Yechiel Eckstein, a charismatic rabbi who built a philanthropic empire by tapping into support and passion for Israel in the Christian evangelical world, died suddenly on Wednesday at 67. The cause of death was presumed to be cardiac arrest.
Eckstein was the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization that raises funds almost exclusively from Christian evangelicals to support social causes in Israel and the Jewish world. The largest private charity operating in Israel, IFCJ (known in Hebrew as “Keren Yedidut”), raises about $140 million a year. An Orthodox rabbi, Eckstein created the organization 40 years ago after stepping down from a senior executive position he held in the Anti-Defamation League. He moved to Israel in 2002.
Eckstein’s face and voice were well-known in Israel, where he invested heavily in promoting his organization. Large posters featuring photos of him welcoming immigrants to Israel decorate the terminals of Ben-Gurion International Airport. His distinctive American-accented English was regularly heard on radio commercials, particularly during the Jewish holiday season, lauding efforts by his organization to feed and clothe the poor in Israel.
Eckstein often attributed his success to his ability to persuade many millions of Christians to contribute small sums of money (about $76 per donor). He was known to say that it was a matter of convincing them to give up the weekly pizza night out to help the people of Israel.
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Since his organization was founded 40 years ago, it has raised about $1.5 billion. In recent years, IFCJ has been devoting special efforts to South America, where the evangelical movement is growing.
IFCJ supports some 400 welfare projects in Israel. Its main areas of focus are combating poverty, facilitating aliyah and strengthening security.
Jews in Israel, particularly the ultra-Orthodox community, tend to be suspicious that Christian donors are motivated by a desire to convert them. For this reason, Eckstein was considered a controversial figure. Many Israelis also felt uncomfortable with his tendency to depict them in his fundraising pitches as miserable and needy.
Following a bitter dispute several years ago, Eckstein broke ties with the Jewish Agency. The IFCJ had been donating millions of dollars each year to the Agency’s immigration promotion activities, but after the Agency refused to give Eckstein the visibility and publicity he demanded, IFCJ withdrew its funding and set up its own independent operation.
Since then, a large share of the money his organization raises is handed over to the Joint Distribution Committee office in Jerusalem.
The IFCJ is in the process of raising $60 million for its flagship project: A new building in Jerusalem that will serve as an activity center for evangelicals visiting Israel. As part of the new strategic plan for the organization, Eckstein told Haaretz in an interview 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.
Responding to Eckstein’s death, Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog said that Israel and the Diaspora had lost “a leader who worked for them many good years through the fabulous project he created with his own hands.”
Eckstein is survived by his wife Joelle and three daughters. His daughter Yael serves as vice president of IFCJ.