An Orthodox rabbi preaching to Evangelical Christians, in their churches, is a decidedly unorthodox activity. Yet for Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein addressing church congregations became part of his mission to build bridges between Jews and Evangelicals. This is the story Zev Chafets tells in The Bridge Builder about his friend, Rabbi Eckstein, and his organization, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
It’s an account of virtually single-handed determination and achievement, and Chafets, notwithstanding his friendship with his subject, is a credible biographer and top-notch story-teller.
Inviting controversy at almost every turn, but driven by passion and dedication, Eckstein broke taboos by cultivating an entirely new territory of Jewish-Christian relations. His efforts turned astonishingly successful. The Evangelicals, Chafets writes, “wanted a personal relationship with the Jewish people, and it had been Eckstein’s genius to see that nothing was more personal than a personal check.”
Telethons in the 1990s with such “superstars of evangelical fund-raising” as Pat Boone, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jack Hayward brought in first hundreds of thousands of dollars, then eventually millions of dollars.
Success followed success, as the IFCJ, under Eckstein’s leadership, took up various Jewish and Israel-related causes. Since its founding by Eckstein in Chicago in 1983, the organization has raised enormous sums or immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel; for Jews in Russia, the Balkans and Ethiopia; and for emergency aid in Israel. In 2014, refusing to wait for the Jewish Agency to act, Eckstein, with his by-now familiar audacity, chartered planes and brought Jews out of Ukraine to Israel. The rescue, not the politics, was his priority.
Last year, the Fellowship raised $138 million, a figure that is projected to rise to $180 million by the end of 2015. It all comes from Evangelical Christian donors, and it funds Jewish projects around the world.
Yechiel Eckstein, who received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, began his career in 1976 when he took a position in Chicago with the Anti-Defamation League in the area of Jewish-Christian relations. It was here that he had his first contact with Evangelical Christians. Eckstein, according to Chafets, unexpectedly found himself “moved by their sincerity, their religious passion, and their unconditional love for God, Israel, and the Jewish people.”
Eckstein made aliyah and became an Israeli citizen in 2002. Seeing new needs to meet in Israel, he founded and funded a variety of programs, and supported existing ones. The source of his funds, however, generated mistrust and Israel’s rabbinical leaders denounced his work with Evangelical Christians as “idol worship.”
Eckstein was not deterred and has persevered through the accusations, mistrust, skepticism, and suspicion.
With hostility toward Israel more widespread than ever, we can appreciate the bridge that Eckstein has built and continues to strengthen.