Christian-backed Aliyah Project: PR Ploy or Challenge to the Jewish Establishment?

Mother and daughter from Eastern Ukraine arrive on a Fellowship Freedom Flight, Dec. 2015.
Mother and daughter from Eastern Ukraine arrive in Israel on a Fellowship Freedom Flight, Dec. 2015.

By Judy Maltz

On their first morning as Israeli citizens, a few dozen Venezuelan and Uruguayan Jews, many still jetlagged, gather in a small hotel conference room in this Mediterranean coastal city for a reception and orientation. One by one, they are summoned to the podium to receive a gift from their benefactor and have their photograph taken with him.

“Just a little something to help you get on your feet,” says Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, as he hands each new immigrant an envelope containing a check for $1,000 and offers chocolates to the kids. “For us, you are not statistics but people, and our job is to make your life easier and happier here in Israel.”

Jacobo Vasquez, a 22-year-old Venezuelan who is part of the group, comes up to Eckstein after the reception to thank him for bringing him and his parents to Israel. “We are happy to come back to our roots,” he says. “And so far, the experience has been very good.”

Exactly one year ago, the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews, a large evangelical-funded charity founded by Eckstein, set up its own private operation to promote immigration from countries where it believed The Jewish Agency – the organization long empowered with this task – was not being sufficiently proactive.

Since then, almost its entire focus has been on Ukraine, though in the past two months, the IFCJ – or “Keren Yedidut,” as it is known in Hebrew – has branched out to other countries as well, among them France, Uruguay, Venezuela, Turkey, Moldova, and one Arab country, which the organization asked not be named. Since opening its new operation, the IFCJ says it has brought a total of 2,200 immigrants to Israel – roughly 2,000 of them from Ukraine.

Why would an immigrant prefer signing up for a one-way flight to Israel with this brand new group rather than go through the traditional tried-and-true channels? As Eckstein sees it, the incentive goes beyond the $1,000 check his organization provides. It also goes beyond the extra baggage each passenger is allowed. “People come with us because of the personalized attention we give them,” says Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi originally from Chicago. “We come to their homes and bring their luggage to the airport. We help them out with housing before they land in Israel. We have social workers and volunteers who guide them through the process of absorption for the first six months after they arrive. In each country, we try to find out what their special needs are and then we address them.”

Immigration promotion has long been a top priority for the 33-year-old organization he founded, which raises about $150 million a year from Christians worldwide to support Jewish causes. But until now, the IFCJ had always funded others whose core business was promoting aliyah. For example, it provided several million dollars in seed money to create Nefesh b’Nefesh, the organization that handles immigration and absorption from North America and the United Kingdom on behalf of the Israeli government. But a few years into the project, Eckstein said he pulled out, annoyed that Nefesh b’Nefesh, under pressure from Orthodox immigrants, had refused to publicly acknowledge his hundreds of thousands of Christian donors.

Until about two years ago, the IFCJ contributed about $10-$12 million a year to The Jewish Agency’s immigration promotion activities. The Jewish Agency, however, wasn’t prepared to give Eckstein the visibility and publicity he demanded in exchange for increasing his handouts to $15 million a year, and following a bitter dispute, the two organizations parted ways. After luring away some top Jewish Agency executives, Eckstein was ready to take his act solo.

“I think that in general monopolies are not good, and especially monopolies that are 100 years old,” Eckstein says.

The Jewish Agency, to say the least, has not taken kindly to this invasion of its turf. “Under the IFCJ’s self-aggrandizing discourse lies little substance,” says Yigal Palmor, director of public affairs and communications at The Jewish Agency, when asked to comment on the IFCJ’s latest project. “The huge majority of immigrants, whose numbers the IFCJ gloats about, have come to Israel with no connection whatsoever to this organization. Those who have actually been flown to Israel by the IFCJ have done just that. They’ve enjoyed a free ticket, courtesy of the IFCJ, substituting for the free ticket they would have gotten anyway from The Jewish Agency. The IFCJ has clearly not contributed more than a bare teaspoon to the flow of immigration, since most of their passengers have been already processed by The Jewish Agency before being lured into taking the IFCJ public relations flight, often losing, at the advice of IFCJ activists, valuable preparation and guidance provided by The Jewish Agency.”

Palmor sums it up with a musical analogy: “The IFCJ is to immigration what air-guitar is to rock’n’roll. While the band plays music, and sometimes engages in dazzling solos, the guitar-hero wannabee gesticulates vividly, mimicking his idols in front of the screen and shouts: “Look at me, Momma! I can really rock!”

Nonsense, says Eckstein in response. “I don’t care what they throw at me and what they try to plant,” he says. “The objective is to bring more immigrants to this country and to help Jews escape poverty and anti-Semitism. Anything we can do to enhance those goals, we will do.”

While The Jewish Agency has been plagued with huge budget cuts in recent years, Eckstein’s organization continues to be successful in its fundraising, mainly among Bible Belt evangelical Christians. But not everyone is lining up to share in this bonanza. The Jewish Agency and Nefesh b’Nefesh, it turns out, are not the only institutions that have opted to forfeit these donations rather than have Eckstein as a partner. Most recently, he pulled out of his partnership with Limmud FSU, an organization that sponsors Jewish learning and cultural events for Russian-speakers around the world. When asked why he split with the organization after serving as one of its key funders, Eckstein said: “It wasn’t in our sweet spot.”

While Eckstein delivers greetings in English to the new arrivals from South America, an interpreter stands nearby and translates everything into Spanish for their benefit. Eckstein suddenly notices that something is amiss and stops in mid-sentence. “Why aren’t we filming this?” he chides one of his top executives seated at the back of the room, his demeanor suddenly less friendly. “We should have this all recorded so we can post it on our Spanish-language website.”

And then, as though this little unpleasant scene had never transpired, he smiles again and resumes his place in the prepared script.

What will the new year hold for Eckstein’s new venture? “If I say we’re going to double the number of immigrants we bring in 2016,” he says, “that would be a conservative estimate. I think we’re going to be close to 10,000.”