The Rabbi Who Loved Evangelicals (and Vice
By ZEV CHAFETSJULY
'This guy is a kingdom guy," said the Rev. Steve Munsey, gesturing
toward Yechiel Eckstein. We were sitting in the greenroom of the Family
Christian Center in Munster, Ind., about 40 minutes from Chicago. We
were between Sunday-morning services, and Pastor Munsey was taking a
break, kicking back to welcome his guest. "What do I mean by kingdom
guy?" he said. "Like a godfather in the Mafia, it's a term of respect."
Eckstein accepted the compliment with a smile and sipped his coffee
(from the church's own Starbucks). Eckstein has spent a professional
lifetime in evangelical churches, although he had rarely seen one as
grand as the Family Christian Center, with its 5,000-seat auditorium
and a pulpit that boasts a theatrical replica of biblical Jerusalem
complete with Golgotha's hill and, in the words of Pastor Munsey, "a
very lifelike cave depicting the tomb where Jesus was lain."
A lanky deacon came over to shake Eckstein's hand and said, "It's a
thrill to meet a man like you." Eckstein smiled. The deacon is said to
be one of the biggest steel contractors in America. Devout Christian
laypeople like him have built Eckstein an empire.
"I support Israel in every way possible," Munsey said. "For example, I
make it a point to buy my clothes from Jews." Since he was wearing
jeans and a battered sports jacket, it was hard to assess the monetary
value of this contribution. Munsey was dressed informally because he
planned to ride his customized Harley motorcycle onto the pulpit. The
bike is named the Passion, and it has a crown of thorns painted across
The door opened, and Bishop Frank Munsey walked in. He is Pastor
Munsey's father. Bishop Munsey founded the Christian Family Center 50
years ago and then passed it along to his son. Someday Pastor Munsey
will turn it over to his own son, Kent, who is now the center's youth
pastor. "We call it the Levitical order of succession," David Jordan
Allen, the associate pastor, told me. Pastor Munsey made the
introductions. "Meet Rabbi Einstein," he said to his father,
misspeaking. "You've seen him on TV. He's the head of the International
Fellowship of Christians and Jews."
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"You from the Jewish side or the Christian side?" the elderly bishop
asked. Lately he had been spending a good deal of time in Bulgaria,
where the church runs a mission school that is waiting for a license.
"Jewish," Eckstein said, touching his small black skullcap.
This struck the bishop as a stroke of luck. He seemed to be under the
impression that Jews govern Bulgaria and had been involved in
withholding accreditation from his school. Now here was a rabbi sitting
right in the greenroom. "I'd like to ask you a favor," he said, handing
Eckstein a card. "Maybe you can get somewhere with these Bulgarians."
Eckstein took the card and put it in his pocket. Help the born-again
Christians of Bulgaria? Who knows, maybe he could. In the past 25
years, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein has traveled to China to liberate
persecuted pastors, hiked through Ethiopia and Siberia in search of
vulnerable Jews, advised prime ministers in Jerusalem and met with
evangelical Republicans at the White House. His immediate plans include
transporting an entire biblical lost tribe from northeastern India to
the Holy Land and starting a Spanish-language ministry for the
Pentecostals of Latin America. He has even talked about recording some
sacred hymns with Debby Boone. And, as Eckstein himself might say, God
only knows what he'll do after that.
All this hyperactivity is financed by the contributions of evangelical
Christians. In the last eight years alone, an estimated 400,000
born-again donors have sent Eckstein about a quarter of a billion
dollars for Jewish causes of his personal choosing. No Jew since Jesus
has commanded this kind of gentile following.
This success has, of course, bred detractors. Some of Eckstein's fellow
Orthodox rabbis would like to exile him for consorting with Christians.
Eckstein is a registered Democrat, but there are liberal Jews who view
his friendship with Red State evangelical conservatives like Pat
Robertson, Ralph Reed and Gary Bauer as cultural and political treason.
