Seventh-day Adventists fit into the rhythms — and faiths — of Israeli life

First published in Religion News Service (RNS)

JERUSALEM — Like many religiously observant Israelis, Julio Mendez and his wife, Milagros, were frantically preparing for the Sabbath as sundown approached on a Friday in late March. As leaders of their religious community for the past 15 years, Milagros was in charge of Friday night dinner, coordinating a 20-person potluck featuring an assortment of salads, vegetarian lasagna, zucchini soup and home-baked desserts.

Speeding down Ma’ale HaShalom street at 4 p.m. in his white 2012 Toyota Corolla, Julio, 62, was paying a final visit to an ill friend before sundown.

The Mendezes are Sabbath observers, but they are not Jewish. They belong to a small Christian minority in Israel of Seventh-day Adventists, who number just 900 in the entire country — a tiny fraction even of Israel’s Christian population. Julio Mendez is the senior pastor of Jerusalem’s only Adventist church, on Abraham Lincoln Street in Jerusalem’s Old City center.

While in other countries the world’s 21 million Adventists stand out beyond their numbers for their Saturday services and their public evangelism, here in Israel the group can be easy to miss. Being an Adventist, for one thing, doesn’t preclude a believer from belonging to another faith.

In Haifa, Sergey Gregoriev is the Adventists’ senior pastor of northern Israel. Gregoriev also considers himself Jewish. “For me, being a Seventh-day Adventist is in harmony with my Jewish roots,” said Gregoriev, who arrived in Israel as part of the million-strong wave of Russian-speaking immigrants in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The Seventh-day Adventist Life and Hope Center on Ben Gurion Street in Haifa, Israel. Photo credit: Natacha Larnaud

Given the fluidity with other faiths, Adventist churches often reflect their converts’ native religions. The Jerusalem congregation, for instance, seems particularly Jewish.

“We do not encourage our community members to drive on the Sabbath, or engage in business matters,” said Mendez as he pulled up outside the church on Abraham Lincoln Street. On a wall was a gold plaque that read in Hebrew: “The international congregation of Sabbath-keeping Seventh-day Adventists in Jerusalem. Everyone is welcome.”

Inside, a Torah ark, covered by a blue velvet curtain emblazoned with two gilded menorahs, stood in the center of the room. The room looked like a standard synagogue, but in a telling sign that it wasn’t, a Hebrew copy of the New Testament rested on a rosewood stand in front of the Torah ark, left open to a passage from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus entering Jerusalem.

Julio Mendez has been the senior pastor of Jerusalem’s only Adventist church for the past 15 years. Photo credit: Jonathan Harounoff

The Torah ark, Mendez said, was brought to the church by Morocco-born Richard Elofer, himself a Jew, who became the president of the Adventist community after marrying an Adventist woman.

“If the Kotel is full and someone wants to celebrate their bar mitzvah with a Sefer Torah, they can come here free of charge,” Mendez said.

Two hours’ drive away in Nazareth, Wisam Ali, the chief Adventist pastor for the country’s Arabic-speaking community, was born into an influential Muslim family where his father was the head of his local tribe and his uncle the imam.

“My decision was the ultimate shame to my family. They even called a council to discuss the matter,” said Ali.

He is now working on building the country’s first Arabic-speaking Adventist church in Israel.

The Seventh-day Adventists originated in 19th-century upstate New York as an offshoot of the Millerites, who believed Christ’s second coming would occur in 1844. When it failed to materialize, a fact known as the Great Disappointment, the Adventist movement’s leaders claimed that Jesus had instead entered a heavenly sanctuary on the expected date and that his return to earth would be nonetheless imminent. Since then, the Adventist movement has continued to grow, with some 86,000 churches worldwide.

They believe the Bible to be infallible — their Saturday Sabbath reflects the Book of Genesis’ account that God rested on the seventh day.

“We have 28 fundamental beliefs in the Adventist Church, all found in the Old and New Testament,” said Mendez.

Core to the faith is tending to the body as God’s divine creation, which is why many Adventists follow healthy, plant-based diets, abstaining from alcohol, caffeine and smoking. Studies such as the Blue Zones projects have shown that Adventists live on average a decade longer than non-Adventists.

Engaging in same-sex relations is heavily discouraged. “We do not condemn homosexuals, but we always encourage them not to engage in homosexual acts,” Mendez said. “It is not the original plan, and we help our young members who have those tendencies through rehabilitation programs and counseling sessions.”

