An Orthodox rabbi is convinced that big money flowing to Jewish causes from Christian Evangelicals isn't a ploy to bring in Jesus through the back door.
by Aryeh Dean Cohen, The Jerusalem Post International Edition, Week Ending January 24, 1998
So what's a nice Jewish boy like Yechiel Eckstein, a Yeshiva University graduate ordained by Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, doing hobnobbing with Chinese officials over the fate of an imprisoned Chinese Christian cleric?
The answer is, just pursuing what he believes the Torah teaches: "We cannot avert our eyes."
But the 46-year-old rabbi has been raising eyebrows in Jewish circles, particularly because of his activities as head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. This Chicago-based organization claims to be the largest group donor to the United Jewish Appeal, the bulk of it contributed by Evangelical Christians.
Using extensive TV and radio spots throughout the US. Eckstein's group has garnered 90,000 Christian supporters, a budget of $13m. - $14m., and an office in Washington, where he regularly delivers opening prayers at sessions of Congress.
His organization's Wings of Eagles program brought hundreds of Soviet Jews to Israel through contributions that poured in. Many of the contributions were for unusual amounts, indicating that these contributors were sending their tithes (a fixed percentage of their earnings) to the cause.
Eckstein's latest program, called Isaiah 58, is being run in conjunction with the Joint Distribution Committee. Its aim: to help feed elderly Jews who have decided to stay in the former Soviet Union. It raised over $600,000 in six weeks.
All this philanthropy notwithstanding, some still suspect the existence of a hidden agenda. Eckstein is aware of Jewish leaders who feel that some Evangelicals' efforts to target Jews for proselytization taints all contributions by Evangelicals. As a sign of this disapproval, and despite the $5 million going to the UJA, Eckstein has never been invited to meet with leading Jewish Agency personnel.
A source in the American fundraising community commented that if you got representatives of 12 US Jewish organizations together in a room, six of them would agree to meet with Eckstein, and six wouldn't, and "each of those groups would be speaking from firm belief.
"There's a concern of not wanting to get too close," says Eckstein. Some people will take the money, but since it's coming from goyim they don't want it known.
Eckstein, who wants to provide Christians with a tangible way to demonstrate their commitment and solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people, finds this attitude upsetting. But it only fuels his determination to continue. "A part of why I'm doing it is to have Jews change their stereotypes about Christians."
Eckstein, a rabbi's son born in Canada and raised in the US, knows all about those stereotypes. He shared many of them when he first traveled to Chicago in 1978 as an Anti-Defamation League activist, to help confront neo-Nazis.
Trying to enlist non-Jewish support for that fights, he was introduced to the head of the Bible department at Wheaton College, an Evangelical from Boston.
"He was very intelligent and sophisticated," Eckstein recalled during a recent trip to Israel to visit his daughter, who is studying in a Jerusalem girls' school. "He shattered my impression of what Evangelicals are like.
"Then he introduced me to the dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, another major Evangelical school. He was from New York, so this wasn't just some Alabama red-neck. I quickly realized that I was on to something.
"For decades there had been Catholic-Jewish dialogue and liberal Protestant-Jewish relations - but these people did not have any relationship with Jews. And I quickly saw that they were very favorably disposed to Israel."
Politics and fate also combined to increase the importance of courting Evangelical Christian support for Israel, Eckstein notes.
The aftermath of the Six Day War saw a drop in support for Israel from traditional Christian friends on the left and the rise to power of people like Jerry Falwell. Moreover, in 1976, Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, was elected president.
"Jews were asking themselves: 'Hold it - who are Southern Baptists, and what is 'born again?'"
The South Baptists were the largest Protestant denomination in America, 14.5 million people at the time. In 1979 Bailey Smith, head of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared that "God doesn't hear the prayers of Jews." So Eckstein, who was still with the ADL, took him to Israel, spoke to his church and started working with his seminaries.
In time, Menachem Begin's government embraced the Evangelical support, and Eckstein prepared a booklet for it entitled "Understanding Evangelicals: A Guide for the Jewish Community."
In 1983, Eckstein founded the International Fellowship, making sure to bring in reputable Jews like AIPAC's Bob Asher and Federation people to give the organization credibility. He put together programs to help Israel, with max Fisher, Edgar Bronfman and former US secretary of state George Shultz.
Along the way he dodged attempts to get him to work with pro-Israeli Christians who were involved in missionary activities.
His guide is: "Cooperate wherever possible, oppose wherever necessary, and teach and sensitize at all times."