Even those who applaud Eckstein's philanthropies are sometimes
skeptical about what he calls his "ministry." For Jews, who are used to
seeing themselves as victims of bigotry, the saga of Yechiel Eckstein
raises uncomfortable questions about who loves -- and who hates --
whom. He didn't start out to be controversial. The son of the chief
rabbi of Canada, Eckstein, 54, received his own rabbinical ordination
from Yeshiva University in New York and joined the staff of the
Anti-Defamation League. In those early days, he was the model of a
mainstream Jewish organization man.
In 1977, American Nazis threatened to stage a march in Skokie, Ill., a
Chicago suburb with a large population of Holocaust survivors. The
A.D.L. sent Eckstein from New York to help the local community round up
Christian support. What he found surprised him. In his next year in
Chicago, he discovered that the evangelicals, more than any other
group, were prepared to stand with the Jews.
Eckstein reported back to New York like Marco Polo recalling his
adventures in China. There were Christians in the heartland, he said,
who took the Bible literally and believed that the Jews were God's
chosen people. They were, he said, a vast untapped reservoir of support
for Israel, Soviet Jewry and other Jewish causes. This report was
greeted hesitantly. Few A.D.L. people had ever met an evangelical
Christian face to face, but they had seen "Elmer Gantry" and "Inherit
the Wind," and they associated Bible Belt Christians with snake
charmers, K.K.K. nightriders, toothless fiddlers and flat-earth
In 1980, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Bailey
Smith, seemed to confirm this stereotype when he publicly declared that
"God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew." The grandees of the
Jewish establishment were outraged, but Eckstein saw an opportunity. He
contacted Smith and offered to accompany him on a trip to Israel.
In Jerusalem, Smith and Eckstein were given the royal treatment. Prime
Minister Menachem Begin, having previously lost seven straight national
elections, had few illusions about the efficacy of Jewish prayer. He
did, however, have a keen appreciation for Christians like Smith, who
believed that the Bible conferred title to the land of Israel on the
Jews. Smith enjoyed being appreciated, and he returned home loudly
proclaiming Genesis 12:3: God will bless those who bless Israel and
curse those who curse Israel.
"That was the turning point," Eckstein says. "From that moment on, I
had an open door to the biggest Baptist churches in the country."
The following year, Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.
An editorial in The New York Times called the strike "an act of
inexcusable and shortsighted aggression." Even the normally pro-Israel
Reagan administration criticized it. But the evangelicals saw the hand
of God and cheered. When Eckstein called this kind of support to the
attention of the A.D.L. home office, he was treated like a nudnik. If
Menachem Begin wanted to cozy up to Bailey Smith and Jerry Falwell and
other such undesirables, well, that was Begin's problem. Eckstein was
told to commune with some respectable Episcopalians.
But Eckstein knew what he knew. He quit the A.D.L. and tried,
unsuccessfully, to interest other mainstream Jewish groups in
establishing relations with the evangelicals. He didn't even bother
asking his fellow Orthodox rabbis, many of whom considered (and still
consider) merely setting foot in a church to be a grave sin.
Unemployed, Eckstein established his own organization, which he grandly
dubbed the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Soon he was
making the rounds of fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches, preaching
a gospel of Jewish-evangelical solidarity. By this time, American Jewry
had been thoroughly worked over by enterprising fund-raisers. But
Eckstein found himself in virgin territory. Evangelicals badly wanted
to express their love for Israel in a personal way. It was Eckstein's
insight that nothing is more personal than a personal check. "Ask and
it shall be given you," says Matthew 7:7. When Eckstein started
I.F.C.J., he had no salary, no medical benefits and a pregnant wife.
(Today he has three grown daughters and draws an annual salary of about
$300,000.) His first headquarters was the back room of a lawyer's
office. To make ends meet, he took a job as a part-time rabbi at a
Early on, some money came in from Zionist Christians, but he received
the majority of his donations from fellow Jews -- mostly politically
minded men who saw the growing importance of the Moral Majority and Pat
Robertson's 700 Club. 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,"
a Jewish philanthropist from Chicago said, but he handed Eckstein a
thousand bucks just in case he was on to something.
