Yechiel Eckstein, known to Evangelical Christians around the world as the “Christian Rabbi,” has died at the age of 67. Eckstein was known for his philanthropic efforts in Israel over the past 35 years through the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ).
As head of the IFCJ, the New York rabbi raised more than $360 million in donations — mostly from Christians — for projects benefiting needy Jews and Arabs in Israel and beyond, according to the organization’s website.
But Eckstein’s appeal to the Church to support Israel made him a pariah with many Jews, Christians and Messianic Jews. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate repeatedly condemned Eckstein’s use of Christian money to “expand Christian missionary propaganda.” In Mea Shearim, Jerusalem’s most ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, dozens of posters claim “Beware! Eckstein is a secret Evangelical Christian!”
Many Christians are also convinced that Eckstein was a believer in Yeshua. However, in his book, What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism, Eckstein devotes an entire chapter to casting suspicion on Jews who believe in Jesus. One of the underlying purposes of the book is to make clear to Christians that if they hope to have friendship with Jewish people, they need to disassociate from Messianic Jews and should stop evangelizing.
Eckstein’s approach played well with Christian organizations who sought access to Israel’s higher echelon, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who actively pursues support from America’s right-wing Evangelicals. Rabbi Eckstein knew how to tap into the deep Evangelical conviction to support Israel, pray for the peace of Jerusalem and bless the descendants of Abraham, without mentioning Jesus.
Rabbi Eckstein’s inroads into the Christian world are extraordinary. He organized leading Christian broadcaster tours to Israel. His nationally-syndicated radio broadcast “Ask the Rabbi” aired on predominantly Christian stations. Eckstein made regular appearances on major Christian television broadcasts to discuss subjects that include Israel, Jews, Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations. He was one of the initiators of the International Prayer for Israel movement that has brought together over six million Christians to pray for the Jewish state. He has been a keynote speaker at the International Christian Embassy’s Feast of Tabernacles event in Jerusalem.
His IFCJ launched On Wings of Eagles to bring Soviet Jews to Israel following the collapse of the USSR. He organized an emergency campaign to raise funds from Christian communities to pay for “Freedom Flight” airlifts from the former Soviet Union to Israel. Millions have been donated by Evangelical Christians to rescue the Jews of Ethiopia and bring them to Israel.
Dr. James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family went so far as to say of Eckstein, “I’m aware of your own efforts to defend righteousness… it’s heartening to know that you and other members of the Jewish community are standing with us [Christians] in striving to defend biblical truths.”
But David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, wondered already back in 2007 in his organization’s newsletter, “Why do so many Christians respond to Rabbi Eckstein’s appeals for Bible-based support for projects that have nothing to do with reconciling Jewish people to God? I can understand it to a certain extent, as they do not know that some of the funds Rabbi Eckstein collects go to groups that oppose efforts to tell Jewish people that they need to know Jesus as Messiah and Lord. However, the high-profile Christian leaders who deal with Eckstein certainly know that he is not a Christian. Still, they encourage Christians to express their love for Jewish people by giving to leaders who are spiritually blind. Because yes, as offensive as that statement sounds, the Bible does say that without Jesus, my people are blind (Romans 11:25).”