• ISRAEL \ Oct 16, 2002
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    Christian generosity becomes a rabbinical nightmare
Christian generosity becomes a rabbinical nightmare Two weeks ago, the council decided to form a special committee of four members - Rabbi Simha Hacohen Kook, Moshe Rauchberger, Shmuel Eliyahu and Yehuda Deri - to look into the Jerusalem Friendship Fund. This fund distributes large amounts of money contributed by evangelical Christians the help Jews immigrate to Israel, as well as for their absorption and for welfare organizations - $15 million in the past year alone - and for Jewish communities in the Diaspora (especially in the former Soviet Union and Argentina).

The committee will have to decide if there is any religious problem in accepting this money, because among the recipients of the fund are a number of religious organizations. They include a network of soup kitchens, Meir Panim, established by ultra-Orthodox journalist Dudi Silberschlag; the ultra-Orthodox Zaka (Identification of Victims of Disaster) organization, which removes bodies and body parts after terror attacks and other disasters, and numerous other charity organizations.

Rehovot's chief rabbi, Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook, who raised the issue with the Chief Rabbinate Council, says: "I am ashamed that this kind of money is currently being accepted by Torah-observant Jews."

Kook maintains that from the material that has been brought to his attention, there is a clear missionary intention behind the fund. "[Rabbi Yechiel] Eckstein [founder and president of the Jerusalem Friendship Fund] is a close friend of Pat Robertson, the greatest missionary preacher in the world." He says that even if direct missionary work by the fund is not involved, accepting evangelical money is wrong because it comes from people who believe, according to their Messianic vision, that Israel will ultimately disappear with one-third of world Jews converting to Christianity and the other two-thirds being destroyed.

Kook, like many other rabbis, became aware of the problem after the intense recent campaign against the activities of the fund by Mina Fenton, a member of Jerusalem City Council. Fenton says she learned about the subject following an appeal from a Jew from Chicago, Eckstein's home town.

Jesus walked

"Eckstein blurs the distinction between Judaism and Christianity," says Fenton. "In the video cassettes in which he appeals for donations from Christians, he is filmed standing at the Western Wall saying `this is where our forefathers walked thousands of years ago, including Jesus.' He explains that the two cherubs on the Holy of Holies symbolize Judaism and Christianity."

"When appealing to the Christians, I naturally try to create the connection to Israel for them," Eckstein says, "and that is why I mention Jesus. The fact that Jesus walked in the area of the Holy Temple is a historic fact. I speak about the cherubs as symbols of the fact that certain groups that are in dispute - Jews and non-Jews, Orthodox and Reform - have to turn to one another, just like the cherubs in the Holy of Holies."

As for accepting contributions from groups that believe in the destruction of Israel, he says: "According to a survey we conducted, only 10 percent of evangelical Christians claim that the reason they contribute Israel is their vision of the end of days. The main reason for their support of Israel are the democratic values America and Israel share and the belief that God gave Israel to the Jews."

The dispute over accepting money from the Jerusalem Friendship Fund has also ignited a war over the positions of various Torah authorities on the subject. Dudi Silberschlag, for example, quotes a halakhic ruling permitting the acceptance of money from the fund which was handed down by Rabbi Asher Weiss, one of the most prominent halakhic authorities in the ultra-Orthodox world today.

Fenton says Weiss told her afterward that he had not been fully informed of all the facts, "and that in fact there is a serious problem on this matter." A similar debate concerning Rabbi Elyashiv's views has also arisen. Rabbi Yitzhak Goldstein of the Diaspora Yeshiva says he appealed to Rabbi Elyashiv and heard an extreme prohibition from him against accepting this money. Others claim Elyashiv never ruled it was forbidden.

The members of the fund have disseminated a letter received by Eckstein with blessings from former chief rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Mordechai Eliyahu. Fenton claims that these are general letters rather than explicit halakhic rulings and that the letters were sent without the rabbis having full knowledge of all the details. She presents a harshly worded ruling against the fund handed down by former chief rabbi Avraham Shapira.

Fenton's initiative and that of Rabbi Kook against accepting money from the fund may cause embarrassment to a number of members of the Chief Rabbinate Council themselves. The educational network run by Rabbi Yitzhak Grossman of Migdal Ha'emek, a member of the council, is one of the fund's most prominent beneficiaries.

Givers and takers

Even some of the investigating committee's members are indirectly connected to the fund. Rabbi Yehuda Deri is Aryeh Deri's brother and brother-in-law of Yaffa Deri, whose charity organizations are beneficiaries of the fund.

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu is the son of former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who in the past gave his blessings to the fund in the aforementioned letter, and a number of the institutions he heads are beneficiaries of the fund's munificence. Consequently, some members of the Chief Rabbinate Council propose that the examination should not be conducted by the members of the council themselves, but rather by retired rabbinical judges who have no connection to the fund.

Eckstein notes that even the hassidic movement of Karlin-Stolin in Rehovot, with which Rabbi Kook is closely associated, receives money from the fund. Kook is not deterred. "I knew nothing about that, but if it is true I will do my best to convince them not to accept any more."

Some take the view that the committee has been set up to bury the subject. It would be impossible not to respond to the demand to look into the subject, but the feeling is that no one really intends to turn off the flow of cash already coming from the fund. Eckstein says: "That is not our problem; it is the problem of the religious institutions. Let them decide if they want to take the money. If they don't, we will continue to contribute only to secular organizations. It would be unfortunate, but that is their right."

$65 M bonanza

Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein of Chicago has been active in fundraising efforts among evangelical and other Christians since 1983. About seven years ago, he established the Friendship Fund, which raises funds for immigration, absorption, and welfare projects in Israel. So far, the fund has contributed about $65 million.

Eckstein moved to Israel two years ago and established the Israeli branch of the fund, which coordinates the fund's activities in Israel. Thanks to its generous contributions, Eckstein has become a very well known figure in the Jewish establishment. In recent years, he became a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and was recently elected chair of the Jewish Agency's absorption committee. He raises funds in Europe for Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal).

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert has been helped considerably by Eckstein's connections and appointed him special advisor for fundraising in the non-Jewish world.