Yael Eckstein is putting her own mark on building bridges between Christians and Jews

Yael Eckstein standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. As the new head of the International “Fellowship” that helps 1.5 million people a year, she has taken what her father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, built and is adding her own vision to the 36-year-old organization. Source: Facebook.

By Deborah Fineblum

It’s traumatic enough to experience the loss of a beloved parent, especially one who dies suddenly at the age of 67. But in February, soon after burying her father, Yael Eckstein had to undergo a second trauma.

She had to sit at his desk.

Because Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein was not only her dad but, as the founder and president of the $1.6 billion International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, known as the Fellowship, for 15 years, he was also her boss. “All that time I’d always been on the other side of the desk,” she says eight months later. “Sitting in his chair was very, very hard, but it was something I knew I’d have to do eventually.”

First, however, she had to cry for her father. “His death was so sudden. And I knew for shiva I needed to be just a daughter who’d suddenly lost her dad and was already missing him.”

After those seven days of mourning were over for her and her two sisters, and she’d shed her tears, Eckstein got to work. “I could have taken a few months, but I believed I needed to show that we weren’t going to let all the people who rely on us — or our donors — down, that there would be no gap in services.”

With the unanimous support of the Fellowship Board behind her, at that moment the 35-year-old mother of four stepped out from behind her father’s shadow and is set to make her own mark on Jewish history. Raising more than $127 million a year from 1.75 million donors (95 percent of whom are Christians), not only is the Fellowship the world’s largest Christian-supported humanitarian agency helping Israel and the Jewish people, but it’s by far Israel’s largest charity and one of the top 400 nonprofits in America.

Still, Eckstein says the transition wasn’t painless. “I knew that, if I blurred the line between my emotions and my professional judgment, I’d fail at both,” she says. “For me, that’s meant learning to watch videos of my father without crying.”

Yael opening food box with elderly woman, Nelli Barotko. Credit: Courtesy.

And there’s an abundance of such videos since the rabbi has been in the public eye since 1983, when he founded the Fellowship in an early effort to tap the evangelical movement’s growing support of Israel and the Jewish people.

Having raised $1.6 billion in its 36 years of operation with an average gift of just $76, the Fellowship currently benefits some 1.5 million people a year. Among them:

  • An 89-year-old who lost her parents in an anti-Semitic attack in Iran and was herself injured in a terrorist bombing years later in Netanya. Living on a meager government retirement, she is one of 16,000 Israeli elderly who receive help and now enjoys new independence with a wheelchair and a range from the Fellowship.
  • A 10-year-old living in a Fellowship-sponsored orphanage for Jewish children in Odessa. With 200 friends, he’s bused each morning to an ORT school, his lunchbox filled with nutritious food.
  • An Israel Defense Forces soldier who’s the oldest of five children of an Ethiopian-born single mother who works cleaning the streets. When her refrigerator died, her son told his officer, who arranged to buy a replacement through an emergency Fellowship fund.
  • A Holocaust survivor in Moscow living on $70 a month in government support, but at 85 can no longer cut his own firewood, endangering him for both freezing and malnutrition. Now he’s part of an emergency winter-relief program, providing food, heat and medicine.
  • A mother of four near Gaza who told Eckstein that now that one of the Fellowship’s 5,500 mobile bomb shelters has been placed on her street, she no longer has to choose which child to grab for the run to the neighborhood shelter when the alarm sounds. In addition, the Fellowship has also renovated many of the permanent shelters in hard-hit areas near Gaza and Lebanon, installing electricity, showers and mattresses.
  • A Ukrainian Jewish family of four making aliyah, one of more than 20,000 Jews from the FSU and Europe the Fellowship has sponsored in the last four years. There’s also a myriad of adjustment services awaiting them in their new home.

“Five years ago, my father dreamed of having our own aliyah program for Jews from all over,” says Eckstein. “Everyone discouraged him, but four years later, when we’ve brought 20,000 olim from 37 countries to Israel, it’s such a testament to my dad’s vision.”

In July, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined Eckstein at the airport to welcome 300 Ukrainian Jews.

Yael pictured with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Source: Facebook.

A history of fellowship

It all began in 1983, when Rabbi Eckstein and his wife were expecting Yael, their third child. The Chicago native made a radical departure from his secure job at the Anti-Defamation League: establishing an organization dedicated to building bridges between two faith communities, and mustering Christian support of Israel and the Jewish people.

Though one of the strongest appeals to religious Christians comes directly from Genesis 12:3: “And I will bless those who bless you and those who curse you I will curse … ,” the concept of Christian support of Jews and Israel was a hard sell then to much of the Jewish establishment who was suspicious of their motivations, concerned that it was a thinly veiled road to conversion.

