Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein Raises Millions for Israel’s Poor. And Don’t You Forget It

Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, is a prolific fundraiser among American Christians. But his need for recognition has led to clashes with the groups who receive the funds

Yechiel Eckstein in the offices of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews: 'I would never want to say that Christian money is replacing Jewish money, but we are definitely filling in the gaps.'
Emil Salman

Ahead of Passover, a number of Israeli radio stations aired jingles in which the president and founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, describes with a heavy American accent the food packages and vouchers that the organization provides to those in need.

The Fellowship, known in Israel as Keren L’Yedidut, operates in three areas, the main one being welfare: It provides material aid to needy families and the elderly, helping them buy food, medicine and pay their bills. A secondary mission is encouraging people to move to Israel. The third is aiding poor Israeli soldiers and terror victims alongside aiding with building bomb shelters and other projects.

Eckstein’s trademark – tapping poor evangelical Christians in America’s South by showing them tear-jerking videos about poverty in Israel – is well-known. What is less well-known is that Eckstein himself is well compensated by the fund, taking in about a million dollars a year, including pension provisions.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, Eckstein’s pension package will be worth $4.4 million in 2022. His 2014 base salary from the Fellowship was $512,000, plus a $544,000 contribution to his retirement plan. Fellowship personnel explain that the provisions for his retirement are large because for years, there were no contributions.

Eckstein made about 2.6 million shekels ($680,000) in 2015. To illustrate the point, last year the Knesset capped the executive pay at Israel’s banks and insurance companies at 2.5 million shekels. (For comparison, Eran Weintrob, manager of the nongovernmental welfare organization Latet, makes 410,000 shekels a year.)

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. It's the first time his organization has launched a campaign for something other than fundraising.
Emil Salman

However, Eckstein’s salary is paid by the Fellowship, an organization based in the U.S. that raises money for Israel. He also pays his taxes in the United States and not in Israel.

His daughter Yael Eckstein, 32, who lives in Israel and is the Foundation’s deputy president and handles its foreign relations, received $307,000 in 2015 (with a tenth going to her pension plan), which works out to 100,000 shekels a month. The Justice Ministry prohibits nepotism in nonprofit organizations, an obstacle the Ecksteins bypassed by employing her through the American organization.

Jeff Kaye, one of Eckstein’s colleagues, argues that since he lives and works in the U.S., his pay and conditions should be seen in American terms. Compared with people at big American charities, universities and other such posts, Eckstein’s pay is modest.

“This is a man who came up with the simple but brilliant idea that he could bring $100 million a year to Israel for good works,” adds Limor Bar-On, a communications adviser who has worked for Eckstein in the past. “This is a person with a huge passion and great love for the people of Israel. In my opinion, he is entitled to every dollar he gets.”

Eckstein was born in 1951 in Ottawa, Canada, came to Israel at 18 and studied at the Kerem B’Yavneh hesder yeshiva for two years. He then went to Yeshiva University in New York, where he received his rabbinical ordination. He also holds a BA in psychology and an MA in Jewish philosophy. As a young man, he served as a community rabbi in New Jersey; in the mid-1970s, he moved to Chicago and joined the Anti-Defamation League.

Chicago school

It was in Chicago, where he served as a community rabbi, that Eckstein began to forge ties with evangelicals while raising money for the fund.

A biography written by Zeev Chafets recounts that in its first year, the fund raised $26,679 and Eckstein received pay of $9,400, hardly enough to cover much. But, says Chafets, he had the backing of Pat Robertson, one of the fundamentalist Christian America leaders at the time. Robertson, his “Christian mentor,” even donated $10,000 and gave Eckstein time on his “The 700 Club” television show. Most of the contributions, however, are small ones, coming from hundreds of thousands of believers.

Eckstein’s connection with the Christian evangelical community has provoked intense criticism in the American Orthodox Jewish community over the years – and in Israel, too, after his immigration in 2000. Among other things, he has been accused of teaching Torah to non-Jews, which is prohibited by halakha. Other than Chabad, most major religious Jewish organizations refuse to take funds from his organization because of the money’s sources.

After immigrating to Israel, Eckstein divorced his wife Bonnie and established the Fellowship in a small office in Jerusalem. He also remarried. Over the years, the organization has expanded its scope. Its real breakthrough was after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when he offered help to local governments that lacked resources and felt they had been abandoned by the state.

