Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, is a glass half-full kind of guy.
In a wide-ranging conversation looking at what the Jewish world can expect in the new year, Eckstein is optimistic despite many challenges.
When speaking about antisemitism and terrorism in France, for example, Eckstein notes that terrorism translates to more aliya, immigration to Israel.
“The silver lining in the rise of antisemitism in France and around the world is that it’s leading to great aliya. Every time there is a terror attack in France, the aliya increases,” he said, even though he acknowledged that overall aliya rates have dropped in the past two years.
This year alone, there were two stabbings, two shootings and a car ramming attack in France. And, whether directly related or not, the IFCJ brought 606 immigrants to Israel from France so far this year.
The correlation is more direct when one looks at Venezuela, a country steeped in political violence and economic turmoil. The IFCJ has brought 73 olim from that country in the past year.
“You also have other factors that are correlated with the growth of aliya where it’s not antisemitism but turmoil,” Eckstein explained, pointing to Venezuela and Ukraine specifically. “Most of the wealthier Jews of Venezuela went to Miami and left the elderly and poor Jews behind.”
That is the exact demographic – elderly, impoverished and needy – that the IFCJ sets out to help both within and outside of Israel.
However, there are many Jews around the world who need help, but for a variety of reasons, can’t hop on a plane and start a new life here. Taking those Jews into account as well, the IFCJ donates $30 million annually to children and the elderly in the former Soviet Union and also contributes to the security of Chabad houses, synagogues and Jewish schools worldwide so Jews can still feel safe, even if they’re not in Israel.
However, the rise in aliya is of concern to some who allege that the world needs a robust and lively Diaspora so Jews abroad can advocate for both themselves and Israel in their home country. Here, too, Eckstein focuses on the positives of aliya and not the negatives.
“I’m one of those Jews that say they should move to Israel and make aliya. I tell the Jews of France, ‘Go home!’” he declared.
“What’s happened in the past five years is we thought there was no more aliya of necessity, but the rising antisemitism, economic turmoil in different parts of the world and terrorism all led to people not coming out of Zionist fervor, but because amazingly, the situation in Israel today is better than in many of these countries,” Eckstein explained.
In fact, the IFCJ initiated its own aliya operations in 2014, bringing more than 10,000 olim to Israel in just two-and-a-half years from 26 countries where Jews are facing antisemitism, economic turmoil or security threats. Prior to that, the IFCJ worked with other agencies and, since 1992, has spent over $200 million to help bring nearly 750,000 olim.
“What intrigues me is that Israel is a better place economically to go to. It’s not just Ethiopians flocking to Israel, it’s Jews all over the world. Jews from places where the economy is okay, and Israel’s economy is strong enough to beckon those who want to improve their lives,” he marveled.
That is not to say all is rosy in the Jewish state. And Eckstein is the first to point out its flaws, especially regarding the treatment of its poor.
“You have a political system that is broken, corruption on the highest level, greatest gaps in the OECD between the haves and have-nots, you have 180,000 elderly Holocaust survivors, 75,000-80,000 of whom live on NIS 2,600 a month,” he lamented. “Israel doesn’t have a safety net for them,” he said, describing the predicament for not only Holocaust survivors, but the disabled and new immigrants from poor countries.
The IFCJ cares for 19,000 elderly Jews, but Eckstein says that figure is just a drop in a bucket and more needs to be done.
“We give $90 million a year, but there are things that the government should be doing and assuming responsibility for,” he said.
That money is used to help Israel’s poor on a daily basis. Their hot line, for example, receives an average of 200 calls a day from the elderly and families who struggle to provide life’s most basic needs like food and medicine. “While the government is proud to play up – and should – with the tech and medical innovations in Israel and growth in diplomatic relations, you have one out of every three children living below the poverty line and many are literally going to sleep hungry,” he added.
To that end, the IFCJ has successfully raised $140 million a year from 1.6 million Christian donors as part of their belief in sacrificing to help needy Jewish people.
Eckstein said that no missionary work is done to solicit these donations, but rather they stem from the belief of many Christian evangelicals that Israel is a place that should be protected at all costs. The IFCJ sees the evangelical community as a crucial strategic ally of Israel and the Jewish people, not only for their generous financial contributions, but also because they are able to shore up political support for Israel in forums where it needs as much help as it can get. On issues like counter-terrorism, combating antisemitism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, evangelicals stand side by side with the Jewish State.
But as we begin the new Jewish year, Eckstein’s optimistic spirit has no signs of abating despite the obstacles ahead.
“I’m optimistic because there is always something to do and time to do it,” he said. “I choose to focus on not cursing the darkness but lighting a candle.”
This article was written in cooperation with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.