International Fellowship of Christians and Jews Taps Evangelicals for Support
But do evangelicals know what they’re giving to?
If you watch Christian television – Trinity Broadcasting Network, The Inspiration Network, World Harvest TV, or GEB TV — you’ve probably seen the ads. One emotional ad promises to provide bread, a blanket, and medicine to an elderly Holocaust survivor, all for just $25. Another shows a Russian woman thanking God for a “blessing box” containing food.
They’re from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. For years, the ads featured Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the group’s founder. Sometimes they still do, even though Eckstein died last year of a heart attack at age 67.
Today, though, they often feature his daughter, Yael Eckstein. Upon her father’s death, she inherited leadership of one of the largest charities in the world, with more than $115-million in annual revenue, much of it coming from evangelical Christians in the United States.
That giving from evangelicals comes despite the fact that “The Fellowship,” as it often calls itself, doesn’t promote the Christian gospel and it pays senior leadership huge salaries. Yechiel Eckstein made more than $700,000 per year. As a vice president before her father’s death, Yael Eckstein made more than $400,000. Since the group’s founding in 1983, the organization has taken in at least $1.5-billion, most of it from evangelical Christians.
Building A Non-Profit Powerhouse
Yechiel Eckstein founded what was originally called the Holyland Fellowship of Christians and Jews in Chicago in 1983. He said the primary goal of the organization was “to promote dialogue and bridge-building between Christians and Jews.” In those days, much of his support came from Jewish donors.
But then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later. Jews from the former Soviet Union started fleeing to Israel, the United States, and many other countries. Some evangelical and fundamentalists Christians believe the creation of the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Some also saw the fall of the officially atheistic Soviet Union as being a further fulfillment of prophecy. Supporting Israel became a cause celebre for many Christians, an activity they believed would hasten the return of Christ.
For Yechiel Eckstein, the confluence of events became an opportunity. He started “On Wings of Eagles,” a project to bring Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel. The first plane load arrived in 1992.
And every plane load provided heart-wrenching photos and videos to go with dramatic stories that were fund-raising gold. The Fellowship quickly gets these stories on television. In 2018, it spent more than $16-million on fundraising activities, most of that on Christian television and radio buys.
Even though IFCJ is not a Christian ministry, nor are either of the Ecksteins Christian believers, they have learned to speak “evangelicalese,” in part by partnering with powerful behind-the-scenes players in the evangelical world. For direct mail and other marketing services, for example, it uses The Bigham Agency. That agency is run by fundraising guru Paul Bigham, who made his reputation in the evangelical world by building the direct marketing operation of D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries. In 2018, IFCJ paid Bigham nearly $8-million.
For radio production and marketing, IFCJ used Colorado Springs-based Westar Media Group, which earned nearly $1-million for its services. With the exception of IFCJ, Westar handles almost exclusively Christian accounts, including Classical Conversations and the International Gospel Hour.
These relationships, and this kind of money, have bought IFCJ a seat at the evangelical table, and have tended to deflect tough questions from Christian media about doctrine, theology, and business practices – such as the out-sized salaries for the Ecksteins.
However, IFCJ is not a Christian organization. Media consultant Phil Cooke said, “People assume they’re giving to a Christian organization, but they’re not.”
Jonathan Bernis is president of The Jewish Voice, an evangelical Christian ministry that does relief and evangelistic work to Jewish people both in Israel and in other Jewish communities around the world. He shares Cooke’s concern that many evangelical Christians believe they are giving to a Christian organization when they contribute to The Fellowship.
“They are not a Christian ministry,” Bernis said. “In fact, Yechiel Eckstein was very much opposed to Jews becoming Christians.”
Eckstein’s own book, What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism includes such passages as “A Jew who accepts Jesus as Lord or Messiah effectively ceases to be Jew” (page 296). Eckstein adds, “From a Jewish point of view, Messianic Jews are a front for Evangelical Christians who try to wean Jews away from their ancestral faith by lulling them into believing they can accept Jesus and still remain Jewish.”
Bernis concluded, “His ministry has pulled millions and millions of dollars from ministries who are trying to bring the Gospel to the Jewish people.”
Bernis has another concern with the fundraising tactics of IFCJ. “They use old infomercials that do not accurately portray the plight of Jews today,” he said. The ads, he says, “show a level of poverty that simply doesn’t exist anymore in the Jewish territories.” But they tug at the heartstrings of evangelical donors, and they produce results. Bernis said, “Christians have a heart for Jews, but Christians would not be happy if they knew how their money was being spent.”
