Evangelical-supported charity looking to secure every vulnerable synagogue in the world

Eleven people were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018.
Eleven people were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. | (Screenshot: CBS News)

An evangelical-backed philanthropic organization has announced an effort to help every vulnerable synagogue in the world protect themselves as extremist attacks against synagogues and other places of worship are becoming all too frequent.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is behind the effort to secure synagogues across the globe and is expanding its efforts in response to the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California on Passover that killed one woman and injured others.

The initiative was launched prior to the outbreak of violence this past weekend between Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian militants (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) that saw over 700 rockets launched into Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip and hundreds of rockets that struck in the Strip.

The Fellowship, the largest philanthropic organization in Israel, is no stranger to helping overseas synagogues as its efforts have already bolstered security at hundreds of synagogues throughout 40 countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

But now the organization is looking to extend its existing program to cover all of the world’s “vulnerable” synagoguges. As part of the expanded effort, The Fellowship will immediately hone in on synagogues in eights countries in order to provide them with added security measures.

“We have realized now with the attacks specifically in America, both with the Tree of Life attack [last year in Pittsburgh], where 11 Jewish people were killed in their house of worship and with the recent San Diego attack, we see that it is getting worse,” Yael Eckstein, the organization’s president, told The Christian Post.

Yael Eckstein (L) welcomes Jewish immigrants from Ukraine as the unload from an airplane to their new home in Israel on
Yael Eckstein (L) welcomes Jewish immigrants from Ukraine as the unload from an airplane to their new home in Israel on | IFCJ

“Once it gets to America, we know that we have a problem. So if America is vulnerable, just think about how vulnerable the Jewish people in a place like France are or in places where the government doesn’t stand for freedom and the government doesn’t like Jews. If it can happen in America, just think how much it could happen in locations that are more vulnerable than American Jews.”

The Fellowship has already planned to provide additional security measures for synagogues in Mexico, Georgia, Germany, Norway, India, Finland, France, Mexico and Thailand.

“There are eight countries where we know Jewish institutions are being targeted,” Eckstein stressed in a phone interview. “We are looking at around 40 locations for the immediate [future] within the next month or two. Then we want to extend this to another 350 locations we are praying that we will be able to get to.”

For some synagogues, they will need to implement basic security measures, Eckstein said, such as installing locks, a special security door, a panic button, window protector or a security camera system.

For other synagogues in more vulnerable situations, they will need a bit more intensive security measures, such as installing a compound inspection gate, an entrance security door and the shielding of all windows to protect against bullets.

In Thailand, for example, the organization has already provided basic security measures for all the synagogues in the country. Now the organization is working through its partners to employ a national security officer to oversee the threats against Jews for the entire country and establish a global command center to protect all the synagogues.

“There are so many Jewish people who are traveling and living now in Thailand,” Eckstein explained. “They are in specific locations making them a real target. God forbid, a terrorist attack could happen there. So we want to have more intensive measures.”

Another place that is in need of more advanced security measures is a synagogue in Oslo, Norway, she explained.

“We know that there are a lot of threats against this specific location and the Jewish community is very vulnerable,” she said. “There had been peace deals that had been signed in Oslo, where a lot of diplomats go. It is just a very high-profile location in regards to Israel. Any high-profile location, there is a significantly higher threat.”

With The Fellowship already active in helping synagogues in many countries throughout Europe, Eckstein warned of rising antisemitism across the continent.

“The location that is most urgent and most at risk is France. In France, there is a terrifying rise in antisemitism,” she explained. “Jews can’t walk around looking Jewish. Even the spiritual leaders, the rabbis, are not to wear a traditional skullcap or not to wear any star of David necklaces or wear anything that would identify them as a Jew in public.”

Eckstein also raised alarm about Germany.

“The German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier congratulated Iran’s terrorist regime on the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. That is Germany, who killed 6 million Jews. They are now congratulating a regime that is trying to wipe Israel off the map.”

Even in the U.S., the trends are troubling.

“In America, you have one-third of American millennials that don’t believe 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust,” she said. “You have 66 percent of millennials in America who never heard of Auschwitz. A lot of people are saying that the times are reminiscent of the early 1930s before the Holocaust. If you don’t remember, then you will get to the same place.”

She also criticized the “blatantly antisemitic” cartoon featured in the international edition of The New York Times, which the newspaper apologized for after much criticism.

Eckstein said, however, that there are key differences between today and the early 1930s.

Among those is the fact that the Jewish people now have the state of Israel to protect them. Additionally, she said, Jews in Israel now have allies in Christians throughout the world thanks to the work her father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who helped bridge Jewish and Christian communities in the U.S. to support Israel.

When Yechiel Eckstein launched The Fellowship in the 1980s, he was ostracized by the Jewish and Christian communities for his efforts to bridge the two communities. But today, Jews in Israel appreciate the effort, she said.

Thanks to the financial backing of Christians primarily in the U.S., Eckstein said The Fellowship has built over 5,500 bomb shelters throughout Israel.

Over the weekend, hundreds of rockets were launched into Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. The escalation of violence between IDF and Palestinian militants is reported to be the worst escalation since the 2014 Gaza War.

“As they are running in their bomb shelters and they are scared and they feel broken, they go into the shelter donated with love from Christians in America who are praying for them,” Eckstein said. “They realize that they are not alone and that provides so much encouragement and hope that the times have changed.”

Although a ceasefire has been issued, Eckstein said that the Israeli people are fed up with the cycle of violence followed by ceasefires that are violated.  

“We pray for peace. But this ceasefire agreement, unfortunately, isn’t the peace that we have been praying for."

Along with its work to secure synagogues, The Fellowship, which is funded largely by evangelical donors, has also worked to provide added security to Christian churches in Egypt. Churches in Egypt have been targeted in the past, resulting in a number of church bombings.

For the past two years, The Fellowship has been working to support about 3,000 Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria now living in Jordan with food, medical care and housing.

“We are raising our voice to get them situated in a permanent situation somewhere in the Western Countries, that America and Europe should give priority to providing refugee status to these Christians who are persecuted before any other populations,” Eckstein said.

The Fellowship also engages with as many as 6,600 American churches, representing 500,000 people.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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