Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D


The Rabbi Who Loved Evangelicals (and Vice Versa)

'This guy is a kingdom guy," said the Rev. Steve Munsey, gesturing toward Yechiel Eckstein. We were sitting in the greenroom of the Family Christian Center in Munster, Ind., about 40 minutes from Chicago. We were between Sunday-morning services, and Pastor Munsey was taking a break, kicking back to welcome his guest. "What do I mean by kingdom guy?" he said. "Like a godfather in the Mafia, it's a term of respect."

Eckstein accepted the compliment with a smile and sipped his coffee (from the church's own Starbucks). Eckstein has spent a professional lifetime in evangelical churches, although he had rarely seen one as grand as the Family Christian Center, with its 5,000-seat auditorium and a pulpit that boasts a theatrical replica of biblical Jerusalem complete with Golgotha's hill and, in the words of Pastor Munsey, "a very lifelike cave depicting the tomb where Jesus was lain."

A lanky deacon came over to shake Eckstein's hand and said, "It's a thrill to meet a man like you." Eckstein smiled. The deacon is said to be one of the biggest steel contractors in America. Devout Christian laypeople like him have built Eckstein an empire.

"I support Israel in every way possible," Munsey said. "For example, I make it a point to buy my clothes from Jews." Since he was wearing jeans and a battered sports jacket, it was hard to assess the monetary value of this contribution. Munsey was dressed informally because he planned to ride his customized Harley motorcycle onto the pulpit. The bike is named the Passion, and it has a crown of thorns painted across it.

The door opened, and Bishop Frank Munsey walked in. He is Pastor Munsey's father. Bishop Munsey founded the Christian Family Center 50 years ago and then passed it along to his son. Someday Pastor Munsey will turn it over to his own son, Kent, who is now the center's youth pastor. "We call it the Levitical order of succession," David Jordan Allen, the associate pastor, told me. Pastor Munsey made the introductions. "Meet Rabbi Einstein," he said to his father, misspeaking. "You've seen him on TV. He's the head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews."

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"You from the Jewish side or the Christian side?" the elderly bishop asked. Lately he had been spending a good deal of time in Bulgaria, where the church runs a mission school that is waiting for a license.

"Jewish," Eckstein said, touching his small black skullcap.

This struck the bishop as a stroke of luck. He seemed to be under the impression that Jews govern Bulgaria and had been involved in withholding accreditation from his school. Now here was a rabbi sitting right in the greenroom. "I'd like to ask you a favor," he said, handing Eckstein a card. "Maybe you can get somewhere with these Bulgarians."

Eckstein took the card and put it in his pocket. Help the born-again Christians of Bulgaria? Who knows, maybe he could. In the past 25 years, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein has traveled to China to liberate persecuted pastors, hiked through Ethiopia and Siberia in search of vulnerable Jews, advised prime ministers in Jerusalem and met with evangelical Republicans at the White House. His immediate plans include transporting an entire biblical lost tribe from northeastern India to the Holy Land and starting a Spanish-language ministry for the Pentecostals of Latin America. He has even talked about recording some sacred hymns with Debby Boone. And, as Eckstein himself might say, God only knows what he'll do after that.

All this hyperactivity is financed by the contributions of evangelical Christians. In the last eight years alone, an estimated 400,000 born-again donors have sent Eckstein about a quarter of a billion dollars for Jewish causes of his personal choosing. No Jew since Jesus has commanded this kind of gentile following.

This success has, of course, bred detractors. Some of Eckstein's fellow Orthodox rabbis would like to exile him for consorting with Christians. Eckstein is a registered Democrat, but there are liberal Jews who view his friendship with Red State evangelical conservatives like Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed and Gary Bauer as cultural and political treason. Even those who applaud Eckstein's philanthropies are sometimes skeptical about what he calls his "ministry." For Jews, who are used to seeing themselves as victims of bigotry, the saga of Yechiel Eckstein raises uncomfortable questions about who loves -- and who hates -- whom. He didn't start out to be controversial. The son of the chief rabbi of Canada, Eckstein, 54, received his own rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University in New York and joined the staff of the Anti-Defamation League. In those early days, he was the model of a mainstream Jewish organization man.

In 1977, American Nazis threatened to stage a march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb with a large population of Holocaust survivors. The A.D.L. sent Eckstein from New York to help the local community round up Christian support. What he found surprised him. In his next year in Chicago, he discovered that the evangelicals, more than any other group, were prepared to stand with the Jews.

