We recently had the opportunity to speak to Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, who oversees all ministry programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Prior to her present duties, Yael served as Global Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, and Director of Program Development and Ministry Outreach. Based in Israel with her husband and their four children, Yael is a published writer and a respected social services professional.
Yael Eckstein has contributed to The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and other publications, and is the author of three books: Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children, Holy Land Reflections: A Collection of Inspirational Insights from Israel, and Spiritual Cooking with Yael. In addition, her insights into life in Israel, the Jewish faith, and Jewish-Christian relations can be heard on The Fellowship’s radio program, Holy Land Moments, which air five times per week on over 1,500 radio stations around the world.
Yael Eckstein has partnered with other global organizations, appeared on national television, and visited with U.S. and world leaders on issues of shared concern. She has been a featured guest on CBN’s The 700 Club with Gordon Robertson, and she served on a Religious Liberty Panel on Capitol Hill in May 2015 in Washington, D.C., discussing religious persecution in the Middle East. Her influence as one of the young leaders in Israel has been recognized with her inclusion in The Jerusalem Post’s 50 Most Influential Jews of 2020 and The Algemeiner’s Jewish 100 of 2019, and she was featured as the cover story of Nashim (Women) magazine in May 2015.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and well-educated at both American and Israeli institutions – including biblical studies at Torat Chesed Seminary in Israel, Jewish and sociology studies at Queens College in New York, and additional study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem – Yael Eckstein has also been a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher in the United States.
Tell us a little bit about how you continue to build these relationships with Christians, because it’s so important for the work that you want to do.
I always say my father planted very strong roots, and now I look at it as my opportunity, my blessing, my obligation, my privilege to water that tree and see it grow. Thank God, right now The Fellowship is doing well. And even with COVID, we are on the ground distributing all different types of aid. Many organizations are struggling because of the financial crisis, coupled with the fact that there are so many more urgent requests for help. The Fellowship is very, very blessed to be in a position that we’re able to distribute even more aid.
We opened a $20 million emergency COVID fund, where we have different programs for the new poor, helping families’ basic needs like electricity, like paying rent, like buying food. We have a new program with the Ministry of Welfare in Israel where they are using our platform to distribute their emergency COVID aid because we have such an effective platform in distributing aid immediately. We have programs for elderly. We have programs for lone soldiers.
I really look at it in two different ways. On one side, which is from the Israel perspective, I believe that nonprofits should work like a business. That nonprofits should not look at it as, we’re doing good, we’re getting people help. That’s not enough. No, no, no. You have to function like a business. You have to make sure every single penny is going where it could be most effectively used, which is the aid. You have to have very clear goals, very clear criteria for how you distribute the aid. You have to have very clear KPIs, key performance indicators, because just getting aid to people isn’t enough. You have to make sure that you’re doing it in the most strategic, most effective way.
On the other side, my father used to always say that I caught the vision. That for me this isn’t just a job. Getting aid to people who are desperately in need is only one part of the coin. The other half of the coin is really engaging the Christian community to stand for Israel to show them how much we appreciate them, and truly give them the tools so that they’re able to stand for Israel and the Jewish people. You see the impact of this love, this wellspring of support, not only through the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and the $130 million that we raise every year in humanitarian support, but you also see the impact politically, to turn around all the BDS lies and make sure that Israel continues to have political friends and allies who are educated on the reality of Israel.
We see the American embassy has moved to Jerusalem. Why? Not because of the pressure of the Jewish community, but because of the Christian community. Israel has around 4.2 million tourists come to Israel every year, which really is one of the main sources of income for Israel’s economy. Over half of those are Christian. You see investors in the business world, Christian Zionists. I mean the numbers when you go through it, more than 80% of South Americans identify as Christian, there are tens of millions of Christians in China, as well as in Korea. It’s just so much potential there. We look at them as strategic partners and invest in this relationship because it’s not a given that it’s going to continue.
Why do you think it’s so important for Christians to support Israel and support the Jewish people?
Many Christians who support, love, and pray for Israel will quote Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel.” God made a promise. And when God makes a promise, He keeps it forever. God promised that if you bless the Jewish people, for whatever reason that we can’t understand, you will be blessed.
