Yechiel Eckstein: A Lonely Man Building a Bridge Between Two Faiths
The son of a leading Canadian Orthodox Rabbi and a scion of a family embedded in the Hasidic community, Yechiel Eckstein, unsurprisingly, was a devout, deeply traditional Jew. Yet he accepted what he experienced as a call from God to become an advocate for the Jews to the Christians. He remained faithful to his calling in the face of lifelong criticism. In pursuing his mission, he became a reluctant revolutionary, transforming the historic relationship of Jews and Christians.
Yechiel received ordination from Yeshiva University but he was always more devout and steeped in prayer than his peers. He had a musical gift (played guitar) and a beautiful voice, often serving as a chazzan. In 1976, he went to work for the ADL’s inter-religious affairs department in Chicago. The interfaith dialogue was run mostly by secular-minded Jewish defense organizations. Their main concern was to end Christian anti-Semitism. They particularly resented Christian attempts to convert Jews. They focused on the Liberal Christian denominations because, stung by the Holocaust, liberals were the most willing to officially give up proselytizing of Jews. The agencies mostly wrote off the evangelicals as people who were unlikely to give up their inherited negative attitudes.
However, when Yechiel went into the interfaith trenches, he met evangelical Christians who, out of biblical immersion, were led to love God’s Chosen People, the Jews. Eckstein had discovered the vast and growing pool of Christian Zionists who saw the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in Israel’s rebirth. They wanted to help Jews and thus earn God’s blessing to Abraham, “I shall bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you” (Genesis 12:3). He was touched by their religious devotion and resonated to their faithfulness to Scripture. Instinctively, he thought to connect them to Jewry.
It would take two decades for the Israeli government to ‘get’ what Yechiel was trying to do and openly link up with evangelicals for their support of Israel and Jewry. But in the late 1970s, the liberals he worked with at the ADL and Jewish Federations could not countenance working with such Christians. They considered them to be too associated with the old Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, too traditional in values, too devout, too intent on converting everybody—including Jews. The agencies dismissed his pleadings and squelched his proposals for a special outreach to evangelicals.
Yechiel stayed faithful to his prophetic insight of an alliance with evangelical Christians. Though he had no resources, he decided to go for it on his own. In 1981, he created a bridge organization between evangelicals and Jews which eventually became the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ). Most of its early meager funds came from Jewish philanthropists in Chicago who supported Yechiel personally, though they thought his idea was unrealistic. Gradually, he met evangelical religious leaders. They loved his devout spirit. His constant biblical citations spoke their language. His personal connection to God resonated with their religious life. His passionate singing of biblical verses lifted the hearts of Christian evangelicals. He gave them a taste of the vitality of the Jewish religion which they thought had been left behind and ossified when Christianity was born.
Eckstein appeared on Christian television and telethons. He became a trusted friend of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and the like—and they returned the favor. He communicated to thousands and eventually millions of evangelicals that Judaism was, like theirs, a biblically-based religion, deeply related to God, with a vitality and spiritually regenerated spirit that was anything but dead or fossilized. In the end, he brought a positive message of Judaism to Christians like no one in history had done before him.
Because he was ahead of his time, Eckstein was religiously isolated. He continued to study Torah and prayed in the yeshivish/haredi world. There, people were fixed on the inherited view of Christianity as idolatry (that is worshipping a man). He was incessantly attacked as collaborating with missionaries and denounced as religiously not kosher. Ironically, when he shifted the focus of IFCJ’s funding to helping Israel’s poor, the very haredim who distrusted him were among the poorest in the Jewish state and were disproportionately the beneficiaries of his philanthropy.
Orthodox authorities and liberal organizations alike pressed Eckstein to demand that evangelicals repudiate missionary activity. In truth, he could not do this without forfeiting his credentials and allies—since evangelicals believed that the call to evangelize was Jesus’ central command to his followers. He was not even sure that proselytization could be stopped in a society practicing freedom of religion. When a bill to ban Christian missionizing was introduced in Israel in 1977, he urged the Knesset not to pass it for this would harm Israel’s image as a democracy.
Nevertheless, Eckstein was unshaken that he was doing God’s work. He intuited that by exemplifying Judaism’s religious vitality to Christians and by recruiting them to help Jews make aliyah and thereby engaging them in Jewry’s historical renaissance, evangelicals would be moved toward an unavowed religious pluralism. The best he could do for his critics was to urge evangelicals to witness to their faith but to leave it to God (and not targeted missionary activity) to move people to their religious destination. This limitation on what he could say gave free rein to the continuing haredi/yeshivah Jews’ attacks on him.
