Last week, I had the honor and the obligation of sitting Shiva for one of the greatest Jews of our generation, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. People around the world praised his unique vision and historic generosity. My thoughts were closer to home. Yechiel was my big brother, my best friend and my lifelong hero.
Yechiel, as well as my sisters and I, grew up as the rabbi’s kids in a close-knit Jewish community — along with all the attention and scrutiny that implies. As the chief rabbi of Ottawa and the official representative of Canadian Jewry to the Queen of England, our father was a prominent and busy man. But our shabbat table was an island of family. On Friday nights and Saturdays we gathered to sing songs of prayer and thanksgiving, special melodies handed down to us by our Eckstein ancestors — and which our children and grandchildren still sing.
Yechiel always sang with a special fervor. Prayer came to him naturally. So did music. He learned to play the guitar and the piano by ear and he had a beautiful baritone voice. His special love was chasidic music, which he composed and sang throughout the years of his rabbinate, to inspire others — Jews and non-Jews alike — with his love of God.
My brother was a ballplayer too, a power forward on his undefeated Yeshiva University High School basketball team. He also played the role of team conscience: In his first article he wrote for the high school newspaper he called for the Yeshiva league players to proudly wear their yarmulkes on the court.
As a young rabbi in Chicago, Yechiel discovered an unsuspected wellspring of love and support for Israel and the Jewish people among the Evangelical Christians of Middle America. The interfaith organization he established in the early eighties, grandly titled “The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews” grew from a one-man operation into one of the greatest Jewish philanthropic organizations in the world. Through it he raised and dispersed well more than a billion dollars to needy Jews around the world.
But fundraising was not Yechiel’s real vocation. He had a belief in the possibility, and the value, of building a bridge between Jews and Evangelical Christians. Typically, he found the building blocks in the Bible. “I shall bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you,” G-d tells the people of Israel in Genesis 12:3. Yechiel made a way for devout Christians to include themselves in this blessing. This was controversial, especially among his fellow orthodox rabbis. Yechiel spent his life trying to explain his mission to them. Some eventually got it. Others never did. Their approval was important to him, but not as important as what he saw as a divinely-ordained calling.
My brother was also a supremely practical man. He prized results over good intentions. When he saw need, he acted first and dealt with the repercussions later. And he never averted his gaze. It made him a compulsive worker. He travelled constantly and put in brutally exhausting hours. He knew it was exacting a toll on his health, but he believed he had no right to stop. Too many people were counting on him.
Yechiel sometimes spoke to me about his deep desire to slow down. I understood. From boyhood he had a mystical side. He dreamed of a time when he would be free to withdraw from the world of affairs and spend his hours in meditation and prayer. But, in the end, that time never came. He died as he lived, fully engaged, eyes on the next mountain.
Thinking about it, I realize that my brother viewed life in terms of mountains. Psalm 121 had special meaning for him, “I lift up my eyes up to the hills; my help will come from the Lord.” The last time he sang in public was at the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, in Jerusalem, the city he made home for the last years of his life. He always brought his guitar along and sang in order to cheer spirits and lift up souls. Typically, he sang about the duty and privilege of rebuilding Zion.
Thousands of people came to comfort me and the rest of our family at the Shiva. Some came to praise him as an epic figure that single-handedly changed the course of Jewish history. But most were there to tell simple stories of how he had touched their lives by an act of kindness, a compassionate gift or just a hug of encouragement in a time of trouble. Yechiel was a hugger, a giver, a builder, and a man of his people. He was all that and more. But to me he was and always will be, the voice of song and prayer at our boyhood Sabbath table, and a lifelong model of the ancient rabbinical ideal: In a place where there is no man, be a man.
Beryl Eckstein lives in West Hempstead and is the brother of Yechiel Eckstein