But the Adventist community in Israel remains relatively unknown to the public and has attracted little media attention, something the Mendezes are hoping to change. They have recently struck up strategic partnerships with local tour guides in Jerusalem in a bid to raise awareness of the city’s Adventist community.

The entrance to the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Abraham Lincoln Street in Jerusalem. Photo by Jonathan Harounoff

One guide, a regular visitor to the church, attracts large groups of Jewish travelers who have never heard of the Adventist community.

“Most people are shocked when they see us,” Julio Mendez said, “but I also say that if you believe in Jesus, you would also keep the Sabbath because Jesus and his disciples were all Sabbath keepers.”

“Many Israelis seem confused that we keep Shabbat,” said Milagros Mendez, as her husband nodded. “They assume that all Christians are Sunday keepers, but, for me, this is a chance to teach people that there are Christian Shabbat keepers, too.”

But sharing a Sabbath is a long way from sharing a faith, according to Joel Collick, a British-born Jewish Jerusalem resident. “Even though Adventists incorporate the Sabbath into their faith, I don’t know how well received they would be among Jewish communities in Israel because the fundamental theological differences are what would stand out more.”

Overnight in Bethlehem

Snapshots from our dinner and home-stay experiences with Palestinian families in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala

By Tatyana Turner, Giacomo Tognini, Eleonore Voisard, Natacha Larnaud, Haleluya Hadero, Jonathan Harounoff, Bella Farr

Part 1: Tatyana Turner,

(Photo: Tatyana Turner)

It was the start of an unforgettable night in Bethlehem. Though Michelle and I were very excited about the venture with our host family, the unknown made us feel apprehensive. But after a few short minutes of conversing on the comfortable black leather chairs in the lobby of the Jacir Palace Hotel, our minds were put at ease.  

Reema Azar, a woman wearing a neat updo and a kind smile, escorted us to her car. Our host is a third grade teacher and lifelong Bethlehem resident. She explained that she only lived five minutes away from the hotel, but because of rush hour we were caught in traffic. Nevertheless, our 20-minute car ride was enriching because we were able to drive through the urban parts of Bethlehem as we passed through the town’s main center, including Manger Square with its stately church and brightly lit boutiques.

During our ride, Reema gave us some background on her family. She has three daughters ages 24, 20 and 16, and an 11-year-old son. Reema’s husband, whom she met in her youth at Sunday School, built the home for their family. In 2000, he expanded the size of the home to accommodate guests as another source of income. Our arrival was greeted with music: Joseph, the 11-year-old, played mellow tunes on his lute, accompanied by his father on the drums.

Part 2: Giacomo Tognini and Zachary Folk

When we arrived at our host Jeries Qumsieh’s home, on the border of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, we quickly discovered we knew one of his cousins. Our professor Greg Khalil is a member of Jeries’ mother’s family, the Abu Farhas.
Through our conversations with Jeries and his family, we heard an alternative to the brain drain that is plaguing Palestinian Christians throughout the West Bank. Jeries’ wife, Rudaina Sahoury, is an English teacher in a local school in Bethlehem. While Jeries is acutely aware of the difficulties of living under occupation — he was imprisoned in an Israeli jail from age 15 to 17 for throwing stones during the first intifada — he said he is deeply loyal to his hometown.

“I will never leave here,” he said, as we got into his car, outside the tall, concrete apartment block where he lives. “I have family in America, in Flint, but for me, this is home.”

We took the car for a quick drive to a nearby shop with two of his three young daughters — Nutra, Cedra, and Christa — to buy a gift for Mother’s Day, which was the following day. Nutra and Cedra were excited, speaking in excellent English about their plans for the Mother’s Day party at their primary school.

As he began to prepare a meal of pasta with spiced meat and mushrooms, Jeries mused about the local education system. “The schools here teach Arabic, English, French, and German,” he said. “But I wish that my children could learn Hebrew, because they will need it.”

He speaks from experience: Jeries works as a plumber in Jerusalem. Over our meal he showed us two large blue papers, which were his Jerusalem ID cards: one for his work, allowing him to enter Jerusalem every day from 5 am to 10 pm, and the other card allowing him religious pilgrimage for a few weeks over Easter.

The end of the evening took a much more somber tone, as Jeries and his wife began getting news alerts about a shooting that took place at the Bethlehem checkpoint. The parents turned the TV channel to the news, away from the movie that the children had been enjoying. As we watched the coverage, Jeries browsed Facebook for more updates. There were a lot of unknown facts about the shooting, but he was able to check in with family members quickly to assure their safety.

