With two mobile phones and a pair of sunglasses in one hand, a white handkerchief to wipe away sweat in the other, and a small microphone attached to his shirt collar, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein hits the ground running in Ashkelon.
"Okay," he says, alighting from a minivan in the middle of Operation Pillar of Defense last week, and striding confidently toward the town center, a camera crew recording his every move. "Let's talk about the matzav [situation]!"
"Who's that guy?" some locals sitting at the corner cafe ask each other, looking up at the handsome 61-year-old with a small black skullcap pinned to his salt-and-pepper head of hair, who is tossing out greetings in broken Amharic to the Ethiopians in his path and shaking hands vigorously with everyone he meets.
A middle-aged Tunisian immigrant, Rachel Amar, carrying two big grocery bags filled with canned food, stops in her tracks. "Rabbi Eckstein?" she says, recognizing the head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, who brings in tens of millions of dollars a year in donations to help the needy here and elsewhere in Israel. "Is that you? I need to talk to you!"
Amar launches into a story that begins with complaints about the state of the neighborhood bomb shelter, and ends with her in hysterical tears. "I cannot be alone anymore. I am terrified of the rockets. I am terrified, do you hear me?" she sobs.
Eckstein puts a hand on her shoulder. He offers to carry her groceries. He tells her that he will make sure the Home Front Command staff in Ashkelon looks into her particular case. And then he looks directly into the rolling camera.
"The people here know me. They know I am the first address they can turn to," he intones. He gestures toward Amar. "This woman has just told me that she is afraid. This is what trauma does. It affects people on the inside even if you cannot tell from the outside." He pauses. "She is afraid of the rockets. Afraid of not having enough food." Pause. "She feels unsafe." Pause. "Uncared for."
Lynn Doerschuk, 60, the man who has been working as Eckstein's producer for over a decade, is standing by in a bright yellow shirt, his baby-blue eyes darting around to figure out the best angles for the shot. He feeds the rabbi the next line: "Everywhere we go, there are needs ...," suggests Doerschuk, speaking under his breath. Eckstein repeats the words, and spins off from them: "Everywhere we go, there are needs ... but with your help we can let these people know ... [pause] ... that they are not alone."
"Hey! I also have anxieties," butts in a younger women, walking into the frame to lay out her own pains. "I want to be taken out of here on holiday to a hotel in the north!" she insists. Doerschuk shakes his head - this is not the material he is looking for. "I want to go to America!" she persists, trailing Eckstein and the entourage as they move on. "I want a hotel in America. And I want a husband!"
Next up, Benny Vaknin, the mayor of Ashkelon, emerges from the bunker which has been serving as the situation room for his staff and the military liaisons all week, and approaches Eckstein, hand outstretched. Over 90 rockets had already fallen on Ashkelon during the recent flare-up of tensions between Israel and Gaza, he says, by way of hello. Dozens of apartments were damaged in his city, and tens of his citizens injured - hundreds, really, if you count all those who were psychologically traumatized, he notes. "There's an emergency meeting of all the mayors of all the southern towns going on right now down in Be'er Sheva," he says. "But I stayed here because seeing you is more important."
And indeed, Eckstein probably is more important. For he is the money man. And money, at all times, and especially in those times when rockets are falling on apartment buildings and scared citizens are crowding into decrepit shelters, is needed here. Within days of the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, Eckstein had drummed up $3 million in emergency and security aid for Ashkelon and other communities under fire in southern Israel. These funds come on top of $5.6 million, which had already been earmarked this year by Eckstein's International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to strengthen the emergency security system in Israel. Overall, in the last few years, IFCJ has spent tens of millions of dollars building, renovating and fortifying over 2,000 private and community shelters around the country.
Personal, unique ministry
This money, like all the funding Eckstein raises, comes from a very particular, and to some, curious, source. It comes direct from America's Bible belt, where hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians reach into their pockets to support the Jews of the Holy Land through Eckstein and his personal, unique ministry.
The son of a rabbi, Eckstein grew up in Ottawa, Canada, spent two years in Israel studying at a yeshiva, and was then ordained as an Orthodox rabbi at Yeshiva University in New York. He started his professional life working for the most mainstream of mainstream Jewish organizations - the Anti-Defamation League. It was the ADL that sent him, in 1977, to Skokie, Illinois, to get the Christian community there to stand together with the Jewish one against a planned neo-Nazi march. And that is where he encountered, for the first time, evangelical Christians - and began to understand what powerful allies their community could be for Jews and for the Zionist cause.
"The evangelicals believe in the Bible literally - and believe that the Jews are God's chosen people," Eckstein explains, quoting from Genesis 12:3, where God declares that He will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel.
The IFCJ, which Eckstein founded in 1983, was, at first, mainly concerned with promoting understanding between Jews and Christians and building broader support for Israel. The philanthropic emphasis came soon afterward, with hundreds, then thousands, and today, according to the IFCJ, over 1.2 million Evangelical Christians giving Eckstein money to do, basically, what he sees fit in the Holy Land.
