• TOP STORIES \ Jan 08, 2005
    reads 5502
    American Christians contribute 100 Million Shekels to Israel in 2004
American Christians contribute 100 Million Shekels to Israel in 2004 Unlike thousands of agencies that distribute money here, most of which are family and private funds, this one does not practice its philanthropy under conditions of anonymity. On the contrary: It insists on publicizing each dollar it contributes and demands public recognition. It is important to the fund's president and founder, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, to identify the evangelical contributors publicly - by posting a sign, running a newspaper announcement expressing gratitude, or putting a picture on the wall showing Eckstein and the fund recipients holding a check from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

"This is one of the nicest projects established in Israel in recent years. The fund supports the weakest members of society in place of the state, which does not succeed in helping," says the mayor of Carmiel, Adi Eldar, who also chairs the Union of Local Authorities. "The fund operates without setting conditions, without bureaucracy. If they weren't giving, no one would be giving. There would simply be no money." Eldar is not concerned about the fact that the money originates from religious Christians. "This money has only a good smell. We should remember that the State of Israel took reparation payments from Germany, and that was a much more problematic source of monetary assistance."

Since beginning to operate in Israel in 2000, when Eckstein immigrated to Israel from Chicago, the fund has mainly contributed to projects involving immigration and absorption of new immigrants. This activity reinforces the concerns of the fund's critics, who argue that the evangelical Christians are only interested in the ingathering of the Jewish Diaspora to expedite the second coming of Jesus. According to this vision of this second coming, the Jews would then be required to either convert to Christianity or die.

But in addition to the more than NIS 200 million this organization has invested in bringing the Jews of Ethiopian and the former Soviet Union, and in helping them settle in Israel, tens of millions of shekels have also been raised for welfare organizations and municipal welfare departments, for procuring equipment for the ZAKA emergency rescue and recovery organization, and for protecting buses and kindergartens. NIS 350,000 was even allocated for purchasing equipment for the police special anti-terror unit (Yamam).

250 projects a year

In Be'er Sheva, the Friendship Fund contributed hundreds of thousands of shekels last year to finance the salaries of social workers to work in programs for children and teenagers at risk, as well as a social club for the elderly. In Kiryat Ata, hundreds of thousands of shekels were donated for teenage girls in distress, renovating a women's club and distributing food. Similar sums were allocated to Carmiel for treating the homeless and alcoholics. The fund contributes to about 250 projects each year; the grants range from tens of thousands of shekels to hundreds of thousands of shekels. The projects include, for example, a center for rape victims, a center for battered women from the ultra-Orthodox community, a program to integrate Ethiopian immigrants on kibbutzim, a program to train Ethiopian immigrants as bus drivers and a center for treating violent men.

The staff of the organization consults with the Welfare Ministry and social workers about the criteria and targets for its donations. According to the ministry, the donations partially compensate for the budgets and welfare cutbacks of recent years. About 95 local authorities receive assistance for expenditures that were once entirely financed by the state. Such outlays include the purchase of eyeglasses and boots, dental care for children, debt payments for water and electricity, and transportation for dialysis.

The person who opened the welfare system to Rabbi Eckstein, thus helping to provide the legitimacy he so desired, was MK Zevulun Orlev, now the leader of the National Religious Party. Two years ago, while serving as welfare minister, he received from Eckstein, in a well-publicized ceremony, a huge cardboard check for NIS 12 million for the "friendship funds" of the local authorities. Unlike some of his religious mentors, Orlev has no problem with the source of the money - as long as there is no direct link between the contributors and the recipients. Those who are in need of help do not know who contributed the assistance, and even the staff of the fund do not know their identity, Orlev says. This anonymity is intended to prevent a situation, however hypothetical it may be, in which a missionary donor approaches the Jewish recipients of his largess so that they can express their gratitude as a gesture toward Christianity.

The contributors to the fund only receive a postcard explaining what their donation has "purchased" - $350 finances the immigration of one Jew to Israel, $700 enables a married couple to immigrate to Israel, and $1,400 pays the plane fare here for a family with two children. This is explained in the short film "On Wings of Eagles" - a main fundraising tool used by the organization. The 30-minute-long clip is broadcast daily to tens of millions of viewers throughout the U.S. on Christian broadcasting stations and other channels.

"In an ideal situation, the government should be the one to carry out these tasks," says Orlev. "But since it is not doing this, there is no difference between money that comes from Jews or Christians. It seems to me to be overly righteous and out of line to claim otherwise. I am not prepared to be a tzaddik (righteous man) at the expense of children or the elderly."