Eckstein reported back to New York like Marco Polo recalling his adventures in China. There were Christians in the heartland, he said, who took the Bible literally and believed that the Jews were God's chosen people. They were, he said, a vast untapped reservoir of support for Israel, Soviet Jewry and other Jewish causes. This report was greeted hesitantly. Few A.D.L. people had ever met an evangelical Christian face to face, but they had seen "Elmer Gantry" and "Inherit the Wind," and they associated Bible Belt Christians with snake charmers, K.K.K. nightriders, toothless fiddlers and flat-earth troglodytes.

In 1980, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Bailey Smith, seemed to confirm this stereotype when he publicly declared that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew." The grandees of the Jewish establishment were outraged, but Eckstein saw an opportunity. He contacted Smith and offered to accompany him on a trip to Israel.

In Jerusalem, Smith and Eckstein were given the royal treatment. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, having previously lost seven straight national elections, had few illusions about the efficacy of Jewish prayer. He did, however, have a keen appreciation for Christians like Smith, who believed that the Bible conferred title to the land of Israel on the Jews. Smith enjoyed being appreciated, and he returned home loudly proclaiming Genesis 12:3: God will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel.

"That was the turning point," Eckstein says. "From that moment on, I had an open door to the biggest Baptist churches in the country."

The following year, Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. An editorial in The New York Times called the strike "an act of inexcusable and shortsighted aggression." Even the normally pro-Israel Reagan administration criticized it. But the evangelicals saw the hand of God and cheered. When Eckstein called this kind of support to the attention of the A.D.L. home office, he was treated like a nudnik. If Menachem Begin wanted to cozy up to Bailey Smith and Jerry Falwell and other such undesirables, well, that was Begin's problem. Eckstein was told to commune with some respectable Episcopalians.

But Eckstein knew what he knew. He quit the A.D.L. and tried, unsuccessfully, to interest other mainstream Jewish groups in establishing relations with the evangelicals. He didn't even bother asking his fellow Orthodox rabbis, many of whom considered (and still consider) merely setting foot in a church to be a grave sin.

Unemployed, Eckstein established his own organization, which he grandly dubbed the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Soon he was making the rounds of fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches, preaching a gospel of Jewish-evangelical solidarity. By this time, American Jewry had been thoroughly worked over by enterprising fund-raisers. But Eckstein found himself in virgin territory. Evangelicals badly wanted to express their love for Israel in a personal way. It was Eckstein's insight that nothing is more personal than a personal check. "Ask and it shall be given you," says Matthew 7:7. When Eckstein started I.F.C.J., he had no salary, no medical benefits and a pregnant wife. (Today he has three grown daughters and draws an annual salary of about $300,000.) His first headquarters was the back room of a lawyer's office. To make ends meet, he took a job as a part-time rabbi at a local synagogue.

Early on, some money came in from Zionist Christians, but he received the majority of his donations from fellow Jews -- mostly politically minded men who saw the growing importance of the Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's 700 Club. Often these gifts were grudgingly given. "I don't know what you're doing, and I don't know if I like what you're doing," a Jewish philanthropist from Chicago said, but he handed Eckstein a thousand bucks just in case he was on to something.

Eckstein's big breakthrough came in 1993. The gates of the former Soviet Union were open, and tens of thousands of poor Jews wanted to immigrate to Israel. He knew that the ingathering of Jewish exiles resonated with evangelicals as biblical prophecy, and with a $25,000 contribution from a Jewish supporter in Anchorage, he recorded his first TV infomercial.

The 30-minute show promoting Eckstein's "On Wings of Eagles" project was narrated, pro bono, by Pat Boone, who delivered a message from Isaiah 49:22. "I will beckon to the Gentiles. . . . They will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their shoulders." The infomercial appeared throughout America, mostly on Christian stations.

The results were amazing. Money began pouring in. "When I told Pat Robertson how much people were sending, he thought I was totally inflating the numbers," Eckstein recalls.

The infomercial eventually ran all over the country for 18 months and raised millions of dollars. Yechiel Eckstein was on his way. The auditorium of the Family Christian Center was packed for the second service. Munster is largely white, but the church markets itself aggressively in nearby Gary, which is predominantly black. Like Pastor Munsey, the minister of music is white, but the choir is mostly black, and it started things off with a rousing rendition of "God Bless America," while giant screens projected scenes of American troops in Iraq. Allen, the associate pastor, estimates that roughly 60 percent of the members of the Family Christian Center are Republicans. "A lot of the African-Americans came as Democrats, but some of them are turning Republican, too," he told me.

