NEW YORK (JTA) – Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who has raised tens of millions of dollars for Israel from American evangelicals, is denying a report suggesting that some of the money was used by Christians to missionize Jews.
The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported Monday that Eckstein’s organization, the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, gave $10,000 in 2007 to an evangelical group in Jerusalem, King of Kings, that proselytizes Israeli Jews. It also reported that the fellowship sent money to Community of Christ, a Protestant group in Orleans, Mass., that Ma’ariv called “a controversial Christian cult.”
But in an interview Monday with JTA, Eckstein – the fellowship’s founder and president – dismissed the report as nothing more than a game of “gotcha” and insisted it misrepresented the facts.
Eckstein, speaking from Paris, said his group used King of Kings to pass $10,000 to a church in Bethlehem to help provide humanitarian aid to local Christians before Christmas.
“We were informed last year about the dwindling Christian community in Bethlehem, which has been persecuted by the radical Muslims there to the point that most of them have left. And the Protestant church there and the people there needed funds for basic needs – food, clothing, medicine, heating fuel,” Eckstein said.
“We didn’t hesitate to respond with a modest gift – at least for us. The only place that could deliver that was this group, King of Kings. But we had an agreement that they wouldn’t take off a penny, and all of that money went to the church in Bethlehem.”
As to the Community of Christ gift, Eckstein said it was a $750 donation by the fellowship to the group’s choir after canceling on an event there.
“I don’t know where they got that it was a cult,” he said.
For Eckstein, the claims made by Ma’ariv are a sensitive subject. Since the Orthodox rabbi started the fellowship 25 years ago, there has been considerable debate over whether Israel and the Jewish community should accept money from his group, which gave away more than $70 million in 2007.
Some critics worried that his donors would somehow seek to use their support to advance efforts to convert Jews. In response to such concerns, Eckstein repeatedly has insisted that his organization would not tolerate any such efforts.
In recent years, Eckstein has overcome the resistance to become a major player in Jewish philanthropic circles. He sits on the boards of both the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – two groups to which he gives tens of millions of dollars per year in Christian money to help poor elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union, to help promote Zionist education and aliyah, and to fight poverty in Israel. At one point he served as an informal adviser to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The Jewish Agency would not comment on the situation, but a source close to the organization said the fellowship has a strict policy of not giving to groups that proselytize. The source said the agency would hold Eckstein to that policy and trust he would not break his own rules.
Steve Schwager, the CEO of the JDC, told JTA in a statement, “We don’t know anything about what is being written in other publications. The funds that IFCJ provides to JDC come without strings and are used to meet the basic needs of Jewish elderly and children in the FSU.”
Eckstein maintains that the Ma’ariv story was simply a continuation of a smear campaign against him and the information was fed to the newspaper by a source with an axe to grind.
“This is stupid,” he said. “It is one woman on a crusade campaign who believes that all of the good will Christians are doing is a way to sway Jews into becoming Christians. We give funds all over Israel, including to haredi places in Bnei Brak. All that this will do is ruin that relationship so that haredi kids won’t get a coat for winter or boots for winter.
“There is no contact between our donors and the recipients. The more this is exacerbated, the more pressure it puts on haredi groups not to take our money and it is their loss if they choose to do that.”