The man billed as the world’s leading Jewish authority on evangelical Christians will be the keynote speaker for The Gathering IV – the fourth annual local Jewish-Christian rally in support of Israel, set for Monday, Feb. 27, at Raytown Baptist Church.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, 54, founder and chairman of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said he didn’t realize when he started the group in 1983 how important it could become.
Today the IFCJ has a staff of 40 and a Web site (www.ifcj.org). Nearly 400,000 people have given money to or through the group at one time or another. Last year the group raised $50 million to support aliyah through the Jewish Agency for Israel and helping services through a variety of other groups, Rabbi Eckstein said.
Rabbi Eckstein is a member of the executive committee of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the board of directors of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He also serves as an unofficial adviser to Israel’s prime minister and recently was appointed goodwill ambassador of the state of Israel, with special emphasis on evangelical communities in Latin America.
Rabbi Eckstein received Orthodox rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He also holds master’s degrees from Yeshiva University and Columbia University.
Prior to founding the Fellowship, Rabbi Eckstein spent six years as national co-director of interreligious affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. It was during that time, Rabbi Eckstein recalled, that he first reached out to evangelical Christian leaders for support and dialogue. It went so well that he founded an entire separate organization dedicated to it.
“The truth is, I wasn’t so smart to know what would be,” Rabbi Eckstein said in a recent telephone interview. “Certainly, I couldn’t know that 30 years later, this group, this effort would be generating $50 million a year, predominantly from Christians, and we give away most of it to help Jews, to support aliyah. Little did I know we would be so important to Israel financially, in terms of tourism, and politically – that the situation would arise when the president of the United States would be a born-again Christian … and the party in power would be Republican, and the majority of his constituency would be these born-again folks.
“I didn’t know Tom DeLay would become the new head of Congress, or that they (evangelicals) would grow around the world. I’ve been traveling to Latin America a lot as global ambassador, and now 30 percent of Latinos are evangelical. We had no idea this group would burst onto the scene and grow in prominence, in numbers and influence in the political process and in terms of the impact for Israel and the Jewish people that is has.
“I put it like this: God placed me there without my knowing it. And I did it because, number one, nobody else was doing it. And number two, as an Orthodox Jew, I can relate to it. “
Despite the clear evidence of good works done by evangelicals for Jews and Israelis, Rabbi Eckstein said he still has to answer Jewish critics who contend that evangelicals are only supporting Israel for their own ends – because they need the Jews to be ingathered as a precondition for their anticipated “Second Coming.”
“The answer,” Rabbi Eckstein said, “can be summed up in the motto I use: The Jewish community and evangelicals are to cooperate whenever possible, to oppose each other whenever necessary and to teach and sensitize and build bridges at all times.
“I say to Jews who are uncomfortable: There are areas where we are going to agree; let’s do that. It’s not theological; it’s a church-state issue. And at all times have this relationship.
“More directly what I say to them is I make a distinction between theological and practical exclusivity. I draw the line not on what they believe will happen in end of days. I am not guided by that. I am guided by acts – what are they doing? If they are involved in targeted missions toward Jews, like Jews for Jesus, we won’t work with them. But the end of days?
“We did a formal study on why these evangelicals support Israel, and we found the primary reason wasn’t even theological. It was because of shared democratic values. Even when we pushed them theologically as to why, the vast majority gave the classic answer, and that is Genesis 12:3, which is key to understanding them. The Torah says God will bless those who bless Abraham. They believe their primary duty is to bless Israel and the Jewish people.
Then, a small minority have an eschatological, end-of-days scenario – that then Jesus will come. But that is a small number. The proof is to take a guy like President Bush. Is he supporting Israel as an evangelical Christian; because of this whole scenario? That’s narishkeit.; nonsense. Christians give millions to help elderly Jews in former Soviet Union with food and heating oil. It fits in with their whole idea of blessing the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Alan Cohen of Congregation Beth Shalom, who heads the Rabbinical Association, said Rabbi Eckstein is a dynamic speaker whose work relates perfectly to the themes of The Gathering.
Rabbi Eckstein said he would tell Jewish audience members “the pros and cons why it’s important to reach out (to evangelicals), but with red lines. I am hoping and anticipating there will be a lot of time for questions and answers and discussions.”
Sidebar: The Gathering IV, Feb. 27
Jews and Christians will unite for The Gathering IV, a citywide event to express common hopes and prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, at First Baptist Church of Raytown, Mo., 10500 E. 350 Highway.
In addition to the host church, the sponsors include the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City, Jewish Federation, Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, National Unity Coalition for Israel, Blue River-Kansas City Baptist Association, Colonial Presbyterian Church, United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and others.
Free shuttle service will be available from Village Shalom, but advance reservations are required; call (913) 327-4622. For more details about the event, visit www.jerusalemgathering.org or call (816) 268-1504.