The decision of a successful rabbi to launch his group’s own aliyah program to rescue Jews in conflict areas is being lauded by many, but his fundraising pitch to a largely Christian audience has raised concerns for suggesting he alone is helping those in distress.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said his group’s aliyah program resulted from the decision of the Jewish Agency for Israel to adopt a strategic plan in 2010 that focuses on strengthening Jewish peoplehood and identity instead of aliyah — although aliyah for Jews in distress would still be a priority.
“Not only is aliyah not on top of its list, but it has been suffering terrible deficits and budget cuts,” he said during a telephone interview from Israel. “The Jewish Agency just does not have the funds. We’ve already picked up a number of their programs, and there is a huge gap between the needs of the Jewish community worldwide and what the world Jewish community is providing them.”
He said his organization plans to spend $20 million in the next year to bring Jews from the former Soviet Union and other crisis regions to Israel, even giving each person $1,000 to help them resettle. The aliyah program is scheduled to begin Dec. 22 with about 200 Jews slated to fly from Ukraine to Israel. Eli Cohen, who headed the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah Department from July 2008 until May 2011, will head the program.
But a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, Avi Mayer, insisted that his organization continues to help Jews in distress make aliyah. He noted that in the last Jewish year, 4,200 Jews in Ukraine made aliyah compared with 2,000 the previous year. And worldwide, 25,000 Jews made aliyah — a five-year high. As a result, the agency’s 2015 aliyah, absorption and rescue budget was increased slightly to a 10-year high of $62.7 million even as its operating budget was cut 1.2 percent to $364.7 million.
Mayer said that as a result of the change in the Jewish Agency’s strategic plan, many more departments deal with aliyah.
“Our entire organizational structure is now geared toward our continuum of Israel experiences for young people, the natural conclusion of which is aliyah (along with lifelong commitment to Jewish life),” he wrote in an email. “It may reasonably be said that aliyah lies at the core of everything we do, as well as of our entire organizational budget.”
Regarding the Fellowship’s new aliyah program, Mayer said: “Since we are the only organization with the comprehensive, on-the-ground infrastructure necessary for aliyah activities, anyone who wishes to participate in those activities will have to make use of our infrastructure.”
Rabbi Eckstein stressed that his aliyah program would not compete but rather complement the Jewish Agency’s efforts. He pointed out that in the last 20 years, his organization gave the Jewish Agency $170 million for aliyah. And in the last 15 years, he said, it gave $25 million annually to Jews in the former Soviet Union through those on the ground there — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint), Chabad and local rabbis.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews was founded in 1983 to promote understanding and cooperation between Christians and Jews and to support the State of Israel. It has 1.4 million Christian donors, Rabbi Eckstein said.
According to the 2013 financial statement on its website, the Fellowship’s total income was $113.5 million.
It’s how the Fellowship appeals to the Christian community to raise that money that troubles some Jewish leaders.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he has “never been comfortable with recruiting and soliciting money from Christians to save Jewish souls and Jewish lives. … He does it by saying the Jewish people and the Jewish state are not taking care of their own. … If you watch their videos, it will make you sick.”
One video on the Fellowship’s website shows an elderly Jew crying while Rabbi Eckstein tells viewers: “Ukraine is in chaos and the Jewish community, the elderly survivors of the Holocaust, are bearing the brunt of this chaos. They are standing alone and feel abandoned by the world. They lock their doors against roaming mobs. And the Jewish people call out, ‘From whence will my salvation come?’ We can help with a simple gift of $25 or more …”
Another video shows the emaciated body of a Holocaust victim being dragged along the ground and another shows Holocaust victims piled in a mound while Rabbi Eckstein speaks about Holocaust survivors living today throughout the former Soviet Union “who are struggling to live, who are alone, who … have to decide everyday whether they are going to use those little funds that they receive from their pension for food.”
Steven Bayme, director of the AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life Department, said he found the use of Holocaust film clips “unacceptable. … It’s excessively alarmist.”
And Foxman said the videos’ message is wrong because Jews do take care of their own.
“To say [to Christians], ‘Only you can save a Jew and protect a Jew’ I find so repulsive. … Is he providing a vehicle for Christians to atone for their past?”
Mark Levin, executive director of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, an advocacy group on behalf of the Jews of Uraine and elsewhere, agreed, saying the Jewish Agency, the Joint and other international relief organizations are also on the ground in Ukraine.
“There are people who are in very difficult situations and these organizations are doing an incredible job trying to reach those in need in the Jewish community in Ukraine and in the rest of the region,” he said.
Despite the concerns about Rabbi Eckstein’s pitch, Jewish groups welcomed his work on the ground.
“Rabbi Eckstein is also doing an incredible job trying to reach those in need. Given the current circumstances in Ukraine, it is a Herculean effort,” Levin said.
Bayme agreed, noting that while “Jews take care of our own, we do welcome it when others contribute, just as we welcome U.S. foreign aid for Israel. And one major pillar in the U.S.-Israel relationship is the degree of Christian support for Israel.
“To the extent Rabbi Eckstein is able to rally support for Israel, that is welcome,” he said.
Sam Kliger, director of Russian Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Committee who just returned after four months in Ukraine, applauded the efforts of the Jewish Agency there but added: “If another group wants to help with aliyah, let them do it.”
As to the poor Jews in Ukraine shown in the Fellowship’s video, Kliger said he found “flourishing Jewish communities with synagogues, yeshivas and universities” in areas outside of the conflict zone in the east.
He added that Jewish groups worked to “register every single poor and elderly Jew — every Holocaust survivor.” It’s impossible to reach everybody, he said, “So probably there are some people who do feel alone and don’t have money for medicine or for food. … but it is not widespread.”
“Any help would be very much appreciated, whether from Christians or Jews — everyone of good will is welcome,” he added. “They [the Fellowship] have very good intentions and noble goals and I don’t want to criticize their efforts. I want to praise them.”
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said the monopoly the Jewish Agency once had over aliyah ended in 2002 when Nefesh B’Nefesh began an aliyah program from the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
“At the end of the day, more people will make aliyah just as more automakers created competition that resulted in more people buying cars,” he said. “Competition may turn out to be good for overall aliyah.”
Sarna said he is not troubled by the Fellowship’s appeal to Evangelical Christians, who believe that if all Jews moved to Israel the Christian messiah would come. He said there is a similar belief among Jews.
“There are those who say that the Jews are a small people and need help from whatever source,” Sarna said. “When the messiah comes, we’ll ask if this is his first or second visit.
“Until then, why not befriend those who want to help us?” he added. “Rabbi Eckstein has over the years demonstrated that his organization can accomplish a great deal of good, and in that respect he has earned the right to be involved.”