In Conversation – Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO with Auburn Basketball Coach Bruce Pearl

Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, oversees all ministry programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the organization.

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 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. She was also featured as the cover story of Nashim (Women) magazine in May 2015. 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 2021, and The Algemeiner’s Jewish 100 of 2019. She was also named 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 and Jewish Studies teacher in the United States.

On her podcast, Conversations with Yael, Yael Eckstein speaks with Bruce Pearl, college basketball coach of the Auburn Tigers. Bruce Pearl shares with Yael how important his Jewish faith is in his career, how his love for Israel has inspired him throughout his lifetime, and the importance of finding common ground and joining together as people of faith.

Can you introduce your guest today, Bruce Pearl? 

YE: For those who follow college basketball, my guest today needs no introduction. During his eight seasons at Auburn University, coach Bruce Pearl has led the Tigers to 154 wins, three Southeastern Conference Championships, consecutive NCAA tournament berths, and the program’s first-ever appearance in the final four. During his 26-year career, Coach Pearl has guided his team to the NCAA tournament 20 times – 21, if not for the cancellation of the 2020 postseason. His teams have won 18 championships and he has garnered seven National Coach of the Year awards.

While his success on the basketball court is very well documented, what might not be as well known is his absolute dedication and love for Israel and her people. Coming from a humble Jewish background in Boston, Coach Pearl has made it his mission to spread the good word and love for the Holy Land to others.

He has spoken on behalf of the state of Israel before such high-powered groups as AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the Republican Jewish Alliance, the Christian Coalition, and the United States Israel Education Association. On the Auburn campus, Coach Pearl is very much involved in the student Jewish group hosting the annual Hanukkah party for Jewish students through Hillel as well as hosting regular breakfasts to help Jewish students keep their faith active.

In the summer of 2008, Coach Pearl realized a lifelong dream when his country called upon him to serve as the head coach of Maccabi USA’s open men’s basketball team at the 18th World Maccabiah Games in Israel. He led the American squad to a gold medal for the third time in 24 years and defeated the favored Israeli team for the title. And just this past summer, Coach Pearl brought his entire basketball team to visit the Holy Land for a special tour.

I’ve been following everything that you’ve been doing and all the ways that you’ve been inspiring so many people – actually without the politics, which is something that is so unique these days. I haven’t seen anyone that doesn’t like Coach Pearl. Everyone is just inspired by you and strengthened by you and, Coach Pearl, you have an amazing, incredible resume.

BP: They say don’t talk about religion and politics, and it’s all I find myself talking about. For me, as a coach and a teacher, I’m always about bringing people together and trying to find common ground. And the Bible is, for me, the greatest connector. And yet historically people have looked at it in such a way that it’s divided us. And for me, that just is so frustrating. But it’s the one thing we have in common. We have the same Father God and we’re all his children. If we could act accordingly, we would have a better world.

How should people be reading the Bible?

YE: When people come out of reading God’s word with more love for one another, instead of more hatred and more differentiating between people and between different religions or nationalities or whatever it is, when you read the Scriptures and you read God’s Word, if you can come out of it and say, “I have more love for God’s creation within all of the diversity and different opinions and different religions, that we could all stand united, that we should love God, love one another, follow the 10 commandments, not to kill, not to steal,” I think you’re reading it with such holy eyes, which is why you’re able then to touch on those really sensitive topics of religion and Israel, and God.

You’re able to do that because you’re coming from the perspective that all of those sometimes controversial topics, actually are here to unite us. And so that’s what you bring to everyone that listens to you.

BP: Yeah. Growing up, I was born in 1960 in Boston. So 15 years after the gates opened and we saw that 6 million of our brothers and sisters were murdered because of how they prayed. It was fresh for me. We all have a Holocaust story about losing family. And so I get that. But growing up in Boston was very difficult because I went to Temple, I grew up conservative and most of my Catholic friends basically told me that my people killed their God, killed Jesus. And that was really, really hard to be able to defend in many ways.

