Onward Jewish Soldier
The tall, lanky man on the podium, the one with the boyish face and the black yarmulke, has the roomful of Evangelicals rocking. Foreign as the turf might seem, he is at home, in a comfort zone, this Orthodox rabbi and Yeshiva University graduate, before his powerful Christian hosts. He is, in the vernacular of the day, building bridges, crossing over, looking for common ground.
Earlier speakers already have primed the faithful with jabs at the president, at the “liberal” media, at Hollywood, at secularists, atheists, Democrats and abortion rights activists. But this one has something else on his mind: the country’s atrophying moral fiber.
“I am convinced that if Christians were better Christians and Jews were better Jews, we’d have a better nation,” he says, knowing
just what buttons to push. The crowd roars its approval.
Of course, what Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein does not tell this crowd might give them pause: A Democrat, he himself is generally pro-choice. A natural communicator with these conservative Christians, whose language he seems to speak, Rabbi Eckstein is no less fascinated by Buddhism, whose texts have moved him deeply since his days at YU.
“My job — my ‘calling,’ to use that Christian term — is as a bridge builder,” he says.
Yet Chicago Rabbi also readily concedes that his closeness with the Evangelicals creates “fear and revulsion” among many in the Jewish community. He says he wants to be considered “a brother” to the Evangelicals. But to many Jews he comes across as The Brother From Another Planet. Some of the politically minded conservative Christian leaders he cultivates are also beginning to ask a tough question: When it comes time to marshal political support for their causes, just how useful is this well-meaning, high-profile but somewhat lonely Orthodox rabbi?
Rabbi Eckstein admits this makes it hard for him to fulfill his self-declared mission as an intermediary between Jews and this increasingly powerful constituency. Yet he persists. In doing so, he may well illustrate the difficulty that confronts even the most sincere Jewish outreach effort to Christian Evangelicals, at least by someone unwilling to turn wholeheartedly against the broad Jewish consensus.
He speaks in a quiet voice, but Rabbi Eckstein’s coaxing cadences are those of a Pentecostal preacher, an odd mix of Jewish thought backed by Hebrew quotes and the mannerisms of a televangelist. Two years ago, Rabbi Eckstein, who is 46 but looks years younger, reached a kind of personal peak speaking before the Christian Coalition’s “Road to Victory” conference. The 6,000 delegates gave him a standing ovation before he had said a word. Most knew him from previous visits, or from his regular appearances on Evangelical radio and TV alongside such luminaries as Pat Boone. He was, in short, greeted as a brother.
Rabbi Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has been the leading booster of closer Jewish-Evangelical ties for more than two decades. Two years ago he brought his mission to Washington, where he quickly established himself as a player in one of the hottest new issues among conservatives: fighting religious persecution overseas, the subject of legislation by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) now working its way through Congress.
But at best many Jews see him as a naive eccentric, Jimmy Stewart in a yarmulke, an idealist plunged into the shark-infested waters of Washington politics, secular and communal. At worst, they whisper, he’s a kind of turncoat, more comfortable with the born-agains than with Jews, or at least with Jewish organizations.
“There is an important place for moral discourse and ethical analysis in the political setting,” says Rabbi David Saperstein, a Reform Jewish leader, of the stated goals of Rabbi Eckstein’s outreach efforts. “But he allowed the conservative elements in his coalition to set the agenda early on, and then offered a kind of take-it-or-leave-it option to the mainline Jewish groups. That was a serious misstep.”
But Rabbi Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a liberal social action group that is almost always pitted against the Christian right, hastens to add, “He tells it to the Evangelical community like it is, and I have a great deal of respect for that.
“He really is trying to be an honest broker, and I don’t think he gets credit for it. I’m glad to have someone who will be invited to Christian Coalition conferences and speak the truth, from a Jewish perspective.”
Rabbi Eckstein insists he can keep faith with that Jewish perspective and still connect with his Evangelical audiences.
