By COLlive reporter
Rabbi <Yechiel Eckstein, the larger than life figure who raised billions of dollars from devout Christians to support Jewish causes worldwide, passed away on Wednesday, 1 Adar I 5779.
The was 67 and suffered sudden heart failure, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Eckstein was born in Manhattan, New York, to Rabbi and psychologist Dr. Simon “Sy” Eckstein and his wife Belle Eckstein of Tampa, Florida. The family moved to Ottawa, Canada, where his father served as a rabbi.
He received Orthodox Rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University in New York and held a master’s degrees from Yeshiva University and Columbia University, where he also completed studies for his doctorate.
He has served on the faculties of Columbia University, Chicago Theological Seminary, and Northern Baptist Seminary.
After serving as national co-director of inter-religious affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, Eckstein founded what would become International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in 1983.
The Fellowship, as it as called, has raised more than $1.4 billion for programs helping Jews in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Ethiopia, and over 50 countries.
Its first goal is to provide material aid to needy Jewish families and the elderly, for example, by helping them buy food and medicine. A secondary mission is promoting Jewish emigration to Israel. The third is supporting the Israeli military by aiding poor Israeli soldiers
Originally, the majority of the donations were given by fellow Jews. Often these gifts were grudgingly given. “I don’t know what you’re doing, and I don’t know if I like what you’re doing,” one Jewish philanthropist from Chicago said to him, but he nonetheless donated.
But from the mid-1990s, he became increasingly popular with Evangelical Christians, leading to rapidly increasing growth of the charity each year. By 2003, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews was listed as the second largest charity in Israel.
His pioneering work to raise funds from devout Christians was met with rejections from some in the Jewish community, questions the intention with which the funds were donated – regardless of how they were put to good use. A publication of Agudath Israel of America called Eckstein’s work “a curse.”
Eckstein had no apologies for his support from Christians. “They’re not religious fanatics, and they don’t have ulterior motives. These are good, religious people who love Israel and want to help. What’s the matter with that?”
Chabad’s institutions have taken the support at face value and have partnered with Eckstein over the years to build and run educational programs and humanitarian causes, among them Colel Chabad, Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, and Chamah International.
Following terror attacks, Fellowship gave more than $3.5 million in security funding to over 30 Jewish communities and Chabad centers in France, Argentina, Brazil, China, Cypress, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Nepal, Spain, Thailand and the once targeted Chabad House of Mumbai, India.
“I sometimes wonder what the world would like to look without Chabad? Without the Rebbe who inspire so many Shluchim,” he once noted, adding the Rebbe’s “presence and influence continue long after he is gone. Chabad is the light that brings warmth, vision, meaning, and life to millions of people all over the world.”
VIDEO: Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein speaks at Colel Chabad Dinner 2019 / 5779
Eckstein began his Fellowship in Chicago and later moved to Israel. He was often listed as one of the “Most Influential Rabbis” in America and worldwide by Newsweek magazine and the Jerusalem Post.
He has also recorded six albums as a singer and has been a member of the bands Kol Salonika, The Y’DID Singers and The Rabbis’ Sons. When attending the annual gala dinners of Colel Chabad and Chamah, Eckstein would bring a guitar with him and sing to the audience.
In December 2017, Eckstein was instrumental in obtaining from President Donald Trump the commutation for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, the former kosher meat plant executive from Iowa who was harshly sentenced.
Revealing that one of his contacts was White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Eckstein said: “Baruch Hashem, I had the contacts that were needed to bring this to a close. And there was never any question of using those contacts to the fullest, and using whatever needed to be done to do my part.”
Video: Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein awarded with thanks
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin called him “A great man, a great Jew and a great Zionist,” adding that Rabbi Eckstein was “a man of charity and vision, left us today. His contribution to the Jewish people and the State of Israel will be felt for generations. We mourn his loss. May his memory be a blessing.”
He is survived by his wife Joelle Eckstein, three daughters and eight grandchildren.
The funeral will take place on Thursday in Jerusalem.
Baruch Dayan Haemes: Yechiel ben Shimon.