Part 3: Eleonore Voisard

In Beit Sahour, Nadine recently graduated high school. Her father makes Christian art out of olive wood. In these photos he carves crosses that he will turn into fridge magnets.

(Photos: Eleonore Voisard)

Part 4: Natacha Larnaud and Radha Dhar

When we first arrived at Marcelle and Elias Bandak’s home, Radha, Thea and I were greeted like old family friends. As we settled onto their living room couches, the Bandaks noted with laughter that we said “thank you” every time we were offered drinks, food, or blankets.

“There are two things Americans tend to say a lot,” said Thea. “Thank you, and sorry.” This was all it took to break the ice.

Marcelle and Elias, both 34 years old, are an energetic and good-looking couple from Bethlehem. Marcelle is a stay-at-home mom and Elias a basketball coach and referee. The family is observant Christians: both adults wore crosses, and religious candles and icons filled the living room space.

The couple’s young daughters-- Alleen, 3 and Ormella, 6--spent all night talking about the costume party that was supposed to take place at their school the next day. They both chose to dress as characters from the movie Frozen.

We continued our conversation over dinner in the kitchen. Marcelle had prepared savoury lentils with caramelized onions, diced cucumber and tomatoes. We were served green tea with fruit and local sweets for dessert.

As we sat back on the couches after dinner, the couple shared an apple and mint shisha, a regular evening ritual for them. Elias enjoys debate and discussion about many topics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Marcelle was more peaceful, and wanted to show us a dramatic Lebanese soap opera she enjoys (which I must say was pretty captivating to the rest of us). Her philosophy was to let go of what is out of her control. “You’re going to talk about this again, Elias?” she said when her husband started speculating about the future of their country. “Khalas habibi (enough, dear),  life is today, not tomorrow.”

In the middle of our conversation, the news broke that a Palestinian man had been shot at the checkpoint on his way home. The mood shifted. Elias’ rebellious attitude turned into a deep silence which lasted until the end of the night and Marcelle’s positivity turned into exhaustion. As she was sitting on the couch, phone in hand, exchanging texts with family and friends about what had happened to find out more, she sighed. “It’s all the time. And it’s closer and closer. I’m just tired.”

She later found out that schools would be closed the following day due to the incident. When I expressed my concern about the girls being disappointed that the costume party was cancelled, she said, “While we’re here worrying about a costume party, two mothers are mourning their son.”

We stayed up talking about the power of intercultural experiences as a solution to break stereotypes and hopefully one day achieve peace. Hosting foreigners as the Bandaks do gives people the opportunity to live their life through their lense for a short period of time, and breaks any stereotypes one may have about Palestinians, which to be completely honest, I myself had before staying overnight with them.

Our farewell followed a delicious breakfast which included pita bread, olive oil, zaatar and labneh, in the company of Alleen, their younger daughter. Elias drove us back to the hotel, and as we hugged goodbye and thanked them for a lovely stay, we promised that one day, we’d be back for longer.

(Photos: Natacha Larnaud)

Part 5: Haleluya Hadero

A quick glance inside the Maria house in Bethlehem signals this is a Christian home. Wooden crosses are spread across the white walls, small paintings of Christ and the Virgin Mary are tucked inside the brown living room doors, and bright red stitched art with the phrase, “God bless our home” is framed on top of tables.

George and Natalie Maria’s family is Catholic, and worships weekly at the Church of the Nativity. It’s not lost on them they worship in places most Christians only dream about. “I count it as a gift,” George said about his birthplace.

Under the bright fluorescent lighting in the white-tiled dining area, we enjoyed an “upside down” meal -- a yellow rice dish mixed with zucchini, yellow corn, spiced potatoes, and sliced carrots, coupled with stuffed green olive leaves, and a mixed bowl of bright red tomatoes and chopped cucumbers.

For Natalie, stuffed olive leaves are a cumbersome dish to prepare. It requires patience to continuously wrap the leaves, one after another, around tiny scoops of rice. But in the end, it pays off – in addition to looking beautiful laid out atop the green tablecloth, they’re George’s favorite dish.

Michline, one of the couple’s four children, took a break from her dentistry studies to welcome us. She attends a private college, something, according to George, is common in Bethlehem. “All the Christians send their children to private schools,” he said. They worry about safety in public schools, and ultimately, problems with mixing students of different backgrounds together in the school system. But for the most part, the couple hopes to tune out the problems on their doorsteps.  

Before we ended our night, we took a slow stroll in the old city, up to the Church of the Nativity, a mere ten-minute walk from the house. Looking up at the bright red cross on top of the church, I told George that as a fellow Christian, I wanted proof that Christ was indeed born in this spot.

