So a rabbi walks into a megachurch . . .

RabbiEcksteinNew York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets has published "The Rabbi Who Loved Evangelicals (and Vice Versa)," in the cross-town competition's New York Times Magazine. Chafets' report of nearly 4,500 words is a deft and wry portrait of Yechiel Eckstein (left), an Orthodox rabbi and founder of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Chafets describes the cultural challenges Eckstein faces in his work. At the Family Christian Center, a megachurch in Munster, Ind., pastor Steve Munson wrongly describes Eckstein as a rabbi who has become a born-again Christian, introduces Eckstein to Munson's father as "Rabbi Einstein" and pronounces his name as "Yek-eel."

Chafets captures an even more awkward moment during a regular IFCJ staff meeting. It involves one of Eckstein's short-lived employees, broadcaster Sandy Rios, formerly of Concerned Women for America:

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."

. . . "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."

Chafets explores the tensions that arise from his work, including feelings among some of his fellow rabbis that he's harming Orthodox Judaism by associating with evangelical Protestants, and questions of why evangelicals are generally pro-Israel.

Chafets' portrait strikes a good balance of witty critique and allowing Eckstein to speak for himself. Here's another passage that describes how Eckstein, who was working for the Anti-Defamation League during one of the great dramas of the 1970s, came to found his organization:

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.

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