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IFCJ celebrates 40 years of building bridges between Christians and Jews

As she looks towards next steps, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews head Yael Eckstein reflects on her father’s passing, the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Rabbi Yechiel and Yael Eckstein in Jerusalem. Credit: IFCJ.
Rabbi Yechiel and Yael Eckstein in Jerusalem. Credit: IFCJ.

Much has taken place since Yael Eckstein became president and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in 2019 after the passing of her father Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who founded and headed the organization in 1983 with the mission to promote understanding between Christians and Jews.

A native of Evanston, Ill., Eckstein divides her time between the fellowship’s offices in Jerusalem, where she lives with her husband and four children, and in downtown Chicago, where the fellowship has been headquartered stateside since its 1983 founding.

In March 2022, the Fellowship moved its U.S. headquarters from 30 N. LaSalle St. in Chicago to its current location on 303 East Wacker Drive overlooking the Chicago River. 

“These past four years have been a wild ride,” Eckstein said. (She last spoke at length with JNS in late 2019, shortly after taking over the reins of the organization her father built.)

Eckstein recounted how her father’s sudden passing at age 67 from cardiac arrest was a particularly tumultuous time. Following a unanimous vote of the IFCJ board to elect her CEO, she faced an unforeseen challenge.

“I was immediately elected right before the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Since that time, we have helped over 2 million people in Israel,” she said.

With careful adherence to Israeli laws, the fellowship is guided by its founding principle to help less fortunate people in Israel, whether they are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze or any other religion.

The fellowship devotes 70% of its resources to food aid, according to Eckstein. During the pandemic, the Israeli government was able to purchase much-needed supplies and emergency food packages to provide to thousands of elderly people in Israel, but it couldn’t easily distribute those items to needy people. 

“The Israeli government was able to distribute funds but not transport the food to those people who needed it. This is when the fellowship was summoned,” Eckstein said. She added that Israel allocated 50 million shekels (about $13.4 million) to IFCJ for that purpose.

IFCJ’s donors are largely Christian, according to Eckstein. The fellowship’s donor base grew up 35% during the pandemic, she reported.

The entrance lobby with a photo wall and memorial to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein at the new International Fellowship of Christians and Jews headquarters at 303 E. Wacker Drive in Chicago, March 29, 2022. Credit: IFCJ.

‘Our work is done in accordance with Israeli law’

The agency has also met pressing needs due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including helping rescue Ukrainian Jews.

“We helped bring over 5,000 olim from Ukraine to Israel since the war began,” said Eckstein, using the Hebrew term for new immigrants. “Our last aliyah flight from Ukraine began just before the war, and we have organized our flights from Moldova since then.”

In accordance with Israel’s Law of Return, which recognizes an individual with a single Jewish grandparent as eligible for citizenship, the fellowship helps Jews irrespective of whether many Orthodox rabbinic authorities would recognize them as halachically Jewish.

“We are a non-political organization, and our work is done in accordance with Israeli law. Whether they are from Ethiopia or the Bnei Menashe from India, we work to bring Jews home to Israel,” Eckstein said.

Yael Eckstein in an ambulance with an elderly woman during a ZAKA–IFCJ medical emergency rescue flight on May 8, 2022. Credit: IFCJ.

In recent years, IFCJ has focused more on the conflict in the Gaza Strip, from where Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists have launched more than 1,000 rockets in recent years at Israel.

After the 2021 conflict in Gaza, the fellowship coordinated closely with the Israel Defense Force’s Homefront Command to secure vulnerable Israeli civilian areas by purchasing ambulances and funding the construction of bomb shelters, according to Eckstein.

“We built a bomb shelter over the NICU [neonatal intensive-care unit] at Barzilai Medical Center. Prior to that, the delivery unit at the hospital needed to move the babies to a secure area whenever a siren would go off,” she said. “There was even one instance where a woman in labor needed to be moved to a tiny bomb shelter the size of a broom closet in order to give birth to her baby.”

As the fellowship celebrates its 40th anniversary, Eckstein seeks new opportunities where her organization can help more people in Israel.

“Jews have friends among the Christian community. It is very exciting to see how Christian support for Israel has been developing ever since my father founded the fellowship 40 years ago,” she said. “Looking towards the future, we are constantly looking to work with as many partners as possible to provide humanitarian aid to those who need it.”

Stacking boxes of food and staples meant for Ukrainians in need amid war with Russia. Credit: IFCJ.
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