He turned around and looked at me. “Do you believe?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“That’s the only proof you need,” he said.

Part 6: Jonathan Harounoff

When Paul, David and I stayed with the Khair family in Beit Sahour, we experienced much more than a delicious dinner. Our host Therese, an East Orthodox nurse and mother of two, encouraged discussion about family and community over the course of our stay in the two-story home.

Mais, Therese’s 16-year-old daughter, told us about an important religion test she would take the next day at her private Christian school. Beit Sahour, just east of Bethlehem, is overwhelmingly Christian, with a minority Muslim population. Around 80 percent of the town’s inhabitants belong to some type of Christian denomination, Therese told me.

Therese poured each one of us a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade made from lemons she had been growing on her property. Religion, politics and nursing all came up over dinner, but Mais’s studies dominated conversation. She was torn between wanting to leave her home town for better academic opportunities and staying with her family and settling for a below-par education.

The next day, as Paul and I entered the family’s living room, Mais was in a celebratory mood. Her exam was cancelled because of a town-wide strike. The reason for the strike was less cause for celebration. Though the full details were yet to emerge, a Palestinian had been shot at a checkpoint, causing many shop owners and professionals to shut down their businesses as a form of protest. One of the shops I walked past bore the following sign:

                  إضراب إحتراماً لدم الشهيد

                 Striking in honor (and support) of the martyr

Part 7: Bella Farr

After a long day traveling through the West Bank, we were thankful to spend a night with our host family in Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town just east of Bethlehem. We were greeted by Kawkab, a nurse who often hosts people from all over the world in her home.

The family was warm, welcoming, and, thankfully, liked to eat. Her four children, who ranged from 13 to 26 in age, popped in and out of the kitchen in their pajamas, sneaking bites of pita. Scooping large helpings of maqluba and mujaddara onto our plates, the family plied us with questions: “what are you studying, why are you here, and what do you think of Palestine?”

We spoke about our backgrounds, and learned more about theirs. The family’s only daughter, Luciana, was in the process of getting a master’s degree in environmental studies in Ramallah, and Elias, the family’s middle son, was working at a gift shop in Bethlehem and had just finished his bachelor’s degree in media studies. He had completed his thesis on the impacts of media on the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

After sharing a pot of hot tea and watching an episode of an Egyptian soap opera, we went to bed in a newly renovated portion of the house. The family plans to move into the space this summer in order to start renting out the rest of the house to Airbnb guests. We fell asleep under Donald Duck blankets, using their high speed internet connection to watch a made-for-TV movie on Netflix.

The following morning, everyone was running late. After getting downstairs, Kawkab told us to hurry while serving up large portions of eggs cooked in olive oil and seasoned with zaatar. We missed the Covering Religion group, but it was nice to feel at home for a little while.

Christians bathe in a dirty, holy river. Some drink with faith.

QASR AL-YAHUD -- Surrounded by the desert’s vastness, and flanked by the hulks of abandoned Christian monasteries and chapels, the Jordan River flows placidly into what many Christians call the baptismal site of Jesus Christ, where John the Baptist performed the ritual.

On a recent bustling
morning, pilgrims sang hymns from a wooden deck overlooking the river. People
filtered in and out of the water as a woman in pearls bobbed up and down,
gasping for air before immersing again. Naked children screamed and cried as smiling
adults handed them to others in the water.

The spirit
of religiosity was very much alive at Qasr al-Yahud.

Just ask Zelalem Gerbermariem,
29, a self-declared “believer” in the Coptic Christian Church. A Jerusalem
resident of Ethiopian descent, Gerbermariem just completed  his fifth baptism at Qasr al-Yahud, where
other believers come in droves each year to drizzle, wade or plunge themselves
into the holy water, colored a mocha brown.

Gerbermariem drinks the water. By the plastic bottle, in fact.

holy water,” he said, shaking his head before flashing a grin. “It’s not dirty.
It’s blessed.”

What Gerbermariem doesn’t know — like most other visitors — is the levels of fecal-derived bacteria at Qasr al-Yahud have long surpassed the acceptable quality standards imposed by the Israeli government, which administers this part of the West Bank. The levels have been climbing lately. The devout continue to visit — and some, acting in faith, choose to imbibe.

Data obtained by the
nonprofit EcoPeace from Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority shows that fecal
coliform bacteria has been on an upward trajectory since September 2018, at the
onset of heavier rainfall and colder temperatures in the area. The most recent
levels available, recorded in February 2019, on Valentine’s Day, showed 3,500
counts of fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters, referring to the larger
bacteria group to which E. coli belongs.

