Finding Jesus in Israel (Part 2)

Vicar of Hebrew-Speaking Catholics Tells His Story

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ROME, FEB. 27, 2012 ( Father David Neuhaus was born into a Jewish family and yet at an early age he converted to Christianity. 

Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need spoke with the priest, who serves as the Patriarchal Vicar of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic vicariate in Israel.

Part 1 of this interview was published Friday.

Q: You are the Patriarchal Vicar of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic vicariate in Israel. Can you tell us what this vicariate is and what is the vision of this Catholic community? 

Father Neuhaus: In 1955, a pious association called The Work of St. James was established in Israel in order to take care of the thousands of Catholics who had found their way to Israel — usually part members of Jewish families because of the large waves of immigration that came particularly from Europe. Some Jewish men were married to Catholic women — that was the general model. Some of their children were baptized and they felt need for a pastoral presence among these people. These people became very fast part and parcel of Jewish Hebrew-speaking Israeli society and therefore, by definition, did not find their place in the majority Arabic-speaking church. This community dwindled over the years — it is an enormous challenge to be a Catholic in a Jewish Hebrew-speaking Israeli society. It dwindled primarily because of assimilation, primarily because we were not able to keep our young people, practicing Catholics, and they gradually disappeared assimilating into secular society. What happened though was that there were further enormous waves of immigration; Russian speakers, but not only them, also huge groups of foreign workers, refugees and even now, of Arab Christians who for economic reasons are moving to Jewish towns where their children — all of the above children — are integrated into Hebrew-speaking schools and thus speak Hebrew as their first language. It has become more and more necessary to develop this Hebrew-speaking presence. Although our sacramental communities are very small our catechetical challenge is enormous — to guarantee the continuing Catholic identity and offer a faith experience to Catholic children who are part and parcel of Hebrew-speaking Jewish society. 

Q: Hebrew is of course an identifying characteristic of the Jewish tradition. How do the Jews respond to your work? Do you not face animosity in this question? 

Father Neuhaus: I think that, because of the peculiarity of a Catholic community or any kind of Christian community praying in Hebrew, the first response is not animosity but shock — shock to hear the Mass celebrated in Hebrew, shock to hear Christians talking about their faith in Hebrew. We have an active Web site and there too the primary language of our communication with each other and our primary language of our communication with the larger society is Hebrew. So the first reaction is shock – this is our language and you are speaking it. Sometimes it can turn into animosity and we try to understand that from the place of a deep identification with the pain of the Jewish people in the light of the centuries of Christian-Jewish animosity and suffering through the centuries so that we try not to be reactive but rather to come from a place of understanding and patience and love for the Jewish people. So that we continue our life and we are very insistent that we are part and parcel of the society. We celebrate in Hebrew. We discuss in Hebrew. We are now publishing our catechism books in Hebrew and thanks be to God we have the freedom to do that. 

Q: Do you have members who are Jews? 

Father Neuhaus: Among the immigrants, also some are Jews. It needs to be stated that because we do not go out and proselytize, we do not have a large number of Jewish members who have come to Christ through our work. More often, it is Jewish people who might have met Christ somewhere else and find our community as their home. We have very, very few conversions and each one is a very particular one and an individual story in the life of our community, but we are very sensitive to trying to allow our Catholics, whether they are of Jewish origin or not, to find an expression of their faith that would inculturate them within the society in which we live, in other words, be sensitive to the language, to the traditions, to the feasts, to the cultural mores of the Jewish traditions that defines life in Hebrew-speaking Israeli society. 

Q: Do the converted live in secrecy? 

Father Neuhaus: We have religious freedom in Israel. We are a country where people can make religious choices. The problem of course is social and family pressure; conversion is not looked upon lightly or kindly within Jewish society as with most other societies, I would imagine and so much of the pressure that prospective converts might face does not come from state or from a legal situation but from families that would be shocked. Yes, we do have families or individuals who live to some degree in secrecy and others who live very openly. 

Q: You have a particular charisma with your work. Would you say that your role has been somehow pre-ordained?

Father Neuhaus: I’m still struggling with that plan because for the first nine years of my priestly life, I was professor of Scripture in the seminary and I thought that was the plan. I love teaching Scripture and that is evident in the way I form the community. I’m not sure. I leave that up to God. What the future of this particular mission is, I leave it up to Him. 

Q: What kind of institutional support do you have within the society to support your work?