The choir struck up "Amazing Grace," and Munsey, who was sitting next to me in the front pew, rose to take the pulpit on foot. (The Harley ride would come later.) As he passed me, he leaned down and whispered: "I have a passion for healing. We have one of the highest rates of cancer healings in the nation in this church."

Munsey is a shaggy-haired man of 50, and he is a showman. This morning, along with his Harley ride, he offered a warranty on tithing. "If God doesn't pay you back, with increase, in 90 days, then I'll refund the money myself," he promised. Israeli flags appeared on the huge screens above the pulpit, and Munsey summoned his guest. "Yek-eel Epstein is a powerful giant," he said, butchering the name. "He rates right up there. You've seen him on TV. He was a rabbi, and he became a born-again Christian!"

Eckstein, sitting nearby, visibly blanched. For decades, Orthodox critics have accused him of being a closet Christian. He told me that a few years ago four senior rabbis convened a court in New York to try him for the crime of "teaching Torah to gentiles." He was acquitted in a split decision, but he recalls it as one of the most humiliating moments of his life.

Nor did the verdict end the muttering. As Eckstein has grown more powerful, he has attracted ever harsher criticism from parts of the Orthodox community from which he came and whose good opinion he covets. Just a few days earlier, The Jewish Observer, the house magazine of the ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, called his work "a curse." And here he was, sitting next to a reporter as he was being introduced as a born-again Christian. "This has never happened to me before," he muttered, rising. "I've got to do something."

Eckstein appeared perfectly composed as he took the pulpit. He has the physical presence of an Eagle Scout troop leader -- tall, broad-shouldered and boyishly friendly. "Shalom," he called to the congregation.

"Shalom," everyone replied.

"Come on, I can't hear you -- give me a 'shalom' they can hear all the way to Jerusalem," he implored. Eckstein's blandly sincere tone is a style not at all suited to the call-and-response of the charismatic evangelical church, but he is one of God's chosen people, and that was enough to stir the congregation into a loud "Shalom!"

Sunday services in megachurches like the Family Christian Center are tightly scripted. Giant or not, Eckstein had just five minutes. (He would have another 10 at the third service.) He began with damage control. "I'm a Jewish rabbi," he informed the congregation. "An Orthodox Jewish rabbi. I believe in a Messiah, but I am an Orthodox Jewish rabbi." The congregation applauded, and Eckstein smiled broadly, relieved to have re-established his kosher bona fides without insulting either Munsey or Jesus.

Eckstein thanked the congregation for its support of Israel. Although he still spends much of his time in Chicago, he became an Israeli citizen in 2002 and has an office in Jerusalem with a staff of 10 that hands out millions to charity projects around the country, from mobile dental clinics to costly antiterror devices for government use. In December 2003, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz listed the I.F.C.J. as the second-largest charitable foundation in the country. Such largess has not gone unnoticed by Israeli politicians. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made Eckstein an unofficial adviser, and he is being courted by Sharon's rivals with the offer of more formal appointments.

There is a huge digital clock mounted on the face of the Family Center's balcony, and at the stroke of five minutes, Munsey took back his pulpit. "We're going to plant a seed today," he announced, handing Eckstein a check for $5,000. "Remember, when you bless the Jewish people, God blesses you. So I want you all to tell Rabbi Einstein, 'Thank you, Rabbi!"'

"Thank you, Rabbi!" they hollered, as Eckstein pocketed the donation. "I had them at 'shalom,"' Eckstein said. We were on our way back to Chicago in a rented compact Chevy, with Eckstein in back and his assistant, the Rev. Jerry Clark, at the wheel. (Eckstein doesn't own a car and, conscious of not being too showy, always rents compacts.) Eckstein's self-mockery is one way he struggles against the sin of pride. But there's a measure of satisfaction as well.

Many of the Jews who once derided Eckstein for depending on the kindness of strangers now want to be his best friends. Hadassah, the women's organization whose magazine once refused to run his paid advertisements, is working with him on a joint project. A few years ago the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel refused to be photographed taking a check from Eckstein. Today, Eckstein is a member of the agency's board. Colleagues in the modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America who once ignored him now seek him out, and last year (despite a protest by some leading rabbis) he was invited to address the council's annual meeting.

Naturally, a lot of his erstwhile skeptics also want to know the secret to tapping the evangelical bankroll. In April, Eckstein attended a conference of major Jewish philanthropies in Las Vegas, but when fund-raisers there asked him to share his strategies, he tactfully demured.

Talking about it on the drive back to Chicago, he was less tactful. "These evangelicals are pure," he said, gesturing out the window to the Indiana countryside. "I represent the Jewish people to them. And I know very well how cynical some of these Jewish fund-raisers are. They're just in it for the buck. I should let them manipulate evangelicals like that?"

