Perhaps you read a few months ago, as did I, the media plants and denials related to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the Founder and President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, whose alleged run at the Presidency of the State of Israel had made the Israeli press while remaining but a blip, if that, among the Israeli public. We all need a good laugh every now and then (other than the almost daily laughs supplied by our friends at JFNA); so, a big todah rabba to Rabbi Eckstein for this chapter of "As Our Strange Jewish World Turns." There may be no greater argument in favor of abolishing the office of Israel's President than in those who aspired for that office. And, congratulations to Shimon Peres' successor President Reuven "Ruby" Rivlin.
But, in other areas, Rabbi Eckstein has been and is doing incredible work. As reported on August 5 in The Jerusalem Post: "Three planeloads of Ukrainian Jews sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews will land in Israel in the coming weeks... Asked about what role the Jewish Agency, which is responsible for immigration to Israel, will play in the flights, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, IFCJ founder, replied that as a private organization "we can do this quicker with better results by seizing the moment."" And more -- The IFCJ has opened a Refugee Center in the Ukraine serving the Jewish communities with major staffing. And, if he had not chosen to cut his grants completely, Eckstein's IFCJ might soon be allocating more to the Jewish Agency than the entirety of the federation system -- and far more already than does Keren Ha'Yesod. But, off goes Rabbi Eckstein...on his own.
Then let's be sure to acknowledge Eckstein's prodigious philanthropy. Starting from literally nothing in the 70's with the formation of his Fellowship, Yechiel progressively built a fund raising machine on hundreds, then thousands then tens of thousands of small contributions from (mainly) Evangelical Christians with a love of Israel (and, no doubt, other motives never disclosed, always denied) into a raise of over $100,000,000 a year by year-end 2013. Rabbi Eckstein, whose career began in Chicago as an itinerant Rabbi, part-time Chazan, and Midwest Director of the ADL, built his own stature on the backs of those contributions directing allocations to the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee (from which Rabbi Eckstein became only the fourth recipient of its Raoul Wallenberg Award) and, more and more, to direct project funding. He is a charming man; I have always enjoyed speaking with him, in touring his Chicago office space; and watching him operate.
At the beginning, back in Chicago, the Rabbi's ambitions were already great. I recall, when I Chaired the Chicago Federation and its JUF in the mid-1980s, multiple calls to come to the Federation building and have my picture taken with Yechiel and an over-sized check. Chicago's FRD Director often was called to drop everything and travel with the Rabbi to, e.g., Uzbekistan for the same purpose as were my travels to the Federation -- only this was a fly-in and fly-out. After several years of directing his funding through the Chicago Federation, Rabbi Eckstein apparently determined that he and the IFCJ could get more "play" by sending the dollars through the United Jewish Appeal but that route, too, was soon abandoned as Yechiel felt that he was being "ignored by the American Jewish community" which benefited so greatly from his FRD efforts. (He wasn't in any "ignored.")
Yechiel, no matter his frustration with his perceived lack of recognition by the Jewish community for his efforts, never abandoned Jews in need. But the fund-raising commercials he produced for the Christian donations he sought often showed Jews in incredible poverty and were often beyond the pale. They were often crude and harsh. Eckstein, through his IFCJ and its arms, redoubled his efforts, directly funding Jews in need through the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee. He required and, as he should have, received seats on the Board and Executive of both; even serving as Chair, inter alia, of the JAFI Aliyah Committee. But even those platforms weren't sufficient to satisfy Rabbi Eckstein's needs for public approbation for his good and great works.
At JAFI, Eckstein demanded as a quid pro quo that the organization's letterhead be modified to include him as a co-equal with the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Ha'Yesod. It appeared to this writer that JAFI leaders had agreed only to renege when the push-back from the LCE became too great. All during these years, the IFCJ became the largest single non-governmental contributor to the Jewish Agency and the JDC other than the Claims Conference. He was and is a major charitable force with which to be reckoned. Just months ago, he joined JA, JDC and World ORT with a $1 million grant to Jewish institutions in the Ukraine.
But, when any of the organizations through which the Rabbi allocated his funds for wonderful, often life-saving, purposes, exhausted the honors, the kavod, that they could or would offer, Rabbi Eckstein moved on -- and earlier, coupled with his denials, he apparently coveted the Presidency of Israel! To "celebrate" the Jewish New Year, Eckstein announced that he was pulling a $9,000,000 allocation from the Jewish Agency, hiring the charismatic Eli Cohen, who ran the Jewish Agency's Aliya and Klitah Department until JAFI almost abandoned the aliyah effort to head up his own IFCJ Immigration "Department." (Never mind that Yechiel still serves on the Jewish Agency Executive and only recently resigned his rather woeful chairing of JAFI's Aliyah Department Committee.)
Given this history and the switch in corporate focus and venue of the IFCJ to Israel, where Rabbi Eckstein had become a citizen years earlier, and the location of the IFCJ broadcasting studios, is it any surprise that Eckstein might pursue the Presidency of the State of Israel? Well, in a word...yes. Notwithstanding his well-planted denials, it seemed well known in Jerusalem at the time that Yechiel had retained Moshe Teumim, the Israeli marketing and communications czar (known in Israel as "the man who made Shimon Peres President") as his behind the scenes stalking horse for an office for which he appeared to be supremely unqualified.
So, the Presidential trial balloon went up and quickly disappeared from view; Eckstein never even registered in Israeli's public polling. But given his history and determination, a determination reflected on billboards around Israel bearing his punim, his new "I will do aliyah myself" funding, don't count Yechiel out next time.