Eckstein's big breakthrough came in 1993. The gates of the former
Soviet Union were open, and tens of thousands of poor Jews wanted to
immigrate to Israel. He knew that the ingathering of Jewish exiles
resonated with evangelicals as biblical prophecy, and with a $25,000
contribution from a Jewish supporter in Anchorage, he recorded his
first TV infomercial.
The 30-minute show promoting Eckstein's "On Wings of Eagles" project
was narrated, pro bono, by Pat Boone, who delivered a message from
Isaiah 49:22. "I will beckon to the Gentiles. . . . They will bring
your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their shoulders."
The infomercial appeared throughout America, mostly on Christian
The results were amazing. Money began pouring in. "When I told Pat
Robertson how much people were sending, he thought I was totally
inflating the numbers," Eckstein recalls.
The infomercial eventually ran all over the country for 18 months and
raised millions of dollars. Yechiel Eckstein was on his way. The
auditorium of the Family Christian Center was packed for the second
service. Munster is largely white, but the church markets itself
aggressively in nearby Gary, which is predominantly black. Like Pastor
Munsey, the minister of music is white, but the choir is mostly black,
and it started things off with a rousing rendition of "God Bless
America," while giant screens projected scenes of American troops in
Iraq. Allen, the associate pastor, estimates that roughly 60 percent of
the members of the Family Christian Center are Republicans. "A lot of
the African-Americans came as Democrats, but some of them are turning
Republican, too," he told me.
The choir struck up "Amazing Grace," and Munsey, who was sitting next
to me in the front pew, rose to take the pulpit on foot. (The Harley
ride would come later.) As he passed me, he leaned down and whispered:
"I have a passion for healing. We have one of the highest rates of
cancer healings in the nation in this church."
Munsey is a shaggy-haired man of 50, and he is a showman. This morning,
along with his Harley ride, he offered a warranty on tithing. "If God
doesn't pay you back, with increase, in 90 days, then I'll refund the
money myself," he promised. Israeli flags appeared on the huge screens
above the pulpit, and Munsey summoned his guest. "Yek-eel Epstein is a
powerful giant," he said, butchering the name. "He rates right up
there. You've seen him on TV. He was a rabbi, and he became a
Eckstein, sitting nearby, visibly blanched. For decades, Orthodox
critics have accused him of being a closet Christian. He told me that a
few years ago four senior rabbis convened a court in New York to try
him for the crime of "teaching Torah to gentiles." He was acquitted in
a split decision, but he recalls it as one of the most humiliating
moments of his life.
Nor did the verdict end the muttering. As Eckstein has grown more
powerful, he has attracted ever harsher criticism from parts of the
Orthodox community from which he came and whose good opinion he covets.
Just a few days earlier, The Jewish Observer, the house magazine of the
ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, called his work
"a curse." And here he was, sitting next to a reporter as he was being
introduced as a born-again Christian. "This has never happened to me
before," he muttered, rising. "I've got to do something."
Eckstein appeared perfectly composed as he took the pulpit. He has the
physical presence of an Eagle Scout troop leader -- tall,
broad-shouldered and boyishly friendly. "Shalom," he called to the
"Shalom," everyone replied.
"Come on, I can't hear you -- give me a 'shalom' they can hear all the
way to Jerusalem," he implored. Eckstein's blandly sincere tone is a
style not at all suited to the call-and-response of the charismatic
evangelical church, but he is one of God's chosen people, and that was
enough to stir the congregation into a loud "Shalom!"
Sunday services in megachurches like the Family Christian Center are
tightly scripted. Giant or not, Eckstein had just five minutes. (He
would have another 10 at the third service.) He began with damage
control. "I'm a Jewish rabbi," he informed the congregation. "An
Orthodox Jewish rabbi. I believe in a Messiah, but I am an Orthodox
Jewish rabbi." The congregation applauded, and Eckstein smiled broadly,
relieved to have re-established his kosher bona fides without insulting
either Munsey or Jesus.
