Interfaith bridge builder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein dies of heart attack

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews passed away of a heart attack Wednesday; he was 67. Eckstein founded the fellowship in 1983 which raises $140 million annually for Israeli and Jewish causes.

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Rabbi Eckstein was born in Canada in 1951 to Rabbi Sy and Bell Eckstein. His father was a community rabbi who fled the 1929 riots in, what was then, Palestine. Eckstein received rabbinical ordination at Yeshiva University in NY by Rabbi Dov Soloveitchick.

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He then went on to receive a doctorate in philosophy and religion at Columbia University where he also served as a lecturer. He also lectured at the Theological Seminary of Chicago and the Northern Baptist Seminary.

Eckstein founded the fellowship in 1983 to promote international friendship between Christians and Jews and has since dedicated his life to building interfaith bridges and cooperation between the Christian world, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

“We have 1.6 million donors, 99% of whom are not Jewish, primarily Evangelical Christians,” he said in an interview. The fellowship has offices in Canada, South Korea and Brazil, in addition to Israel and the USA.

Rabbi Eckstein served as an adviser to former prime minister Ariel Sharon and was appointed in 2005 as an ambassador of goodwill to the Evangelical world on behalf of the State of Israel.

He authored 11 books, mostly on Jewish-Christian relations and was also active in the musical field and released several cassettes.

As part of his work, he held the first Passover Seder for United States Senate members and was the first rabbi to issue a blessing along with the president at a ceremony honoring former president Roosevelt.

Rabbi Eckstein has been named one of the 50 Most Influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post and included multiple times on Newsweek’s list of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis in the U.S.

The U.S. Congress honored Rabbi Eckstein for his interfaith bridge-building. He has been given numerous awards from organizations around the globe, including the prestigious Raoul Wallenberg Award presented to him by the JDC in the Israel Knesset by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, the government of Israel’s award for Special Contribution to the Welfare of the People of Israel, the Man of the Year award from the Federation of Jewish Communities presented to him at the Kremlin in Moscow, the Jerusalem Prize by the Economic Forum, and over 100 additional honors and awards from various other groups, including Chamah, Colel Chabad, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Hadassah, and more.

The fellowship expressed shock and grief at his untimely passing. “Rabbi Eckstein dedicated his whole life to strengthening the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” they wrote. “His life’s work at the fellowship has helped the most vulnerable among Israeli and society and in Jewish communities around the world over the last few decades.

“Rabbi Eckstein’s legacy was one of bridge building between Christian Evangelical communities in the USA and other places in the world, to assist and cooperate with the State of Israel. The fruits of the last 40 years of his work are being enjoyed by Israeli citizens today in the fields of tourism, diplomacy, and social services.”

In an interview he gave Ynet, he told of his desire to immigrate to Israel at any cost. At the age of 52, he left his first wife and three daughters, after she declined to immigrate. He married Barcelona born Joelle, who moved to Israel alone at the age of 17.

His work also invited criticism, especially among those who did not view favorably his extensive relationship with prominent Christians and suspected him of having a missionary agenda. He said he was forced to hire security guards.

Upon hearing of his death, Eckstein was eulogized by Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Jewish Agency Director Isaac Herzog and many other prominent Jews and Israelis.