Since last Dec. 23, about 150 Ukrainian Jews each month have boarded a flight in Kiev and been brought to Israel to begin new lives in the Jewish state. They are fleeing the fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists that has turned the area into a dangerous no-man’s land.
The travel arrangements have not been made by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the traditional organization for aliyah from the diaspora, but rather through an American-based philanthropic organization funded by evangelical Christians.
This month, the group, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, reached the 1,000 mark for Ukrainian Jews making aliyah, a landmark achievement according to its founder and president, Yechiel Eckstein, sometimes referred to as the rabbi with the largest gentile following since Jesus.
His fellowship, founded in 1983, seeks to express Christian love for Israel by supporting projects that ensure the safety and security of the Jewish state and the Jewish people. Bringing Jews from countries in distress to Zion is just the latest of many such projects. Besides the transports from war-torn Ukraine, where Jews are caught in the civil conflict, the fellowship is, according to Eckstein, quietly bringing Jews to Israel from a country in the Arab world. And it plans to introduce flights by the end of the year for Jews emigrating from France, the country with the highest aliyah rate last year due to increased anti-Semitic violence.
To date these ventures are in direct competition with the work of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-government agency in Israel. Officials there, and a number of leaders in the American Jewish establishment, privately assert that Eckstein undermines the agency’s mission and that he is “on an ego trip that knows no bounds,” according to someone with intimate knowledge of the agency. The rabbi, who made aliyah 15 years ago, counters that his group is doing mitzvah work and filling a vacuum. He says that as a longtime lay leader of the Jewish Agency he saw first-hand that its aliyah work in Ukraine was lacking, so he decided to do a better job himself.
“After years of working with the Israeli government and putting all of our funds in establishment organizations — including $177 million over 15 years in the Jewish Agency — I learned the government wasn’t doing its job sufficiently,” Eckstein told me in one of a recent series of interviews. “Every time I turned over a stone I found a snake, a void. So I decided to fill the voids and not wait for the government.”
Not surprisingly, Eckstein, who had been directing about $12 million a year of fellowship funds to the agency, was forced off the executive board earlier this year.
Agency officials can hardly contain their exasperation in describing Eckstein and his demands. “His appetite for publicity is obsessive, and whatever recognition we gave him was never enough,” said one person who, like others at the charity, insisted on anonymity, perhaps because the fellowship still donated $500,000 this year to the agency.
“The loss of the fellowship’s major donation left a big hole in the budget, but there was a huge sigh of relief” throughout the agency, the insider said.
The rift is described on the last page of a just-released biography of the Canadian-born Orthodox rabbi, 64, titled “The Bridge Builder: The Life and Continuing Legacy of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein” (Penguin Random House). Author Zev Chafets writes that although the Jewish Agency is “a pillar of the Israeli establishment,” Eckstein, who has worked closely with Israeli prime ministers and Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky, “no longer looked up to the leaders of Israel or put absolute trust in their judgment and competence. Time and exposure had made him a realist. He had built the fellowship by taking on conventional wisdom and overcoming entrenched establishments. Here was another hurdle. He had no doubt he could clear it.”
The rabbi also had no doubt that his actions would lead to condemnation, which he attributes in large part to jealousy of his success. But as Chafets and others have noted, Eckstein, a tireless worker, seems to thrive on countering outspoken critics who question his motives and disparage his work.
“That’s his emotional fuel,” says someone who has worked with him but preferred to remain nameless so as not to offend him. “His energy and his accomplishments are amazing.”
Chafets offers a fascinating and remarkably candid (particularly for an authorized biography) look at Eckstein as a complex figure who has worked tirelessly for more than 30 years to strengthen Christian bonds to Jews. His book pulls no punches in describing a rabbi whose compulsive interfaith work has led to his alienation from his family and community, and whose maverick ideas and have been praised, envied and reviled.
All agree, though, that Eckstein has a genius for fundraising, has been uniquely successful in convincing millions of evangelical Christians to support his efforts, and that he has achieved enormous influence by raising billions of dollars for Israel. The fellowship expects to raise $150 million this year from 1.5 million donors who in large part allow him to decide how and where to distribute the funds.
Eckstein is not shy about defining his role, describing himself as “like a potter, shaping” the emerging bonds between Evangelicals and Jews.
“Historically, it’s not too grandiose to note that for 2,000 years we have not seen the phenomenon of millions of Christians” professing their love and support “for Israel and Jews, and giving so generously” on their behalf, he said.
“I gave Christians a framework to help Israel and the Jewish people. Until then the only framework was Christian missionizing to the Jews. That was the only way they could relate to the Jewish people. I was there to meet them half-way and give them an alternative, and they grabbed it.”
The Chafets biography describes how Eckstein, at 25, took a job in Christian-Jewish relations for the Anti-Defamation League in Chicago, and found the most interest among Evangelicals, tens of millions of whom take the words of Genesis 12:3 literally: “I will bless those who bless you,” God says to Abraham, “and those who curse you I will curse.”
