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February 8, 2019  RSS feed
World News

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Rabbi Eckstein, who raised millions in Christian donations for Israel, dies at 67

(JTA) – To his many colleagues and supporters, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who died Wednesday, Feb. 6, at the age of 67, was a man of vision whose enormous drive to succeed both facilitated and complicated his relentless efforts on behalf of the Jewish people.

As head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, or IFCJ, the New York-born rabbi raised hundreds of millions of dollars in donations — mostly from Christians — for projects benefiting needy Jews and Arabs in Israel and beyond.

To many thousands of ordinary Jews and Christians whose lives he touched without ever meeting them, Eckstein was something of a guardian angel, heading a powerful machine that offered everyday assistance and was able to find creative ways cutting through the red tape characteristic of some other Jewish aid groups.

Eckstein, who grew up in Canada and moved to Israel in 1999, was ordained at Yeshiva University in New York, and held master’s degrees from Yeshiva University and Columbia University.

He began his involvement in interfaith dialogue with the ADL in 1974 and started the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in 1983. Using television advertising, his tremendous charisma and tireless outreach legwork in the United States, he made unprecedented headway in raising funds for Israel and Jews in crisis situations among evangelicals.

Eckstein served as a member of the board and executive committee of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and in 2014, together with IFCJ, received its highest honor, the Raoul Wallenberg Award.

He also pushed back against Jewish leaders who distrusted evangelical support of Israel.“[T] he majority of evangelicals are passionately pro-Israel because it is part of their theology to love and support the Jewish people,” Eckstein wrote in 2002. “I could not accept the conditional love of those who expect a payback on behalf of my people…”

Eckstein had a thorny relationship with the Jewish establishment. Most recently he clashed with the Jewish Agency, to which his group had donated many millions of dollars over the years. The funding stopped in 2014 amid a fight over recognition for the ICFJ by the agency and Eckstein’s long-held reservations about the agency’s efficiency in facilitating immigration of Jews to Israel.

That year, Eckstein had the ICFJ start its own aliyah operation. He offered every new immigrant a $1,000 grant on top of benefits offered by the Jewish Agency. And he helped bring thousands of immigrants from Ukraine, France, Venezuela, Yemen and other trouble spots for Jews.

But Eckstein’s outreach to Christians to make that happen made him a pariah for many years for Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. In 2001, Israel’s then chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Avraham Shapira, published a letter condemning Eckstein’s use of Christian money to “expand Christian missionary propaganda.”

Eckstein, who dismissed the Chief Rabbinate’s attacks as not worthy of a response, angered some of his nationalist critics with his group’s support to the tune of millions of dollars for Israeli Arabs, Christians and Muslims.

But the scale of Eckstein’s work made his organization too big to ignore or sideline, forcing even his most outspoken critics to work with him or get out of his way.

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