TABGHA — Here, on this spot on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Christians believe that Jesus fed thousands of people with nothing but five loaves of bread and two fish. The Church of Multiplication that was rebuilt in Tabgha in the 1980s was built over a fifth century mosaic that depicts these sacred fish and bread. The church is on a picturesque piece of land with gardens, farmland and a little stream running through the grass to the sea.

The Christian population in Israel is less than two percent but the church draws thousands of visitors each year from around the world. Today, the church and surrounding land are the property of the German Association of the Holy Land. This site is maintained by five Benedictine monks, among them the Rev. Matthias Karl. Dressed in long black robes and wearing circular-framed glasses, Karl noted that while, “We [Christians] are a minority [in Israel], it is true that minorities have problems all over the world – and in theory, in front of the law, we are all equal.”

Father Matthias Karl (Godland News / Kat Moon)

The theology of equality that Karl espouses is played out in a program at the church called Beit Noah, the house of Noah, a place where people of all faiths are welcome. Generosity is built into Tabgha’s mission, said Karl, because Jesus preformed his most generous deeds on these grounds. For the last 40 years, with a particular growth in the last five years or so, the church has been inviting disabled and traumatized Israeli and Palestinian children to stay on the property. The groups that most commonly come to the church may be either physically or mentally handicapped – particularly children with autism or Down syndrome.

The diverse and all-encompassing nature of Beit Noah seems to fit perfectly within the context of the parables of Tabgha. Rev. John Duffell at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in New York explained that the main theme of the “feeding of the multitude” is inclusivity. “The entire holy community gathered, not just [Jesus’] followers. He didn’t make any distinctions, and he said to feed ‘all who are there.’ As long as they are good people, it doesn’t matter about the color of their skin, their language or sexual orientation.”

The story exemplifies how Jesus was radical in society for his time, said Duffell. This kind of thought process is how society is going to be made better today, he added.

Paul Nordhausen, the Pedagogical Director of Beit Noah (who is also a German and Christian, but not a monk), said that, “The idea of the program is from the moment the children enter the gates, we try to encourage them to come in as humans first – not as Muslims, Jews or Christians.”

The groups of children come in three different “categories” – from Israel, from East Jerusalem and from the West Bank. They currently cannot bring any groups from Gaza, Nordhausen said, because the current political situation there is too difficult. The groups of children that come from Israeli schools are required to have an armed guard with them at all times. Groups from the West Bank sometimes won’t tell the children they are traveling to Beit Noah, because they don’t know if they’ll be able to make it through the West Bank checkpoints.

“We make people meet on a very basic level here,” Nordhausen said. “I don’t impose any program on them, because first of all, I don’t believe as a German I can tell anyone here what to do. And second, I believe the meetings have to be done by parties in the conflict.” He stressed, however, the importance of leaving the conflict in the outside world, and to focus on having a good time together.

While most groups are special needs, the program does not provide any specialty assistance or healthcare. The offer of the space is that it’s free, but they do not offer any kind of mental health care or physical therapy. They do, however, take volunteers who are mostly German or American to help the program run smoothly.

Carolin Willimsky, a recent German volunteer at Beit Noah, described working at the organization as “the best thing that ever happened” to her. It is a peaceful place, with serene work like feeding animals, gardening, welcoming guests and prayer, she said.

Willimsky recalled one of her favorite times at Beit Noah when the group SOS Children Village from Bethlehem came to stay at the retreat. She and the children were playing a counting game. “We played in Arabic and English and suddenly we starting playing in Hebrew. One of the girls [from Bethlehem] started to count in Hebrew which was very exciting for me. These kids don’t have good experiences with Israelis. They just know them as soldiers or as superior power. To play in Hebrew with these kids from Bethlehem meant hope.”

The main “hang out” place for the kids and the volunteers is in the steam in the center of the garden. Everyone can swim, converse and cool down in the hot summer – the most popular time for the Beit Noah program. “Perhaps the different groups can take this sense of peace and diversity back into the outside world after their stay,” said Nordhausen. “But that is definitely not our first priority because this is not a political or even religious thing. It’s to forget the outside world and have fun.”