He's gotten used to the reactions he gets from Jewish groups, whose response ranges from "antagonism and puzzlement." Initially, he says, their attitude was very cynical. "Now, 20 years later, I'd say the bulk of the Jewish community trusts that segment of people more."
The money for On Wings of Eagles and Isaiah 58 comes in with "no strings attached," Eckstein claims. Many of the donors are firm believers in Genesis 12:3, where God promises Abraham that he will bless those who bless the Jews.
"There is a lot of genuine, Righteous Gentile mentality," Eckstein says, though "I would say most of them probably believe that somehow God will unfold things, and that eventually all people will believe in Jesus."
Eckstein stresses that he has "made a distinction in my life and work between those who believe that will happen, and those who actively try to bring it about."
He refuses to work with those who target Jews for conversion.
Eckstein, who has written a book entitled How Firm a Foundation - A Gift of Jewish Wisdom for Christians and Jews, claims his face is almost as well known in the Bible Belt as Pat Boone's. Boone, in fact, hosted the International Fellowship's half-hour television special, While the Door is Still Open, which described the conditions of Jews in the former Soviet Union and told viewers how they could help Jews emigrate.
That message has clearly inspired Evangelicals to make sacrifices for Soviet Jews.
Witness the woman who turned over her savings for a new car to Eckstein because she thought it was "more important to bring three Soviet Jews to Israel." Or the grizzled postman who came to Eckstein's door all the way from Atlanta to turn over a roll of hundred-dollar bills, money he'd been saving each month from his meager pay check.
"He wanted to bring it himself," says Eckstein. "It was such an important thing for him to deliver it. Jews don't get that. It's a totally different kind of giving."
"I asked this mailman if he wanted a receipt. He said, "I don't need that; I'm giving for the Lord.'"
Former agency immigration department head Uri Gordon has met with Eckstein and his group. UJA Executive Director Bernie Moscovitz also has no problem with them.
"It's important that there be fellowship between Jews and Christians," Moscovitz said in a recent phone interview from New York. Asked about the fellowship's claim that it is the largest donor to the UJA this year, Moscovitz concurred.
Moscovitz recalled the note he got recently from a Christian woman in Dallas, who heard about some young Jews in the former Soviet Union getting help via a soup kitchen. She decided to become their adoptive grandmother, sending in a monthly contribution.
"It's prejudice to try to say that all Christian, or all Evangelical Christians, are just out to convert us, that the only reason they are giving... is to bring Jesus in through the back door," maintains Eckstein.
"But I believe that, slowly, with acts of kindness like this, we will start to convince people."
Eckstein emphasizes that his interfaith work stems from commitment.
"Once your belly is full of the Talmud, you can work with other faiths. Unfortunately, the way Orthodoxy has gone since I was ordained 22 years ago - much more to the right - it is, for the most part, not open to that, even though faiths have a lot in common."
Eckstein doesn't deny that he's struggled with religious questions.
"Do I ask a rabbi whether I can go into a church with a yarmulke on and talk about the need to support Israel? I'm afraid to ask such questions. So much of the time I've had to make my own decisions; I've had to make those judgment calls."
Eckstein's most recent battle, part of his organization's Operation Alert, has been fighting the persecution of Christian religious figures around the world. Jewish congressmen and leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement are also involved in what Eckstein says "is not just a matter of quid pro quo. This is an issue on which Jews and Christians can come together."
This explains why Eckstein recently found himself in China, shmoozing with the head of the Chinese religious affairs bureau, discussing efforts to gain the release of Pastor Peter Yongz Xu, head of the Underground Church who was sentenced to between four and ten years in jail.
"I see this as stemming from my overall commitment to not ignoring one's own," Eckstein says of his efforts on behalf of the jailed religious leader.
When Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited the US in October, Eckstein was thrilled at his mention of a suggestion the rabbi had made during his visit - that a group of religious leaders travel to China next year.
While in China, Eckstein was less successful in one diplomatic area, however.
"I had a two-hour meeting after which my host said: 'Come, let's go into the other room,' and there was this 10-course state dinner - none of which was kosher. I'm sitting there with my yarmulke, and he felt badly."
Eckstein hopes to fly to Sudan soon to take up the case of Sudanese Christians kidnapped by Moslems and forced to convert. Now their captors are offering to sell them back, and Eckstein and his organization are trying to help.
Operation Alert, launched six months ago, is only one facet of the group's growing political activism. It also supports efforts to expand religious expression in US schools.
"Our Constitution and the Founding Fathers never intended that our society be devoid of religion," Eckstein explains, "just of the imposition or tyranny of it."