‘A battle inside us’: Hebrew Catholics in the Holy Land wrestle with challenges of war

‘A battle inside us’: Hebrew Catholics in the Holy Land wrestle with challenges of war

Weekday Mass is celebrated in the Church of Sts. Simeon and Anne in Jerusalem, where the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community (keilla) gathers together. Marinella Bandini

By Marinella Bandini
Catholic News Agency

November 19, 2023

JERUSALEM— Among the many expressions of the Church in the Holy Land, the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community is the smallest. It comprises about a thousand Catholic faithful living in Israel, immersed in a Hebrew cultural and linguistic environment. But despite being a vibrant and diverse part of the Christian community, it remains relatively unknown even at the local level.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has devised a specific pastoral care plan for Hebrew-speaking Catholics through an association known as the St. James Vicariate. Eight priests are dedicated to serving in five parish communities (known as “kehilla” in Hebrew): Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa, Beer Sheva, and Tiberias. The vicariate also includes two communities of Russian-speaking faithful located in Haifa and Latrun.

The large majority of Catholic people in the Holy Land are Arabic-speaking — many of them know Hebrew but are not fluent. Hebrew-speaking Catholics sometimes attend activities with Arab-speaking Catholic communities, especially young people and especially in Galilee (Tiberias, Haifa) and Tel Aviv.

Before becoming a vicariate, the Association of St. James was founded in 1955 as a Catholic association dedicated to developing Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities in the state of Israel. (St. James was the head of the early Christian community in Jerusalem at the time of the apostles.) Since 2013, the St. James Vicariate constitutes an autonomous vicariate within the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The head of the vicariate is a Polish priest, Father Piotr Zelazko, who has been living in Israel for 15 years. CNA met him at the Church of Sts. Simeon and Anna in Jerusalem, where he lives and oversees the activities of the vicariate.

In these weeks since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, Zelazko’s task has become even more challenging.

On Oct. 7, the mobile phones of Zelazko and his parishioners began to sound missile alarms, accompanied by increasingly dramatic messages.

“We are still in the mourning phase; it takes time,” he said. “People ask us for words of hope, consolation, and explanation. We try to guide our people, but as priests, we are also affected; we are all part of this society. Faith helps us, but it’s not automatic.”

“Everyone here knows someone who died that day or people who lost someone, and this has left a mark,” the priest said. “I myself attended some funerals, and I have a friend who was kidnapped and is now in Gaza.”

That friend is Alex Dancyg, a 75-year-old Jew of Polish origin who lived in Kibbutz Nir Oz and has dedicated his life to dialogue between Poles and Jews/Israelis.

“We have many contacts with people involved in interreligious dialogue,” Zelazko told CNA. “Unfortunately, most of the victims of the Oct. 7 attacks were individuals open to dialogue, and many of the kibbutzim attacked had a pacifist orientation.”

Zelazko shared some of his insights into the small but diverse Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in the Holy Land.

“Many of our faithful are migrants — mostly Filipinos who came to Israel for work reasons,” he said. “There are several people of Jewish descent but also Arab families who moved from the north to the south of the country for employment and whose first language became Hebrew. For their children and the second generations of migrants, Hebrew is the main language: They were born in Israel and attend school in Hebrew.”

A growing number of young men and women from the community are now serving in the Israeli military. According to Zelazko, “they are like our children: We have seen them grow in our parishes, in catechism, and at camps.”

Since the beginning of the war, he said, “we try to stay in constant contact with them, to make them feel that they are not alone, that we pray for them. Sometimes we manage to send them some small gifts, and occasionally a priest can reach some of them. When a young person enters the army, we give them a special blessing and pray that they don’t forget the values they learned in Church, which are Christian values but above all, human values.”

More than 20 young men and women from the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community are currently in military service or have been called up to serve. Some are on the front lines, others in offices, and still others are involved in missile defense systems. Some have returned to Israel to serve their nation.

On Oct. 7, Eitan (not his real name) was in Italy when he was called back to duty. He told CNA that his heart “was torn to hear the testimonies that reminded me of the horrors of the Holocaust. I was worried that the flight back to Israel would be canceled, and indeed when I landed in Israel it was under threat of missiles and it was the last flight.”

Even before the war, Eitan was already working with the military.

“Everyone knew about my Christian faith. I chose the Christian religion and not the Jewish one in which I grew up, but I am very proud to be a soldier and to help in the war for the very existence of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.”

In these weeks, he is also trying to safeguard his spiritual life.

“I pray the rosary every day and ask Mary, the queen of peace, for an overwhelming military victory over Islamic terrorism, that will hopefully bring peace. I ask my community to pray for the safety of the IDF soldiers and for peace in the Holy Land between Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Druze.” (Druze are ethnically Arabic-speaking Arabs whose religion incorporates beliefs from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity as well as ideas from Greek philosophy and Hinduism.)

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