Cohon awards honor leaders in rescue, unity

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says as his career began he realized creating a partnership between Jews and Evangelical Christian had huge potential. “I looked at it in terms of the Jewish people, and the need to have relationships between Israel and pro-Israel Christians.”

Eckstein founded the Fellowship in November 1983, when dialogue between Christians and Jews excluded the Evangelical movement, he says. He met with strong opposition from liberal-leaning Jewish leaders. Some objected to the conservative social values of the Christian right in America, while others opposed the focus on Jews making aliyah (moving to Israel) rather than on their living in safety everywhere. Some decried the engagement on theological grounds, saying Evangelicals were more concerned with their own salvation and saw the Jewish people’s return to Israel as a prerequisite for the second coming of the messiah. But the growing strength of Evangelicals could not be ignored, says Eckstein.

“They’re too important a group for us not to have contact with, to reach out to and work with,” he says.

Eckstein was one of two honorees who received a 2016 Cohon Memorial Foundation Award at a ceremony hosted by Temple Emanu-El on Friday, Jan. 13. Established by their children and grandchildren, the Rabbi Samuel S. and A. Irma Cohon Foundation recognizes individuals who benefit Klal Yisroel, the entire Jewish people, and excel in one of four areas: unity, education and information, rescue or the creative arts. This year’s winners received $20,000 each.

Receiving this type of recognition by a stateside Jewish organization is an honor, says Eckstein. “It’s humbling; it’s deeply appreciated and a privilege.”

The Fellowship is the largest Christian-supported nonprofit organization operating in Israel, raising more than $140 million annually for its various programs. The organization’s core initiatives include helping impoverished Holocaust survivors with basic needs; providing food, clothing and shelter for Jewish orphans in Israel and the former Soviet Union; funding aliyah flights for Jews facing persecution; security support to help combat terrorist attacks in Israel as well as material and emotional support for Israel Defense Forces.

Last year alone, the organization helped about 1.5 million people throughout the world, says Eckstein, and making that kind of impact is very satisfying.

“Knowing that we’re playing a significant role in helping Jewish people in need is the most fulfilling part of it,” he says.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder and executive director of the Amcha Initiative, a national nonprofit that focuses on identifying and eliminating anti-Semitism in higher education, was also recognized at this year’s Cohon Foundation ceremony.

The Amcha Initiative was designed to be a grassroots response to the disconcerting rise in anti-Jewish sentiment on college campuses, she says.

“It was a desire to bring together groups of organizations and individuals who could, with the power of their collectivity and collaboration, successfully urge university leaders to do something about the problem,” says Rossman-Benjamin.

Rossman-Benjamin was a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, teaching Hebrew and Jewish studies. Many of her Jewish students would tell her about the anti-Semitic climate both in the classroom and on campus. After unsuccessfully trying to affect change through the typical avenues within the college, in 2012 Rossman-Benjamin and Leila Beckwith, professor emeritus at UCLA, founded Amcha, which would expand its focus throughout the United States.

Combating anti-Semitism and intolerance in general is the crux of Rossman-Benjamin’s work. More important, she says, is Amcha’s significance as a unified force.

“That’s what I want to be recognized for, even more so than successful efforts to combat anti-Semitism, is the fact that we are able to do that by being united.”