Evangelical-funded Israeli Charity Drops Plan for Flagship Project in Jerusalem

The late founder had envisioned the new center as a place where Christian tourists could be trained to become 'ambassadors' for Israel abroad and help combat the BDS movement

The building site for the planned new headquarters of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Jerusalem, November 6, 2019. The project has been scrapped.
Emil Salman

Plans to build a huge outreach center for evangelical Christian tourists visiting Jerusalem – among the most touted construction projects on the Holy City’s landscape in recent years – have been scrapped, the developers told Haaretz.

The $60 million, seven-story facility was being financed by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the largest private philanthropy active in Israel, and was also to function as its global headquarters. Billed as a home away from home for Christian tourists visiting the Holy Land, the building was meant to include an exhibition center where Christians could learn about the Jewish roots of their religion.

The project was the brainchild of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder of the organization (also known in Israel as Hakeren Leyedidut), who died in February at 67. Eckstein had envisioned the center as a place where Christian tourists could be trained to become “ambassadors” for Israel abroad and, more specifically, help combat the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. He also saw it as a way to bring more Christian tourists to the country and provide those interested with volunteering opportunities.

Yael Eckstein, his daughter who replaced him as president of the group, told Haaretz the decision to cancel the project reflected the organization’s desire to remain focused on its “humanitarian mission” – fighting poverty, promoting aliyah (immigration) and enhancing Israel’s security.

“Investing in tourism and fighting BDS are not part of that,” she said, adding that the decision to cancel the project had been approved in recent days by the organization’s board.

“We still believe there’s a need for this type of building, but it is not something for us to do,” Eckstein said.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the project was held in late 2017. A shell of the structure exists at the site in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiyot about a block away from the U.S. Embassy. The roof of the building was meant to overlook the Temple Mount, and the site was chosen because it is equidistant between the Western Wall revered by Jews and Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. The building – with three floors underground and four above – was expected to be completed by 2022.

Eckstein said $14 million had already been spent on the project, but she hoped to retrieve most of the investment by selling the building and the land under it.

“This was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make because this project had been my father’s baby,” she said. “We feel, however, that by focusing our efforts on the humanitarian mission of IFCJ, we will be making his legacy even stronger, and we will find another way to commemorate him.”

George Mamo, the U.S.-based CEO of the organization, had been overseeing the building project, but in July he suddenly quit. His resignation came on the heels of a U.S. court decision to move ahead with a lawsuit in which two former employees accused him of sexual harassment. It was the second major shake-up to the organization this year, the first being its founder's untimely death.

Founded in 1983, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews raises about $130 million a year for causes in Israel, mainly from evangelical donors. Eckstein said that since she took over the organization, “We have more monthly donors than ever before.”