“Am I naive? Probably,” he concedes in a recent interview. “I am definitely not politically astute or adroit, and I don’t want to be.”
Mr. Eckstein Goes
Two years ago Rabbi Eckstein, a fourth-generation rabbi, created the Center for Jewish and Christian Values in Washington. The selection of a name foreshadowed some of the challenges he would face; the original name, the Center for Judeo-Christian Values, produced an outcry from some Jewish leaders, who saw it as demeaning.
“When we decided to enter the Washington scene, the goal was simply to create forums for disparate groups and individuals to talk. That is reflected in our co-chairs — Sen. Dan Coats [R-Ind.], a born-again Christian, and Sen. Joe Lieberman [D-Conn.], an Orthodox Jew,” Rabbi Eckstein said.
But it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
The Christian conservatives came in droves, including heavyweights like Ralph Reed and Family Research Council director Gary Bauer, rumored to be a Republican presidential hopeful for 2000. Many joined his board of advisers. But Jewish leaders were cool to his efforts at consensus-building. The center’s board of advisers includes no representatives of major Jewish groups.
Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, explained one of the reasons.
“I’m not really sure what the ultimate purpose is of all his activity,” Foxman said. “It’s one thing to say we need dialogue and understanding. But I’m not sure about the way Rabbi Eckstein is doing it. God bless him; it’s a big, wide wonderful world, and I didn’t have to be part of what he’s doing.”
Rabbi Saperstein says that Rabbi Eckstein is caught in a Catch-22: The qualities that make him uniquely attractive to the Christian leaders reinforce the suspicion among many Jews that Jewish-Christian dialogue is just a tactic for co-opting Jews on critical church-state issues and blunting Jewish sensitivity on the ever-present issue of proselytization.
The rabbi’s choice of Washington as the venue for his center probably did not help him make the case that his endeavor was nonpolitical. Nor did his choice of an executive director — Chris Gersten, a longtime conservative Republican warrior.
The new group conducted a series of seminars on issues like cloning and the moral impact of Hollywood, and it sought a leadership role on the issue of religious persecution overseas, which by 1997 had emerged as a top priority for groups like the Christian Coalition, as well as a handful of Jewish conservatives like the Hudson Institute’s Michael Horowitz.
Rabbi Eckstein’s task force on religious persecution did draw representatives of major American Jewish groups, many of whom sympathized with the stated goals of the anti-persecution movement’s leaders but worried about their motives.
Some suspected that despite the reality of anti-Christian persecution in some places, the Christian groups were really more interested in opening the door to proselytization in those countries, or in advancing the view of people like Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, who argue that all Christians, even those in the United States, are persecuted because of their uncompromising faith.
Rabbi Eckstein insisted that the center would engage in political advocacy only if there was a clear consensus on the issue in question. But the only consensus on the religious persecution issue was that there is a problem. The Christian groups wanted strong, narrowly focused legislation and a White House office set up specifically to monitor persecution; Jewish organizations favored a State Department panel already in existence, and broad legislation, but without mandatory sanctions on countries that violate U.S. policy.
“[Rabbi Eckstein’s] role was to provide a forum to discuss the issue but to avoid getting behind any particular piece of legislation,” said Jess Hordes, ADL director in Washington.
The tactic angered some participants.
“Many of the people felt like, what’s the point of talking if you’re not prepared to back legislation and executive action?” said one participant.
Gersten, the center’s director, quit last fall — or was fired, depending on which account one accepts — and established a rival organization. Rabbi Eckstein says Gersten’s abrupt departure was purely a personnel decision; insiders say there was an unbridgeable gap between the apolitical rabbi and the politically aggressive Gersten.
Today there are two groups in the capital seeking to bring Christians and Jews together on the issue, two task forces. Gersten, while declining to comment on his battle with Rabbi Eckstein, said that his new organization — the Institute for Religious Values — is “more willing to go out on political limbs.”
