October 8th, 2010
11:22 AM ET
CNN's Izzy Lemberg filed this report from Jerusalem:
In the last 12 months, the evangelical Christian community in the United States has given $100 million to charitable causes in Israel, according to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, Founder and President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Eckstein made his comments this week at a soup kitchen his evangelical group funds in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, situated in one of the city's underprivileged neighbourhoods.
It was the first stop in a press tour the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews organized to highlight their activities.
Next on the itinerary was a Jewish religious school for girls, where the mostly evangelical organization funds educational programs aimed at helping Ethiopian immigrants integrate into Israeli society. Jerusalem is one of 160 Israeli cities in which the organization is active.
The group's 200 active projects have been supported by contributions from 350,000 mostly evangelical donors in the last year, Eckstein said, and the group's broader donor list numbers nearly one million. The average donation is $77.
Why do evangelical Christians would be so devoted to Israel’s welfare? According to Eckstein, who has nurtured the relationship between Christians and Jews since he founded the group in 1983, it’s all in the Bible.
“God promises Abraham those who bless Israel and the Jewish people will be blessed and those who curse them will be cursed," he says, citing Genesis.
But it is not only that religious commandment that is motivating this very large segment of American society.
Evangelicals see the creation of Israel in 1948 as the fulfilment of biblical prophesy, Eckstein says.
”The Jewish narrative are the same prophesies that Christian turn to... about the day when the Jewish people scattered around the world would be gathered into the Land of Israel," he says. "I believe in that and millions of other Jews believe that 1948 and the birth of the state of Israel was a miracle. It reflects the hand of God."
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews have identified three main aims of their work, which they say have biblical roots. The Bible speaks of the scattered Jewish people returning to Israel "on the wings of eagles," so the group contributes to chartering planes that bring immigrants to Israel.
Scripture commands that the hungry be fed and the naked clothed, so the group gives to needy Jews around the world, most notably in the former Soviet Union, where it says it assists 100,000 people.
And the group says there's biblical concept of being “Guardians of Israel,” which it says it promotes by helping construct bomb shelters in towns along Israel northern border with Lebanon and the southern town of Sderot near the border with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The relationship is not without its controversies. The former mayor of Jerusalem, who is ultra-Orthodox, refused to accept funds from evangelical Christians because he suspected a secret agenda to engage in missionary activities among Israel’s Jews.
Current Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has revoked the policy. But the majority ultra-Orthodox municipality of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, will not accept evangelical donations. Eckstein says that evangelizing Jews is not his group's goal.
Some evangelicals are opposed to his group because it refuses to proselytize, he says.
In the United States, relations between evangelicals and American Jews has often been tense. American Jews overwhelmingly vote Democrat, and polls show that most hold liberal political views, especially on domestic issues.
This often results in the two communities being on opposite sides of hot issues like abortion or school prayers.
But Eckstein says that those tensions have largely eased.
“There are those within the Jewish community, especially in the earlier years, who were very concerned about the influence of... Jerry Falwell, Pat Roberson, the Christian right," he says.
"Those Jewish concerns have been allayed over the years," he continues. "... (Jews) realize that these people are genuine, they are not doing it for some conditional reason and that it's not just all based on the rapture, and eschatology, but it is based on their love for Israel and the Jewish people."
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