It’s almost indefensible. And then as I matured in my faith and began to read the Bible myself, I’m sitting there going, “Wait for a second, this Jesus guy, your God, he was Jewish! His parents were Jewish. He was a rabbi. He was a teacher. He celebrated Passover and the festivals every year. We may not be mishpachah [family] but we’re related somehow and in some way.” And I really mean that. I’m not playing that. I’d look at my friends and go, “Man, your God was Jewish and you believe he’s the Messiah and I’m waiting for the Messiah to come. We’re in this together.” But unfortunately, that’s not the way the world sees it, and it’s sad.

What can we teach one another from different religious backgrounds?

YE: Something that’s so inspiring to me as a Jewish woman living in Israel and always speaking to and having fellowship with my Christian friends is how we have so much to teach each other. So often my Christian friends say, “Teach me about these biblical feasts,” something that the Christian world has in so many ways lost, and now they’re hungry for it. Because if you believe that God’s word is forever, then in the Scripture when it says the feasts and the Feast of Tabernacles, the Christian community wants to understand, how did Jesus celebrate this? How did Jesus celebrate Passover?

That’s where we have this amazing opportunity now, that once you break down those walls of mistrust and animosity and hatred, suddenly you realize we have so much to learn from one another. We have so much that brings us together. We have so much in common.

BP: Yep. No, there’s no question. I mean, we invite Christians to our home for Passover because Jesus celebrated the Passover every year of his life. For folks that want to be more like Jesus, Sukkot, and again, the other festivals are things that actually are commanded in the Bible to be celebrated. So yes, I agree. It’s a great thing. And I think of course that’s what your ministry is doing. And so that’s why I’m so delighted to be able to talk about it.

Who influenced you both as far as sports and also faith?

BP: Well, my grandparents, my father’s parents, immigrated from Ternopil and from Warsaw. They were able to get out in time. My grandfather came over when he was 14 years old in 1932 with his two younger sisters and a younger brother, but the parents couldn’t afford everybody, so they stayed. Papa lost a lot of family that weren’t able to get here, to the United States. Papa was Orthodox, but he was a plumber. He was a tradesman.

When I went to Schul with him and we wrapped Teffilin after I was bar mitzvah’ed, papa would go in his work clothes early in the morning, and most of the guys that were there were obviously in suits and ties and getting ready to go to work their way. But papa was always welcomed. Not as educated, not as wealthy, but still able to put on the prayer shawl, and wrap Teffilin, and I felt very, very much a part of the community. I was so glad that my papa was accepted in that community.

And yeah, one day in 1967, I was seven years old and my papa was watching TV after supper. He never watched television. He never stayed up much past supper, and I never saw him cry. He’s sitting in front of the TV and he’s crying, and I walked over to him. I said, “Papa, why are you crying?” He put me up on his knee. We watched the TV together, a little black and white, and he told me about Israel. This was obviously during the Six-Day War in 1967. He said, “I can’t go to sleep because I’m afraid that when I wake up, Israel won’t be there.”

He told me how important Israel was to him and basically, that had Israel been the state of Israel in 1932 rather than 1948, his whole family probably would’ve been able to immigrate to the Holy because it was closer. It would’ve been less expensive, and maybe some of his family would still be alive. That’s how important Israel’s existence was to our family. And that was it. That was it for me.

I wish all of my Jewish brothers and sisters, I wish my children and I wish my children’s children had an opportunity to be on my papa’s knee. I feel his passion and his love for Israel. And I will tell you something else. There might be only one place in the world he loved more than Israel, and that was the United States. He was made a citizen when he was 32 years old; I still have his citizen papers. It was the greatest day of his life that he could come to this country and build a family.

YE: I think that basic principle of appreciation, recognizing how blessed we are, I think that’s the secret to living a faithful life. And when you’re able to love others, when you look at yourself as a victim, as it sounds like your Papa would have been so easily able to do, but he never looked at himself as a victim. He looked at himself as blessed, of having the blessing to be in America, the blessing to have citizenship, the blessing to know that in his lifetime he was seeing the establishment of a Jewish state.

