Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, passed away suddenly Wednesday afternoon at the age of 67.
The American-Israeli rabbi died from sudden heart failure and his funeral will be held in Jerusalem on Thursday.
Eckstein was an author, philanthropist and activist who served on the boards of various Jewish organizations, including the Joint Distribution Agency, Jewish Agency and Anti-Defamation league.
He brought in $1.4 billion in donations for Israel, mostly from evangelical Christians, since founding the IFCJ in 1983.
In addition to assisting with Jewish immigration to Israel, the organization arranges trips and activities for immigrants inside Israel, job market guidance, child care solutions and help for those in need. The IFCJ also helped lone soldiers — Israel Defense Forces personnel, many of them new immigrants, who either have no family in Israel or are not in contact with their families.
He was due be honored on May 23 at a US Congressional tribute event marking Jewish American Heritage Month, for his work to build bridges between Christians and Jews.
Tributes poured in for Eckstein, from both Israel and abroad.
The IFCJ said that millions of people owe their gratitude to Eckstein, whose legacy was “the construction of bridges between the Christian and Evangelical communities in the United States and elsewhere in the world for support and cooperation with the State of Israel.
“From the fruits of his efforts over the past forty years, Israeli citizens enjoy tourism today, Israel’s diplomatic boom and a social contribution of billions of shekels,” the organization said in a statement.
Isaac Herzog, whose Jewish Agency handles key aspects of immigration by Jews to Israel, and serves as a prime beneficiary of Diaspora donations to Israel, paid tribute to Eckstein for his work with the Jewish community.
“The Jewish People have lost Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, a leader who worked tirelessly on their behalf. I worked with Rabbi Eckstein on social welfare, diaspora and Aliyah. My deep condolences to his family and the entire International Fellowship of Christians and Jews,” Herzog said in a statement.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach tweeted that Eckstein “did incalculable good” and noted that he had spoken at Boteach’s son’s bar mitzvah just two nights earlier.
In a statement, Pastor John Hagee paid tribute to Eckstein for his work in bringing Christians and Jews together.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. His impact on the state of Israel and on bringing Jews and Christians together will be felt for generations,” the Christians United for Israel founder said in a statement. “I pray God brings comfort to the Rabbi’s family during this very difficult time, and I know that his memory will be a blessing to us all.”
Dr. Jurgen Buhler, President of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem extended his condolences and paid tribute to Eckstein’s work and its impact.
“Rabbi Eckstein foresaw, like few other Jewish leaders did, the strategic importance to Israel and the Jewish people of forging ties with the global Evangelical community,” Buhler said in a statement. “The generous aid that he gathered from Christians around the world brought vital assistance and tremendous blessings to countless Israelis.”
The IFCJ worked closely with the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union, and in 2016 pledged $52 million to provide food and medicine to elderly Jews living in the former bloc countries, to be dispensed via the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
In a statement, the JDC said Eckstein “had a deep commitment to Israel and the Jewish people, especially those living in poverty in the former Soviet Union. He raised significant resources that helped many. May his memory be a blessing.”
Born in New York in 1951, Eckstein moved with his family to Ottawa, Canada at the age of one after his father was appointed chief rabbi.
He attended New York’s Yeshiva University, where he was ordained as a rabbi, before joining the staff of the Anti-Defamation League.
According to a 2005 New York Times profile, Eckstein was sent by the ADL to Skokie, Illinois in 1977 to help rally opposition to a threatened rally by Nazis. During his time in Chicago, Eckstein realized that the evangelical Christian community was willing to stand alongside the Jewish community.
Eckstein left the ADL and tried to convince Jewish organizations to create ties with Christian groups, but the idea was rejected by most within the community. So in 1983, Eckstein founded the IFCJ and began to build relationships, quickly realizing that many evangelical Christians wanted a way to make financial donations to Jews in Israel.
But Eckstein’s work was not without its critics as liberal Jews, who make up the majority of the American Jewish community, bristle at evangelicals’ ties to the political right and their support for Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank, a major sticking point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Abraham Foxman, former director of the ADL, has accused Eckstein in the past of “selling the dignity of the Jewish people” by pandering to Christians.
Eckstein is survived by his wife Joelle, daughters, mother and grandchildren.
Agencies contributed to this report.