Early criticism of the rabbi's activities from Orthodox, and other, more mainstream, Jewish organizations - some of whom were concerned the charity was, as far as the evangelicals were concerned, a prelude to actual missionizing activity - has turned, for the most part, into awe.
Today, Eckstein is a major power broker in Israel who collects upward of $100 million a year in donations, making IFCJ one of the largest, if not the largest, "Jewish" charities working here. Of those monies, according to the rabbi's office, some $50 million a year go to projects in Israel itself, supporting everything from soup kitches in Bnei Brak, to absorption centers for Ethiopians in Jerusalem, to Amar's shelter renovations in Ashkelon. About $25 million goes annually to programs which help Jews, mainly elderly ones, living in the Former Soviet Union.
A further $5 million is spent on security measures for Jewish institutions in communities around the globe, and $10 million goes towards Israel advocacy and education in the United States.
The rest - about 20 percent of the total budget, goes into the IFCJ's operating costs, including a reported $824,000 a year salary for Eckstein.
Eckstein has an office with a staff of 100 in Chicago in charge of the fund-raising, and a smaller office of 30 in Jerusalem focused on allocating the funds and working with the government agencies, municipalities and charities that benefit from them. There is a small IFCJ office in Canada, and another branch is in the process of being opened in Korea, a republic with close to zero Jews - but quite a sizable number of evangelical Christians.
Eckstein himself is based in Israel, where he lives with his second, Israeli-Spanish wife. But he spends an inordinate amount of time on airplanes, racking up frequent-flier miles as he jets between offices and engagements, juggling his different roles - as fund-raiser, administrator and media front man - at a dizzying pace.
In his free time, Eckstein serves as a rabbi in Chicago on the High Holy Days, at the Lake Shore Drive Synagogue, records CDs in which he sings Hasidic songs (which can be ordered via the IFCJ website ), writes books on Jews, Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations (he's written five so far ) and hangs out with his family. One of his three daughters, Yael Eckstein, who lives in Israel, is being groomed, says her proud father, as the new face of the IFCJ (she is already senior vice president ); the other two live in the United States. Eckstein's parents just immigrated here themselves, each at the ripe old age of 90-plus, and he has four grandchildren.
'They feel blessed'
Back in the mini-van, en route to the site of a four-story concrete building that was hit by a rocket the previous day, Eckstein is holding forth on the differences between Jewish and Christian giving: "Jewish giving is connected to responsibility," he explains. "Christian giving is more emotional - it's a spiritual response to God's needs."
His donors, he adds, are mostly middle-income, "simple" folk, who give small amounts of money, "sacrificially," just because it is the right thing to do, by God. They don't ask for plaques or for recognition. Most don't even come visit the projects. They just feel blessed by God because they are helping.
"Our job is to get new donors and supporters by showing the great need," says Doerschuk, who used to produce country music specials at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, before turning his talents to making the rabbi's short TV and radio spots, as well as the 30-minute infomercials that are all aired around the United States, and have become one of the most effective tools for Eckstein to get the word out.
"What people want these days is unscripted reality. They don't want processed information," says Doerschuk, now at the site of the building, and working out how to capture the best angle of the reality at hand. "Shoot the hole, Steve! The hole!" Doerschuk calls out to the cameraman, who is, in fact, practically falling into said hole, as Eckstein and his entourage of about half-a-dozen people squeeze their way along the narrow stairwells of the apartment building.
The rocket, which came in through the roof of the poorly constructed building, smashed into the modest fourth-floor apartment of a family of Russian immigrants, narrowly missing their piano. From there, it continued straight through the carpet and into the apartment of the downstairs neighbors - an Ethiopian immigrant family of 11 - and into the apartment one flight below that, where the two dogs belonging to the elderly Georgians living there were still whimpering.
A damage-assessment team from the municipality buzzes around with measuring tapes, jotting down notes. A senior Ethiopian kes, religious leader, in a white turban, checking in on the third-floor Ethiopian family, gets chatting with the Georgians. Seeing Eckstein, he gives him a warm embrace and begins reminiscing about old days when the Fellowship, through its Wings of Eagles program - which helped Jews from around the world move to their biblical homeland - assisted the Jewish Agency in bringing many of the Falashmura to Israel. The narrative is going slightly haywire.
"Start over," suggests Doerschuk, feeding Eckstein some possible next lines from the side, which the rabbi picks up and runs with, like a pro. "No one seems to care," says the rabbi and pauses. "But we care."
Later, down in the bomb shelter of the building, Doerschuk shakes his head. The situation here is not, he says bluntly, dire enough. "This [shelter] is decent. Last time we were here [in Ashkelon], there were floods in the shelter and no electricity," Eckstein tells the municipal representative taking him around. "Well, the situation is generally better now ... because you helped us," she says, sounding almost apologetic.
"Who was that, Mom, a politician?" one of the young boys in the shelter asks his mother as the entourage backs on out of the dank and cluttered underground room and moves on to look for one in worse shape.
"No, it is a man who is going to bring us money and help us get mattresses," she replies. "I want to thank him," the young boy says. His sister holds out her bag of jelly beans. But Eckstein is already gone.