And in the Six-Day War realizing how in one second everything could be taken away. I think in a way, the opposite of that is living every second, realizing how blessed we are to have what we have.

What concerns you about the state of the world today?

BP: We all know the realities of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Israel exist in the world today. I don’t think anybody can completely understand it. I won’t even begin to try to explain it other than recognizing it. But what I’m concerned about is this. I’m concerned that unfortunately what happened in Europe, it happened in our lifetime. It did not happen in a third-world country. It happened in a highly educated, sophisticated, culturally deep, historically proud area of the world.

People say it could never happen again. I look at them and I go, I don’t agree that you don’t think it could happen again. And if we don’t see the signs of some things around the world that are brewing right now in the way of anti-Semitism has turned into anti-Israel. And it’s particularly growing amongst our young people. There are a lot of reasons for that, including academia, social media, and the political situation.

I am so blessed and proud of the fact that I have two conservative right-leaning sons, and I have two liberal left-leaning daughters. And so we are a very politically diverse family. But I am concerned about the progressive left because look, I don’t know what percentage of Jews are more Democratic and left-leaning for all the right reasons. But there’s a large part of that group, especially the young people that are not loving Israel, that are believing the lies of it being an apartheid state and it being civil rights and social injustice instead of really seeing the realities that are existing on the ground.

And the realities are simply this. Jews and Arabs, Christians, and Muslims have lived in God’s land as neighbors forever. And sometimes when you’re neighbors, you don’t always get along, but you manage to get it figured out. My goal is for Israel to become one of the greatest places in the world for Christians, Muslims, and Jews to live in. I think in so many ways it is, but that’s not the way the world sees it.

Tell me about your first trip to Israel.

BP: Well, my first trip to Israel was slightly delayed. My plan was to graduate from college and go to Israel. The kibbutz was no longer as big or as popular. Maybe join the army, and serve for a couple of years. That was kind of my thought. And then life got in the way. I got an incredible opportunity to be a basketball coach at age 21. I was a senior at Boston College and my head coach was taking the job out at Stanford and he asked me to go with him. I hadn’t even graduated yet. And so I was faced with that decision and I took advantage of the opportunity.

And then, as a result, I didn’t go to Israel. And then because I was working immediately, I never did jump on the Birthright because I was in college from 18 to 21, and I was working when I was 21. In 2009, I got the opportunity to coach the United States of America’s Maccabiah. It was the 18th Maccabiah and I took 13 Jewish boys and brought home 13 Jewish men and a gold medal.

We were able to beat Israel in the gold medal game. Thank God Israel does not lose at home very often. I don’t want to ever see Israel lose at home. We wound up beating them in overtime. It was at that time that I knew, “You know what? It was one thing to coach in the Maccabiah and take a group of Jewish kids over there. I’m going to take my college team over there someday.” And obviously, that’s what we did this past year.

What are some points when you talk to different groups about Israel that you want them to know?

BP: When you’re there, the one thing you do at some point is you ask the people that are living there, what can I do? What can I do as an American Jew? And they say, just come back and bring somebody else and continue to visit. And so that’s kind of the message that I’ve received as much as anything. So that’s what we do through my work at USIEA, the US Israel Educational Association. We’ve taken three trips now of donors and friends to be able to help support that organization, to be able to lobby Congress, to be able to pay for the Iron Dome, be able to be involved in the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and be involved with integrated business just so Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and Jews can live and work together in Judea and Samaria and make that area the envy of the world and as far as peace through prosperity.

And so that’s what we’ve been doing. Now as far as my players, we brought in a rabbi. We brought in a minister. We brought in a historian. We brought in some people from the Israel consulate. We taught them a little bit about the history dating all the way back. But honestly, it was based on the Bible. We simply went back to Scripture and taught them who was there and when they got there, and what happened when the Babylonians came in and exiled the Jews. And then they came back. And then what happened 2,000 years ago when the Roman empire came in and exiled them? And just get them to understand, “Look, this is a disputed land. It is.”