Eckstein thanked the congregation for its support of Israel. Although
he still spends much of his time in Chicago, he became an Israeli
citizen in 2002 and has an office in Jerusalem with a staff of 10 that
hands out millions to charity projects around the country, from mobile
dental clinics to costly antiterror devices for government use. In
December 2003, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz listed the I.F.C.J. as
the second-largest charitable foundation in the country. Such largess
has not gone unnoticed by Israeli politicians. Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon made Eckstein an unofficial adviser, and he is being courted by
Sharon's rivals with the offer of more formal appointments.
There is a huge digital clock mounted on the face of the Family
Center's balcony, and at the stroke of five minutes, Munsey took back
his pulpit. "We're going to plant a seed today," he announced, handing
Eckstein a check for $5,000. "Remember, when you bless the Jewish
people, God blesses you. So I want you all to tell Rabbi Einstein,
'Thank you, Rabbi!"'
"Thank you, Rabbi!" they hollered, as Eckstein pocketed the donation.
"I had them at 'shalom,"' Eckstein said. We were on our way back to
Chicago in a rented compact Chevy, with Eckstein in back and his
assistant, the Rev. Jerry Clark, at the wheel. (Eckstein doesn't own a
car and, conscious of not being too showy, always rents compacts.)
Eckstein's self-mockery is one way he struggles against the sin of
pride. But there's a measure of satisfaction as well.
Many of the Jews who once derided Eckstein for depending on the
kindness of strangers now want to be his best friends. Hadassah, the
women's organization whose magazine once refused to run his paid
advertisements, is working with him on a joint project. A few years ago
the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel refused to be photographed
taking a check from Eckstein. Today, Eckstein is a member of the
agency's board. Colleagues in the modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of
America who once ignored him now seek him out, and last year (despite a
protest by some leading rabbis) he was invited to address the council's
Naturally, a lot of his erstwhile skeptics also want to know the secret
to tapping the evangelical bankroll. In April, Eckstein attended a
conference of major Jewish philanthropies in Las Vegas, but when
fund-raisers there asked him to share his strategies, he tactfully
Talking about it on the drive back to Chicago, he was less tactful.
"These evangelicals are pure," he said, gesturing out the window to the
Indiana countryside. "I represent the Jewish people to them. And I know
very well how cynical some of these Jewish fund-raisers are. They're
just in it for the buck. I should let them manipulate evangelicals like
Sentiments like this help to explain why not everyone in the Jewish
establishment has been won over. Abraham Foxman, the national director
of the A.D.L., remains one of Eckstein's most prominent critics. Foxman
has accused him of "selling the dignity of the Jewish people" by
pandering to Christians. "We're not a poor people," Foxman told The
Jerusalem Report. "What he's doing is perverse."
But Eckstein has no apologies for his support from Christians. "I
consider what I do more than fund-raising," he said. "It's a ministry.
Evangelicals don't give like Jews. Jews give out of communal
obligation. They say: 'Send me a letter and a tax-deduction statement,
and I'll give you something. If I have a good year, I'll up my
contribution by 5 or 10 percent next time.' Christians find that method
abhorrent. They don't give out of responsibility but because the Lord
told them to. They're moved to do it."
Eckstein has stories to illustrate his point. "There's a woman who
loves Starbucks but buys regular coffee and sends the difference to
us," he said. "Kids donate their birthday money and Christmas gifts.
One family in Florida sends us $15 every day. They don't feel
comfortable sitting down to dinner unless they've helped Jews. These
people ask not to publicize their gifts. They feel that the Lord knows
who they are and seeking publicity would be wrong."
