By: Jacob Kamaras
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein cracked the code on relations between Jews and evangelical Christians. His next “Mission: Impossible” might be thwarting the widespread persecution of Middle East Christians, most notably at the hands of the merciless Islamic State terror group.
Eckstein’s breakthrough on Jewish-evangelical ties dates back to a private 1979 interfaith gathering at Wheaton College in Illinois, when evangelical scholar David Wells said “we love Jews”—but received a hostile reaction from a Jew.
“If you really love us, you would leave us and our kids alone,” a rabbi told Wells, before demanding that evangelicals stop their missionary activities among Jews.
“Rabbi, we can’t do that,” Wells responded.
It was then that Eckstein, who helped organize the gathering as part of the Chicago-based job he held at the time for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), “realized that this was the crux of the matter” regarding the obstacle to fruitful Jewish-evangelical relations, writes Zev Chafets in his newly released (Aug. 11) biography of Eckstein, “The Bridge Builder.”
“Evangelicals are bound by what they call the Great Commission, the obligation to share their faith and lead nonbelievers, including Jews (and, historically, often Jews especially) to accept Jesus as their savior,” Chafets writes. “For Jews, the refusal to accept other religions has been axiomatic—the brightest of bright lines separating their community from those of non-Jews.… To connect Jews and evangelicals would require more than simply holding meetings and professions of fellowship or of mutual support for the State of Israel. Eckstein needed to reconcile two contradictory obligations.”
Fast-forward to today. Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (known as “The Fellowship”) has raised $1.25 billion for global Jewish needs during the past 15 years—primarily from Christians—including $136 million in 2014. It has 1.5 million individual Christian donors and receives 6,000-7,000 separate donations per day.
What’s the secret? Chafets in his book, and Eckstein in an interview, relay the formula: a groundbreaking distinction the rabbi arrived at between “witnessing” and “proselytizing.”
“Proselytizing is a line [evangelicals] cannot cross, and evangelizing or witnessing is fair and legitimate, certainly in America, where there’s freedom of speech,” Eckstein tells JNS.org, explaining his argument that evangelicals should avoid coercion, deception, and targeted missions toward Jews. Evangelizing, however, means sharing one’s faith through more legitimate means.
The biblical source for those “legitimate means” is Genesis 12:3, which states, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on Earth will be blessed through you.” That verse was Eckstein’s impetus to use television commercials for raising funds from Christian donors to address Jewish needs such as aliyah, poverty, and security.
“Christians are called to bless Israel and the Jewish people, and that is their form of witness,” Eckstein says. “What I’ve been able to convince them to do is to not do missionary activity. That [missioning] was the only way in which Christians could or did relate to the Jewish people. When I came up with this fundraising concept of blessing Israel and the Jewish people…that became their form of witness to the Jewish people.”
After that point, according to Eckstein’s theological synthesis, evangelicals can “rely on God and the Holy Spirit to act upon the individual or to do what He will do.” In other words, if God wants Jews to convert, He will bring about that outcome, but an evangelical Christian should refrain from doing missionary work towards that end.
In 1983, when it became clear to Eckstein that the ADL and its deep skepticism on Jewish-evangelical relations would not enable the rabbi to have his desired impact, he founded The Fellowship. From its early days through the present, the group has received persistent criticism on multiple fronts. Liberal Jews are at odds with evangelicals on issues like abortion and school prayer. On the religious right, meanwhile, Jews are concerned about missionary activity.
“A number of rabbis on the more haredi and Orthodox side are saying that the money these [Jewish charities] are getting [from Christians] is going to make these institutions and Jews vulnerable to being missionized, to ‘bringing Jesus in through the back door,’” says Eckstein, who in anecdotes mentioned in the new biography was banned from leading a Chabad synagogue’s prayer service on the day of his daughter’s bat mitzvah and threatened with excommunication from a kolel (institute for advanced Torah study), both over his dialoguing with Christians. “That has not happened. Not even one person has converted to Christianity [because of The Fellowship’s efforts], and we don’t have any direct contact between the Christians who give and the people who are beneficiaries of the funds.”
