Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, oversees all ministry programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Prior to her present duties, Yael served as Global Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, and Director of Program Development and Ministry Outreach. Based in Israel with her husband and their four children, Yael is a published writer and a respected social services professional.
Yael Eckstein has contributed to The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and other publications, and is the author of three books: Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children, Holy Land Reflections: A Collection of Inspirational Insights from Israel, and Spiritual Cooking with Yael. In addition, her insights into life in Israel, the Jewish faith, and Jewish-Christian relations can be heard on The Fellowship’s radio program, Holy Land Moments, which air five times per week on over 1,500 radio stations around the world.
Yael Eckstein has partnered with other global organizations, appeared on national television, and visited with U.S. and world leaders on issues of shared concern. She has been a featured guest on CBN’s The 700 Club with Gordon Robertson, and she served on a Religious Liberty Panel on Capitol Hill in May 2015 in Washington, D.C., discussing religious persecution in the Middle East. Her influence as one of the young leaders in Israel has been recognized with her inclusion in The Jerusalem Post’s 50 Most Influential Jews of 2020 and The Algemeiner’s Jewish 100 of 2019, and she was featured as the cover story of Nashim (Women) magazine in May 2015.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and well-educated at both American and Israeli institutions – including biblical studies at Torat Chesed Seminary in Israel, Jewish and sociology studies at Queens College in New York, and additional study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem – Yael Eckstein has also been a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher in the United States.
Can you tell us a little bit about your work with Holocaust survivors outside and inside of Israel?
It’s very interesting, because as a young Jewish girl in America, all of my friend’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors. I don’t remember any families where at least one of the grandparents didn’t have a number on their arm. My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor from Germany, and I remember going to sleep with stories that my grandfather used to tell me of how he miraculously survived the war and how so much of his family was killed.
But what I didn’t realize was that not all Holocaust survivors are the ones who made it like my grandfather and my friend’s grandparents. The ones who were privileged and strong enough both physically, emotionally, and spiritually to relocate after the war and start life over. And what I’ve seen from living here in Israel and going many times a year to the former Soviet Union is that my grandparents are not the norm. The ones who moved to New York, who moved to Chicago, who were strong enough to establish new families and live a normal life raising the next generation of Jewish leaders are actually a rarity.
So many Holocaust survivors fell into a state of depression, of really a fear of anyone knowing that they’re Jewish because it was a death sentence. The fact that they were associated with a synagogue, that the Nazis got the list and killed the whole community. That so many Holocaust survivors, the weakest really, the orphans, saw their whole families shot in front of their eyes. I remember meeting a woman named Olga in Ukraine who remembered that her neighbor had four kids that she was very close with, and the Nazis came and closed the door to their house and burned it down. She watched as all of her neighbors burned to death.
These are people who couldn’t start over. They just weren’t able to. And so they moved to these small villages in Ukraine or in Russia or across the former Soviet Union. They have lived lives of planting their own vegetables to survive, cutting wood to survive, not being associated with any Jewish community and really living on the little they had. But now they’re 80, they’re 90. They can no longer go out and grow their own vegetables. They can no longer chop wood for themselves. And that’s why The Fellowship is here, to really help the weakest of that generation that now has nobody to watch out for them.
And The Fellowship is there to tell them: Until the end of your life, we will bring you food every single week, we will bring you heat every single winter, we will bring you volunteers that will be like your family, and the world has changed for the better. There are millions of Christians who stand with you, who love you, and who are actually taking care of you in your final years.
How do you work with the Holocaust survivors in Israel? How do you help them?
Well, in Israel we have a program that also focuses on the basic needs of Holocaust survivors. Now during the coronavirus pandemic, for example, we’re providing over 30,000 elderly, mostly Holocaust survivors, with food every single week because so many of the elderly are scared to leave their homes to go shopping. We’ve found by working with the Ministry of Welfare and with the social workers on the ground we can identify the elderly in Israel who are in most need to receive this food aid. And we’ve connected them with volunteers and with food packages to make sure that at least they’ll have food, at least they’ll have comfort.
We’re working with elderly who are living under $500 a month, who don’t have family, who are over 80 years old. The human contact is a lifesaver for them as much as the food. A simple phone call from our volunteers in Israel serves almost the same purpose of really giving them hope and the strength to continue on.
What are your thoughts about rising antisemitism, BDS, etc?
I think that there are two different sides to it, and I think that the rise in anti-Semitism is terrifying. The Fellowship doesn’t have events. We don’t have forums, we don’t have rallies. I think that as a Jewish community we have to find tangible ways to fight the rise in anti-Semitism.
The Fellowship‘s focus is one tangible way. There are many different areas and ways that we can stop the rise in anti-Semitism or do whatever we can, which is to focus on engaging the Christian community to stand with us in our fight against anti-Semitism. I can tell you they have a very, very loud voice and a lot of influence all over the world. But coupled with that, sometimes I look at the numbers and it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to see how in some European countries there are more anti-Semitic attacks and incidents than any time since World War II ended. There is propaganda going around that is reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. It’s terrifying what’s happening and what people accept as fact that they don’t know.
I think that’s the most terrifying. There are really evil people who are trying to intentionally spread anti-Semitism, but I think the most terrifying thing is the platforms that enable people that don’t necessarily know so much about Israel – they can be totally affected, and their minds can be taken over by these lies and conspiracies against Israel.
But I think it’s also important to keep in perspective that we are experiencing in many ways one of the most amazing golden ages for the Jewish people, maybe ever. We have the State of Israel with an army, with a government that has one goal, to protect the Jewish people. We have a state where – when anti-Semitism rises across the world, which it always does eventually – we could actually have a safe place.
And so I always keep that in mind as well, that within all the despair and terrifying numbers, we have a country that for the first time is dedicated simply to protecting us. What I experience every day is that we have millions of Christian friends, of non-Jewish friends who would do anything to stand with us to protect us and raise their voice against that anti-Semitism that once again is on the rise.
What has been the most eye-opening experience while working at The Fellowship?
Wow. That’s an amazing question. There are two areas that stand out for me. One is going in the Hamas and Hezbollah terror tunnels. The Fellowship has sponsored over 5,500 bomb shelters in the northern and southern border areas of Israel. And so we are always kept in the loop of latest threats and actually are on the ground during war, during rocket attacks, with the Ministry of Defense and Home Front Command. I think one of the most eye-opening experiences was really walking in those tunnels and seeing how advanced they are, how they were almost completed, how they opened up into Israel and just seeing how – although thank God I feel so safe in Israel, and I’m raising my children here and really believe the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps – it is miracles that are keeping us here. It is those watchmen on the walls.
That’s on the Israel side. On the side of meeting with Christians, I am always inspired. And one thing just stands out a lot to me. It was during the Gaza war, 2016 I believe, that I was traveling around America trying to raise money for the bomb shelters that we were building. And I met with a woman in Texas. I was telling her about the different programs that The Fellowship had going on to keep the people of Israel safe. And she said, “How much does a bomb shelter cost?” I said, “Well, it costs $13,000 to build a mobile bomb shelter.” And she looked up to the heavens and she got tears in her eyes and she said, “Yael, this is a sign from God.” I said, “What?” She said, “I’ve been saving for eight years to renovate my kitchen. I have exactly $13,000 saved.” And she wrote me a check right there to build a bomb shelter for the people of Israel instead of renovating her kitchen.