Clinging To The Center
Rabbi Eckstein understands the risk he runs by refusing to take a position on the primary legislative vehicle of the religious persecution movement, the Wolf-Specter bill.
“I realize there’s a danger we may render ourselves irrelevant to the process,” he said. “But ultimately, I believe it’s the spirit of cooperation that wins out. The strident ideological voices — on the right or the left — just lead to polarization.”
Meanwhile, clinging desperately to the center, Rabbi Eckstein has become a target of both sides — the Jews who see him as a shill for Christians with a harsh, sectarian agenda, and the Christian conservatives who want direct, active support for their agenda in Congress. Rabbi Eckstein is particularly sensitive about the tendency in the Jewish community to see him as indistinguishable from his Christian right colleagues.
“It surprises people that I’m a Democrat, that I’m not a conservative,” he said. “I describe myself as middle of the road, like Sen. Joe Lieberman. People ask me about gun control, abortion, prayer in schools, and they are often surprised by my reactions.”
For the record, he opposes prayer in the schools but supports greater religious expression, following guidelines shaped by the American Jewish Congress and other groups, and he supports school vouchers.
In fact, Rabbi Eckstein falls between the poles in the Jewish-Christian interreligious spectrum: between Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee — who works primarily with the big, mainstream Protestant and Catholic groups — and Rabbi Daniel Lapin, founder and director of the politically conservative group Toward Tradition, who makes no bones about his support for much of the Christian right’s political agenda.
In his pitches to Christian conservative groups, Rabbi Lapin argues that American Jews are more supportive of that agenda than they admit. Rabbi Eckstein, on the other hand, doesn’t try to minimize the political differences between the communities or the longstanding Jewish discomfort with groups that emphasize Evangelism.
Recently he refused an invitation to speak at an upcoming pro-Israel rally in Florida that is being organized largely by Messianic Jews; Rabbi Lapin is on the official schedule.
“That’s a line I definitely won’t cross,” Rabbi Eckstein says. “I won’t prostitute myself for Israel, I won’t work with groups that emphasize conversion.”
But what may make Jewish leaders even uneasier is this: Rabbi Eckstein, who speaks the vernacular of the Evangelicals even as he reflects his Orthodox perspective, seems awfully comfortable addressing the Evangelicals.
Is he more at ease in front of the Christian Coalition, or on a church pulpit, than before a major Jewish group?
“Yeah, it’s really come to that,” he says. “But part of it is that I’m not asked to speak in front of the American Jewish Committee, or the ADL, or AIPAC, or federations or the Jewish Agency.”
The rejection can rankle. One of his evangelical outreach efforts, Wings of Eagles, has raised $5 million from that community for UJA’s resettlement program in Israel for Jews from the former Soviet Union. This is the largest contribution UJA received last year from any single group. But unlike Jewish contributors from time immemorial, the charity has never publicly feted the group or even invited Rabbi Eckstein to speak.
“It’s like ‘OK, Yechiel, you represent us, you’re responsible, but don’t bring it home,’ ” said the clearly injured rabbi.
In fact, Jewish leaders seem uneasy with Rabbi Eckstein’s fund raising — even as they accept the big checks. The format of the fund-raising broadcasts, with extensive use of Holocaust imagery and the implication that endangered Jews are dependent on Christian donations and prayers, angers some.
“The whole concept that Israel needs these Christians to rescue Jews is outrageous,” said the leader of one major Jewish group who said he recently stumbled on one of Rabbi Eckstein’s “Wings of Eagles” broadcasts. “What’s UJA all about? What’s the Israeli government all about? We need these Christians to rescue Jews? I find the whole thing bizarre.”
Yechiel Eckstein has been something of a rabbinic outsider his entire career.
“When I received smicha from Rabbi [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, I was already somewhat different,” he says. “I was going for my doctorate at Columbia, and studying Buddhism, Christianity and Heschel, which was not something most YU guys did. I was already trying to build for myself a balance between particularism and universalism, between a concern for my own Jewish community and the fact that I was deeply moved — and still am — by Buddhist thought.”
