Evangelical-funded Israel Charity Hopes to Cash in by Getting Cozy With Trump

For an organization that relies heavily on donations from evangelicals, the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews believes that an in with the president might boost fundraising

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with reporters as he arrives for a New Year's Eve gala at his Mar-a-Lago resort, in Palm Beach, Florida.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with reporters as he arrives for a New Year's Eve gala at his Mar-a-Lago resort, in Palm Beach, Florida.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Some charities would consider any association with Donald Trump bad for business. Just witness the many that have recently canceled their gala fundraisers at his Mar-a-Lago resort or moved to other venues.

But not the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews – among the biggest and most high-profile philanthropies active in Israel. For an organization that relies heavily on donations from evangelical Christians – that is, on Trump’s political base – having an in with the president might actually benefit fundraising efforts.

That appears to be the thinking of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder and president of the Fellowship, which is holding a first-of-its kind fundraising dinner at Mar-a-Lago next month. The gala event, scheduled for Sunday March 25, is meant to mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of Israel.

And if all goes according to plan, the U.S. president might even make an appearance.

“There’s a strong possibility that the president will stop by,” Eckstein told Haaretz in a telephone interview. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder and president of the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews Credit: Daniel Bar On

Eckstein has done everything possible to make that happen, first and foremost by renting out Trump’s favorite abode. Indeed, there’s a reason Mar-a-Lago is better known these days as the Winter White House: The president tends to spend lots of time there, especially on weekends.

The event, Eckstein noted, is scheduled to begin at 5 P.M. – an hour that was chosen carefully. “That will give the president time to hang around before he needs to head back to Washington,” he said.

Tee time with Trump

More importantly, Eckstein made sure to appoint someone he describes as close to Trump to the dinner-planning committee. Keith Frankel, the CEO of Vitaquest, a manufacturer of dietary supplements, was also named by Eckstein a few months ago to the Fellowship’s board of directors – one of a handful of Jewish members.

According to Eckstein, Frankel and Trump play golf together “almost every Saturday.” Frankel did not respond to a request for comment.

File photo: U.S. President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

Ed Frankel, the father of Keith Frankel and founder of Vitaquest, was appointed to the Fellowship’s board about a year ago and, according to Eckstein, is also “in contact” with Trump.

The senior Frankel will be one of two honorees at the fundraising dinner. The other will be Stephen Harper, a former prime minister of Canada and a member of the Conservative Party there.

Another member of the dinner-planning committee, Edward Kobel, is a wealthy evangelical described by Eckstein as “someone who could get to the president if he wanted to.”

Asked if Trump had been sent an invitation to the gala event, Eckstein said: “Not officially.”

Among the other organizers of the event are Nily Falic, national chair emeritus of Friends of the IDF – an organization that raises money for the Israeli army in the United States – and her son Simon. The Falics are among Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s biggest donors in the United States. Nily Falic was arranging for Netanyahu to deliver a video message at the event, Eckstein said.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was invited to be a keynote speaker, but she has yet to confirm. The other keynote speaker, already confirmed, will be Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

A rightward shift this time

The list of speakers, honorees and organizers does not include any prominent American Democrats or representatives of parties on Israel’s left or center. Asked if this reflected a change in the Fellowship’s longtime policy of bipartisanship, Eckstein said: “We still are bipartisan. I didn’t say that I supported Trump at any point, but the vast majority of our donor base, which is evangelical Christian, does.”

For the first time in its 35-year history, the Fellowship witnessed a downturn in donations in 2017, Eckstein said. Last year, the organization raised about $130 million – a drop of 6 percent from the previous year. The group, which donates nearly $100 million a year to hundreds of projects in Israel, emphasizes helping the needy and promoting immigration to Israel.

Until now, Fellowship has focused on raising small amounts of charity (an average of $76 per donor) from a large number of donors. Most of its fundraising efforts are undertaken through advertisements on Christian television channels.

Eckstein says the gala dinner scheduled for March represents a new approach to fundraising; the focus in the coming years will be on larger gifts from wealthier donors, and new board member Keith Frankel will play a key role in this effort. “He’s wealthy, he has contacts and a heart of gold,” Eckstein said about Trump’s golfing partner.

The tickets to the fundraising dinner cost $1,000 a head. Eckstein said that he hoped to raise between $2 million and $4 million, and that this would become an annual event.

“I dream that this will become the dinner to go to in the Palm Beach area – the dinner that can’t be missed,” he said.

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