Many Jews and Christians around the world are mourning the untimely death of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein at 67-years old. His life’s work in connecting Christians to Israel and the Jewish people had a huge impact on many people, and on a personal level, on my life as well.
Rabbi Eckstein died yesterday in Jerusalem, a place dear to his heart and where he moved after spending most of his life in the U.S. He was an Orthodox rabbi, a devoted husband, father and grandfather. He was known widely as the visionary founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ). Part of his being a visionary was just in who he was — an out-of-the-box thinker, passionate Jew and Zionist. He was among the pioneers of bridge-building among Christians from the Jewish side — work that he continued for 40 years.
He built a means for Christians to understand a biblical imperative to express their support for Israel and over the years the IFCJ raised more than $1.3 billion. The good that has been done through this effort will last for generations. The wide range of people whose lives he touched was evident from the array of Israeli leaders, Jews, Christians, and international media from across the spectrum, who attended his funeral in Jerusalem.
Like many visionaries, Rabbi Eckstein was not a stranger to controversy. When he began, reaching out and embracing Christians was a bold move from a Jewish perspective. He challenged Jewish traditions as an Orthodox rabbi and Jewish attitudes about Christians. Just two generations after the Holocaust, it was nearly unheard of for any significant public expression of care or concern about Israel and the Jewish people coming from Christians. Most Jews remained untrusting of ulterior motives, and centuries of history and baggage that left Jews persecuted in the name of “the church.”
Rabbi Eckstein broke down many of those barriers and sowed the soil that allowed many others — Jews and Christians — to embrace the importance of mutual fellowship, support, and partnership.
I am privileged to be one of those who he inspired. He was a mentor in many ways. When I got involved working with Christians in the 1980s, I had never heard of Rabbi Eckstein. I didn’t know that there were others who were doing what he was doing. I just knew it was important.
Before making aliyah, I wrote to Rabbi Eckstein seeking his counsel. We connected a number of times. It was important to me that, on multiple occasions, he affirmed that my work was important. Once he asked, “Why are you not working for us?”
While I never was his employee, or direct partner, we connected often enough that I’m sure he knew that I was in fact working “for us” in the broader Jewish-Christian bridge building sense. On one of the many trips we each made throughout the U.S., we ended up spending Shabbat in the same community. I had the dual privilege of seeing him in action, speaking masterfully (with no notes!) to a crowd of Jews about why his work was important. And in quieter moments, we chatted about more personal things like our families, his recently deceased father, and what compelled us to enter this line of work.
Rabbi Eckstein’s good work is truly all over Israel, and visitors will note his face beaming in pride in scenes from IFCJ ads when they arrive and depart from Ben Gurion Airport’s jet bridges. A bridge-builder indeed.
I learned from Rabbi Eckstein to follow my passion, particularly related to Jewish-Christian relations. He encouraged that. When I started my own organization, Run For Zion, to address improving Jewish-Christian relations from a new approach, I knew I benefited from the decades of work he had already done. At his funeral others affirmed that without Rabbi Eckstein neither Jews nor Christians would be in the same place we are today.
As an inheritor of the Jewish tradition that he pioneered, I have joined a growing number of Jews who actively embrace working with Christians, not to appease a boss wanting to raise more money and looking at Christians as a faith-based ATM, but for the value and importance of these relations.
Now that Rabbi Eckstein is gone, more people need to step up to fill the void and carry on his legacy.
Jonathan Feldstein is president of Run for Zion and the Genesis 123 Foundation.