December 11th, 2015
As portrayed in an “authorized biography” by Zev Chavets, an American-Israeli author and columnist, Rabbi Yechiel Epstein is a driven, courageous, and complex figure.
He is the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a group dedicated to building bridges of understanding between mostly Evangelical Christians and Jews in support for the state of Israel and other humanitarian causes.
Rabbi Eckstein’s outreach to Evangelic Christians was groundbreaking and fraught with naysayers and criticsconcerned about Evangelical Christian motives (supporting Israel only to bring on Armageddon) and possible intentions with regard to proselytizing Jews. Critics and concerns aside (no conversions related to the Fellowship have been reported), Eckstein has grown the Fellowship into a multi-million dollar operation engaged in numerous philanthropic endeavors.
Who is the man behind all this? With a rabbinic legacy and ordination from Orthodox-based Yeshiva University, Yechiel Eckstein was an unlikely candidate to be a bridge-builder between Christians and Jews. Biographer Chavets depicts the origins of Eckstein’s path, which Eckstein terms a divine mission, when he is humiliated at his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. The presiding rabbi there deemed him unfit to recite public prayer due to his visiting Christian churches in the early stages of his bridge building.
Chavets chronicles Eckstein’s slow rise to success, overcoming resistance from the Jewish establishment, financial struggles, and family disapproval. For all the text devoted to his accomplishments, it is Eckstein’s humanity that is most compelling in the book.
He seeks approval from a reluctant father. He struggles to balance his desire for personal, emotional prayer with the demands of being a rabbi on the public stage. He longs to serve Israel as a member of the Israeli Defense Forces, and not only frombehind an office desk.
From this complex man emerges bold acts like the following: In the aftermath of awidely perceived slight from the president of the Southern Baptist Convention about the value of Jewish prayer that does not acknowledge Jesus, Eckstein broke away from the voices of consternation expressed by the Jewish establishment and saw an opportunity to engage the preacher with dialogue and understanding.
As a writer who is also exploring themes of bridge building, I found myself appreciating Eckstein the man as much as I do the Fellowship he created. I only wonder whether a memoir would have been a better instrument to tell his story, affording readers a more intimate connection with him.
Eckstein’s journey resonates with our own life journeys. Quoting Genesis, he recalls God commanding Abraham to take his son ‘to the land I will show you,’ but he doesn’t tell Abraham where it is. If we don’t yet know where our destiny lies, Yechiel Eckstein’s story reminds us that it can be on a road less traveled.