How Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, is Transforming Loss to Leadership

Like many of the prescient choices Rabbi Eckstein made in his life, he was guided by a higher power and had the foresight to include his daughter Yael Eckstein in the activities and leadership of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews for many years prior to his passing.

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Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and Yael Eckstein IFCJ

One is never prepared for the loss of a parent. When we are young, our parents are immortal, eternal, superhuman in strength, bursting with life and vitality.

As we begin to age, we start to see the flaws, and fault lines that gently guide us back to a more nuanced and balanced perspective, and, in many ways deeper respect, as we start to see within ourselves those character traits we closely associated with our parents. Some of which we try to run away from, but cannot. While others we embrace, as the imprint of a DNA for which we had little to do with but could not do without.

Marc Cohn, a gifted singer-songwriter wrote these wonderful lyrics in his elegy to parents and children, “The Things We Handed Down”:

Will you laugh just like your mother
Will you sigh like your old man
Will some things skip a generation
Like I’ve heard they often can
Are you a poet or a dancer
A devil or a clown
Or a strange new combination of
The things we’ve handed down

When we are particularly blessed, parents teach their children values and lead by example. And when we lose that light, always earlier than we hope and pray for, we become, in a sense, orphans, struggling to see in the darkness, lifted up by our own significant other, friends, and children, and the cycle of life repeats itself.

I have always been fascinated by family dynamics and that curious admixture of qualities that produce a commitment to faith and service over generations.

I was drawn to the story of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi who started a nonprofit organization in 1983 with a curious mission, to help Christians and Jews work together on projects promoting the safety and security of Jews in Israel and around the world.

The relationship between Judaism and Christianity is a brotherhood fraught with conflict and tragedy, but Rabbi Eckstein saw some eternal truths and shared values that could transcend religious differences. Among these uniting forces was a love of Israel.

Over the next several decades, Rabbi Eckstein helped grow the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews into one of the most influential charitable organizations in the Jewish world.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is one of the top 400 nonprofits in America (The Chronicle of Philanthropy), raises over $127 million dollars annually from its 1.75 million Christian donors, making it the largest Christian-supported humanitarian agency helping Israel and the Jewish people around the world. Since 1983, The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has raised more than $1.6 billion for programs helping Jews in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Ethiopia, and over 58 countries.

Rabbi Eckstein passed away at his home in Jerusalem on February 6, 2019. His death was a shock and surprise to millions and left many unanswered questions about the future of the organization he worked so hard to build.

But like many of the choices Rabbi Eckstein made in his life, he was guided by a higher power and had the foresight to include his daughter Yael Eckstein in the activities and leadership of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews for many years prior to his passing.

Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO oversees all ministry programs and serves as the organization’s international spokesperson. 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 Jerusalem with her husband and their four children, Yael is a published writer and a respected social services professional.

In the days immediately following Rabbi Eckstein’s death, Yael took a short break from mourning her personal loss to comfort the millions of others who shared in her pain. Her words are an inspirational reminder to anyone who has lost a loved one that the best way to honor their memory is to celebrate their values and try, with others, to finish the work they have left unfinished in this world.

“My father had two heart attacks in the past, but it was very sudden and surprising. And from a position of faith, I believe that everybody has their time to go. I believe that God has a time where he’s just supposed to take each one of us, and God is all-knowing and perfect. And so it was my father’s time to go. There’s nothing to say or do about that. I find comfort in the fact that he didn’t suffer. I know people who are in the hospital and taking medicine and doing all different treatments, and they suffer and their family suffers. And it gives me so much comfort to know that my father didn’t suffer, that he was living life up until the very last minute. I believe that that is hard for us, but makes it comforting to know that he didn’t suffer,” explains his daughter Yael Eckstein.

“My father for the past at least five years, has set up a system that works, that operates by itself. We have the most amazing staff that take care of every detail of making sure every single one of the 20,000 elderly we serve are getting food every single day. They’re getting visitors by volunteers.”

“We have a system that makes sure that all of the Aliyah flights, the new Olim, the new immigrants that want to come home to Israel, that as soon as we have the funds, they’re brought to Israel on wings of eagles.”

“Regarding operations and all of the people that are relying on the Fellowship for aid, nothing is changing. My father oversaw all of it and always wanted to be updated on what’s going on. But he created a system of amazing professionals that really works without him, that he was able to take pride in it and direct us, but we are not skipping a beat. The aid that needs to get to the people is getting directly to the people. We haven’t stopped for a day since he died. Nothing has changed regarding the aid that people are receiving.”

“Over these past few years, my father has been moving me into a leadership role. The Board of Directors of the Fellowship, without my father actually even there, elected me president-elect, which means that automatically when my father was supposed to retire, or if God-forbid something happened to him, that I would automatically be made the president of the Fellowship. And my father and I had been working very closely to get me ready for that role. I really believe that my father felt this, and wanted to do everything possible so that I would be ready to take the mantle.”

“As many people know, people would write to my father asking questions, or asking for aid, or asking for help, or asking for meetings. And everyone got the same answer for the past two or three years, that he’d say, ‘Talk to Yael. She’s in charge.’”

“For the past few years, I’ve really been blessed to learn from my father and also take-off of his plate a lot of what he was handling before that. I was able to go to him with questions, get his vision, get his direction. And he’s really laid out for us, a vision of bridging Jewish, Christian relations, Jews and Christians and shared values, helping Christians fulfill the prophetic reality of standing with Israel, helping all of us be part of prophecy, that bringing Jews home, bringing comfort to the orphans, to the widows.

“I feel like my father did his best to set everything up, to operate without him. And we really are in a position now that thank God, the people are still getting the aid even after his passing, didn’t skip a beat. And I believe that I have the vision and the direction, and now the angel above to help me on this next stage of the Fellowship journey.”

“So my prayer now? I have a lot of prayers. My prayer now is that God should grant me wisdom, that he should grant me peace, that he should grant me knowledge and clarity in each direction, that God should grant me the trust of all of you as I embark on this new journey that my father set me up for.”

“Our staff, our amazing Fellowship staff who have really set up everything in the Fellowship, are able to operate even without my father here to continue fulfilling his dream; not one elderly man or woman didn’t get food because my father wasn’t in this world, not one new immigrant who was booked on a ticket to Israel, had their ticket canceled. We are continuing our operations. We are continuing to give aid. We are continuing in the vision of my father. My prayer is that you will stand with me, holding up my arms, helping me, leading me, encouraging me, believing in me, and God should just grant us all peace.”

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