In Memoriam: Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein
Last Monday night, February 6, was the fourth yahrzeit of Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, the founder and builder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. I was a friend from his earliest days — he took courses with me as an undergraduate at Yeshiva College — and I admired his amazing achievements in the Fellowship. I don’t want to let this yahrzeit go by without giving over a little of his remarkable contributions to the new relationship between Judaism and Christianity. [On this topic you can see my book, For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity (Jewish Publication Society, 2004).]
Yehiel was the son of a rabbi and always had a deep religious and musical streak in him. Throughout his life, on Friday afternoons before Shabbat, he would listen to Hasidic music and songs, full of spirituality and longing for closeness to God. He had a lot of personal charm and charisma. He played the guitar and sang quite beautifully himself. He was brighter than his academic achievement showed because he was not that interested in school.
After semicha (ordination), Yehiel went to work at the ADL — first in the New York office, but then he was transferred to the Chicago office. While he reached out to various religious groups, he struck a special chord in his outreach to evangelicals.
Most Jews were highly ambivalent about connecting to evangelicals. These Christians were “frummer” [more pious] than most Jews were. They made many Jews uncomfortable with their public expression of their religious lives. Evangelicals also were deeply invested in outreach and their missionary approach to Jewish people rattled many Jews. As part of the post-Shoah repentance by Western Christians for past Christian mistreatment of Jews, many mainstream churches renounced the mission to convert the Jews. Not so the evangelicals, they believe that there is no salvation without being “born again” in faith and personal encounter with Jesus. They saw it as an act of love to try to save all people’s souls — including Jews
Yehiel, as a religious soul, was not turned off by evangelicals’ piety. He found more and more response from them because he spoke in very personal religious terms. The ADL and others became uncomfortable with his growing engagement with evangelical Christians. They made a move to reduce or close down this work. Eckstein was stung by this tack and, courageously, decided to strike out on his own rather than write off this Christian community. In 1983, he founded the Holy Land Fellowship of Christians and Jews, later renamed the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
The leap to a self-supporting organization was a huge step and he struggled to stay afloat in the early years. Most of his support came from a handful of Jews who believed in him and were particularly impressed by his ability to rally support for the state of Israel. Yehiel had discovered a hitherto terra incognita. The evangelicals’ theology had scarcely moved and still saw the Jews as needing to be saved (by Christianity). Yet, in America they had managed to separate supersessionism (the belief that Christianity had replaced Judaism which had no right to exist) from the antisemitism that historically accompanied this belief.
Thanks to the influence of American culture’s liberalism and respect for Jews, they interpreted their Hebrew Bible study [=Old Testament] as calling on them to love Jews, and the belief that God would bless those who blessed the Jews (Genesis 12:3). This translated into a love of Israel as the land of Jesus’ life and mission as well as of the biblical promise of the land to the Jews. The evangelicals’ response grew, and, little by little, his roster of Christian contributors grew. Yehiel received pushback from the mainstream Jewish community which did not trust the evangelicals and from the yeshivish/Haredi Jews to whom he was drawn for prayer and Torah study. They saw Christianity in the lens of traditional Judaism as a form of idolatry. He was often isolated, sometimes embarrassed, sometimes ostracized. He drew on his inner resources to surmount the slurs and humiliation from fellow Jews and stuck to his path.
Yehiel expanded his outreach. He made the rounds of the television evangelists, eventually connecting to such stars as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. His religious expression, his guitar and musical performances, his love of God and Israel came across well. The circle of contributors — especially from small givers who watched him on television — widened from year to year. He turned the contributions over to the Chicago Federations/United Jewish Appeal and soon became one of the largest contributors. At first, he accepted that they took his money under the table, for they feared the Jewish backlash at missionaries. Eventually, he revolted, insisting that the local Federations — and later, with such partners as the Jewish Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency — demanding full recognition for him, his organization, and his givers.
In 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the IFCJ launched a drive, under the rubric “On Wings of Eagles” to pay for “Freedom Flights” to bring Jews from the FSU to Israel. The combination of bringing Jews to the holy land of Israel in fulfillment of prophecy [“I lifted you on wings of eagles and brought you to Me” (Exodus 19:4)] struck a deep chord among evangelicals. There was a quantum leap in contributions and IFCJ never looked back.
Yehiel made aliyah and expanded IFCJ’s work to include help for non-Jews in FSU, in Israel, and to bring Jews to Israel from FSU, Ethiopia, and Ukraine to this day. At first, working with the Jewish Agency and then increasingly on its own, IFCJ brought Jews home. It became a philanthropic juggernaut, raising over $100,000,000 a year, overwhelmingly in small contributions from evangelicals located in United States, and then expanded to Korea and Brazil.
In the past two decades, I worked on developing a Jewish theology of Christianity in which both religions would affirm the living covenantal connection of both faiths to God and their unique relationship with each other while becoming partners in tikkun olam and helping those who need help throughout the world. I told Yehiel that although the evangelicals had made limited progress on theological rethinking toward Jewry and Judaism, thanks to him they had become real partners with Jewry in rebuilding and strengthening the State of Israel. This was a true fulfillment of prophecy in our time.
It has been said that Paul of Tarsus, born a Jew, accepted Jesus as the Messiah and became a (Christian) apostle to the Gentiles — thus changing the course of history. Yehiel Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi, became a (Jewish) apostle to the Christians. He created a partnership between Jews and Christians of historic proportions. He never won full acceptance from his fellow Jews but thanks to his faith, courage and persistence, he created the largest cooperative project between Jews and Christians in history.