But is
it too dirty?

By the Israeli Ministry of Health’s standards, yes. According to a 1999 regulation for Jewish ritual baths, anything higher than 10 general coliform bacteria, which includes fecal coliform, for every 100 milliliters is too polluted to bathe in — the legislation is displayed in Hebrew on the ministry’s website.

The holy water was so
filthy in February, it surpassed health ministry standards by 350 times. And
some believers drank it.

by David Mora.

“Everybody here can drink the

Gerbermariem was not
alone in his holy-water-drinking that day. His preacher, Mabta Gabrieal, 41,
was also there. Dressed in khakis and a crinkled, white shirt, a cross draped
around his neck, Gabrieal weaved through the crowds to the leftmost edges of
the rectangular deck. He removed his clothes and stepped down into the water,
holding on to the metal railing.

His eyes and gleaming
head were lost from the surface as he baptized himself, completely immersed in
the Jordan River.

A lively group was
nearby, many of whom wore white robes that one could buy for $8 from the site’s
gift shop. He returned to the metal railing, climbed back onto the wooden deck
and approached them. Facing the faithful, smiling and dunking themselves in the
water, he scooped some into a plastic bottle. Then he drank it, too.

“We drink the water
because it’s holy,” he said in Amharic, translated by Gerbermariem. “After we
drink the water, it gives us healthy [sic], peace, and blessings.”

While fecal coliform
bacteria is not a direct indicator of disease, it is an indicator for
pollution: a red flag suggesting there may be harmful pathogens present,
explained Alexandra Heaney, who recently received her PhD from Columbia
University’s Mailman School of Public Health. As a doctoral student, Heaney
published an academic paper alongside two veteran researchers on the
relationship between climate change and waterborne diseases, with a special
focus on diarrheal disease.

some diseases, it means that if you ingest just one pathogen, you’ll get sick,”
she said.

Gabrieal said that he
has baptized himself at Qasr al-Yahud “several of hundreds of times.” It wasn’t
his first time drinking the water.

“Jesus is God and he’s
our holy savior,” Gabrieal said. “When you baptized here, you called by his
name: Christians.”

congregant, Gerbermariem, insisted that he has never gotten sick from drinking
the water.

he said. “Everybody here can drink the water.”

The cleanliness of the
waters at Qasr al-Yahud have long been scrutinized by researchers and activists
as well as some visitors, skeptical of its quality from a glance. The baptismal
site has been closed intermittently to visitors, including a period in 2010,
following public health concerns then attributed by the health ministry to
sewage and agricultural chemicals.

data says that 2010 had the highest levels of fecal coliform bacteria in recent

But the site has continued to welcome visitors, in spite of occasional closures in the last decade. Gidon Bromberg, founder of EcoPeace, an organization run by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmental advocates, said in a 2010 article in The Guardian that they would sue should the site reopen without addressing health concerns. Bromberg did not to respond to emails inquiring request on whether they followed through.

Nadav Tal, a hydrologist
and water officer at EcoPeace, said the Ministry of Health was in the process
of developing new quality standards for the baptismal site, purportedly
following a government investigation into the water’s quality. The standards
have yet to be published, said Tal.

“It’s well known that
there’s pollution in the water,” Tal said. “I don’t understand why it takes so
much time for them to publish.”

The Israel Ministry of
Health, responsible for determining water quality standards, did not respond to
requests for comment for this story. Neither did the Nature and Parks
Authority, responsible for sampling Qasr al-Yahud’s waters.

Tal has filed a Freedom
of Information Act request with the Ministry of Health, hoping to eke out the
new standards faster. He hasn’t gotten what he asked for yet.

Has anyone gotten sick?

Not to
his knowledge, Tal said. These things were difficult to track.

He hasn’t seen data on
the number of visitors reporting signs of illness after coming into contact
with the baptismal waters. Though many of the site’s visitors were tourists who
soon left the country, he noted.

“It’s very complicated.
If anyone got the disease from the water, you have to prove it. And it’s very
hard,” he said. “Unless everybody
gets sick. But if it’s only one or two persons, it’s very hard.”

There are, of course,
additional complications. It’s possible for a person to become infected with a
harmful pathogen without showing symptoms, making them asymptomatic, Heaney
said, even in cases of diarrhea. The disease can still be transmitted to

Then there are those who
do show symptoms, after a lag between their first day of infection. Some of
them, too, might wait to go to the doctor.

