The Million Dollar Question: With Their Rabbi Gone, Will Evangelicals Still Open Their Wallets to Israel?

Yechiel Eckstein built a billion dollar philanthropic empire by being the first to tap into Christian love for Israel. Will his daughter be able to sustain the momentum now that he's gone?

Yael Eckstein, who now heads the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Oren Nahshon

Among charities active in Israel today, few can rival the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews when it comes to fundraising capabilities, donor base and impact – and certainly not when it comes to visibility.

But since it was founded in 1983, the IFCJ (better known in Israel as Hakeren Leyedidut) has been pretty much a one-man show. And now that man is gone.

Yechiel Eckstein, the charismatic rabbi who built this philanthropic empire from scratch, died suddenly of a heart attack on February 6 at age 67. Among the first to identify the potential for translating Christian evangelical support for Israel into charity dollars, he was the voice and face of the organization since its inception.

It is only natural that many of the individuals and organizations that have come to rely on his donations will be wondering what the passing of this larger-than-life figure will mean.

The good news for them is that Eckstein was aware of his mortality and already had a succession plan in place: Less than a year ago, his youngest daughter, Yael – who was effectively his second-in-command – was appointed president-elect. The plan was that she would move into her father’s position once he retired in about two years’ time.

Asked whether any of the beneficiaries should have cause for concern, she tells Haaretz: “Not at all. As with any humanitarian organization, no one knows what the future will hold. In fact, we ended last year, with my father still alive, with a drop in donations. But does my father’s passing affect the fellowship’s ability to reach out to donors, to raise funds and effectively distribute funds? The answer is a definitive no.”

Jeff Kaye, who served as executive vice president and director general of the IFCJ for five years before stepping down late last year, believes that if anyone is capable of filling Eckstein’s big shoes, it is his daughter.

“It’ll take time, but Yael is the person to do it,” he says. With recent studies indicating that young evangelicals are less committed to Israel than their parents, he says, it is important that someone capable of engaging with members of this new generation lead the fellowship. “Unlike her father, who used to call himself old school, Yael is very active on social media and perfectly poised for this job,” Kaye says.

Another individual previously employed in the organization, who requested not to be quoted by name, says he is confident it will continue to thrive at least for the next year or two – thanks in large part to fundraising campaigns already under way in Eckstein’s memory.

“But what will happen after is difficult to say,” he says. “There’s no doubt Yael is capable, but her father was the engine behind this entire operation. The million dollar question is whether she can successfully turn it into an organization that is no longer synonymous with his name.”

Another questions experts in the world of philanthropy have been asking is how open evangelicals – known for their conservative views – will be to the idea of a woman running an organization of this kind.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein visiting a young people's shelter in Jerusalem, July 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Breaking a taboo

Andrés Spokoiny, president of the Jewish Funders Network, attributes much of Eckstein’s success – and by definition that of his organization – to his big personality. “He was very charismatic and knew how to operate in a way that appealed to Christian evangelicals, and they responded in kind,” he notes.

With Eckstein gone, Spokoiny believes the IFCJ will have no choice but to reinvent itself if it wants to continue being a major player in the world of Jewish philanthropy.

“It’s going to be a difficult challenge because the force of his personality was a big part of it. But I think it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the organization is going to disappear,” Spokoiny says. “If they do manage to reinvent themselves, I think it’ll be a different organization – but that isn’t necessarily something bad, nor will it spell doom for them.”

A factor working in favor of Eckstein’s successor, he says, and which could make her life much easier than her father’s, is changing attitudes in the Jewish world toward Christian philanthropy.

“When Rabbi Eckstein started out, it was considered taboo to work with Christians and take donations from them, and he was bitterly criticized for it,” Spokoiny says. “That is no longer the case today, and in fact it is considered something quite desirable now.”

Eckstein was by all accounts a trailblazer in this respect. An Orthodox rabbi, he created the organization after stepping down from a senior executive position in the Anti-Defamation League. When he founded the IFCJ, there were no Jewish organizations fundraising in the evangelical community. It was widely believed back then that Christians donating to Jewish causes were secretly motivated by a desire to convert Jews to Christianity.