“There is a small minority of Christians who see the end game of supporting Jews and Israel as conversion; however, the Fellowship has always had a ‘no missionary’ rule,” says Eckstein. “For our 1.4 million donors, they support Israel because they see the word of our prophets come alive here, and they see it as their biblical obligation. They see the Jewish people as having a special bond with God, taking seriously the words of the Torah: ‘Forever this is a sign of my chosen people.’ ”

Indeed, many among the Jewish communal leadership took (at times highly publicized) exception to Fellowship ads targeting Christian would-be donors portraying elderly Holocaust survivors and Israeli children as poor and needy. “Sadly, Israelis do have a high rate of poverty, below Mexico,” says Eckstein. “But my father had a big personality, and I think many of these clashes were personal.”

Still, Eckstein says she’s now taking another, more positive approach to touching the heartstrings of donors. In a recent video with Mike Huckabee, smiles replaced the tears. We’re trying this approach to gauge the response,” she says. “If it’s successful, great. But if it doesn’t raise the money we need to feed all the hungry people who rely on us, we will not hesitate to show the real need here.”

She believes her father’s message was right for the times he lived in, when the bonds between the two faiths and Christian support of Israel and Jewish causes were still in their infancy.

“My father used to joke that it took him 30 years to become an overnight success,” says Eckstein, who moved to Israel with her husband in 2005. As an Orthodox rabbi, she says, for 25 years “he was ostracized for reaching out to Christians, and only within the last 10 years was he more accepted and even celebrated for the strategic partnership he’s built between Christian and Jew, with many mainstream Jewish organizations now also reaching out for the support of Christians. I’m glad he lived long enough to see the Jewish community begin to understand what he’d been talking about for the last 37 years.”

The late Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein with his three daughters. Source: Facebook.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who founded the city of Efrat with many of his congregants from the Lincoln Square Synagogue in 1983 and remains its chief rabbi, says “Rabbi Eckstein very well understood the changes in Christian attitudes to Jews and the importance of these relationships, especially for the State of Israel. He was one of the Jewish world’s most important leaders and worked mightily to make sure the forgotten Jews — many of them Holocaust survivors living in dire poverty — were not forgotten. He was absolutely passionate about them.”

So how does one step into such big shoes?

After 15 years of working together (Eckstein’s first job consisted of stamping envelopes), this leadership transition was eased by astute planning, says Fellowship board chair Bishop Paul Lanier.

The bishop remembers the rabbi mentioning succession again and again. “Why?” we’d say. ‘You’re fine.’ But for the last few years, we could see he was determined to get Yael to meet the right people at the right time, to understand the entire organization. So even though she was not prepared to lose her father, he made sure she was more than prepared to lead the Fellowship.”

“Rabbi Eckstein, in addition to his pioneering work, groomed a successor — something that is not done often enough in Jewish life,” says Professor Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “Rabbi Eckstein groomed his daughter, Yael, making her now one of the most important female Jewish leaders in the Jewish world and a role model for all Jewish women in leadership positions.”

Not that this was her dream, she points out.

“Being president was never anything I wanted; I was more focused on building relationships with our donors,” she says. “Still, because of these last four years, as my dad began to rely on me more and more, by the time I moved into the position I knew it inside and out. I now realize what a gift he gave me.”

Indeed, their leadership styles are quite different. “My father was a visionary who flew by the seat of his pants,” she says. “When he believed in something and trusted it, the support would follow, which is almost always did.”

Which made for an excellent balance, she adds. “He was the public face focused on international expansion. I was focused on the donors in America and fundraising. It worked. And since this is a founder-based organization, no matter how big it got, it would always be a mom-and-pop shop.”

Board chair Lanier said “when her father was alive, Yael went along with him respectfully. But now that it’s her turn to call the shots, she is showing much of his strength but definitely not going to do things exactly the way as her dad. The board understood that and didn’t feel the slightest hesitation.”

One decision she made recently: to scratch the Fellowship’s $60 million Legacy Center for Christian visitors being built in Jerusalem, was particularly difficult, she said, “because that building was my father’s final dream. But ending the year 2 percent ahead of our projected budget, the board and I took a hard look at our priorities and unanimously agreed that we can’t get sidetracked, but need to remain focused on our primary mission, humanitarian aid.”

The current plan is to sell the property, expecting to recoup most of the $14 million spent on the project so far.

With multimillion-dollar decisions like that on the table, Eckstein is able to maintain her focus and do a job that took her father 24/6, thanks to her husband, a writer who works from home and has flexibility with their four kids.

“I know statistically women are not given the same opportunities, but in my bubble of a childhood, my parents raised us girls to know we could do anything, the sky’s the limit,” she says. “I hope I’m a good role model to my daughters growing up in a religious family where the father is home with the kids while the mother is out making the world a better place.”

Support from the Christian world

Now Eckstein is the Fellowship’s public face, which means travel. On a swing of the United States this summer, she made a point of speaking to students at Christian universities to win the hearts of the next generation of supporters. “As my father used to tell me, ‘There is no second chance to make a first impression’.”

She also appeared on Christian media like the “700 Club” and “The Mike Huckabee Show.”

“In some cases, the loss of a visionary means the end of vision and power or the second generation can simply lose their way,” says Huckabee. “My audience, who’s very pro-Israel, saw her warmth and her passion ­­for helping people with food, electricity and thousands of temporary bomb shelters in Israel, but also how careful she is about how the resources are being used, something very important to donors.”