“There could also be
cultural things,” she added. “This is a holy kind of thing, this is a special
thing. If they do get sick, they wouldn’t attribute it to drinking that water.”

The Israeli government
has through the years vehemently denied that Qasr al-Yahud’s waters are too
unhealthy for religious visitors, many of whom come by the busload. The site
was visited by 800,000 people in 2018, according to government figures.

The site is free of
charge to visiting tourists. Pretzels, iced coffee and tea can be bought onsite,
next to refrigerators filled with soda, water and milk, facing a small, busy
gift shop.

Heaney acknowledged that
it’s possible for a person to drink the water at Qasr al-Yahud without getting
sick. It’s dependent on several factors, including that person’s immune system
and what pathogens were in the water at the time they drank it.

But she cast doubt over
the government’s defenses, saying the fecal coliform levels were well beyond
its own safety standards.

“Unfortunately, all of
the other things we’ve been talking about are complicated,” she said. “That is
not a complicated question.”

Tal simply isn’t there for the Israeli government.

“They don’t want to
close because it brings a lot of tourists. It’s a business,” he said. “... Most
of the pilgrims don’t know the water is polluted. Nobody tells them. They have
no idea.”

by Michelle Bocanegra. 2019.

“I would not drink the water

Kevin Young, 58, who
works for the Walt Disney Company, traveled with his fellow church goers from
the First Baptist Church Orlando to Qasr al-Yahud, to see what he considered
“one of the most significant places in Christianity.”

But he had just bathed in Yardenit, another baptismal site for Christians that opens into the Sea of Galilee. The bluish green waters in Yardenit had been clear —crystal, even, he said.

“You can actually see
the fish. You can’t see the fish here,” Young said, laughing. “... I would not
drink the water here.”

But for Young and
several others, Qasr al-Yahud remains sacred. Of 129 reviews on Tripadvisor, a
popular travel website, the baptismal site received 4.5 stars, many saying they
were moved by the spiritual experience.

an amazing experience to be here as a Christian,” Young said. “This is THE

Norma Ellardo, 54, a
non-denominational Christian from San Diego, California, was submerged head-to-toe
in Qasr al Yahud’s waters, though she did not drink it.

“That’s mandatory for
the bible, so we can clean our sins,” she said. “But it’s our decision, not
somebody force you… I feel born again.”

This sentiment of
personal choice was echoed by other Christians at the site, feeling a spiritual
connection to the place.

Yet some of the faithful
who came in contact with the water were still vocal about their concerns. Marta
Steinke, 31, a first-time Catholic visitor from Poland, rolled up her pant legs
before standing in the river, shins down.

“For me, this river is a
holy river, but when you see this water, it’s too dirty,” she said. “... I’m
just thinking of all the bacteria.”

Ellardo’s pastor, Marciela Preston, 54, said their tour guide told them the water was fine — just muddy. Her fellow Californian church goer agreed.

“I feel it’s not dirty. It’s clean,” said Ellardo. She clutched her unstained white robe, drenched from the Jordan River. “See?”

Top photo by Liz Donovan. 2018.

Empowering Palestinian Women, one stitch at a time

BEIT SAHOUR — There are a few words that can be used to describe Najla Azar : petite, open and inviting, just like her home in Beit Sahour, the largely Christian town outside of the West Bank.

all things sacred to her are displayed on her living room walls. A black and
white photo of she and her husband, who is also her first cousin, on their
wedding day are proudly displayed by the entrance. Framed pictures of her four
children and their spouses, all of whom are Orthodox Christians, are also
showcased. On her couch sits two needles with black thread wrapped around it.
When the project is completed, it  be an
intricately embroidered shawl that will join a vibrant collection of Azar’s
other work including dresses, wallets, scarfs and bookmarks. These items, once
pinned to the wall, are ready to be sold to customers around the world, a
continuation of a lengthy journey.

Azar has been using her home as a workspace
for nearly 50 years. As a seasoned craftswoman, she founded a business called “
Cross Stitch 4 Palestine,” a website that sells embroidered products both
locally and overseas. Her mission, however, is not just to sell handmade
crafts, it’s to encourage women empowerment between the Muslim and Christian
communities. Azar expanded her business by allowing women from Bethlehem, Gaza
and Hebron to help her stitch products. The opportunity allows for the ladies
to support themselves and their families whom many are responsible for.

“I wanted to help support these women,” said Azar, a 71-year old Christian woman whose income supports herself and her husband who is unemployed.