The young rabbi, who was ordained at Yeshiva University, wanted to work most closely with evangelical leaders. But ADL officials balked, given the perception that these Christians sought to missionize to Jews and held parochial political views and cultural values at odds with the majority of American Jews. (A decade later the ADL published a report called “The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America.”)
In 1983 Eckstein left the ADL and launched the fellowship, originally a one-man operation called the Holyland Fellowship of Christians and Jews. He established strong relationships with prominent ministers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. But he was ostracized in his Orthodox community, distrusted by a number of mainstream Christians and Jews, and maligned by charedim as a secret missionary and by Jews For Jesus as a fraud.
Chafets details the setbacks and successes over the years as Eckstein grew his operation, inspiring working-class American Evangelicals who tithe their modest salaries for charity to bless and support Israel and Jewish causes. Through the rabbi’s many appearances on major evangelical television programs as well as TV ads featuring his on-camera appeals for support for Russian Jews seeking to move to Israel, the fellowship’s coffers began to overflow with cash.
The television spots, which now feature Eckstein encountering impoverished Jews in the former Soviet Union or Israel, offend critics who describe the commercials as demeaning to the government of Israel and to Jewish organizations tasked with caring for the poor. “He [Eckstein] makes us out to be uncaring or incompetent or both,” said one national Jewish organization CEO referring to the tragic circumstances depicted in the videos.
A spokesman for the fellowship acknowledged that “the videos make these poor Israelis look like nebichs [pitiable], but there are people in Israel who are poor and needy. And keep in mind that we are appealing to our average donors, like a checkout cashier at the A&P, so these TV spots are not nuanced. But they get the message across.”
Proof of their effectiveness is that the Fellowship’s American office, based in Chicago, receives as many as 7,000 checks a day, almost all from American Evangelicals whose donations average about $70, according to Eckstein.
“About one-third of the checks are made out to ‘Rabbi Eckstein,’” the rabbi said. “I’m the brand.”
Another 40 percent of the donations are designated to “where needed most.”
“Those funds give me latitude,” he noted. He has a seemingly endless list of ideas and projects, often based on reading newspapers and seeing where his work is needed. For instance, after learning that Israeli hospitals in the north lack MRI equipment, he provided them each with an MRI.
In return, Eckstein insists on recipient groups publicly acknowledging the generosity of the Fellowship, through plaques, press releases and other means of publicity. “It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about letting the public know who is making it all possible.”
But there is still a hesitancy to specify who those donors are. Much of the fellowship’s publicity speaks of donations from “non-Jews” rather than using the word “Christians.”
“Frankly I was afraid of playing it up,” Eckstein admits. But he says he is getting more comfortable with citing “Christians” as the major source of funding. “Only about half of the Israeli population knows that our funds come from Christians. We need to do a better job” of getting the word out, he said.
Among the many fellowship programs, Eckstein cited donating funds to more than 100 charitable organizations; sponsoring summer camps for poor children; building fallout shelters in the south; providing educational scholarships for Druze men and women who serve in the IDF; holding conferences for professionals in the social service field; creating homeless shelters in Jerusalem; offering pre-army preparatory programs for young people from various ethnic minorities; and, by year’s end, launching a national emergency hotline that will make referrals to scores of organizations.
(The fellowship is “neutral” on the issue of Israel’s West Bank policies, a spokesperson said. Jews in the settlements are eligible for fellowship services by coming into Israel proper to receive them; the fellowship has no presence across the Green Line.)
Shouldn’t the government be initiating and funding all of these projects?
“I have a choice,” Eckstein explained. “I can let people go without food or bomb shelters and blame the government for it, or I can choose to feed” and protect people. “I have this amazing gift no one else has — the ability to not just complain about what’s lacking but do something about it.”
He likes to quote the passage from the “Ethics of the Fathers”: “Where there is no man, be that man.”
He said that five years ago he sought to create a national food program together with the Israeli government to provide a safety net for the poor. The fellowship and the government would each put up $30 million. But after the government lagged, he said, “we changed our strategy from being a foundation that gives money to others to do the work. Two years ago we decided to do it on our own.” The fellowship now spends $29 million a year for basic food needs for the elderly.
‘God Will Provide’
Eckstein is proud that the fellowship has no endowment. It spends all the money it takes in each year and starts fundraising from scratch the next year. And each year for more than three decades it has raised more than the year before, Eckstein said. (In 2014, it raised $136 million.)
The fellowship’s board, comprised of both Jews and Christians, believes that “God will provide,” he explained. “We’re blessed,” said Eckstein, adding that the Fellowship is better at raising money than distributing it.
In bringing Jews from the Ukraine on aliyah, the fellowship provides each adult $1,000, plus $500 per child, which the Jewish Agency does not do. The fellowship also seeks to house the new immigrants near each other in Israel and has a staffer or volunteer assigned to each family for six months, starting from Day One, to ease the transition.
