A philanthropic organization founded by a Chicago-area rabbi but funded mostly by western evangelicals has helped over 750,000 Jews fleeing persecution or poverty in their homelands to migrate to Israel as part of a process central to Zionism called aliyah.
With a total population of over 8.7 million, the 750,000 migrants brought to Israel in the last three decades with the help of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship) equates to more than one-twelfth of the national population.
The Fellowship was launched by the late Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein during the 1980s to serve as a “bridge” between the Christian and Jewish communities.
He was inspired to launch the Fellowship after Christian leaders came to him following the neo-Nazi rally in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977 telling him that they were looking for a way to stand with Israel.
Under Eckstein’s leadership, The Fellowship has grown to extraordinary heights and is now the largest philanthropic organization in Israel. And today, it brings in about $130 million in donations each year, much of which comes from American evangelicals.
“[M]y father said he felt like he was Christopher Columbus discovering America — suddenly he realized there are millions of Christians who love the Jewish people who stand with Israel,” the late rabbi’s daughter, Yael Eckstein, who now heads The Fellowship, told The Christian Post in a phone interview Thursday.
“But the Jewish community had no clue about this.”
In the early 1990s, The Fellowship launched its “On Wings of Eagles” ministry. The ministry is responsible for relocating hundreds of thousands of Jewish people from non-Western countries where their lives were in danger.
The first group of Jewish believers brought to Israel through the program were Jews fleeing the collapsing Soviet Union.
“It was in the early '90s that the Soviet Union [was collapsing] and it was the Christian community who came and said we want to help the Jewish people get out of the former Soviet Union and to bring them to Israel,” Eckstein explained. “Many of them were Holocaust survivors. This is part of biblical prophecy coming to fruition. Jeremiah speaks about it. Isaiah spoke about it.”
Over the years, The Fellowship has aided Jews by helping them escape persecution, poverty, and anti-Semitism in Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Yemen and other places throughout the Arab world.
Working with the Israeli government, The Fellowship has aided these migrants by paying for their airfare and by securing apartments for immigrant families to live within communities where people speak their native languages.
“We work with the government to make sure all of our new immigrants are aware of what they're entitled to from the government. They are so appreciative for The Fellowship,” Eckstein said. “We did a research study on why there are Jewish people in these dangerous situations who aren't coming home to Israel. What we found was that there are two things are holding them back. One is that they're very scared about getting an apartment and planning their kids through school. They don't know the language. They don't know anything.”
Eckstein explained that the government provides free Hebrew language classes that immigrants can take to help them get acclimated to their new communities.
On average, Eckstein said, it costs The Fellowship an average of over $1,500 to help one person migrate to Israel.
Although The Fellowship has helped boost the population of the country, Rabbi Eckstein was initially ostracized by the Jewish community because of his partnering with Christians. Over the past decade-plus, Jewish attitudes toward Christians has loosened.
“He wasn't allowed to pray with other people in the synagogue. He was kicked out of the Bible studies,” Eckstein recalled. “Today, the Jewish community is appreciative and loving and just grateful for the strongest friends we've ever had in the history of the Jewish people who are Christians.”
In 2000, Rabbi Eckstein himself migrated from his home in Chicago to Israel.
Since her father's death earlier this month due to a heart attack, Yael Eckstein has assumed her father’s position as the head of the organization. But even without him, Eckstein’s mission continues.
Just last week, a chartered plane filled with about 240 Jewish immigrants fleeing Ukraine arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport as part of The Fellowship’s “Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein Memorial Flight.” At least 116 families and 57 children were on the flight.
Yael Eckstein, who lives in Israel, was there to greet them.
While The Fellowship normally charters a plane about once a month to fly in large groups of immigrants, it welcomes an average of 17 new immigrants to Israel each day who arrive on commercial flights.
In addition to helping Jews migrate to Israel, the Fellowship also provides humanitarian aid to Jews left behind in the former Soviet Union. That ministry is called Isaiah 58.
“There's no support network in the former Soviet Union. There's the same government stipend as during communism, $46 a month. And the prices reflect that,” Eckstein explained. “And so for $46 a month you are not able to buy anything.”
The Fellowship’s third ministry — Guardians of Israel — provides food, clothing, shelter, housing, and other humanitarian needs for impoverished Israelis.
In a couple of years, The Fellowship will open its International Center for Christian Outreach in Jerusalem. It will serve as a visitors center of sorts for the more than 1 million Christians who come to Israel every year.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu even said a few weeks ago that in the future, the only people that we can actually rely on to help Israel are Orthodox Jews and Christians,” Eckstein recalled. “That is a pretty radical statement because of the shift in how Israel and the Jewish people look at Christians in Israel. Obviously, in the U.S., Christians are some of the biggest allies for [pro-Israel] policy.”