But there are a couple of things. One, it’s right there in the Bible that God promised this land of the Jewish people. He promised it to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. He promised it to Moses and Joshua. And so we are simply fulfilling God’s wishes and commands by living in the land. And then when the kids go over there and they get off the plane, they talk to Israelis, here’s what they see. They see people of color. They see diversity, and how much they love the land. How much they love their country. And they’re willing to see young Israelis, Jews and Arabs and Christians, join the military to protect their country, the country they love.

I don’t have to do a lot of programming. They get to go over there. They get to see it for themselves. And now at some point, if they’re equipped to be able to handle something that may be a lie about Israel or about the Jewish people, they’ve seen it for themselves. What they do with it from there is up to them.

YE: Yes, that is beautiful. And it shows how important it is. Israel has around 4 million tourists a year and over 2.2 million of them are Christian. And this says so much in and of itself. One, is that they would want to come to Israel instead of going somewhere else. Two, the lessons that they’re getting from Israel are lessons you don’t get elsewhere. You don’t go to any other country and see people from Yemen, from Russia, from Ethiopia, from Iraq, from Egypt, all living together in the same community and not in their own bubbles.

Everything that you hear about Israel, it’s not a surprise that when you come and see it firsthand, you realize what a lie it is. But to experience it for yourself just changes your perspective forever. Whether you’re a political expert or not, you know the truth, when you walk these grounds and see it.

What is it like raising children who are now young adults themselves in this era where they’re surrounded by so much disinformation on both faith and Israel?  

BP: It’s definitely a challenge because it’s been 75 years since the birth of the state of Israel, a little bit longer than that as far as our Holocaust is concerned. My children were all Bar Mitzvah’ed. They all went to Hebrew school. They all get it. They’ve got a very strong identity as Jews, but probably don’t go to synagogue as often as I’d like them to. But they get it. I’m grateful for them. And we talk about it. We just talk about it all the time. We’ve got to equip our young people with the information, with the story, both biblically and politically.

When young people hear the word civil rights or social injustice, when they hear the stories about land being stolen from the Palestinians, when they hear “from the river to the sea,” and things like that, I get why you want to help. You want to help those that are less fortunate. I think that Israel is doing really well right now. The tech in Tel Aviv is incredible. The agriculture’s incredible. The work that Israel is doing to assist their neighbors is incredible. The Abraham Accords has got an opportunity to really do something very, very special between Arabs and Jews and Christians and Israel and its Arab neighbors.

And if there are Arab neighbors that don’t want to participate in good relations because they don’t see it in their own best interest or they want the destruction of the state of Israel, part of the problem is the people that we’re protecting ourselves against simply want us dead. And they don’t want us there. And that’s terribly unfortunate, particularly their leadership.

But right now, the Middle East is pretty quiet compared to the rest of the world. I think this is going to give us the momentum again to continue to teach our children that Israel is doing way, way more good, and all she is doing is just protecting herself. That’s all she’s doing. And no more.

Most people have a go-to scripture or verse from the Bible that really encourages them and gets them through the hard times. Would you share yours with us?

BP: It’s just the fact that when we sing the Shema, we have to close our eyes just because it is so holy and the call out here O Israel. The Lord is our God. The Lord is one, our same Father God. And so I’m going to close on one more thing because I’m grateful to our Christian friends who stand with Israel – I’m grateful that the rest of the world was then able to share that we’re grafted in because of Jesus. I’d like our Christian friends to understand that wasn’t easy and hasn’t been easy on the Jewish people.

I would ask my Jewish brothers and sisters to be glad that our Christian friends are grafted into the same covenant. And I would ask our Christian friends, don’t hate on us and our forefathers because they kept the word and they kept the commandments as they understood them. We can both continue to respect each other’s positions and the International Fellowship of Christian Jews is a huge way for us to be able to work and serve together as one.

YE: I’m calling you from now on Rabbi Coach Pearl because I want to hear more of your sermons and come to your synagogue for Rosh Hashanah. Coach Pearl, this has been one of the most inspiring conversations I have had. Thank you so much for blessing us all.

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