For these reasons and others, MinistryWatch issued a “Donor Alert” regarding the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews as far back as 2013. MinistryWatch encouraged Christians to refrain from giving to IFCJ and support other organizations instead that offer both humanitarian and spiritual help – including The Jewish Voice, Joshua Fund, and Bridges for Peace.
Controversy In Israel, Too
Eckstein also hasn’t avoided controversy in the country he said he is trying to help: Israel.
A key part of the work of the IFCJ is to help Jews from other parts of the world live permanently in Israel. The practice is called “making aliyah,” for the act of “going up” to Jerusalem. The Jewish Agency is a quasi-governmental organization that oversees the immigration process into Israel. The IFCJ has always had something of a troubled relationship with The Jewish Agency.
According to The Times of Israel: “Israel and the immigration establishment would…be happy to accept the money he raised, but bristled when he demanded a seat at the table in setting policy for immigration and absorption.” Eventually, though, Eckstein became a member of the Jewish Agency’s board, and The Fellowship poured millions of dollars into the coffers of The Jewish Fund.
But, according to Jewish Voice’s Bernis, The Jewish Agency has not been a friend to evangelical Christians. “Jewish believers have a problem with The Jewish Agency,” Bernis said, “The Jewish Agency is supposed to help Jews who face persecution and physical danger immigrate to Israel, but the position of The Jewish Agency is that if a Jew converts to Christianity he is no longer a Jew. The Jewish Agency will leave behind Jewish Christians, often to face anti-Semitism and physical danger.”
The bottom line: Not only were evangelical Christians contributing to a non-Christian organization, the IFCJ, they were also indirectly funding The Jewish Agency, which did little to help Jewish Christians.
Eckstein ultimately withdrew the IFCJ from the Jewish Agency – not because of its anti-Christian policies, but because it wouldn’t submit to the IFCJ’s demands for publicity. A list of 22 demands the IFCJ made to The Jewish Agency was made public by the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The demands included giving The Fellowship more recognition of its funding of The Jewish Agency. The Haaretz articles led to accusations against Eckstein that he was a self-promoter.
Before Eckstein’s death, Haaretz also wrote articles critical of him. One example: “Eckstein’s trademark – tapping poor evangelical Christians in America’s South by showing them tear-jerking videos about poverty in Israel – is well-known. What is less well-known is that Eckstein himself is well compensated by the fund, taking in about a million dollars a year, including pension provisions.”
But Eckstein defended his demands for recognition, saying he was in fact seeking recognition not for himself, but for American evangelicals, who are still viewed with some suspicion in Israel. “If [The Jewish Agency is] going to accept funds from us,” he said in 2014, they need to make that public. “We’re not going to be the stepchild where you’re accepting funds from Christians because you want it, but then you’re not publicly saying ‘thank you’ to the Christian community for supporting us,” he said.
Passing The Torch
Since Yael Eckstein has been involved in the ministry for years, often working directly with major donors, it was no surprise when she took over upon her father’s death. In fact, four years ago, according to The Times of Israel, “he blessed her, literally – the moment was captured on video — after determining that she would be the best person to carry on his work. He began to mentor her, handing over more and more responsibility and decision-making power.”
“Here in Israel I just want to keep my father’s legacy alive,” Yael Eckstein says.
She will have her hands full. Even before her father died, fundraising had started to slip. In 2015, IFCJ raised more than $135-million. That was a high-water mark for the organization. Every year since has been slightly less than the year before. 2019 revenue was $117-million. Meanwhile, management and administrative costs continued to rise, and fundraising costs in 2019 topped $19-million. That means fundraising costs topped 16 percent of revenue, and fundraising and management costs combined were just short of 30 percent. Both numbers were far worse than their peers in the MinistryWatch database.
One of the new ways IFCJ has tapped into evangelical wallets has been to build an International Center for Christian Outreach in Jerusalem. Israeli news reports said the facility was supposed to serve as a gathering spot for the more than 1 million Christians who visit Israel each year. Land was purchased for the center and – according to news reports — half of the $60 million needed to build it has been raised.
However, with Eckstein’s death and the decline in revenue, the project was canceled. Though IFCJ raised tens of millions of dollars for the building, there’s now no mention of it on the group’s website. Michael Kormanik, a spokesman for IFCJ, confirmed that the project had been shelved. “The Fellowship cancelled the project a year ago,” he said. “The decision to cancel plans for the building was a difficult one.”
So what happened to the money raised to build the center? MinistryWatch repeatedly posed that question to the IFCJ. So far, no response.