According to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,  the Gaza unemployment rate is 44 percent with the leading cause due to disability.” The unemployment rate is somewhat higher in the West Bank cities like Bethlehem and Hebron, but making a living is still a considerable challenge.

Although Azar had
never lived in a refugee camp, she had visited two times before which sparked
her interest in helping.

 “ A lot of these women are either enrolled in
school and are responsible for the costs or they have to take care of their
husbands who may be sickly,” Azar said. “ That’s why it’s important for us to
make sales.”

The craftswoman
learned the art of embroidery at the age of 13. While she was still in school,
learning how to stitch was a mandatory for young women.

In 1977, at the age
of 25, Azar traveled to Jerusalem for the first time. She had been hired to
work in the dining room at the Church of St. Andrew’s, a Scottish Church.
There, she befriended Yael, a Jewish Orthodox woman who would later become her
business partner for Cross Stitch 4 Palestine.

During the Second
Intifada, Azar was no longer able to work at the Scottish Church and had to
figure out a way to help support her young family. Since mobility was limited,
Azar decided to return to embroidery and create her own business. During the
day, she would invite women from Bethlehem and Hebron to come to her house so
she could teach them how to stitch.

“These ladies were clever,” said Azar. “ They learned very quickly,”

She taught them how
to do the cross stitch.

Each town has its own
distinct knitting style. In Beit Sahour, the signature pattern is the
cross-stitch which is a series of “ X” or cross shaped patterns. Despite the
appearance, the cross-stitch does not have a religious tie to it. However,
items that have a cross-stitch pattern are popular among the Eastern Orthodox
and Catholic communities, particularly during Christmas and Easter.

The cross-stitch is sold to local churches, including her own, First Baptist Church in Jerusalem.

“Life is much easier now,” said Azar. She now has access to go to and from Jerusalem with a church permit. This also allows her to pick up the material necessary to create the embroidered goods and transports it to the women who work for her.

“My hope is that people will continue to support us so that I can continue to support the ladies,” said Azar. “My hope it that they will be able to lead a life of peace.”

16 Israelis and Palestinians Talk Identity, Before Elections : A Photo Essay

As published in The Forward

In Israel, Judaism alone boasts a spectrum of denominations, affiliations and nomenclatural religious-national identifiers. 93 percent of Israeli Jews would say they are proud of their Jewish identity, according to a recent Pew study, but the way they understand and describe that identity - and what it means to be Jewish - can vary drastically, whether it be “Israeli Jew” or “Jewish Israeli”, along with labels like “ultra-Orthodox”, “modern Orthodox”, “Conservative”, “Masorti” or “secular” to name a few.

But how do other religious communities identify themselves in Israel and parts of the Palestinian territories?

We travelled from the northern Druze village of Beit Jann to a cluster of Jewish settlements in Gush Etzion, to interview and photograph 16 people of different faiths about the way they self-identified. In a land where even calling a country “Israel” can be construed as a political statement, those we interviewed described themselves very intentionally while describing their relationship with the state.

Our interviews came at a critical juncture as the country prepares for what is expected to be one of the most closely contested Israeli elections in recent political history. The incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likkud party, is looking to win his fifth election on April 9th and eclipse David Ben Gurion’s record as the nation’s longest-serving prime minister. He is challenged by the newly-formed centrist Blue and White led by Yair Lapid and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz.

With the growing political clout of extremist parties on the right like Jewish Power (“Otzma Yehudit”), this won’t be the first time the country’s identity has become a topic of national discourse. The Knesset’s passage of the nation-state law last May, which affirmed that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in the State of Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,” has provoked similar discussion and controversy.

In this election, identity is everything.

Maayan Mankadi, Beit Horon

Maayan Mankadi is from Beit Horon, an Israeli settlement located a few kilometers away from Ramallah. Mankadi identifies as a modern Orthodox Zionist, and recently got married in Jerusalem. “I’m at the Kotel to pray and to thank God for helping me get to where I am now,” she says. “I appreciate the sanctity of the Torah, but I’m also a regular member of the country’s workforce. We earn a living and serve in the army or complete national service. It’s somewhere in the middle of the two extremes we find in Israel.”

Sawsan Kheir, Beit Jann

Sawsan Kheir is a psychology PhD student at the University of Haifa. Born and raised in Peqi-in, a Druze village in the Galilee, her research focuses on the effects of modernization and the value of faith in Muslim and Druze students across Israel. She defines herself as Druze, Arab, and Israeli. “Since the establishment of the State of Israel,” she says, “the Druze have been loyal to the government and had very positive relations with the Jews because of our shared history of persecution. There is a mutual understanding.” With the recently passed nation state law, Druze like Kheir are nervous. “We are loyal to the land we are born into,” she says. “There are three basic elements of our faith: the land, honor, and religion.”

