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September 24, 2010  RSS feed
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Famed rabbi known for courting Christians to speak at kickoff of Federations’ campaigns

Jewish Press

“The Jews in America have pretty much gotten it that it is possible to reach out to Evangelicals without compromising our own integrity.” n Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, IFCJ “The Jews in America have pretty much gotten it that it is possible to reach out to Evangelicals without compromising our own integrity.” n Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, IFCJ When Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), comes to the Tampa Bay area in November he will bring with him an international reputation for building bridges, in his case, of understanding between Christians and Jews.

He will be here as the featured speaker for the Tampa Jewish Community Center & Federation, and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties’ first-ever joint Campaign Kickoff and Major Gifts Event Nov. 17, themed “Building Bridges — Changing Lives.”

The event will launch annual campaigns for the two federations, which are partnering for the event to focus attention on the humanitarian work they and other federations do in local areas as well as worldwide.

The event will focus on “building bridges with other Jews throughout the world as well as with Jews across the Bay,” said Bonnie Friedman, Executive Director of the Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties.

The featured speaker, Rabbi Eckstein, a 59-year-old Orthodox rabbi, has devoted more than 35 years — the last 27 at the IFCJ — to building bridges between Christians and Jews. With evangelical Christian help, the organization is dedicated to supporting Israel and Jews in need around the world including the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, India, Latin America and Arab countries.

In an interview with the Jewish Press, Rabbi Eckstein said the fellowship has 957,000 donors, mostly evangelical Christian, on the roster. The IFCJ website says the organization has raised upward of two-thirds of a billion dollars since its inception.

Over the years, Rabbi Eckstein has faced criticism, but he said that criticism has diminished greatly in the last five years or so.

The fellowship has gone through stages in terms of Jewish reaction to his work — and the reaction is much more positive than it has been in the past, he said.

“When I brought Jerry Falwell to speak at my synagogue in 1980,” he said, “I had my head handed to me by the Jewish community.”

A similar rejection, he said, occurred with the Hadassah organization some five or six years ago.

“We tried to place a paid ad in Hadassah Magazine,” he said of his Fellowship, “and they wouldn’t accept it.”

This year, Rabbi Eckstein said, he was a Hadassah honored guest at its national convention where he announced the fellowship’s $1 million donation to Hadassah Hospital to help construct a new trauma unit.

Some of the most serious criticisms leveled at the rabbi and the fellowship were noted in a 2005 New York Times article by Zev Chafets.

“Some of Eckstein’s fellow Orthodox rabbis would like to exile him for consorting with Christians,” wrote Chafets. An Orthodox rabbinic court went as far as banning Jews and Jewish organizations from accepting money from the IFCJ.

In that same New York Times article, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti- Defamation League, was quoted as accusing Eckstein of “selling the dignity of the Jewish people by pandering to Christians.”

By contrast, a Feb. 24, 2009 article by John W. Kennedy in Christianity Today reported, “Good works have permitted Eckstein to reach détente with leaders of Jewish organizations who now realize that even though they have theological differences with evangelicals, the two groups share many values.”

The Christianity Today article quoted Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious advisor for the American Jewish Committee, as saying, “Rabbi Eckstein is well-respected within the American Jewish mainstream. Until he came along, evangelicals and Jews were like ships passing in the night.”

“The Jews in America have pretty much gotten it that it is possible to reach out to Evangelicals without compromising our own integrity,” Rabbi Eckstein told the Jewish Press.

“Evangelicals have an unconditional love for the Jewish people and for Israel,” he said.

Eckstein, dubbed by the state of Israel as the “good will ambassador between Israel and the evangelicals,” said he is not concerned about the concept of the end of days —“Armageddon.”

That concept, as espoused by evangelical Christians, says for the Christian messiah to return, the Jewish people must have their own nation where biblical Israel existed. Secondarily, Jews should be encouraged to convert if they are to escape the final tribulations prior to the “Second Coming.” Interpretation of the second part is what is an irritant to some Jews.

Rabbi Eckstein said he is more concerned with getting help for the Jewish people where ever they need it today.

“My guiding principal has always been that I will not work with those groups that target Jews for conversion,” he said.

Swarzman on Rabbi Eckstein

Herb Swarzman, a Tampa Jewish Federation executive board member and longtime chair/co-chair of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) in the Tampa Bay Area, has known Rabbi Eckstein for about 25 years.

“Rabbi Eckstein was the first legitimate person in the Jewish community to reach out to and make inroads in the Christian community,” Swarzman said. “Today many Christians across the country are stronger supporters of Israel than many Jews are.”

Swarzman said Jews who fear that fundamentalist Christians are only interested in converting them need not worry.

“Jews secure in their Judaism don’t fear conversion,” he said.

“I get up in the morning and thank God that the fundamentalist Christians are on our side,” he said, “and a lot of that is because of the work of Rabbi Eckstein.”

• • •

Rabbi Eckstein, ordained at Yeshiva University in New York City, has a long list of other contributions to Jewish and non-Jewish communities. He has written six books dealing with Jews and Christians, including What You Should Know about Jews and Judaism and Understanding Evangelicals: a Guide for the Jewish Community.

Just this month Eckstein became the host of a daily Christian radio show, “Holy Land Moments,” on which he said he will speak about issues facing Israel, provide insights into the Jewish faith, and help Christians discover the Jewish roots of their own faith.

The rabbi also has served on the faculties of Columbia University, Chicago Theological Seminary and the Northern Baptist Seminary. Currently he is on the executive committees of both the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

• • •

The entire Tampa Bay community is encouraged to attend the campaign kickoff event, set for Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, 2900 Bayport Drive, in Tampa.

Tickets are $36 per person, or $18 for young adults up to age 35.

For more information, or to register:

• In Hillsborough County, go to www.jewishtampa. com or call (813) 264-9000

• In Pinellas and Pasco Counties, go to or call (727) 530-3223.

Rabbi Eckstein was interviewed by Jewish Press staff writer Elaine Markowitz.

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