The modern alliance between Evangelical Christians and Jews is both praised and vilified, but one thing is certain, it owes much of its present day flavor to one man, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
In his recent biography “The Bridge Builder”, journalist Zev Chafets provides a candid and personal account of Eckstein’s early struggles within the Jewish community alongside his more recent philanthropic triumphs.
“Most Jews are not aware of the price I had to pay within my own Orthodox community,” Eckstein told Breaking Israel News in a recent telephone interview.
Through many anecdotes and personal stories, “The Bridge Builder” outlines the rejection Eckstein frequently faced from the Jewish community and his earnest desire to be accepted.
As a young rabbi in Chicago, Eckstein was thrown out of a Torah learning center where he went to study each day, for his work with Christians. In another chapter, the book describes the shame and humiliation Eckstein felt when he was not allowed to lead the prayer services at his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.
These personal setbacks, along with the description of his struggles with depression, only serve to highlight Eckstein’s phenomenal success as the founder of the Fellowship in 1983.
Since its inception, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) has raised over $1 billion from more than 1.5 million Christians around the world. It is not only the most well funded charity in Israel distributing over $100 million last year, the IFCJ is one of the largest 50 NGOs in the United States as well.
More than 6,000 envelopes arrive into their Chicago headquarters each day, according to Eckstein, filled with “sacrificial donations” averaging just over $70 each from Christians around the world.
Eckstein credits his philanthropic success to the relationships he has forged with pastors and churches on a spiritual level, pointing to the recent trip to Israel of African American church leaders organized by the IFCJ.
“My relationship with Evangelicals is not about fundraising, but about deepening their ties and bonds with the Jewish people. We focus on the spiritual dimension.”
That’s not always the case for others in the Jewish community. Eckstein expressed sadness and disappointment by the overall response of the Jewish establishment towards Christian Zionism.
“Jewish leadership doesn’t care one iota about the spiritual dimension, just about the political and financial dimension,” Eckstein told Breaking Israel News. “We are operating in a different way and on a different level. We are not just trying to use people for their money or political support. We are trying to build a relationship.”
Despite his professional accomplishments, Eckstein revealed a more personal calling when asked what Biblical passage serves as his greatest inspiration.
“If I had to pick one phrase it would be Jeremiah 31:16, ‘And there is hope for thy future, saith the LORD; and thy children shall return to their own border.’ Jeremiah promises that there is hope, there is Tikvah, to be found when the Jewish people return to our borders, the Land of Israel.
“That to me has been the essence of my dream,” he related to Breaking Israel News. “That’s why our national anthem is called Hatikvah, the Hope. My life has been fulfilled when I came on aliyah 13 years ago and fulfilled my personal dream to move and live here at the age of 49.”
Eckstein pivots quickly between the personal and professional, as does “The Bridge Builder” which was meant to help establish Eckstein’s legacy and tell his side of the story.
Author Zev Chafets reveals in the introduction, “Let me be clear. This book is authorized. My advance against royalties is partly underwritten by the IFCJ. My royalties will go to the IFCJ. This is Rabbi Eckstein’s story, and much of it is told in his words.”
Notwithstanding Eckstein’s best efforts, the relationship between Jews and Evangelicals continues to experience tensions and strains. There are forces hard at work to cut the cords on the bridge that Eckstein built.
Just last week, Israel’s chief rabbis came out with a letter banning Jews from participating in the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem’s upcoming Feast of Tabernacles parade and accusing the group of seeking to convert Jews.
Yet, the bridge builder himself insists that the movement he created is a secure structure ready to tolerate the strongest headwinds.
“There has been a huge change in the Jewish community’s views of Evangelical Christians and the need and opportunity to reach out to them. When I brought Jerry Falwell to my synagogue in Chicago 35 years ago, I nearly had my head handed to me by the Jewish community. Whereas today, most Jews are totally supportive and appreciative of the support that Evangelical Christians are bringing to Israel and the Jewish people.”
Eckstein proudly recounted to Breaking Israel News, “Today there are millions of Christians around the world supporting Israel which has totally exceeded my imagination and wasn’t the case when I started.”