Recently he spent time at a monastery in Kentucky where Christian theologian Thomas Merton spent his last years.
“What I got out of being there was a reminder of the intensity of living in the moment,” he says, “which I believe is what every religion tries to get us to focus on. And to experience the moment with the expectation of finding God.”
Rabbi Eckstein says he finds a “symbiotic relationship” with other religious traditions that shapes both his own observance and his interreligious activism.
“I’m able to incorporate those elements in other religions and bring them in to my own indigenous Jewish experience,” he says. “I can incorporate that, and sift it through my Jewish filter and have it refract into my soul.”
That quest made him unsuited for a traditional rabbinic career. “I had always wanted to be a rabbi at a synagogue and teach at a university,” he said. “But when the time already came to do that I was already too different. I wouldn’t feel comfortable in a Conservative synagogue, yet I was already unorthodox for an Orthodox rabbi. So I kind of escaped having to deal with that by joining the Anti-Defamation League and focused on Christian-Jewish relations.”
As national co-director of interreligious affairs for ADL, he was sent to Chicago during the controversy over the 1977 Nazi invasion of Skokie, Ill., a heavily Jewish community with many Holocaust survivors.
“My job was to build support with the Christians,” he says. “In that capacity I met the head of the Bible department of Wheaton College. Wheaton was Billy Graham’s alma mater, sometimes called the ‘Vatican of the Evangelical movement.’ But this guy turned out to be a very normal person. He was smart, he defied all of the stereotypes I had of Bible-thumping Christians.”
That association led to an expanding network of contacts within the Evangelical world. From the beginning he connected with his Evangelical colleagues.
“I was able to identify with their struggle between believing in the Bible as the ‘inerrant word of God,’ which was part of my background, as well — and their struggle with the challenges of modern-day society,” he says. “In the Jewish world, how do you synthesize science and Torah, the secular and the holy? How do you engage the world? The Evangelicals were engaged in the same struggle.”
But while Orthodox Judaism was inward-turned, the Evangelicals, he felt, were engaging the broader world in public policy debate, and “imbuing that activism with their religious sensibilities. It’s a positive feeling that you and your religious sensibilities can affect change in policies and the problems we face here in America.”
Rabbi Eckstein also became convinced that Jewish opposition to Christians who were trying to make the nation more moral could produce a dangerous backlash.
“Every time they stretch out their hand to us, there’s the Jewish community slapping it back,” he says. “We question their motives even when they are doing good; when it’s a church-state matter, there we are on the other side, filing suits against them for simply trying to be Christians in their country.”
The Evangelicals, he says, have come to see the Jewish community as “trying to impose a secularist, anti-religion philosophy on America. I am very consciously countering that image of the Jews, and I’m using their language. And yet I am not becoming a conservative in terms of political issues, and I’m not compromising on my theological Jewish perspective.”
Instead, the rabbi says, he is offering a model of a different kind of Jew “who they can identify with, and hopefully hold up when those other images come up. That’s a very arrogant image I’ve brought up, but it’s very real.”
In 1983 he created the Holyland Fellowship of Christians and Jews, later changed to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. The goal was to change the way the two groups viewed each other. Rabbi Eckstein became a fixture on Christian radio and television; he became friends with some of that community’s leaders, including former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed and Pat Boone.
When the ADL fought Evangelicals who claimed that the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” defamed Christians, and blamed it on the influence of the Jewish Hollywood establishment, Rabbi Eckstein tried with mixed success to serve as a bridge. He did the same when the Christian Coalition and other groups reacted angrily to a critical ADL study of the Christian right.
But that, too, seemed to sow doubts among his Jewish colleagues. “In moments of honesty, I’d have to say that bothers me,” Yechiel Eckstein says, sounding hurt. “I am confident in my mind and my heart in what I’m trying to do.
“But it would be nice,” he says, “to feel the support of my own community for what I am doing.”