Paradoxically, one of the charges against Eckstein is that he's a
publicity hound. He does generally insist that the recipients of
I.F.C.J. charity acknowledge its source but says that it's a simple
matter of transparency. Eckstein has the power, unique among the heads
of major Jewish charities, to write checks at his own discretion, and
he wants people to see where their money is going. But he also likes
finally being able to take credit for the group's contributions. For
years, Eckstein says, he and his Christian donors were treated as
invisible by the overlords of the United Jewish Appeal, which took
I.F.C.J. contributions without acknowledging the source. Those days are
over, but the memory still rankles.
So does Eckstein's sense of being misunderstood. "I'm a nonevangelical
defender of evangelicals," he said. "Jews have such a cynical, negative
view of these people. There are all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories
out there about how evangelicals only support Israel to bring on
Armageddon or because they want to convert the Jews to Christianity.
That's just not true. You saw the people there today," he said,
pointing backward, toward a rapidly receding Indiana. "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?" On a Monday morning the phones were ringing all over
the I.F.C.J. headquarters, which are in a downtown skyscraper
overlooking the old Chicago City Hall. Some of the callers wanted to
make donations. Others just wanted to chat or ask a question. At 10:30,
the staff gathered for its weekly meeting. Thirty-odd people, some
black and some white, some Jewish and some Christian, crowded into a
conference room. "We're going to need more space soon," Eckstein said,
sighing. The fellowship has moved three times in recent years, and
moving is a drag, but what can you do when your gross is growing at 10
or 15 percent a year?
The newest staff member at the meeting was Sandy Rios, who was hired a
couple of days earlier as vice president for programming. Rios, a
former talk-show host in Chicago, had come from Washington, where she
served as president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative
family-issues group. The meeting was led by George Mamo, an evangelical
minister who is Eckstein's second-in-command. With a light touch, he
led the staff through reports on the fellowship's activities and major
profit centers. The I.F.C.J. has hundreds of thousands of donors to
keep track of and cultivate, tours of Israel to plan, infomercial
shoots to schedule, educational material to prepare and Israeli
products to sell through a Web site, mailings and television. One woman
related details of her recent fact-finding trip to Siberia. Another
talked about a philanthropy seminar she had attended.
Finally, Eckstein rose to speak. He had an announcement. The lost
Hebrew tribe of Bnei Menashe had been discovered -- after two and a
half millennia -- in northeastern India. Its authenticity had been
certified by the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. The tribe -- 6,000
strong -- wanted to "return" to the Holy Land. Taking them and getting
them settled would run about $8 million, and Eckstein had already
informed the government of Israel that he would pick up the tab. This
news was received by the staff with an affectionate yawn. That's Rabbi
Eckstein for you, always coming up with something different. Mamo ended
the meeting with a nondenominational prayer, beginning with the ritual
Hebrew invocation "Baruch ata Adonai." Transporting 6,000 lost Jews
from India to Israel is Indiana Jones stuff, but it is also,
inescapably, a political act. Israeli political parties will tussle
over patronage of this new voting bloc. Right-wingers will fight to get
it housed in the West Bank; left-wingers will try to prevent that. And
the Palestinians will condemn the whole exercise as a Zionist trick to
upset the demographic balance. If a rabbi can turn 6,000 Indians into
biblical Jews and take them to Israel, what's to stop him from finding
600,000 somewhere else?
Eckstein says he has nothing against Palestinians, but he isn't much
bothered by their concerns. He's a Sharon man, though he generally
supports any government in power, and he hands out money to the pet
projects of politicians from almost all the major parties. "I've tried
to guide my organization in a nonpartisan way," he says.
Eckstein is in favor of the Sharon plan to remove Jewish settlers from
the Gaza Strip and a few isolated areas of the West Bank, which puts
him to the left of most of his own evangelical flock. Most, according
to his internal polling, don't want Israel to leave Gaza or any other
territory they regard as part of Abraham's patrimony.
Eckstein is generally somewhat to the left of his American political
allies. As a Democrat, he considers himself "a Lieberman moderate." But
while he voted for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in 2000, he voted for
President Bush in 2004. And there is no doubt that Eckstein's
evangelical friends and followers are mostly Red State Republicans.
