October 21, 2019

‘Rabbi-Averse’ biographer takes on rabbi who works with Evangelicals

“I should say, right off, that I am not generally an admirer of rabbis,” journalist Zev Chafets writes in “The Bridge Builder: The Life and Continuing Legacy of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, An Authorized Biography” (Sentinel). “Like a great many irreligious Israelis, I became — and have remained — rabbi averse.”

This frank admission reveals Chafets’ dilemma as the official biographer of a highly controversial figure in the Jewish world. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s “ministry,” as the rabbi himself puts it, is to raise money for Jewish charities from Evangelical Christians through the organization he founded, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ).  For his efforts, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) leader Abraham Foxman once characterized Eckstein’s project as “perverse” and condemned him for “selling the dignity of the Jewish people.” So Chafets, an experienced journalist and biographer, knew that the credibility of his biography would always be in question.

What’s more, Chafets announces at the outset that the book is sponsored by the IFCJ, which helped pay his advance and which will receive his royalties from sales of the book. Although the author insists that Eckstein did not control or censor the book — only a single “unflattering” remark about one of his relatives was deleted at his request — Chafets readily concedes that the biography cannot be wholly objective: “I can’t say this book is unbiased,” Chafets writes. “After countless hours with him, I like and admire him more.”

Eckstein started out as “a rabbi’s son, a big, good-natured jock who had played basketball for the Yeshiva University High School team.”  He took a job in the Chicago office of the ADL, where he specialized in “interfaith activism.” In 1983, he focused on his self-chosen mission by founding the so-called Holyland Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the original name of the IFCJ. The Christians whom he addressed were not only Evangelical Christians, but also “Republican Christians, Reaganites, full of Jesus talk.” His goal was not conversion, of course, but recruitment of new donors to Jewish causes.

From the outset, Eckstein’s particular kind of missionary work has drawn criticism from both highly observant Jewish clergy and Jewish secular leaders such as Foxman. The chief Ashkenazic rabbi in Israel, for example, once ruled that any Jew who accepts donations originating with Christians will “lose both their worlds, this and the next.” But Eckstein has always remained a true believer in himself: “It didn’t even occur to me to quit,” he tells Chafets. “I have a personal relationship with God … and I had a moral certainty that came from God. That’s what has guided my work and my life, from the beginning until today.” 

To his credit, Chafets does not overlook the ironies that can be found in Eckstein’s biography. While enrolled in a graduate program at Columbia, Eckstein ate lunch at the kosher dining hall of the nearby Jewish Theological Seminary, “the flagship of Conservative Judaism.” He understood that it was “a form of culinary apostasy,” because Conservative Judaism is not recognized by Orthodox Judaism.  “I felt like I was committing a sin every time I had lunch,” Eckstein tells Chafets. As it happens, he was accused of even greater apostasies when he started visiting churches to raise money for the IFCJ: “Yechiel Eckstein has left Judaism and he must be excommunicated by the rabbis of the Land of Israel,” demanded one of his Orthodox critics.

Another irony is that Eckstein quickly discovered that Evangelical Christians did not ask the troubling questions that the Jewish world, both secular and observant, has been debating for decades. The issue of trading land for peace in the Middle East, for example, simply never arose. “These folks would sometimes get angry when they heard Israelis or Jews talking about ‘giving back land to the Palestinians,’” Eckstein says. “Ministers would say to me, ‘This land was given to the Jews by God; they don’t have the right to give it away.’ ”

One point of friction between Eckstein and his Christian constituency was the mission undertaken by proselytizers to convert Jews to Christianity, but Eckstein claims that his project actually defused this hot-button issue. “The novelty of what I did was to give Christians a tangible, meaningful, and orthodox way to deal with Jews without trying to convert them,” he says. But he never won over his critics among those who seek to convert Jews to Christianity, including Jews for Jesus. “Christian missionary groups who target Jews hated me for that,” he explains. “I hurt their business.”

As I read Chafets’ fluid and lucid prose, I had the sense that Rabbi Eckstein was looking over my shoulder, just as he looked over the author’s shoulder. But even if “The Bridge Builder” is not a conventional biography, it is not exactly a hagiography, either. Chafets, in fact, provides us an item of evidence that supports the integrity of the book: “I can turn into a monster,” Eckstein confesses. “When I get upset by incompetence or lack of attention to detail, I intimidate people.” Thus does Eckstein inadvertently pay tribute to his plainly unintimidated biographer.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.