The Fellowship is now one of the largest philanthropic foundations in Israel. Most of the money is earmarked for welfare, chiefly for the elderly and for assistance in outlying areas. In recent years, the fund has also helped new immigrants come to Israel.

As the Fellowship grew, so did its income. In 2015, according to its parent fund, it received donations of $135 million. Since it was established, it claims to have raised more than $1.3 billion, and it’s likely to keep growing. The organization recently bought land on Allenby Street in Jerusalem, where it intends to build offices and a visitor center.

Eckstein’s organization advanced in an era which saw widening social gaps in Israeli society as the government cut back welfare spending and farmed out services to nonprofits. The Fellowship is the biggest – but by no means the only – nonprofit to have stepped into that vacuum. Critics and supporters of Eckstein agree he has the personality to thrive. “He really likes publicity,” says a man who used to work for the organization and asked, like many others interview for this article, not to be identified.

“As he sees it, there’s no reason to give charity anonymously. On the contrary, the more everyone knows the better. He pursues recognition and it is important for him to receive it from the highest echelons – MKs, ministers and prime ministers. As far as he is concerned, it is clear to him that at events he must sit in the front row of the most respected. It’s not by chance that he himself reads the jingles on the radio,” the source says.

Other say Eckstein’s thirst for recognition has in many ways failed him. An Orthodox Jew, he has been spurned by religious institutions; while he craves attention from those in power, his fan base is primarily among his needy beneficiaries. “If you go with him to places where the organization donates, mainly in the outlying areas [of Israel], you see that people in the street love him. But he doesn’t get recognition from above,” says one former employee.

Like many self-made people, Eckstein is difficult to work with, says many of those who have. “I don’t recall anyone who didn’t have a tense moment with him,” says a former Fellowship official. “He’s a very complex, complicated man who, along with his genius, is hard to have intense contact with, because he’s tough and gets annoyed when things are not done exactly as he intended. He’s really not the nice American type. He’s more like an intense Israeli.”

The desire for publicity ended in a dustup with the Jewish Agency three years ago, according to one version of the story. Through its Canfei Nesherim (Wings of Eagles) program, the Fellowship had contributed 750 million shekels to the agency over some 20 years to bring Soviet Jews to Israel. But suddenly the two parted ways.

Branding issues

Officials at the Jewish Agency said Eckstein decided to start bringing immigrants in directly rather than funding the agency to do it.

“Eckstein wanted the organization’s branding to appear everywhere,” says Yigal Palmor, the agency’s spokesman. “When he didn’t get what he wanted, he exited loudly. He didn’t come to meetings and announce he was withdrawing his donations.”

The Fellowship recalls the episode differently. Kaye says there was no connection with the branding issue and the crisis. Rather, it was about the war between Russia and Ukraine in the summer of 2014. Eckstein flew to Ukraine and found a summer camp he was sponsoring at been turned into a refugee camp. He wanted to bring the displaced people to Israel, only to find the agency’s emissary was on vacation.

“He and I went to [Jewish Agency chief Natan] Sharansky and said that we have to bring these people to Israel. Sharansky wanted money to do it himself. We cooperated on two flights but then realize we had no common language and Eckstein decided to go it alone... We’re run efficiently, like a business that makes decisions quickly,” he says.

Another joint venture with the Education Ministry also ended badly – again, according to one version, over branding. In 2014 then-Education Minister Shai Piron wanted to run three-week summer camps for first- and second-graders. The Fellowship pledged $10 million to expand the project to 30,000 third- and fourth-graders in Israel’s outlying areas, but on condition that the organization’s name appear at every facility it funded.

Another nonprofit organization protested and took the issue to the High Court of Justice on the ground that the branding was tantamount to a marketing agreement without competitive bidding. Just days before the camps were to begin, Piron instructed the ministry to pull out of the deal.

“Eckstein’s talk was delusional,” recalls a former Education Ministry official. “He wanted to call it the Fellowship Camp, even though he only contributed 3% of the project, which created a big mess with parents and other people his demands were really disproportionate.”

The Fellowship says the High Court appeal sought to block the fund because its money came from non-Jewish sources, which it described as “racist.” The lawsuit gave it no choice but to withdraw from the project.

“Israel is at the bottom of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranking in terms of poverty and social gaps. We are bringing these acute needs to the knowledge of our supporters around the world,” a spokesman for the organization said.