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Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President, on Hanukkah – A Story of Courage, Faith, and Hope

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Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, oversees all ministry programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.


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 Eckstein 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 programs.


Yael Eckstein has partnered with other global organizations, appeared on national television, and visited with the 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. In 2022, The Globee® Awards, organizers of the world’s premier business awards programs and business ranking lists, named her a winner in the 10th Annual 2022 CEO World Awards®.


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 Studies and Jewish Studies teacher in the United States.


What is Hanukkah about?

Hanukkah is a stirring story of courage and faith and hope, about a tiny group of faithful fighters called the Maccabees, who defeated not only the mighty Greek army, but who also stood up against the culture and their corrupted ideas based on immorality, idolatry, and selfishness. So, much that we could, in a little way, relate to today. 


The story of the Maccabees is a call to all people of faith, in all generations, to be courageous and to stand up for our values and our beliefs against immoral culture, and to realize even if you are one of a few, you can still make a huge impact against the masses.


It’s a story that inspires me, and that I hope will inspire you, as well.


Who were the Maccabees?

The Maccabees are the heroes of the Hanukkah story. But you may not know that in the beginning, there was only one Maccabee. Maybe you’ve heard of him: Judah the Maccabee. Maccabee comes from the Hebrew word meaning a strong hammer, or a mallet. It’s an appropriate name for Judah because he was a “hammer” for God. Later, it came to be the name for the whole group of heroes, because their battle cry was from Exodus 15:11: “Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you, majestic and holiness, awesome and glory, working wonders?” In Hebrew, the first line of the Scriptures, “Who among the gods is like you, Lord,” is said, just like I said before. How dedicated they must have been to God to call out the lines from Exodus as they went into battle. They knew that their salvation, their strength, and their success will only come from the Lord.


Will you set the stage for the story of Hanukkah?

I’ll start with the destruction of the First Temple, which happened in 587 BC by the Babylonians. After the temple was destroyed, the remaining Jews in Israel were exiled for 70 years to Persia. Through a series of God-orchestrated events, the Jews eventually were led back to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. 


Over a number of years, they rebuilt the city walls around Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple. At the same time this was happening, the Greek empire exploded and spread far and wide to its eastern borders, where modern-day Spain is, down to Egypt, up to Macedonia, and far west into India. Now, what little country is right in the middle of that empire? That’s right. Israel. It was very important to the Greeks to spread their culture to all the lands they ruled. And in most countries, the new Greeks were happy to accept the new religion and culture. And even in Israel, some of the Jews decided that they wanted to fit in with the Greeks. These Jews were called the Renegades, which is an apt word for what they were doing. 


These Jews decided that they really wanted to dress and act like the Greeks. And at the top of their list, they wanted to work out in the Greek gymnasiums and compete in sports competitions. It was assimilation. Despite this group of Jews, the Greeks decided that not enough of the Jews in Israel were fitting into their empire well enough, so they sent armies to force the Jews to give up their faith.


Eventually, they heavily taxed the Jews and outlawed the main Jewish practices under the penalty of death, such as keeping the Shabbat, Torah study, circumcision, and keeping kosher. You see, they weren’t looking just to go and conquer the Jews and kill them. They wanted to kill their spirit, kill their faith. In the Hanukkah story, just like in many other biblical accounts of God’s miraculous provision, just when you might think all hope is lost, God shows us the path. And so, that is where we learned about Mattathias, a Jewish priest serving in the temple.


Tell us about Mattathias.

Mattathias couldn’t stomach watching the Greeks and the Hellenized Jews defiling the temple in Jerusalem. So, he moved from Jerusalem to the city of Modi’in with his five sons. In English, they’re called John (Gaddi), Simon (Thassi), Judah (Maccabeus), Eleazar (Avaran), and Jonathan (Apphus). Mattathias, being a priest and a godly man, became a leader of the people in Modi’in. The Greek officials heard that they were remaining faithful to God, and they were very upset. So, they sent a government official to set up an altar in the center of the Modi’in town and force people to serve idols or be put to death. The official asked Mattathias, as a leader, to bring the first sacrifice, and while he was refusing to do so, another Jew stepped forward and did it, bringing the sacrifice for him.


