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Israel Turns 55 Pro-israel Interfaith Pioneer Brings His Message to German Christians

April 29, 2003
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Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein rarely feels uneasy. But standing in Berlin’s Sudstern Church recently, with an Israeli flag at his feet and a gigantic cross behind him, Eckstein felt a minor tremor.

It’s not that his purpose was unclear.

Eckstein, 51, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, was launching an appeal to German fundamentalists to support Israel with cold, hard cash.

His sermon in Germany earlier this year was part of a groundbreaking joint campaign with Keren Hayesod, the main fund-raising arm for Israel outside the United States.

It wasn’t that this was Eckstein’s first major speaking event in Germany, a country whose products he once swore he’d never buy because of the Holocaust.

Nor was Eckstein uncomfortable in the Christian milieu: For 25 years, this controversial rabbi has been going where few Orthodox Jews dared to go, working with Christian fundamentalists to build support for Israel.

The mission of Eckstein’s group, which has bases both in the United States and Israel, is succeeding: Last year alone, American fundamentalists gave some $21 million to Israel, Eckstein says.

But this night Eckstein felt uneasy for a few fleeting seconds.

“What was different, unusual, was the cross,” he said a few days later over a beer at Berlin’s Crowne Plaza Hotel. This was the first time he’d spoken with that symbol looming over his shoulder.

“It was uncomfortable, but I had to make a choice. I wasn’t about to walk out,” he said.

Instead, Eckstein “used the situation to make a point: How does the cross make Jews feel?”

He told some 600 congregants: For many Jews, the cross is a reminder of anti-Semitism. But Jews can work with Christians who respect their faith, he added.

Instead of trying to convert Jews, “You can demonstrate your love” by giving money to Israel, he told them.

“Every sixth child in Israel lives below the poverty level,” he said. “We and the children of Israel thank you for your help.”

In a style best described as holy roller with a dash of political campaigner, Eckstein exhorted the congregation of several hundred to reach into their pockets.

Murmurs of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” mingled with applause and laughter.

Hebrew songs — including Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah — were sung. And this German Christian congregation knew the words.

In fact, Eckstein was preaching to the converted: Evangelical Christians are among Germany’s most loyal supporters of the Jewish state.

Like their American brethren, they see Israel as a fulfillment of New Testament prophecies, and oppose the idea that Israel should trade land for peace.

Many also feel a close kinship to the Jewish people, and some even wear stars of David as pendants or on their lapels.

They have demonstrated publicly for Israel during a time when most Germans are profoundly questioning their historic commitment to the Jewish state. On this particular night, congregants dropped several thousand euros into the red velvet collection bags that volunteers carried from pew to pew.

Afterward, several congregants came to the front of the sanctuary to greet the rabbi and shake his hand.

“I talk their language — I definitely do. I know how they talk and think, I know their theological convictions. I read their magazines,” Eckstein reflected afterward. “I know there are some people who are critical of me for using aspects of their language and style. I don’t cross their line. But I adapt their song: ‘This is the day the lord has made.’ There will be people who will be critical of me for singing their song. But I look at the words. And they are Hebrew words, from Tehilim,” or Psalms.

The new campaign launched by Keren Hayesod and the fellowship comes during a crisis in German popular support for Israel since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000. German media tend to show Israel as the aggressor in the conflict.

“It’s a lot harder to be pro-Israel in Germany than it was two years ago,” Eckstein said.

That does not mean Germany is withdrawing as one of Israel’s most important international supporters. But polls show average Germans are distancing themselves from the Jewish state.

In May 2002, a study commissioned by the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office showed that many Germans are questioning the “special relationship” between Israel and Germany, forged in large part because of the Holocaust.

A survey by the Emnid firm found that 73 percent of Germans criticized “Israel’s tough treatment of the Palestinians.”

But the numbers likely are different among Germany’s evangelical Christians.

In August, German fundamentalists held one of the largest pro-Israel demonstrations here in recent memory. Some 4,000 came to Berlin, where they prayed, waved Israeli flags, blew shofars and decried “land for peace” initiatives.

Local Jewish groups did not participate, and the German Jewish Student Union actively protested the group’s anti-Palestinian stance and the fundamentalist Christian view of Judaism as an “incomplete” faith.

The fundamentalists “support and strengthen the nationalist stream in Israel,” Martin Kloke, a scholar on Israeli-German relations, told JTA. “It works as long as the State of Israel is not trying to find a historical territorial compromise with the Palestinians.”

Eckstein agreed that the fundamentalists are “going to be much more to the right than the Jewish community” in Germany.

That does not seem to bother the Israeli Embassy in Germany or the Jewish National Fund, both of which have welcomed the show of support. Their view — shared by a growing number of Jewish leaders around the world — is that Israel has to take whatever help it can get in these trying times.

For Eckstein, this amounts to a belated endorsement of his campaign “to strengthen the hands of those who are standing up for Israel.”

Eckstein — whose name means “cornerstone” in German — was born in Canada and grew up in the United States. He and his wife, Bonnie, have three daughters and one grandchild.

Eckstein lives in Jerusalem but returns to his home in Chicago regularly.

Eckstein founded the International Fellowship in 1983, five years after receiving his rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University in New York.

Building Christian support for Israel became “my niche, my talent, my forte,” he said. “I am a specialist. Some doctors only do feet. I only do evangelicals.”

Eckstein has forged ahead, despite the fact that mainstream Jewish groups shunned him for years. Some still do.

But “I am not ashamed of anything I do,” he said. “How many Jews in the world have done in a church what I did? But there are others who could.”

In late 2002, his fellowship signed an historic agreement with Keren Hayesod to reach Christians in Europe. As part of the contract, the Christian members of the fellowship agreed not to proselytize to Jews.

“Once we were approved by Keren Hayesod delegates, it was kosher,” Eckstein said. His expenses are covered, but he does not earn a fee for his outreach work.

Already, Eckstein has spoken in Germany, Holland and Denmark.

“This base of support we are building in Europe is not just for fund raising,” he said, “but to serve as a counteraction for the forces of anti-Semitism.”

Despite the promise not to proselytize, missionary language was evident at the recent evening in Sudstern Church.

Eckstein “said what is in our hearts — that we are one,” Waltraud Keil, president of the Christian fundamentalist group The Bridge Berlin-Jerusalem, said after hosting the event in the Sudstern Church.

“I came here because Jews and Christians belong together, and naturally I came to support Israel,” congregant Wolfram Bublitz, 46, said, as he waited to speak with Eckstein.

“My father was a Nazi, and he said Jesus was not a Jew,” Bublitz finally told Eckstein. “But Jesus showed me that he is a Jew. We are the little brother.”

Later, over his beer, Eckstein reflected on this encounter.

“The immediacy of the past was jarring,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in Oregon City, in California or Virginia.”

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