Sentiments like this help to explain why not everyone in the Jewish establishment has been won over. Abraham Foxman, the national director of the A.D.L., remains one of Eckstein's most prominent critics. Foxman has accused him of "selling the dignity of the Jewish people" by pandering to Christians. "We're not a poor people," Foxman told The Jerusalem Report. "What he's doing is perverse."

But Eckstein has no apologies for his support from Christians. "I consider what I do more than fund-raising," he said. "It's a ministry. Evangelicals don't give like Jews. Jews give out of communal obligation. They say: 'Send me a letter and a tax-deduction statement, and I'll give you something. If I have a good year, I'll up my contribution by 5 or 10 percent next time.' Christians find that method abhorrent. They don't give out of responsibility but because the Lord told them to. They're moved to do it."

Eckstein has stories to illustrate his point. "There's a woman who loves Starbucks but buys regular coffee and sends the difference to us," he said. "Kids donate their birthday money and Christmas gifts. One family in Florida sends us $15 every day. They don't feel comfortable sitting down to dinner unless they've helped Jews. These people ask not to publicize their gifts. They feel that the Lord knows who they are and seeking publicity would be wrong."

Paradoxically, one of the charges against Eckstein is that he's a publicity hound. He does generally insist that the recipients of I.F.C.J. charity acknowledge its source but says that it's a simple matter of transparency. Eckstein has the power, unique among the heads of major Jewish charities, to write checks at his own discretion, and he wants people to see where their money is going. But he also likes finally being able to take credit for the group's contributions. For years, Eckstein says, he and his Christian donors were treated as invisible by the overlords of the United Jewish Appeal, which took I.F.C.J. contributions without acknowledging the source. Those days are over, but the memory still rankles.

So does Eckstein's sense of being misunderstood. "I'm a nonevangelical defender of evangelicals," he said. "Jews have such a cynical, negative view of these people. There are all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories out there about how evangelicals only support Israel to bring on Armageddon or because they want to convert the Jews to Christianity. That's just not true. You saw the people there today," he said, pointing backward, toward a rapidly receding Indiana. "They're not religious fanatics, and they don't have ulterior motives. These are good, religious people who love Israel and want to help. What's the matter with that?" On a Monday morning the phones were ringing all over the I.F.C.J. headquarters, which are in a downtown skyscraper overlooking the old Chicago City Hall. Some of the callers wanted to make donations. Others just wanted to chat or ask a question. At 10:30, the staff gathered for its weekly meeting. Thirty-odd people, some black and some white, some Jewish and some Christian, crowded into a conference room. "We're going to need more space soon," Eckstein said, sighing. The fellowship has moved three times in recent years, and moving is a drag, but what can you do when your gross is growing at 10 or 15 percent a year?

The newest staff member at the meeting was Sandy Rios, who was hired a couple of days earlier as vice president for programming. Rios, a former talk-show host in Chicago, had come from Washington, where she served as president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative family-issues group. The meeting was led by George Mamo, an evangelical minister who is Eckstein's second-in-command. With a light touch, he led the staff through reports on the fellowship's activities and major profit centers. The I.F.C.J. has hundreds of thousands of donors to keep track of and cultivate, tours of Israel to plan, infomercial shoots to schedule, educational material to prepare and Israeli products to sell through a Web site, mailings and television. One woman related details of her recent fact-finding trip to Siberia. Another talked about a philanthropy seminar she had attended.

Finally, Eckstein rose to speak. He had an announcement. The lost Hebrew tribe of Bnei Menashe had been discovered -- after two and a half millennia -- in northeastern India. Its authenticity had been certified by the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. The tribe -- 6,000 strong -- wanted to "return" to the Holy Land. Taking them and getting them settled would run about $8 million, and Eckstein had already informed the government of Israel that he would pick up the tab. This news was received by the staff with an affectionate yawn. That's Rabbi Eckstein for you, always coming up with something different. Mamo ended the meeting with a nondenominational prayer, beginning with the ritual Hebrew invocation "Baruch ata Adonai." Transporting 6,000 lost Jews from India to Israel is Indiana Jones stuff, but it is also, inescapably, a political act. Israeli political parties will tussle over patronage of this new voting bloc. Right-wingers will fight to get it housed in the West Bank; left-wingers will try to prevent that. And the Palestinians will condemn the whole exercise as a Zionist trick to upset the demographic balance. If a rabbi can turn 6,000 Indians into biblical Jews and take them to Israel, what's to stop him from finding 600,000 somewhere else?