Jewish Agency officials say the fellowship’s venture into aliyah, particularly from the former Soviet Union (FSU), is unnecessary competition and confusing to the local communities. The agency closed its formal aliyah department when it restructured the organization and made its primary focus Jewish identity several years ago. But it still handles aliyah and says the number of emigrants from the Ukraine has tripled in the last few years, and the number of French Jews coming to Israel, via the Jewish Agency, increased from 500 five years ago to an expected 7,500 this year — “with no help from Yechiel,” the Agency insider emphasized. The increase in France is tied to rising levels of Muslim anti-Semitism, which culminated in the murder of four Jews in January in the attack on a kosher market in Paris. Eckstein’s next target is France, though Nathalie Garson, a consultant on French aliyah who is managing the project, known as “Together Israel,” describes the effort as complementing the work of the Jewish Agency rather than competing with it.
She said that while the Jewish Agency seeks to promote aliyah and motivate people to emigrate, the fellowship plans to work with French families already committed to aliyah but lacking the financial comfort level to make the big move.
“We have different goals and a different target audience,” said Garson, who is a native of France living in Israel. “We are looking to the 1,500 to 2,000 French Jews we believe would make aliyah now if they had the kind of additional support we can provide.”
That includes financial help for the first six months of rent (to supplement the 1,500 shekels [about $400] a month all new olim receive from the Ministry of Absorption), personalized help in finding a job, and afternoon day care for children.
Garson has met with French Jewish communal leaders and explained the project. Eckstein plans to attend the “Together Israel” launch this fall, with a major event including French Jewish leadership and press coverage. The first group of families on the program will come to Israel in December and settle in Haifa, the lead municipality among several working with the Fellowship.
Garson said the goal is to have about 80 families settle in Israel in the first six months of 2016, and progress from there.
“We are not measuring success by numbers,” she said, but in the quality of the absorption process.
‘The Real Deal’
Several national Jewish leaders, including federation executives, echoed the complaints that Eckstein is driven by ego and self-glorification. But he has his prominent defenders who speak of the generosity of the fellowship and Eckstein’s sincere commitment to do good deeds.
Alan Gill, CEO of the Joint Distribution Committee, says Eckstein is “the real deal — he has been a life raft for many of the 200,000 elderly Jews living in deplorable conditions [in the FSU], and that to me is the issue. Measure the deeds.”
Gill said the fellowship support is “absolutely essential to the work we do,” contributing “well over $100 million as a partner in our programs to give people something to eat, and medicine, and home care. This is avodat kodesh [holy work] at its finest.”
He said he is pleased to have Eckstein on the JDC executive committee, and has no problem “recognizing our donors. That’s part of what we do.”
Shlomi Peles of the Leviev Foundation, which was created by and is led by Russian billionaire Lev Leviev, and which provides a range of social services to Jews in the FSU through the Federation of Jewish Communities there, has known Eckstein for about 10 years. He said that what makes the rabbi unique among major funders is that he “shows up himself to meet not only with the Jewish leaders in Ukraine but with Jews on the street, in their homes.”
Also, when war in the Ukraine broke out, Peles said that Eckstein called him “to ask how he could help, and he came the next week.” A number of Jewish organizations “like to send press releases” about their activities, Peles said, “but Yechiel does the work.” He noted that he has donors “who give less money and want more kavod [honor]. I pray to God for more donors like Yechiel.”
Officials of World ORT have similar praise for Eckstein and the Fellowship as their major source of funding for educational programs around the globe. And Haim Saban, the Israeli-American philanthropist and Hollywood producer, has become a friend of Eckstein in recent years. “I was blown away by Yechiel’s commitment and his level of dedication to the Jewish people.” Eckstein is a major supporter of Saban’s primary cause, the Friends of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces).
As for the criticism that Eckstein is a publicity-hound for his fellowship, Saban said he was unaware of the controversy. But “from what you describe,” he said in an interview, “if there are those who have a complaint, let them go on the record and share that complaint. As far as I am concerned, he is doing holy work, and if he seeks recognition for his Christian donors, that’s a good thing. They love the Jewish people. Let them be recognized. They deserve it.”
Is it that simple? It seems so, though some of the most respected Jewish professionals in the field who have worked with him become enraged at the mention of Eckstein’s name.
Over the course of extended conversations with him I have observed Eckstein as an open, compassionate and sincere shaliach (or, messenger) of Christian generosity on a sacred mission. “Our goal is not to give away money,” he told me at one point, “but to strengthen Christian bonds to Jews and Israel and give them tangible ways to express that love. And hopefully the Jewish community will begin to trust Christians more.”
I’ve also seen indications of his craving for attention, demanding style and sense of supremacy in the world of charity, all of which are covered in Zev Chafets’ biography.
Chafets, who is now working on a screenplay about Theodor Herzl, sees a number of striking parallels between the State of Israel’s founder and Eckstein.
Brilliant men, visionaries and dreamers, mocked by their contemporaries, paranoid about criticism but thriving on it, tireless travelers despite health problems, difficult to work with, irrepressibly optimistic in pursuing their goals and succeeding in the end.
“It’s that strange combination of purity and chutzpah,” Chafets says, noting that “not that many people really know Yechiel. People seem to love him or hate him.”