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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Like many former residents of Teaneck, Jonathan Feldstein now happily makes his home in Israel, where he is an unabashed ambassador for the Jewish state. He is currently working on an initiative to encourage people to enter the March 15 Jerusalem Marathon. But he’s reaching out to churches—not synagogues—to promote participation.

Through a non-profit he founded, Genesis 123 Foundation, Feldstein created a separate initiative included in the marathon called Run for Zion, geared to Christians. He is encouraging individuals to sign up with crowdfunding pages to solicit donations that will support several non-profits in Israel. Those who reach certain donation levels will get free land packages and airfare subsidies. Feldstein is also offering price subsidies to ministries, churches and other Christian organizations who partner with him on Run for Zion and promote it to their members. “I’m telling them that ‘as Christians and runners, this is the most spiritual place you will ever run,’” he said in a phone interview from Israel.

Run for Zion has the blessing of Nir Barkat, the former mayor of Jerusalem. In a letter of support to Christian organizations, he wrote, “I am happy to invite you to participate in the Jerusalem Winner Marathon along with the Run for Zion. People of all faiths and from all over the world travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the splendor and uniqueness of this city. Your visit to Jerusalem and participation in the Jerusalem Winner Marathon sends an important message of solidarity in support of our city.”

Feldstein wants to give Christians an all encompassing taste of Israel—literally. He has also arranged tours and an explanatory Shabbat meal. “We will sing Psalms which they can relate to,” he said.

Feldstein founded Genesis 123 Foundation as part of his life’s work reaching out to Christians who are aligned with Israel. “Many Christians believe in and support Israel,” Feldstein said. “They care about the Bible, though from a different perspective. My goal is to make meaningful relationships between Jews and Christians and with Israel and find unique niches where we can connect.”

Feldstein’s road to becoming an Orthodox Jew, an Israeli and an ecumenical bridge builder had many twists and turns. He is the son of an Israeli father and grew up in a Jewish but secular home in Princeton, New Jersey. At Emory University in Atlanta, he began learning more about Judaism and taking steps to become observant. When he was elected president of Hillel, he decided to keep kosher and become shomer Shabbat to be a role model to Jews on campus and to students who had never seen or interacted with Jews previously.

After college, he worked for Israel’s Foreign Ministry in Atlanta and spoke to a Christian “Bless Israel Rally,” his first experience in working with Christian groups. It was the launching pad for a career encouraging Christians to support Israel financially and emotionally.

Feldstein lived in Teaneck from 1993 to 2004, where he was on the board of Rinat and one of the first board members of Yeshivat Noam. He engaged Christian groups only tangentially as the head of the Rockland County Federation. Since moving to Efrat, he has worked for several groups fund-raising among Christians, including for Magen David Adom. He has become a prolific writer, making the case for Israel to Christian groups and the case for Christian support to Jews.

Feldstein’s fundraising prowess has brought in millions of dollars for Israel’s non-profits. But for Feldstein, it’s about the relationships as well. A story he wrote for Charisma, a Christian publication, perhaps best sums up this feeling:

“I’m often asked why, as an Orthodox Jew, I would attend such events, speak to Christian audiences, visit churches, etc., or why I even care. I explain that when someone loves us unconditionally and embraces us wholeheartedly, my answer is to love and embrace them back.”

His earliest mentor was Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, who recently passed away. It is Feldstein’s hope to be remembered in a similar way. In an article for Breaking Israel, titled, “Learning Bridge Building from the Master Bridge Builder,” Feldstein wrote:

“If God gives me 67 years to do His work as he gave to Rabbi Eckstein, I want to make the most out of it. If I get that long, not only will I have spent about as much time building bridges as he did, but I know I can achieve a meaningful legacy. As he did.”

By Bracha Schwartz