Yechiel Eckstein, an American-born rabbi who did much to foster Jewish cooperation with evangelical Christians, died in Jerusalem last week at the age of sixty-seven. In 1991, his outreach to Christian groups led him to create the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which remains one of Israel’s largest charities and has raised millions of dollars for needy Jews. While much of Eckstein’s public activities focused on Israel, he came to the idea of a Jewish-evangelical alliance when confronting American anti-Semitism, as Jonathan Tobin writes:
Eckstein was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi . . . and then joined the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), where he worked on interfaith-dialogue projects. But it was only after he journeyed to the Chicago suburb of Skokie in 1977 to resist the plan of American Nazis to march through a neighborhood populated by Holocaust survivors that he was struck by an insight that eluded the organized Jewish world.
While the ADL and the rest of the Jewish establishment were used to looking for allies among the mainstream liberal Protestant denominations, the people who were most willing to join with the Jews were evangelical Christians. They were the last people most Jews thought would stand with them in a time of need; the overwhelming majority of American Jews and their leaders were largely convinced that conservative Christians either sympathized with the Nazis or were hopelessly anti-Semitic. . . .
[But] Eckstein was right. The majority of conservative Christians were not only instinctively Zionist, but also philo-Semitic. . . . When Eckstein launched a drive to collect funds to aid the hundreds of thousands of Jews arriving in Israel from the former Soviet Union, the response from these Christians was overwhelming. . . . He proved that religious Christians were willing to back Jewish causes with a fervor and generosity that sometimes dwarfed that of Jews. And he made it clear that, political differences notwithstanding, American Jews should regard their evangelical neighbors as faithful and sincere allies against anti-Semites of all stripes.
That’s a lesson that many American Jews, who are steeped in a prejudice against evangelicals that is largely driven by cultural elitism and partisan politics, still have a hard time understanding. Yet Rabbi Eckstein forged an alliance that will stand the test of time.