A recently released report by Israel’s National Insurance Institute shows that 1.7 million Israelis live under the poverty line, including 23 percent of the country’s seniors and 13.7 percent of working families, up from 7 percent in 1999.
Those are the numbers that push Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein—founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship)—onto airplanes and then onto stages at packed auditoriums around the world, in order to raise awareness and funds. Though he made aliyah 13 years ago, Eckstein spends half of the year away from his Jerusalem home on the road promoting The Fellowship’s mission.
The Fellowship is the largest private charitable foundation in Israel, and receives 99 percent of its annual $137 million in donations from Christians—mostly from North America. Funds raised by The Fellowship are distributed to Jews and others in need, whether they are Jews and other communities in Israel who lack adequate food, shelter, and security; Diaspora Jews who need financial assistance to move to Israel; Israeli soldiers who find it hard to make it on an IDF stipend; or elderly Holocaust survivors and other Jews in the former Soviet Union.
By far the most enthusiastic donors to The Fellowship are evangelical Christians like Janet Willett, who are responsible for an average of 7,200 donations that stream daily into The Fellowship’s Chicago office. The average gift: $76.
Thirty years ago, Willett saw an advertisement and sent in her first check.
“I have such a love for the Jewish people and Israel,” says the Arlington, Wash., grandmother. “And it’s just grown over the years.”
So have her gifts, which started small and now are typically a few hundred dollars at a time.
“The two things I can do is pray for Israel’s protection and help financially,” she says. Willett also dreams of visiting Israel herself someday. But circumstances, including a husband who survived a stroke, have prevented that—so far.
“Now I’m just happy I can help others get there, and feed, clothe, and protect them. I take ‘never again’ very seriously,” she says, using the Holocaust-prevention mantra. “When others are turning against it, you will see we evangelicals are increasingly supportive of Israel. It just pulls on our hearts.”
George Mamo, The Fellowship’s executive vice president, points out that a typical donor is a church-going woman in her 60s or 70s. Most of them connect to The Fellowship through TV or radio ads, or receive a solicitation in the mail. Others hear Eckstein during his visits to evangelical communities, where he also makes the case for support of Israel and the Jewish people.
“I’m teaching the Jewish roots of the Christian faith,” Eckstein says. “We’re cultivating the love for Israel and the Jewish people, which connects to their reading of the bible.”
Indeed, one of The Fellowship’s strongest arguments to support Jews and Israel comes from Genesis 12:3, which reads, “And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the Earth be blessed.”
“They see this people and this country as one: the nation of Israel,” says Eckstein.
“And they see the need here. It’s important to them that they can help, even if it means sacrificing to do it,” he adds, telling of a donor who reported switching her coffee allegiance from Starbucks to McDonald’s to finance her Fellowship gift.
But how does an Orthodox rabbi begin working with evangelical Christians? After ordination from Yeshiva University, Eckstein went on to serve as national co-director of interreligious affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. He then extended his commitment to strengthening relations between the two faiths to founding the Holyland Fellowship of Christians and Jews in 1983, later renaming it the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. An early focus: bringing groups of evangelicals to Israel, to show them the country and point out its citizens’ most pressing needs.
What the rabbi calls his “ministry” is all about building these bridges between Christians and Jews. Hence the name of his new authorized biography, “The Bridge Builder: The Life and Continuing Legacy of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein,” written by Zev Chafets.
Eckstein, now 64, has raised an astounding $1 billion since 1983. Where exactly does the money go? Fellowship poverty-relief programs for seniors take the biggest slice of the funding pie: 23.7 percent of it—almost $24 million a year—including support for 17 soup kitchens around Israel.
The rest of the biggest programs, in order of expenditure, include strengthening security for Israelis; support for needy families (including Jews, Muslims, Druze, Bedouin, and Christians); job training to eliminate poverty; relief for mostly elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union; helping people make aliyah; and grants to injured terror victims as well as the families of those killed.
“Where the government doesn’t go, we step in,” says Eckstein.
For 82-year-old Clara Pevzner and 15,000 other needy seniors in 50 communities across Israel, The Fellowship’s help comes mostly in the form of food they could otherwise not afford, and often rent, heat, dental care, and medicine. In Pevzner’s case, the aid also includes major appliances.
The Moscow native made aliyah in 1991 with her two children after her husband died. She was receiving a monthly Fellowship food basket when the delivery person discovered that, in Pevzner’s modest apartment outside Haifa, neither the oven/stove nor the washing machine worked.
So The Fellowship brought her new ones.
“I was so down when I couldn’t cook or wash clothes,” Pevzner said through a translator. “But after I received the new appliances, I felt much more motivated to go on.”
The number of seniors receiving help from The Fellowship, including many immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, is expected to grow by another 25 percent in the next year. Some of the most independent elderly aid recipients receive vouchers to grocery stores, others get deliveries of food they can cook themselves, and those with greater disabilities are given seven meals each week to heat up.
The Fellowship also makes increasing use of volunteer power, especially when it comes to delivering food—and companionship—to Israel’s elderly. Each Monday, Yanka Ityel, who was born in Holland, visits an 82-year-old woman from South Africa, sharing a cup of tea or leafing through old photo albums together.
“She is such a kind person, so sweet,” says Ityel. “I truly enjoy our time together and I know it’s a relief to her daughter knowing her mother has company and someone to keep an eye on her.”
Amid the large number of Fellowship aid recipients, what Eckstein says he is proudest of is the organization making its impact one interpersonal relationship at a time, something he illustrates with the story of a trip he took with supporters to the former Soviet Union.
“We were visiting an old Jewish man with a swollen gangrenous leg who told us it would take $500 for an operation to correct it, money he clearly did not have. At that point, one of the Jewish guys pulled $250 out of his pocket and said, ‘You’re halfway there.’ And one of the Christian guys pulled out of his pocket another $250 and said, ‘You’re there,’” recalls Eckstein.
“And that,” Eckstein says with a smile, “says it all.”