Dudi Zilbershlag, the ultra-Orthodox activist who established the Meir Panim and Hakoach Latet organizations, which have received more than $700,000 from the fund, also sees nothing wrong with the source of the financial assistance. "The money comes from a place of great love for Israel. In a world where so many hate us, we should say `thank you' to the evangelists who love us," he says.
Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, one of the leading authorities on halacha (Jewish law) in the national-religious camp, recently prohibited accepting money from the Friendship Fund, but its does not seem that anyone is taking this prohibition too seriously. Orlev explains that the rabbis only object to channeling the Christian donations to institutions for Torah study. Other institutions affiliated with ultra-Orthodox or religious Jews are happy to receive this money - for example, Yad Sarah, Nahalat Zvi (founded by Rabbi Eliyahu's trusted colleague Rabbi Ya'akov Shimshon), and Rabbi (and Israel Prize recipient) Yitzhak Grossman of Migdal Ha'emek.

Refusing donations

There are local authorities that find it difficult to accept the source of the donations and do not request assistance from the fund. Such localities include Upper Betar and Emmanuel, Eckstein says. According to the fund, the Jerusalem Municipality under its current ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski, has also refused to accept donations. The municipality says that the fund promised money and did not follow through on its commitment.

Communities with an ultra-Orthodox population also receive money from the Friendship Fund - including soup kitchens in Bnei Brak and projects in Kiryat Arba. From the perspective of the ultra-Orthodox and religious organizations, the problem is the organization's "obsessive demand for exposure," as one recipient of the fund's largess defined it. Eckstein defines its approach differently: "It is important for us that people know that the money comes from Christians, and that Israel and the Jews are not alone."

Eckstein has worked for more than two decades to build bridges between Jews and evangelical Christians, first at the Anti-Defamation League and later with the independent organization he founded. "I have a finger on the pulse of the evangelical world, more than any other Jew," he boasts. "I work with them on a full-time basis." Over the years, his close ties with these groups generated much suspicion and criticism from the Jewish establishment. Eckstein began to feel that he had succeeded in breaking through the wall of suspicion and winning a bit of respect from the Jewish organizations only after U.S. President George W. Bush entered the White House.

In Israel, on the other hand, his fund's contributions are accepted with open arms. He also no longer needs to court the establishment here. Last month, he sponsored a session devoted to social issues at the Herzliya Conference at the request of the conference organizer, Dr. Uzi Arad of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. His promotional film clip shows government leaders in Israel - Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor - alongside leading figures from the Christian world: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the evangelical entertainer Pat Boone. Interspersed in the film are also black-and-white pictures from the Holocaust and close-ups of terror victims.

Eckstein estimates the number of fund contributors - solicited via direct mailings and broadcast advertising - to be about 400,000 people. His message reaches a wider audience than the information efforts of the Foreign Ministry. From annual contributions of about $500,000 during the 1980s, the fund has grown to $45 million (the amount raised in 2004). Starting from a staff of three, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews now has a team of 60 people in its Chicago office and another 10 in Jerusalem. Some of the money is earmarked for children and the elderly in the former Soviet Union, including allocations to the Joint Distribution Committee and an organization founded by billionaire Lev Leviev. About $9 million was used to finance the organization's promotional films.

Rabbi Eckstein's critics claim that that he is involved in self-promotion. In addition to his appearances in the organization's film clips, his picture is prominently displayed in the fund's publications - here he is with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, there he is with President Katsav and former absorption minister Tzipi Livni. In talking with Eckstein, he comes across as colorful and emotional, and a bit enigmatic. He proudly tells how he was the first one in Israel to perform the song "The Whole World is a Narrow Bridge" during the Yom Kippur period, even before Yehoram Gaon. Today his deep voice is heard by anyone who is put on hold when calling his organization's offices. He admits that an evaluation conducted by an institute in the U.S. confirmed that he was the organization's most widely recognized and best-selling "brand name."

Eckstein defines himself as a modern Orthodox Jew. He regards himself as liberal in his egalitarian attitude toward people and, like most American Jews, he registered in the past for the Democratic Party. In recent years, however, he has become an enthusiastic supporter of President Bush.

Recently, Eckstein has not confined himself to fundraising activities. His organization has begun to market Israeli products on American shopping channels - beauty products from the Dead Sea and glass ornaments. If this pilot program succeeds, Eckstein plans to acquire a channel wholly devoted to "blue and white" products.

His activity provides him with political clout in addition to economic power. A Knesset lobby was recently formed to promote relations between Jews and evangelical Christians. Among the members of this lobby are MKs Yuri Stern (Yisrael Beitenu) and Isaac Herzog (Labor). Eckstein admits that right-wing figures have tried to mobilize his support for opposing the disengagement plan and supporting Jewish settlements, but he rejects these attempts. He supports welfare projects in Ariel, a settlement in the West Bank, to the same extent that he supports projects in the Arab town of Sakhnin in the Galilee, the Bedouin town Rahat in the Negev and Migdal Ha'emek, a Jewish development town, he declares. The money is intended to provide primary assistance for every Israeli and offers the advantage of being accessible and egalitarian.

Eckstein rejects the criticism that his activity enables the state to shirk its responsibilities toward its citizens, and that alongside the ultra-Orthodox and Islamic organizations that have assumed this state function, says that devout Christians are also filling this need. "I just want people to understand," he says, "that the problem of poverty is a matter of security and it is necessary to provide protection against it just like it is necessary to provide protection against missiles."