For the first time in thousands of years, we’re living in a reality where the words of the prophets are coming to life, where Jews are finally coming back to Israel from all four corners of the earth for the first time since the Second Temple was destroyed. We’re living in a prophetic reality right now, and I think the Christian community really looks at it as their privilege and honor to be part of this with the Jewish people by helping them to get home to Israel.
In the Christian Bible, the book of Romans say that Christians are grafted onto the rich olive tree of Israel, and more than the roots need the branches the branches need the roots. And so I really think there’s an amazing movement happening now of Christians going back to rediscover their biblical roots. What are those biblical roots? The olive tree of Israel. All of that together I think leads to this amazing wellspring of support for Israel from the Christian community.
Do Israelis know that Christians are supporting them like this? How do they feel about it?
That’s a really interesting question. I feel like my father was the one who really took most of the heat because it was so new when he started it that whenever he would say, this is Christians for Israel, it was such a radical concept. It was so new. The only thing that the Jewish people knew about Christians was what they learned in the history books. And so when you say this is love and support from Christians, they’d be like, okay, do they want to kill us? Do they want to convert us? What do they want from us?
And my father would try to explain, no, this is just their prayer in action. This is a gift of love, that they don’t want anything in return. It was very hard to believe that after so many generations of persecution in the name of Christianity. And so I think American Jews actually have a different issue with it that has to do with American politics. The Jewish community and the evangelical Christian community historically take very different positions on political topics in America.
But The Fellowship doesn’t get involved in politics. We have one issue, and that is Israel – standing for Israel, loving Israel, learning about Israel. And all of the politics we don’t touch, which is why I think we’ve been so successful.
After more than 35 years of the Jewish community seeing that The Fellowship does not do any sort of conversion, we don’t have any sort of ulterior motive, and seeing the Christian investment in Israel be so prominent in so many other areas, even outside of the Fellowship, I think the Jewish community have really gotten used to this idea that Christians are Israel’s best friends. Now I have to work from the other side of what my father was trying to convince the Jewish community, which was, “No, they’re our friends, our friends.” I have to convince the Jewish community, “No, evangelical Christian support is not a given.” If we don’t invest in reaching out to and education the next generation of Christians, it can end.
How are you reaching young Christians to make sure that this legacy continues?
One of my areas of focus is engaging the next generation of Christians with Israel. I was on the 700 Club with Gordon Robertson, that’s Pat Robertson’s son, who’s a good friend and one of the most amazing people and friends of Israel. And again, there’s a generational passing down of love for Israel from Pat Robertson to Gordon Robertson.
They have one of the largest Christian colleges in America. There are over 500 Christian colleges in America, and I said to Gordon, “Oh, what’s your Israel program on the campus?” He said, “Yael, I wish it was stronger. I wish we had more. I wish we had a curriculum. I wish we had so much more that had to do with Israel, but we just don’t have access to it.” And that’s when I realized that the low hanging fruit in reaching the next generation is having a Christian Israel education program, an engagement program on these 500 plus Christian seminaries across America.
And so we tested it out. We have one amazing man, Roger Cheeks, who leads our outreach program for the next generation of Christians in these seminaries and colleges. We created a curriculum with an Orthodox rabbi here in Israel that is geared towards Christians from a Jewish perspective of really connecting biblical Israel to modern Israel.
We really go through history connecting that and educating them. And with just one employee and in less than a year we’re ready on 15 college campuses where we have student leaders, we have the curriculum and all the different departments, we have online courses. And we’re focused really on the grassroots. Unlike some organizations that are amazing but focused on the most elite, we’re focused on really building grassroots support on all of these campuses for Israel.
In this pilot program we’ve seen great success and actually we’ve seen the Jewish community get involved with The Fellowship’s work in this specific area, and fighting anti-Semitism, and making sure that BDS doesn’t get onto these campuses. Because, as we say every Friday night in our prayers, the end result is a product of the first thought. I believe if we could get into these Christian seminaries across America with pro-Israel education, BDS will not have a chance to flourish there.