Summer Camps in Jeopardy as Rabbis Fight Over Christian Donations

While moderate rabbis support accepting funds from a Christian-Jewish fellowship, haredi rabbis are vehemently opposed.

Yair Ettinger
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Piron in November 2013, before surgery. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Yair Ettinger

A Christian-Jewish fellowship organization that contributes generously to Israel and to Jewish communities abroad is being maligned and boycotted by rabbis in Israel, according to the group’s founder.

“It makes me think of Nazi Europe in the past and about the wave of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment we see in Europe today,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

The fellowship is a philanthropic organization that donated about a quarter of a billion shekels ($75 million) to Israel and Jewish communities in the Commonwealth of Independent States in 2013 alone. Many Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbis accuse it of proselytizing and refuse to accept its donations.

Active in Israel for 13 years, the fellowship funds summer camps in cooperation with the Education Ministry and recently received a stamp of approval from mainstream Israeli rabbis.

Haredi rabbis, however, have launched an organized campaign to boycott the organization, on the grounds that its activities amount to missionizing.

The controversy over the fellowship’s activities, in which the moderate and conservative factions in religious Zionism are facing off against each other, may determine the fate of Education Minister Shay Piron’s flagship summer camp project.

The moment Piron presented the project in cooperation with the fellowship, ultra-Orthodox rabbis launched a media campaign against it and petitioned the High Court of Justice to have it stopped. Paid ads against the project, created by an independent PR company, have appeared in the religious media.

The ads cite leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis as warning that the fellowship intends to “create a Christian influence on the Israeli public.” The fellowship denies the allegations.

The religious Zionist rabbis organization Tzohar, of which Piron is a member, is spearheading the fellowship’s defense. Last week, leading rabbis David Stav, Tzohar’s executive chairman, and Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovich wrote that accepting funds from the fellowship was permissible.

“The contributors don’t know their beneficiaries personally and have no personal influence on them,” the rabbis wrote. They also said they were assured by the education ministry that the fellowship would not be involved in any way in the content taught at the camps.

Eckstein said contributions to the fellowship come from 13,000 people who are not wealthy and donate tiny sums, sometimes a tithe of their national insurance stipend. “Most of them are Protestant women, aged 60-80, who believe in the Bible,” he said.

“They believe we are the chosen people and that’s why they must bless us…These Christians are our most important friends and the rabbis who attack them offend these people’s amazing generosity. That’s not the Jewish way. Hitting the hand that’s stretched out to you is not a Jewish value,” he said.

According to Eckstein, the cooperation was initiated by the Education Ministry, which wanted to adopt the experimental summer camp program that the fellowship introduced last year for 13,000 children from needy local authorities.

This year, the project will be financed mostly by the government. The fellowship will invest only $10 million dollars, $4 million of which will finance activities for children in the first and second grades, such as visits to zoos or water parks. The remaining $6 million will go toward expanding the project to higher grades in needy communities. Eckstein emphasized that the fellowship has nothing to do with the contents taught at the summer camps.

That claim is rejected by an organization called Yedid Nefesh, which maintains that the fellowship will indeed have input in the content that is taught in the camps.

The anti-fellowship campaign has had an effect in deterring religious-state schools from taking part in the camps. It is now probable that the camps, which were planned for Kiryat Shmona and Kiryat Arba, will not take place, Eckstein said.

“Who suffers in the end? The innocent people, the children, the elderly, the Holocaust survivors who don’t know the truth.”

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