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Yael Eckstein – IFCJ President and CEO – On Coming Home to Israel

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Yael Eckstein
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Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, had the opportunity to deliver the keynote address at the annual conference for Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), a voluntary, non-profit organization established in 1951 to help North American immigrants acclimate to Israeli society and to build strong ties between North American Jewish communities and Israel.

Prior to her present duties, Yael served as Global Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, and Director of Program Development and Ministry Outreach. Based in Israel with her husband and their four children, Yael is a published writer and a respected social services professional.

Yael has contributed to The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and other publications, and is the author of three books: Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children, Holy Land Reflections: A Collection of Inspirational Insights from Israel, and Spiritual Cooking with Yael. In addition, her insights into life in Israel, the Jewish faith, and Jewish-Christian relations can be heard on The Fellowship’s radio program, Holy Land Moments, which air five times per week on over 1,500 radio stations around the world.

Yael has partnered with other global organizations, appeared on national television, and visited with U.S. and world leaders on issues of shared concern. She has been a featured guest on CBN’s The 700 Club with Gordon Robertson, and she served on a Religious Liberty Panel on Capitol Hill in May 2015 in Washington, D.C., discussing religious persecution in the Middle East. Her influence as one of the young leaders in Israel has been recognized with her inclusion in The Jerusalem Post’s 50 Most Influential Jews of 2020 and The Algemeiner’s Jewish 100 of 2019, and she was featured as the cover story of Nashim (Women) magazine in May 2015.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and well-educated at both American and Israeli institutions – including biblical studies at Torat Chesed Seminary in Israel, Jewish and sociology studies at Queens College in New York, and additional study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem – Yael Eckstein has also been a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher in the United States.

Aliyah, immigrating to Israel, is not just a professional passion for Yael Eckstein, who as head of IFCJ oversees all ministry programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, it is also personal.

In this moving speech and ceremony, held in the presence of The Honourable Deborah A. Lyons, Canada’s Ambassador to Israel, and Aryeh N. Lightstone, Senior Advisor to David M. Friedman, United States Ambassador to Israel, Yael Eckstein shares her inspiring story about immigrating to Israel years ago with her new husband.

At first, though, she was opposed to leaving behind all that she had known growing up in America. But when God changed her mind, there was no going back, and now she has made her home in the Holy Land finding meaning in walking in the footsteps of Biblical and modern-day heroes. In Yael’s words:

Thirteen years ago, I made aliyah to Israel from Chicago. Although fulfillment of a dream, it was also something that I always said I would never do. After spending my seminary year in Israel during the Second Intifada, trying to dodge terror attacks and being reminded of just how vulnerable we are in this tiny beloved country, Song of Songs summed up my feelings perfectly: “A lily among thorns.” This country that awakened my soul, defined my identity, and brought purpose and passion into my life was truly a lily amongst thorns.

“It’s my destiny to live here, but if I’ll ever fulfill my destiny is questionable,” I would think to myself each day as I walked the holy streets of Jerusalem, where my studies came to life, my history gathered meaning, and my soul finally was dancing. I knew I was home, but I didn’t know if I could make the move.

I so badly wanted to plant new roots in the holy soil of Israel. But you see, to me, it just looked too hard. Parents going to the supermarket separately in case a terror attack would strike while they were shopping. Saying prayers each time you step on the bus, not knowing if you would step off of it. Debating if meeting a friend for coffee at a local Jerusalem coffee shop constituted putting yourself in danger. “The people who live here are holy warrior angels,” I would say to myself. “I’m just not sure that I’m one of them.”

I went back to America, studied in college, and tried to move on with my life. I started dating a Jewish man, and we decided to get married. Everything was perfect, except for one thing. He had always dreamed of moving to Israel. This was God’s way of never letting me escape my destiny. Yet, still, I tried. “If you marry me, we’re living in America,” I told him. I bluntly said this to him, and, eventually, he agreed.

We decided to establish our life in Highland Park, New Jersey, but Israel never stopped tugging at my heart. Each time I prayed the ancient words: “Lord, open up the gates of Jerusalem,” my heart would drop into my stomach. How do I pray these words and put meaning into them when, for the first time in over 2,000 years, God has opened up the gates of Jerusalem? I do have the opportunity to go home. Yet, I’m not.

One month after getting married, I told my husband that I was ready to move to Israel. Two years later, our first child was born in Jerusalem. The day I became a mother, everything changed. Suddenly, Israel didn’t feel as dangerous as it once did. Finally, I understood how parents raise their children in this country that so many people call a war zone. Israel is the only country in the entire world that has a government and an army dedicated to one thing: protecting my family. They will go down fighting for me. There are many places in the world for Jews to live. But the truth is, there’s only one place for Jews to call home. As we all know, this home was not only founded and built with sweat, but with blood. The type of blood doesn’t matter to those who seek to destroy us. Haredi, secular, native Israeli, French, Russian, Druze, Arab, it doesn’t matter because terror does not differentiate.

Here we stand, surrounded by the names of 350 fallen. Holy soldiers of Israel, of God, of righteousness. Both the Jews and non-Jews have paid the ultimate price so that our home is never again destroyed. I am humbled. I am awed. And truly, I am speechless.

Anyone who has lived in Israel or been to Israel, even for 33 days, knows the feeling. When there’s a terror attack, you quickly call everyone you know to make sure that they’re okay. Once you hear that everyone is okay, you breathe a sigh of relief. But then the tightness in your chest comes back again. It wasn’t someone I know or love, but it’s still my brother. There’s a family who tried to repeatedly call their loved one following this terror attack, just like me, and they listened breathlessly as that phone rang endlessly. It’s with those thoughts that every single time, including this morning, my tears fall, and I know I’m not the only one.

When one person dies, by war or by terror, the entire country mourns. That’s just one of the things that’s so painfully beautiful about this country. Despite our differences, there is a divine string that ties us all together. A divine string that ties us together in spirit. It’s this divine connection that causes people to run toward a terror attack instead of away from it. It’s this divine connection that inspires thousands of strangers to go to a Holocaust survivor’s funeral who didn’t have any friends or family. It’s this divine connection that causes our hearts to ache and to break for every single name written on that wall.

Israel is a lily among thorns, and these fallen heroes are the water and the sun in this divine garden. When one person is killed in Israel, Jews around the world mourn. Yet, we’re living in very special times. Today, when one person dies in Israel, not only do the Jewish people mourn but millions of non-Jews mourn, as well. In my work with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, I have seen the passion, sincerity, and dedication that these people, these Christians, have for the Jewish people’s homeland. To me, it’s an inspiration. For the first time in history, we are not alone. Israel has seen too much tragedy.

The list is too long and too painful to go through. But let everyone be certain, for every single individual killed for simply living on this land, this collective homeland of the Jewish people, our tears will never stop flowing. It’s to their merit that people like me have the ability to choose whether we come back to Israel or not. It’s to their merit that Jews around the world – in France, Turkey, Morocco, Ukraine, or Yemen – know that when it gets too dangerous to stay in the land of their birth, they can always return to the land of their soul. We will never forget. And let it be clear – we will also never despair. “There is hope for your future,” said the Lord, “and your children will return to their land.”