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U.S. Christian Zionists stage telethon in support of Israel

By Ami Eden
August 12, 2002

Dozens of Christian television stations are slated to air a five-hour telethon this week in support of Israeli victims of terrorism, with half the money raised earmarked for a fund organized by the United Jewish Communities and its national network of charitable federations.

Dubbed "Comfort My People," the telethon was the brainchild of Belarmino "Blackie" Gonzalez, owner of the Santa Fe, NM-based Christian television station KCHF-TV11. It will be broadcast via satellite from the Pittsburgh studios of Cornerstone Television, a Christian media outlet associated with televangelist Ron Hembree.

Gonzalez, whose station reaches 85 percent of homes in New Mexico, came up with the idea for the national telethon after he was asked by Andrew Lipman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Albuquerque, to help raise money for victims of terrorism.

Half of the money
is going to the
Emergency Fund,
the other half will
be used to produce
daily news
segments on Israel
for Christian
television stations.

"About six or seven weeks ago I was praying," Gonzalez said, "and I said, `God, what would you have us do for Israel? I know they need help more than ever before. I know that encouraging people to go isn't enough.' And so, a week later, I got a call from Andrew."

Rather than simply air a local telethon, as he did several years ago to support the Albuquerque federation's efforts to pay for Russian Jewish immigration to Israel, Gonzalez decided to approach fellow Christian broadcasters across the country. He insisted that participating stations donate the air time and cover expenses, so that every cent raised would go to the designated causes. "Just about everybody I have called has answered yes," said Gonzalez, a nondenominational Christian who was "born again" in 1968 and who has been observing the Jewish Sabbath for the past two years.

According to Gonzalez and other telethon organizers, half of the haul is going to the Albuquerque federation, which will then transfer its entire share to the UJC's Israel Emergency Fund. The other half of the money will be used to produce daily news segments on Israel for Christian television stations.

"We feel there is a tremendous bias in the news coming out of Israel," said Oleen Eagle, president of Cornerstone Television. "What we would like to do is to tell it like it is." Although local federations and regional chapters of Jewish organizations have been shedding their unease about working with evangelical Christians on behalf of Israel, the telethon appears to be the first time that a federation has tapped into the national infrastructure of Christian media.

With other recent attempts to mobilize , the program raises the possibility of two unorthodox developments. One, albeit distant, possibility is that the evangelical community will create a mammoth pro-Israel juggernaut that will dwarf existing Jewish organizations. Another, more likely, possibility is that the telethon might be a harbinger of ground-breaking efforts to integrate conservative Christians activists and dollars into the federation system or other existing Jewish organizations, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

For now, according to Lipman, the Albuquerque federation plans to limit its fund-raising activities with conservative Christians to projects directly benefiting Israel and Israelis. "All we are doing is capitalizing on what we already saw was the desire of Christians to contribute to and support Israel," said Lipman, who will be appearing on the telethon. "Our feeling was, `Why not let them contribute through us?'" A source familiar with the planning of the August 13 broadcast said it was possible that the telethon could end up raising more than $1 million in five hours. Since the UJC emergency fund was officially unveiled in April, federations have sent in almost $60 million and pledged another $250 million.

Lipman said he received the blessing of UJC officials. According to Lipman, however, the national organization has decided not to send an official to appear on air. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a group that raises money from evangelicals for Israel, stopped funneling his organization's funds through UJC. Eckstein said his decision was fueled by UJC's unwillingness to publicize the contributions of evangelicals. But Lipman said his sense was that UJC's reasons for not getting involved in the telethon had to do with a shortage of manpower.

"UJC made a policy decision as a corporation not to get involved with these Christian fund-raising efforts around the country," Lipman said. Instead, he added, UJC officials concluded it was best to leave such efforts to local federations. "It would take too much staff time," he said. "It's easier for them to say, `Go ahead, you have our blessing, we'll help you if you need help.'" In response to an interview request, UJC spokesman Glenn Rosenkrantz issued the following statement: "UJC is very grateful to evangelicals and other Christians for their support of the Israeli people during this critical and challenging time, and we welcome their efforts to increase their support through a telethon. We support the Albuquerque federation's efforts to make this effort a success."

In addition to working with Gonzalez's operation, which includes a radio station, the Albuquerque federation has also teamed up with a group of local Christians to raise money for Israel-related causes. So far, Lipman said, his organization has not attempted to raise money from Christians for the federation's annual campaign benefiting local, national and international Jewish causes.

Such a step, Lipman said, would pose tricky questions for the federation system, including concerns that the Jewish community should be taking care of its own needs. "That's an area we are moving slowly on," Lipman said. "I don't know how they would feel donating to the general fund. Long term we will have to see how that develops. I would give a lot of thought to it."

By arrangement with the Forward