The Bridge Builder: The Life and Con­tin­u­ing Lega­cy of Rab­bi Yechiel Eckstein

  • Review
By – January 7, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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