Eckstein’s Fellowship set to Challenge Federations for Local Jewish Dollars

In new fundraising strategy, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and his International Fellowship of Christians and Jews will, for the first time, compete with federations for Jewish philanthropic dollars.

DollarSignsBy Judy Maltz

In a direct challenge to the Jewish-American philanthropic establishment, the world’s largest Christian-Zionist charity is setting its sights on an unlikely new group of donors: Jewish millionaires.

The Evangelical-funded International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Haaretz has learned, recently established a new fundraising arm that will focus entirely on big Jewish donors in North America. By targeting this specific demographic, the organization will, for the first time, be competing with the Jewish federations and other established charitable organizations, on the same turf.

Since its establishment 38 years ago, IFCJ – or Keren Yedidut, as it is known in Hebrew – has focused its efforts almost exclusively on small Christian givers, with an average donation of $76 per person. According to Yechiel Eckstein, the high-profile Orthodox rabbi who founded and runs IFCJ, the new Jewish outreach department will adopt a different fundraising strategy. “Among the Jewish donors, we will be aiming for much bigger contributions,” he told Haaretz.

Eckstein has already tapped his first big donor for the project. Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, he says, has just written him a $1 million check.

Two years ago, Eckstein withdrew millions of dollars in annual support from The Jewish Agency and set up his own independent aliyah operation. At the time, he claimed that the quasi-governmental organization was not doing a good enough job of facilitating immigration to Israel. The Jewish Agency, for its part, insisted the relationship had ended because of its refusal to accept a long list of demands meant to provide the American-born rabbi and his organization with greater visibility and media hype.

After going to battle with The Jewish Agency, Eckstein is now set to take on the established Jewish philanthropy world, which he claims has also failed in its key mission. An official announcement on the new initiative, he says, is scheduled for release within the next few weeks.

“We’re reached a situation today where the traditional Jewish institutions are not able to meet the needs of the Jewish population,” he says. “The irony is that on the one hand, you have the wealthiest Jewish community in the world in the United States today, but on the other hand, you have Holocaust survivors among us who have to decide whether to use their little bit of money for food or for heating. This is a disgrace to the Jewish world.”

Rather than prioritize “the most vulnerable members of our society,” Eckstein charges that Jewish institutions and philanthropists have preferred subsidizing “sexy projects,” citing as example the Taglit-Birthright free 10-day trips to Israel, anti-BDS programs and university buildings. “No one wants to fund poverty,” he said, “because it’s not sexy.”

The objective of the new IFCJ fundraising arm, says Eckstein, is to raise $15 million a year from Jewish-American philanthropists – a sum that would be matched dollar-for-dollar by his organization. About half the sum would then be handed over to the Joint Distribution Committee and designated for elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union. The rest would be earmarked for Holocaust survivors in Israel.

To spearhead the new effort, Eckstein has recruited five new executives to his organization, several with considerable federation experience under their belts. The new hires include Irv Geffen, who served in a number of senior positions for the Jewish federations of South Palm Beach County, Greater Philadelphia and Richmond, Virginia, and Michael Ostroff, who directed campaigns for federations around the United States and currently runs his own fundraising consultancy.

Aware that his new initiative is likely to set off alarm bells within the organized Jewish philanthropic community, Eckstein insists his intention is “not to steal from the federations.” Rather, he says, his organization will be seeking out what he refers to as “sleepers.” “We’ll be looking for Jews who have inherited hundreds of millions and don’t know what to do with it,” he said, “the type of Jews for whom Holocaust survivors and Israel are buttons that can be pressed.”

The IFCJ raises about $140 million a year from Christian Evangelicals to support welfare projects, mainly in Israel. Today, it is the largest charity organization active in the country, supporting roughly 400 projects. Its main areas of focus are combating poverty, facilitating aliyah and strengthening security.

Eckstein says he eventually plans to bring the matching-grants model to Israel as well, where he hopes to interest the country’s own growing cadre of high-tech millionaires in assisting society’s weakest members. “Ideally, we could use the money raised in Israel as leverage for extra funding from the government,” he says.

Both the Jewish Federations of North America and The Jewish Agency did not respond to requests for comment on the new initiative.