Penny Nance, a new Fellowship Board member who is CEO and president of Concerned Women of America, the largest women’s public-policy organization in the America, says Eckstein resonates with her half-million members, mostly evangelical women.

“Yael is a compassionate leader who understands the increasingly key role Christians play in support of Israel,” says Nance, who came to Israel to see the Fellowship in action. “I found we have so much in common, as mothers and believers in God’s sovereignty over the world. … This is just her first year, but she has what it takes. I can’t wait to see what she does next.”

One sight that impressed Rev. Johnnie Moore on his recent Eckstein tour of Israeli Fellowship projects was one of the terror tunnels. Warned to stay out due to the threat of collapse, “I had to see it with my own eyes,” says Moore, president of the Congress of Christian. “I’ll never forget what I felt there, the terror that might have been had the Israelis not been fortunate enough to find it. Thanks to the Fellowship, we Christians are in a position to help Israelis protect themselves.”

“To succeed as a second-generation leader, you have to have a strong foundation, be an extraordinary communicator, a decisive leader, sensitive to others and incredibly comfortable in your own skin” adds Moore. “Yael is a millennial woman of faith who has it all. As the Jewish community is beginning to trust the evangelists — and there were by the way good reasons in the past not to — she’s in the perfect position to grow that.”

Eckstein herself will tell you the operation runs on partnerships like the ones with the Christian leaders above who help get the Fellowship message out to their communities, as well as with those within the Jewish world who make sure the funds go where they’re most needed.

One long-term key partnership is with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has worked closely for decades with the Fellowship on programs helping Jews across the globe.

“It’s always been a partnership grounded in a shared commitment to the neediest Jews in the world, many of the 87,000 Jews in the FSU are elderly survivors who live on pensions as low as $2 a day,” says David Schizer, CEO of JDC. “Not only has the Fellowship long been our main funder in helping those desperately poor people — the rabbi was a key member of our executive board — but we’re finding Yael to be every bit as passionate and committed as her father was, in addition to being really strategic.”

‘An important alliance’

But although the Fellowship’s success in gaining Christian support of Jewish causes has impressed many in the Jewish community, there are those who harbor lingering doubts about whether Christians can and should be financial and moral supporters of their causes, especially when it comes to Israel.

“No one forgets history and anti-Semitism has been very strong in Christian history, but the evangelicals are well-aware of that and most of them are very sensitive to accusations that they’re trying to convert us,” says Danny Ayalon, who recalls Rabbi Eckstein visiting him in Washington, when he was Israeli ambassador 17 years ago. “He came with a vision: linking Christians to the land and the people of Israel, for the benefit of both, especially Israel. What we need to understand is their support is coming from their own belief that Judaism is the root of their faith, and the Bible is an instruction book. The truth is this strategic political alliance born of shared values is needed even more now, so his daughter is in a very important position.”

Yael with evangelical Christian leader Johnnie Moore. Credit: Courtesy.

That daughter sees it this way: “That there are Christians who are anti-Semites is not new. What’s new is that millions of them, especially evangelicals, are among Israel’s and the Jewish people staunchest defenders. In an era of BDS and growing anti-Semitism, this is an important alliance we need to invest in.” Case in point: Evangelicals invest millions each year in lobbying senators and congressmen to support Israel.

And Eckstein maintains that the fact that she, as an Orthodox woman, now stands at the helm of this movement to engage, educate and mobilize Christian supporters “clearly shows that they aren’t here to change us, but to support and defend us any way they can.”

The future of the Fellowship

With offices in Chicago, Toronto, Jerusalem and Korea, the Fellowship under Eckstein is also focusing on new alliances within the Jewish community. “Jewish leaders are beginning to see how strategic our relationship with Christians is going to be in the future, and they want to support that.”

To wit: A recent gift of $100,000 from a Jewish donor interested in investing in outreach to Christian college students.

But even when focused on the strategic big picture, Eckstein insists it’s the stories that keep her going. Like the recent immigrant from Ukraine who told her that he had been beaten up so many times that he’d changed his name to stay safe. “But what I saw was an Israeli citizen in his mid-40s wearing a kipah and a Jewish star around his neck,” says Eckstein. “He said he’s so happy that for the first time in his life, he lives in a country where he is free to be a proud Jew.” And he had some good news for her: Once in Israel, he decided to change his name back.

“It’s truly amazing to be in a position to help make these miracles happen for the next 50 years,” she says, “These are bridges my father built where no one else dared to go.”

But Eckstein is now tapping into her own strengths as well, says Lanier. “When she emerged from shiva saying, ‘We’re not going to let any hungry person miss a meal because we dropped the ball.’ I told her, ‘Yael, you’re not going to fill your father’s shoes; you’re going to stretch them.’ ”

She insists she is not stretching those shoes alone.

“Anyone in a position of leadership is only as strong as their team, and their team is only as strong as its leadership,” says Eckstein. “The prayer I say every day before I walk into the office is: “God, let me be a vessel to bring Your holiness into the world.”