Eckstein says that he has never met the president himself, but two
years ago he took a delegation of evangelicals to Washington for a
meeting with Condoleezza Rice, who was then the national security
adviser. The delegation, which according to Eckstein was the only
Christian group ever to lobby the White House specifically on behalf of
Israel, included Jack Graham, then the president of the Southern
Baptist Convention; Richard Land, the Southern Baptists' chief
Washington lobbyist; and Ted Haggard, leader of the National
Association of Evangelicals. Other luminaries of the Christian right
like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell appear in Eckstein's infomercials.
He runs his advocacy group, Stand for Israel, with Ralph Reed and the
former G.O.P. presidential aspirant Gary Bauer. And he recently sent
out a mass mailing offering a prayer of support for the embattled
Republican House majority leader, Tom DeLay.
At noon that Monday, after the morning meeting, Eckstein, Mamo and Rios
gathered over tuna sandwiches in a small conference room for a
teleconference with Bauer. The annual Stand for Israel summit meeting
in Washington was coming up, and there were plans to make. This year
the fellowship was honoring Joe Lieberman and Rudy Giuliani. Eckstein
also wanted to discuss whether the fellowship should expand Stand for
Israel into a full-fledged lobbying operation along the lines of the
American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Eckstein invited me to ask Bauer a few questions.
"A lot of Jews think Christian support for Israel is a trick," I
suggested. "They hear 'evangelical' and think 'anti-Semite.' What do
you say to them?"
"There's a lot of history we'd like to do over," Bauer said smoothly,
"but this is a new era. Today, Jews are safer living in countries where
Christianity is vibrant than they are anyplace else."
"What about the Armageddon scenario?" As Bauer knows, a great many Jews
believe that evangelicals want to gather Jews in Israel to bring on the
"End of Days," a Book of Revelation big bang that includes the return
of Jesus and a Jewish mass conversion.
Bauer dismissed this as the "odd belief" of an insignificant minority.
"Most evangelicals support Israel for national-security reasons," he
said. "After 9/11 there is a strong interest in foreign affairs, and we
have a tendency to identify Israel as good guys."
Eckstein nodded. He says he is certain that evangelical Christians want
nothing more than to bless Israel, and he is frustrated by his
continuing inability to get his fellow Jews to practice what he calls
the Four A's: Awareness that evangelicals are helping Israel;
Acknowledgment of that help; Appreciation; and Attitude Change. There
has been progress on the first two, and No. 3 is coming along, but
attitude change remains elusive. "I want more than a tactical
alliance," Eckstein said. "I'm looking for genuine fellowship. And the
Jewish community is nowhere near that."
Bauer's analysis of the problem is political. "A lot of this is
hostility from Jews who just can't stand conservatives," he said. "It
trumps even their support for Israel."
"Jews tend to demonize evangelicals," Eckstein said sadly.
"And not the other way around?" I asked.
Eckstein shrugged. "Not really. No."
Throughout this conversation, Rios was clearly eager to join in. And as
soon as there was a pause in the discussion, she did. "You know," she
said, "the truth is, Christians do want to convert Jews."
Eckstein and Mamo exchanged glances. "Not by some bait-and-switch
trick," she said. "But we believe it's part of God's plan." Eckstein
winced the way he had when Pastor Munsey called him a born-again
"Anyway," Rios said, "we love Jews, notwithstanding their rudeness and
hatred for us."
Three days later, Eckstein called me in New York. Rios had been fired,
but her gaffe, and the impression it made, was still on his mind. "It's
really my fault," he said. "Hiring staff is a problem. Truthfully, it's
extremely hard to find people who understand exactly what we're doing
Zev Chafets is a
founding editor of The Jerusalem Report magazine,
author of several books and a columnist for The Daily News.
August 7, 2005, Sunday An author note on July 24 with an article about
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein included an outdated identification. The writer,
Zev Chafets, is no longer a columnist for The Daily News in New York.