IFCJ projects were repeatedly, falsely, labeled a vehicle for seducing unwary or uneducated Jews to the enemy religion. In fact, Eckstein never let any evangelicals who missionized and targeted Jews to appear in his programs. This opposition to proselytizing was used against him by some Christian religious leaders who feared that his influence was leading the evangelical public to accept Judaism as a religion with independent access to God. Eckstein was periodically excoriated in the evangelical community, especially by groups like Jews for Jesus, as undermining Christianity’s absolute status. They charged that he was generating heretical attitudes, i.e., the belief that Jews are directly saved by their relationship with God. Interestingly, recent polls show that official theologians still have not found any way to give up the claim that there is no salvation without accepting Christ. Yet a significant fraction of American evangelical lay persons—impressed by contact with Jews and Jewish religion—have concluded that Jews have a ‘direct line’ to God and are saved thereby.
The constant attacks traumatized Eckstein. He was so deeply embedded in the traditional world that he wanted their blessing and was stung by their delegitimization. The sad part is that no more than he could tell evangelicals the fullness of his vision without losing access to them, so he could not tell haredim the whole truth which he discovered viz., the evangelicals practiced a robust faith which suffused their everyday behaviors. True, they worshipped Jesus, but they saw him as connecting them to the Lord, the God of Israel. They accepted the Bible as the word of God and this led them to love Jews and love Israel out of love of God. Through IFCJ, they were practicing chessed shel emet, acts of lovingkindness for their own sake, not for missionary purposes. The haredim—so fixed in their religious particularism—would have found such ideas of Christianity’s value so anathema that they would have cut him off totally.
At first, Eckstein accepted the attitude that he and the money he raised was “tainted.” For many years, he turned over the proceeds to Federations without being recognized publicly. He finally revolted, especially as the sums he raised increased. He insisted on public acknowledgment and personal recognition, and broke away when it was not forthcoming. The same pattern repeated in Israel. When he made aliyah he worked with the Joint Distribution Committee, especially to aid the poor in the Former Soviet Union and Ukraine. Then he allied with the Jewish Agency working to increase aliyah and sustain the needy sectors of Israel’s population. First, IFJC gave the funds quietly; then followed a push for public acknowledgment and personal recognition; then followed a breakdown of relations and break away. He could never resolve the mainstream Jewish organizations’ discomfort with evangelical Christianity, and the Jewish groups could not meet his need for recognition, especially since they feared criticism from Jews that they should not be so close to evangelicals.
IFCJ’s financial breakthrough came in the 1990s. In 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed. Eckstein saw this as an opportunity for evangelicals to really help Jews go from oppression to freedom. He launched a project called On Wings of Eagles (see Exodus 19:4) to enable evangelicals to join in God’s historical plan and fund bringing masses of Jews to the land of Israel. He made a telethon movie, on which Pat Boone, the most respected evangelical public figure, and Jerry Falwell joined him to ask Christians to share in this fulfillment of prophecy. The film was shown widely on Christian television networks. Contributions exploded. The donors were not wealthy benefactors; over the decades the average gift was $75. But eventually millions joined in. By 2000, the IFCJ was raising $30 million annually.
Eckstein grasped that channeling all this philanthropic support meant that there was a chance—for the first time ever—that Christians and Jews could move beyond tolerance to partnership in healing God’s world. He concluded that such a partnership should focus on the poor and the deprived with whom God dwells (Isaiah 57:15). The project to help the elderly poor in the FSU was called Isaiah 58. Isaiah proclaimed that God wanted people “to give your bread to the hungry and bring the poor that are cast out into your home” (Isaiah 58:7). Another telethon film brought the message far and wide. Again contributions swelled.
Eckstein’s climactic project was to help the poor and needy Jews in Israel. He called on his Christian contributors to imitate God and become Guardians of Israel (see Psalms 121:4). But why would Christians give money to the poor in Israel, a modern state with its own social welfare system? Eckstein’s answer was because they loved the Jews as God’s Chosen. They were grateful to Jews for being the source of Christianity and bestowers of the gift of salvation on them as Gentiles. Above all, they would be doing acts of loving kindness and human compassion which God asks of them. By doing this for Jews, they would earn God’s blessing for all those who bless the people of Israel (See Numbers 24:9). The evangelicals responded. Contributions soared to $140 million annually.
Eckstein’s premature death is a tragedy. However, he had accomplished something historic. He had united Jews and Christians in a partnership. I believe that he had recovered God’s original vision in opening the covenant to the Gentiles through Christianity, i.e. the mother and daughter religions should respect each other and cooperate in loving care of God’s precious human beings. Eckstein had channeled the love of evangelical Christians for Hebrew Scriptures and Jews into a mighty stream of beneficence through charitable giving. In the process he brought help to needy Jews, perhaps more than any individual in history. He had become a world champion of acts of loving kindness.
Nevertheless, the lifetime of loneliness was a crushing burden. Almost everyone around him was telling him that religiously he was on the wrong path. At times the isolation threw him into depression, which was relieved by the recurrent realization that IFCJ was helping so many people in need. I believe that his inner conflicts, in wrestling with the constant doubting , account for much of his tormented relationship with other cooperating organizations. A lesser man would have crumbled under the pressure. Yechiel drew the courage to continue—and push further—from his steadfast faith that he was doing what was right in God’s eyes. He fulfilled the prophet’s instruction: “The righteous shall live by his faith.” (Habakuk 2:4)