Eckstein says he has nothing against Palestinians, but he isn't much bothered by their concerns. He's a Sharon man, though he generally supports any government in power, and he hands out money to the pet projects of politicians from almost all the major parties. "I've tried to guide my organization in a nonpartisan way," he says.

Eckstein is in favor of the Sharon plan to remove Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and a few isolated areas of the West Bank, which puts him to the left of most of his own evangelical flock. Most, according to his internal polling, don't want Israel to leave Gaza or any other territory they regard as part of Abraham's patrimony.

Eckstein is generally somewhat to the left of his American political allies. As a Democrat, he considers himself "a Lieberman moderate." But while he voted for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in 2000, he voted for President Bush in 2004. And there is no doubt that Eckstein's evangelical friends and followers are mostly Red State Republicans. Eckstein says that he has never met the president himself, but two years ago he took a delegation of evangelicals to Washington for a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, who was then the national security adviser. The delegation, which according to Eckstein was the only Christian group ever to lobby the White House specifically on behalf of Israel, included Jack Graham, then the president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Richard Land, the Southern Baptists' chief Washington lobbyist; and Ted Haggard, leader of the National Association of Evangelicals. Other luminaries of the Christian right like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell appear in Eckstein's infomercials. He runs his advocacy group, Stand for Israel, with Ralph Reed and the former G.O.P. presidential aspirant Gary Bauer. And he recently sent out a mass mailing offering a prayer of support for the embattled Republican House majority leader, Tom DeLay.

At noon that Monday, after the morning meeting, Eckstein, Mamo and Rios gathered over tuna sandwiches in a small conference room for a teleconference with Bauer. The annual Stand for Israel summit meeting in Washington was coming up, and there were plans to make. This year the fellowship was honoring Joe Lieberman and Rudy Giuliani. Eckstein also wanted to discuss whether the fellowship should expand Stand for Israel into a full-fledged lobbying operation along the lines of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Eckstein invited me to ask Bauer a few questions.

"A lot of Jews think Christian support for Israel is a trick," I suggested. "They hear 'evangelical' and think 'anti-Semite.' What do you say to them?"

"There's a lot of history we'd like to do over," Bauer said smoothly, "but this is a new era. Today, Jews are safer living in countries where Christianity is vibrant than they are anyplace else."

"What about the Armageddon scenario?" As Bauer knows, a great many Jews believe that evangelicals want to gather Jews in Israel to bring on the "End of Days," a Book of Revelation big bang that includes the return of Jesus and a Jewish mass conversion.

Bauer dismissed this as the "odd belief" of an insignificant minority. "Most evangelicals support Israel for national-security reasons," he said. "After 9/11 there is a strong interest in foreign affairs, and we have a tendency to identify Israel as good guys."

Eckstein nodded. He says he is certain that evangelical Christians want nothing more than to bless Israel, and he is frustrated by his continuing inability to get his fellow Jews to practice what he calls the Four A's: Awareness that evangelicals are helping Israel; Acknowledgment of that help; Appreciation; and Attitude Change. There has been progress on the first two, and No. 3 is coming along, but attitude change remains elusive. "I want more than a tactical alliance," Eckstein said. "I'm looking for genuine fellowship. And the Jewish community is nowhere near that."

Bauer's analysis of the problem is political. "A lot of this is hostility from Jews who just can't stand conservatives," he said. "It trumps even their support for Israel."

"Jews tend to demonize evangelicals," Eckstein said sadly.

"And not the other way around?" I asked.

Eckstein shrugged. "Not really. No."

Throughout this conversation, Rios was clearly eager to join in. And as soon as there was a pause in the discussion, she did. "You know," she said, "the truth is, Christians do want to convert Jews."

Eckstein and Mamo exchanged glances. "Not by some bait-and-switch trick," she said. "But we believe it's part of God's plan." Eckstein winced the way he had when Pastor Munsey called him a born-again Christian.

"Anyway," Rios said, "we love Jews, notwithstanding their rudeness and hatred for us."

Three days later, Eckstein called me in New York. Rios had been fired, but her gaffe, and the impression it made, was still on his mind. "It's really my fault," he said. "Hiring staff is a problem. Truthfully, it's extremely hard to find people who understand exactly what we're doing here."

Zev Chafets is a founding editor of The Jerusalem Report magazine,
the author of several books and a columnist for The Daily News.

Correction: August 7, 2005, Sunday An author note on July 24 with an article about Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein included an outdated identification. The writer, Zev Chafets, is no longer a columnist for The Daily News in New York.

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