The proselytizers themselves also target Eckstein.
“The reason why groups like Jews for Jesus hate me is because we essentially created an alternative form of how Christians who believe in evangelizing can relate to the Jewish people,” he says. “Blessing the Jewish people, I argued, is a more profound witness [than missioning]… When someone in Israel runs during the war to the bomb shelter, and they see the sign on the wall, ‘A gift of love from Christians and America through the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews,’ then that is the most profound witness they could possibly have, of showing Jews that they’re for real, that they’re sincere, that they really care about them.”
Through all the criticism, Eckstein has remained undeterred and says The Fellowship has been “vindicated” by its success. At the same time, the organization has not been “incorporated into the Jewish institutional organizational structure,” says Eckstein, noting that it has never been invited to present at two of the Jewish world’s most significant annual conferences: the AIPAC Policy Conference and the Jewish Federation movement’s General Assembly.
The Jewish establishment community, Eckstein contends, “is unable to meet the current needs of world Jewry. It shouldn’t be left to Christians who are giving sacrificially.”
Yet there stands The Fellowship, shattering most Jewish organizations’ fundraising totals for Jewish causes despite an average gift size of only $76; Eckstein says his group has never had million-dollar or even half-million-dollar donors.
“We’re getting small gifts from lots of Christians who care enough about these issues to help,” he says.
When he feels the Jewish establishment isn’t coming through, Eckstein doesn’t hesitate to take the bull by the horns. That even extends to the Israeli government, for whom Eckstein has served as a goodwill ambassador. Four years ago, Eckstein had reached a deal with Israel to launch a food safety net program, for which The Fellowship and the government would contribute $30 million apiece. The jointly funded program never got off the ground, so Eckstein’s group eventually started its own $29 million food program for the elderly.
The newest frontier for Eckstein will be trying to come up with a plan to combat the widespread persecution of Christians in the Middle East, particularly those suffering from the brutality of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Yet it’s not the first time Eckstein has taken on this task. The Fellowship’s former office in Washington, DC, helped bring about the State Department’s creation of a position known as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom (held today by Rabbi David Saperstein). At the time, The Fellowship worked to frame “the whole concept of persecuted Christians” when few were talking about the issue, says Eckstein, who traveled to China multiple times to help bring about the freedom of unjustly imprisoned pastors.
But 13 years ago, when Eckstein moved to Israel, The Fellowship closed its Washington office because Eckstein didn’t want to spread himself too thinly.
“I dropped the ball on the issue of Christian persecution,” says Eckstein. “I’ve always felt bad about that, but we just haven’t had that on our agenda. Now, we are bringing that back on our agenda and our outreach, and frankly, I’m learning what we can do and what we can’t do.”
In May, The Fellowship partnered with Concerned Women for America (CWA) on a Capitol Hill event that highlighted the persecution of Mideast Christians. In February, The Fellowship’s senior vice president, Yael Eckstein, and CWA President Penny Nance had co-written a Christian Post op-ed contrasting Christians’ plight in Arab countries with the safe haven they enjoy in Israel. In Yechiel Eckstein’s estimation, the Mideast Christian challenge boils down to a simple-yet-confounding question: “What can we do about it?”
“Even if we can build awareness of the issue, what do we do? Awareness of ISIS persecuting Christians, will that change anything?…What would be the response, to tell Syria to protect its Christians or else?…The question really becomes, we know what countries are problematic in terms of Christian persecution. We know what the extent of Christian persecution and human rights travesties are. Now what?” he says.
Calling himself “a practical guy,” Eckstein says The Fellowship would fight persecution of Christians “in a heartbeat” if it determines the right course of action.
“We would put money into it,” he says. “We would put millions of dollars into a campaign, into an effort to help persecuted Christians.”
As of now, Eckstein is unsure of the blueprint. But decades ago, he cracked the seemingly cryptic code on Jewish-evangelical relations. Maybe he has another breakthrough left in him.