Father Neuhaus: We do not have schools and to be perfectly honest we are still debating whether we should have schools because one of the challenges for us is not to live in a ghetto, not to set up too many institutions that would separate us from mainstream society. We are talking about a small number. We are talking about a society that is rich and that has very, very good institutions — schools and hospitals, so that there is no need from that point of view to set up our own institutions. But the challenge of course is, and this is the greatest challenge that we have in our particular vicariate, how to transmit the faith from generation to generation? How can we do that integrated into society when the pull of secular society is very, very strong? We believe that we have to work very, very hard, in order once again to allow our children to experience our faith and probably the only way to really accomplish that is to create oases of joy, oases of peace. Of course it goes back to my own experience: I was attracted to the Church because it was a place of joy. Can we make our communities places of joy? 

One of the expressions of community life that I’m very proud of is our children’s summer camp where we have an incredible variety of children who come together, whether they come from Russian-speaking families, or Filipinos, or Africans or Arab-speaking families that live in Hebrew speaking areas; these children all come together and they discover that they have two very important things in common: they speak the same language — Hebrew — and they are Catholics. What we try to create there is a real experience of joy that might give them the stamina to continue in their search of a real faith life. 

Q: How do you see your place within the larger Catholic community? 

Father Neuhaus: We must be integrated into the local Church and of course, that is never simple because of the political conflict in the land. Hebrew-speakers and Arabic-speakers are often divided by politics. The Church is called to give a witness to the fact that in Christ there are no borders. The obstacles come down in Christ and we are one in His body. This is a very, very important subject for me personally. When I came to the land, I already knew Hebrew. I started to learn Arabic. I hav
e been integrated into the life of the Arabic-speaking Church always and particularly since I became a priest — I’m a professor in the seminary which is an Arabic-speaking seminary — and so here again I think we are called to incarnate an alternative to the reality we that see outside where between Arabs and Jews there is an abyss between them. In the Church, I think we need to give expression to the possibility that we be indeed one in peace because He is our peace; if He is not our peace we are giving a poor witness. 

Q: You’ve given account of your role within the Jewish environment. How are you within the Arab environment — are you sitting between two chairs? 

Father Neuhaus: I like to think that I am sitting on two chairs. We have to work at it. I’d like to make reference to what happened at the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East some time ago: I gave my testimony about our little community and many, many bishops came to me afterwards to say how pleased they were to know about this very small and unknown community. Again, our role is not politics. Our role is really to give witness to the fact that our little community is also giving witness to the risen Lord in the land that was His historically. We do this in full communion with our Arab brothers and sisters; again, though politics divide us, perhaps. I wouldn’t say that that is true of all the members of the Hebrew-speaking members of the vicariate, some of whom are great workers for peace and justice in the land. I’d like to think of myself in those terms as well, really struggling that there would be justice for the Palestinian people but our primary aim is the one of saying: It is possible in Jesus Christ because He is our peace and because He is our Peace there is no more Jew or Arab in His body. We are one. One body of Christ. 

Q: Over the last 20 years, tens of thousands of immigrants have arrived from the former Soviet Union. You did mention earlier that there were certainly many Jews but many Christians came as family members. How has this impacted your work? 

Father Neuhaus: Well we have new members, of course. As you say quite rightly the vast majority of the tens of thousands of Christians within the wave of close to a million new immigrants to Israel are in fact Orthodox and that has led to the creation of small but vibrant Orthodox communities — Byzantine rite communities all over Israel and they continue their life of faith, often again very discreetly and in some way hidden because many of these people have come to Israel as Jews and then give expression of their Christian faith once they are in Israel. At the same time, it is also true that many Russian speakers who were in fact Christian did not find their place in Israel when they realized that in Israel too, there are no institutions, no structures to support Christian life. Many of those who were in fact Christians either went back to the countries they came from or continued on their way to other Western countries. And so we’ve also lost a number of those families who have made the choice that Israel was not for them. 

Q: What is your message to Christians and Jews? 

Father Neuhaus: I think that the first message would be one of hope; let us hope that just as Jews and Catholics, after centuries of a very traumatic relationship, have entered into a new age, that this might also be the future of the Middle East. We need to work very hard — both praying very hard and working very hard — for reconciliation. And we need the support of the world. The world needs to both encourage us and also help us make it worthwhile for us to find the ways to open up a new age in the Middle East, an age where all peoples will find their home in Jerusalem and by extension all throughout the Middle East. The Middle East is passing through a very difficult time and that difficult time has been provoked by events that have taken place in the last 100 to 150 years, which has led to the forgetfulness of the richness of what Middle East society can be. When we think a hundred years ago there were Christians, Jews and Muslims of all kind living in a community that had a much deeper appreciation of the richness of pluralism than we do today. I think that we need to build a bridge between the past, which was much more pluralist, to a future that, hopefully, will be much more pluralist. 

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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