Do you know what Mattathias then did? He grabbed the sword of the official and killed both the Jew who gave the tribute, who gave that sacrifice and the Greek official. He made a statement, and when he did it, Mattathias called out “Whoever is for God, join me.” This again is directly from the Bible, Exodus 32:26. We see over and over again that the strength of these individuals fighting against a world power was found in the Bible in them joining God. When they started battling the Greek army, they began using their more famous battle cry, and that was the beginning of the group that became known as the Maccabees. Suddenly, it wasn’t just one person, it was many of them. Almost nothing compared to this world power of the Greeks, but the Maccabees were a tiny army, nonetheless, with a lot of faith. Even though they were much weaker and smaller number than the Greek army, which at the time of the Hanukkah story was the most powerful army in the world, the Maccabees were strong in their faith, and the Maccabees were serving a much more powerful commander. They were following God, proving to us all that having courage and faith can accomplish anything.


Can you share a story that illustrates how powerful a small act of courage can be?

This is a story of courage and faith that took place not thousands of years ago, but less than a hundred years ago during the Holocaust, from one of our recipients in our With Dignity in Fellowship program. It’s a person, one of 15,000 elderly in Israel, who are poor, who are old, and to whom The Fellowship brings food to every single week.


This person’s name is Yevgeia Arayev, she is 90 years old. Yevgenia was born in a small town in Ukraine, the second daughter of very religious parents. In June of 1941, they heard that the war had broken out all around them, and a few weeks later, a neighbor ran to their door screaming that the Germans were coming to round up all the Jews. Yevgenia’s family was fortunate enough to quickly gather up as many things as they could and escape in a horse and cart. They even managed to collect her elderly grandmother. As a deeply religious man, her father trusted in God’s plan for them. And so, they set off not even knowing where it was safe for Jews. They just left where they knew the Nazis were coming to and they kept traveling in whatever direction appeared open. On one of their first days on the road, they were hiding in the barn of a kind woman.


After being there only a short time, the woman told them to leave as quietly and quickly as they could. She had learned that some men in town had heard that Jews were staying in the barn, and they planned to come and steal the horse and cart from Yevgenia’s family. The woman begged them to go quietly because if the men knew that she had tipped them off, they surely would kill her. They would kill all of them. So, they took the horse, and they went on the horse helping them to move a little bit faster, and there were many times that moving faster actually saved their lives. One night, they were crossing a long bridge, and the second they reached the other side, a German plane bombed it. They realized, very clearly, that if they had been even seconds slower, their entire family would’ve been wiped out in a flash.


The bridge was bombed the second they made it to the other side. Thank God they eventually safely made it to Russia where they stayed until the end of the war. The kind woman who had hidden them probably had no idea that in simply telling Yevgenia’s family to leave, she actually saved their lives over and over again. Sometimes, it’s hard to see how small acts of courage can be miracles to others. 


How does that story relate to Mattathias?

Certainly Mattathias, in taking that one courageous step, had no idea that would lead to that tiny group of pious Jews, the Maccabees, defeating the mighty Greek army. He saw what was right to do at the moment. He saw that making a statement that he won’t bow down to any other God, only to our Father in heaven, was the right thing to do at that moment. He didn’t realize how he would end up going down in history for the miracle and movement that he created.

It wasn’t easy. It took them three long years, but they succeeded in liberating the Temple in Jerusalem and driving the enemy from their midst. When the fighters arrived at the Temple, they were devastated to find it completely desecrated. Filled with faith, they cleaned it up. They removed the idols and rededicated the temple on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which is the exact same date as the Hanukkah that we celebrate today. It took another 25 years to fully defeat the Greeks, but the Maccabees’ courage and faith were the turning point in history that brought down the world’s strongest empire. In Joshua chapter one, verse nine, we find God telling Joshua, the new leader of the children of Israel, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. For the Lord, your God, will be with you wherever you go.”

How do these stories relate to us in today’s world?

God tells us the very same thing today. Hanukkah is a time to remember that it’s not just about celebrating light, it’s about being the light. 


We worship and serve a God who is totally unique and powerful. He alone is able to perform mighty deeds for us, for those who love and turn to him. He alone is able to be with us wherever we go. We don’t need to fear this world. God alone is able to intervene in human history and work miracles on behalf of His people. And we never need to be afraid because we know that, when we turn to God, He is always with us. 


I know that sometimes I get nervous and fearful in certain situations. But then I just remember that God is always with me, that I’m not alone, and that every small step of courage that we can take can impact the life of someone else.

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