Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the effervescent but deeply thoughtful co-founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews died today at his Jerusalem home. He was 67.
Rabbi Eckstein’s first calling was to the rabbinate. From there, he would begin the work that would see him develop ties with the Christian community that for much of its history was openly hostile to Jews and Judaism.
Eckstein was deeply inspired by his father’s example. For decades, Rabbi Simon Eckstein was a community rabbi both in New York and then for a quarter of a century before his retirement in 1975, in Ottawa, Canada.
One of Eckstein Senior’s lifelong missions was to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations, especially of Jews. He once quoted Rabbi Berel Wein, saying: “One of the blessings of our generation is the unique role of grandparents and great-grandparents in providing a bridge as well as a perspective: a bridge to the past and a perspective on life for the present and future.”
Prior to founding the Fellowship, Rabbi Eckstein was national co-director of interreligious affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. It was in this role that he initially realized that there was a space where Christian-Jewish dialogue, after two millennia of mistrust and misunderstanding could in fact begin – and hopefully flourish.
Through his work with the Fellowship, he devoted his life to building bridges of understanding and cooperation between Christians and Jews, building a broad support for the state of Israel. The Fellowship raises more than $140 million annually, via its 16 million Christian donors and has raised more than $1.4 billion for programs helping Jews in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Ethiopia and more than 50 countries.
Rabbi Eckstein’s compassion and help was not solely directed toward Jews. He was also a champion of religious liberty throughout the world, highlighted by his traveling to China to try and secure the release of imprisoned Christian pastors. In 1995, he brought the first Torah scroll to Uzbekistan since the Communist regime banned religious practice there.
His work was based in a thorough understanding of the Bible and other Hebrew texts. Rabbi Eckstein showed his commitment to Jewish-Christian relations by spreading a Jewish message as a leading international Bible scholar. His lessons – broadcast to millions on five continents – helped Christians deepen their bonds with the land of Israel and the Jewish people.
Eckstein was also a prolific author. His titles included: What You Should Know About Jews and Judaism; Understanding Evangelicals: A Guide for the Jewish Community; Ask the Rabbi: Five Questions Most Frequently Asked About Jews and Judaism; How Firm a Foundation: A Gift of Jewish Wisdom For Christians and Jews; The Journey Home, The One Year Holy Land Moments Devotional. Each one his books is about attempting to understand another – whether it’s an evangelical Christian, Judaism or Israel. In addition to his books, Eckstein has also recorded six Chasidic songs CDs.
Eckstein was clearly imbued with a love and passion for Israel – the land of his father’s birth – from a young age. His motivation was to aid Jews, but in particular one of the IFCJ’s driving missions is to strengthen the land and the people of Israel. The Fellowship aids poor and needy Jews in Israel, be they Holocaust Survivors, lone soldiers or widows and orphans; and in addition is a key agent in enabling Jews struggling in eastern Europe and elsewhere to emigrate there.
Eckstein made it his life’s work to take a uniquely Jewish message out into the world, particularly to evangelical Christians and lovers of Zion. A family man of many parts, his background and upbringing drove him to try and create a better more equitable world.