over the last ten years [at the time of this sermon], I’ve raised well over one billion dollars — more than $100 million per year. My average donation is $20-something, and my office in Chicago receives many thousand donations per day.

As Rabbi Bronstein reported: “There were audible gasps in the sanctuary.”

Yes. Wow. Just, wow.

Wow — because when it comes to supporting Israel, many Christian evangelicals are eating our proverbial lunch.

They have surpassed the Jewish community in their support for Israel politically, emotionally and certainly financially.

To wit:

  • Thousands of Christian Zionists visit Israel for Sukkot.
  • During the darkest periods of terrorism in Israel, Christian Zionists kept Israeli hotels in operation, as American Jews found other places to visit.
  • When Jews go to Israel, they tend to go as tourists. When Christian evangelicals go, they go as pilgrims.
  • There are Christian families who tithe for Israel.

If we are sheepish when we read this, then perhaps we should remember the real meaning of Zionism.

It is Jews building thee land with the sweat of their brows, and with sacrificial offerings from their own wallets.

As the old Zionist hymn puts it: “We have come to the Land to build and to be rebuilt by it.”

Yechiel Eckstein demonstrated, to us and to the world, that gentile support for Israel need not be political; need not be theological; need not be rooted in anything other than a love for the Jewish people.

More than this: he demonstrated that there was a palpable need among Christians to support Israel and Jewish causes — perhaps out of a willingness to atone for what has been a very mixed history.

Perhaps this has been their teshuva.

He was 67?

That is far too young.

The great Hebrew poet, H.N. Bialik, might have written these famous words for Yechiel.

After my death, thus shall you mourn me

“There was a man –and see: he is no more!

Before his time did this man depart

And the song of his life in its midst was stilled

And alas! One more tune did he have

And now that tune is forever lost

Forever lost!

And great is the pity! For a harp had he

A living and singing soul

And this poet, whenever he voiced it

The inner secrets of his heart it expressed

All its strings his hand would make sing out.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein was a great man, whose tune of love and understanding and devotion is lost forever.

If you seek his eulogy, though, just visit Israel — and wonder aloud at all that he did, and all that he got others to do.

May his memory be a blessing.