Most Jewish religious leaders disapproved of such charity, and many Jews and Israelis felt uncomfortable taking it. Yet today, establishment organizations like the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal) all have special divisions devoted to fundraising in the Christian world. Many Israeli nonprofits also have “Christian friends” organizations based abroad that serve as their overseas fundraising arms.

As recently revealed in a Haaretz investigation, in the past 10 years about $65 million in Christian charity has flowed into Israeli settlements located in the West Bank. The biblical heartland – as this region is also known – is particularly popular among evangelical donors.

But none of those inspired by Eckstein’s success were ever really competition for him. At most, they each brought in a few million dollars a year. That compares with anywhere between $120 million and $140 million a year for the IFCJ, which has raised close to $1.5 billion since its founding.

More than 95 percent of its funds come from Christian donors and the vast majority of it is invested in Israel – primarily combating poverty, facilitating aliyah and strengthening security – though some donations also go to poor Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

Diversifying the donors

Until about five years ago, the IFCJ operated almost exclusively as a grant-making organization. But following a bitter dispute with the Jewish Agency, Eckstein decided to set up his own competing operation for promoting aliyah. To encourage immigrants – mainly from Ukraine and France – to move to Israel through his organization rather than the Agency, he provided them with special financial perks.

Eckstein initially focused his fundraising efforts mainly on the United States, but spanned out in recent years, devoting special attention to Brazil and South Korea – two growing centers for evangelicals. He has also sought to diversify his donor base, recently reaching out for the first time to major Jewish donors as well.

When he died, Eckstein was in the process of raising $60 million for a new building in Jerusalem that would serve as an activity center for evangelicals visiting Israel. As part of the new strategic plan for the organization, he told Haaretz in October that promoting Christian tourism to Israel would become a top priority. “These are the people who will become Israel’s ambassadors,” he said.

Two major beneficiaries of the IFCJ are the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Friends of the IDF, each of which routinely receives millions of dollars each year from the organization.

Asked whether his organization was concerned that Eckstein’s death could affect funding levels, JDC CEO David Schizer issued the following statement: “IFCJ has been our staunch partner in delivering life-saving care to the poor, elderly Jews of the former Soviet Union. We look forward to continuing that work as the organization transitions after the tragic loss of its cherished founder, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. We share Rabbi Eckstein’s deep esteem for his daughter Yael’s leadership and are proud to continue our close partnership with IFCJ under her tenure, sustaining the poorest Jews in the world. We do this work today, and well into the future, in loving memory of Rabbi Eckstein and on behalf of the countless Christians who support IFCJ’s efforts to aid Jews in need.”

FIDF CEO Maj. Gen. (res.) Meir Klifi-Amir expressed similar optimism. In a written statement, he said: “Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, may his memory be blessed, leaves behind a tremendous legacy. His life’s work was dedicated to building bridges between Jewish and Christian communities and across great divides, making the world a better place for us all. We believe that his legacy and our valued strategic partnership, between FIDF and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, will endure, as we continue to create a better everyday life and brighter future for the brave soldiers of Israel.”

Yael Eckstein says her father never intended to bring her into the organization, but instead had hoped she would become a lawyer. “But when I moved to Israel and saw what an impact the fellowship was having, I realized it was my calling and said I wanted to be part of it,” says the 34-year-old mother of four.

She began working in the mailroom 13 years ago and worked her way up the organizational ladder, serving as vice president responsible for marketing and fundraising before her latest promotion.

Asked if organizations like JDC and FIDF can count on the same level of funding as before, she says: “I wouldn’t say that anyone can count on the same level of funding, because it depends on how much we raise.”

What is clear is that she intends to bring a new leadership style to the organization.  “My father was a brilliant man who built this from the ground up,” she says. “He knew every single nook and cranny in the organization and would often make decisions based simply on what he feels. I need to move it to more of a goal-oriented, data-driven organization and not make emotional decisions – even if that’s worked for us in the past.  I’m going to rely more on a business model and less on a founder-president-led model.”