Yael Eckstein, the president and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, is a much-loved and respected interfaith activist who builds bridges between Christians and Jews worldwide and the State of Israel. She oversees all IFCJ programs to provide medical, financial aid and food to Israelis – including the elderly and Holocaust survivors – which have taken on a new meaning since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as funding aliyah flights from at-risk countries.
“The Fellowship’s goal is to be the ‘first responders’ to basic-need emergencies faced by Jews around the world who have nowhere else to turn, and to respond immediately,” she says.
Eckstein took the reins of the IFCJ after the death in 2019 of her father, who had already named her as his successor. Rabbi Eckstein founded the philanthropic organization headquartered in Chicago and Jerusalem in 1983, and his daughter pledged to continue his mission to promote interfaith understanding between Christians and Jews.
Yael Eckstein was born in Evanston, Illinois and studied at Torat Chesed Seminary in Israel, Queens College in New York, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, earning degrees in biblical and Jewish studies and sociology. The author of three books – Holy Land Reflections (2012), Spiritual Cooking with Yael (2014), and Generation to Generation (2020) – Eckstein is a popular writer and speaker, a respected social services professional, and an expert on Jewish-Christian relations who has a huge following on social media. She lives in central Israel with her husband and their four children.
How do you see your role as president and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in the current era of coronavirus and economic hardship?
Our goal at The Fellowship is always to help Israelis and Jewish people in need as quickly and effectively as possible, and that job has taken on special urgency in this time of global crisis. Most recently, we responded immediately to help Israel through the COVID-19 pandemic by establishing a $20 million emergency fund. Through this fund, we’ve provided essential medical equipment to Israeli hospitals and protective equipment for first responders, mobilized hundreds of volunteers to (safely) contact over 30,000 elderly and Holocaust survivors to check on their well-being and provide them with food, and doubled our funding to soup kitchens.
We continued to provide aliyah from at-risk countries during this time, working with the Israeli government to ensure that every safety precaution is followed to the letter. I am proud to say we were able to do this even as we’ve kept up our day-to-day work, through dozens of program, helping the needy in Israel and the former Soviet Union. The Fellowship’s goal is to be the “first responders” to basic-need emergencies faced by Jews around the world who have nowhere else to turn, and to respond immediately. Thank God, throughout the pandemic, we have been able to do exactly that.
What role do you play in eliciting and maintaining Christian support for Israel?
My father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein z’l, started The Fellowship 37 years ago in order to foster and cultivate Christian friends for Israel. We were the leaders in this bridge-building work when my father was alive, and since his passing almost two years ago, support for Israel from this large, dedicated, and growing group of faithful Christian donors has only grown. Every week, The Fellowship reaches over hundreds of thousands of Christians around the world, interacting, educating, and providing practical tools of how to stand with Israel. We receive thousands of pieces of mail a day from Christians, voicing their support for Israel through prayers and donations and through our newest Israel education program in Christian seminaries and colleges, we’re also reaching out to engage a new generation of Israel supporters. The Fellowship is doing everything we can to ensure that the passionate and strategic Christian friends for Israel, who have become a powerful movement in the past 35 years, continues to grow in numbers and impact.
How has the organization started by your late father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, transformed itself over the years?
There is a beautiful verse in the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 49: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” The Fellowship was a “new thing” when my father started it more than 35 years ago, but he followed his God-given vision and persevered, and now Israelis – and so many in the Jewish community – have come to know and understand that Christians are the best friends that Israel has. I believe that God used men like my father to bring about this miraculous change, and I feel blessed to be able to continue to carry on his historic life work.
While this bridge-building foundation of our work has never changed, over the years we’ve learned to contribute to and improve the ever-changing landscape of humanitarian needs and create strategic programs to distribute aid in the quickest, most effective ways. The Fellowship identifies a need on the ground in Israel and develops programs to meet that need utilizing volunteers, municipal social workers, and local businesses. Due to our innovative and professional distribution methods, in some cases, we’ve started programs that the Israeli government took over, due to the proven effectiveness. In other cases, the government has turned to us to distribute the aid. My father taught me the responsibility to run a nonprofit like a business: with clear goals, criteria, deliverables, and professional, passionate and innovate staff. Nearly two years after my father’s passing, The Fellowship has a historic number of active donors, and is stronger and more prepared than ever to respond to new needs as they arise.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing you in the coming year?
The biggest challenge is that there is so much in the world right now that we can’t fully predict. For example, coronavirus forced us to rethink how we serve the elderly who rely on our food cards, soup kitchens, and elderly clubs. We’ve responded by delivering more food packages and hot meals to those who should not leave their homes. And though it’s no substitute to the companionship they feel at elderly clubs, our team has personally called tens of thousands of elderly people to check in on them and make sure they are cared for.
If the coronavirus crisis persists beyond next year, we will have to adapt further in how we serve the over 1.4 million aid recipients who count on us annually – not only for physical sustenance, but emotional connection as well. However, with the team we have in place, I have no doubt that we will meet those needs in creative and meaningful ways. What I always tell me staff is that we must be clear, focused and strategic in our plans, but flexible enough to immediately tweak those plans to meet the changing needs.
This content was originally published here.