Avi R, Haifa

Avi, a security consultant from Haifa, considers himself a masorti (traditional) Jew. “I go to synagogue for all the festivals and keep our traditions,” he says. “I am first Jewish and then Israeli.” For Avi, his identity won’t change in the upcoming elections. “My family and I always vote for Likkud.”

Sheikh Jamil Khatib, Beit Jann

Sheikh Jamil Khatib is one of Beit Jann’s four imams. “I am an Israeli Druze,” he says. “First, I am a Druze through my mother and father, then I am an Israeli because I am connected and attached to the land of the State of Israel. I am prepared to do anything for my country and to perpetuate its existence.” Politically, Khatib explains, the Druze in Beit Jann are somewhat divided. “Some support Likkud, some support Meretz, some follow Chadash - you see us in every single political party and this election won’t change that.” Khatib himself is committed to Druze education and cultural workshops for his community, and served as principal at a local elementary school before becoming an imam.

Chaftzivah Bitton, Tzfat

Chaftzivah Bitton lives in Tzfat, and works as an advisor to newlyweds and a supervisor at her local mikveh. “I am an Israeli from a religious household,” she says. “My father was a rabbi, my husband is a rabbi, and we are continuing the traditions of the Jewish people. My identity will not change at all in the upcoming elections. I am Jewish, religious, and Israeli.”

Sheikh Sami Abu Anas, Nazareth

Born and raised in Nazareth, Sheikh Sami Abu Anas is the head imam at the city’s White Mosque. “I am a Muslim Palestinian, living in the State of Israel,” he says. “Though I would always describe myself first as a Palestinian, I was born in Israel. I respect the laws of the state, and respecting the state you live in is a principle that goes all the way back to the time of the Prophet himself.” Anas’ mosque is open to all, but he fears that increased polarization has pushed Israeli Jews and Arabs to more extreme sides of the political spectrum. Nazareth is the largest Arab-majority city in Israel, and to Anas, this indicates that many different kinds of people can live in the same place. “I truly hope that whichever government is formed after the elections makes us feel more included, even if it is Netanyahu’s government. I also have the freedom to express myself here as a Palestinian Muslim, unlike in Gaza or Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example.”

Sami Shalsha, Nazareth

Sami Shalsha is a caretaker of the White Mosque. “I am an ordinary and simple human,” he says. “I don’t like discrimination or hate, and my religion teaches me that we all must live together in harmony, whether you are an Arab or Israeli or English or Jew or Christian or Muslim or whatever - it does not matter.” Though he lives just around the corner from the White Mosque, Shalsha is originally from the north. “I take care of the mosque every day from 10 in the morning until 7 at night…I also guide the tourists who come visit talk about the history of the mosque. I try and change their perception of Islam because some of them see groups like ISIS as Islamic. ISIS does not represent Islam, and Islam is not a religion that condones murder.”

Shmuel Zengoltz and Matanya Guetta, Jerusalem’s Old City

Shmuel Zengoltz and Matanya Guetta know each other from yeshiva, and come to the Old City together almost every week. They both identify as Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), and Zengoltz, originally from Tiberias, sees his Israeli and Haredi identity as inextricably linked. Guetta feels slightly different: “I am from Jerusalem,” he says. “I am first a Jew, then a Haredi, and then an Israeli, because Judaism has been around the longest, before Haredim and before Israel. No election will change my identity.”

Ahmed, Nazareth

Ahmed makes some of Nazareth’s best knafe, doling it out from a small corner of the famed Mahroum sweet shop. “We are all human beings at the end of the day,” he says. “I don’t like that everyone categorizes themselves as either Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, or Muslim. We all belong to the human race.”

Dr. Maria Khoury, Taybeh

“I identify as a Palestinian in spirit, but I’m Greek Orthodox in blood,” says Dr. Maria Khoury, a Taybeh resident. Along with her Palestinian husband and his family, Khoury runs the popular Taybeh Brewing Company, the Taybeh Winery, and The Taybeh Golden Hotel. “No matter what the election results are in Israel, I think our situation here in the West Bank will pretty much stay the same. I do not think the wall is going to go away. I do not think the checkpoints will go away. I do not think the Israeli settlements are going to go away. We suffer from the Israeli occupation because our freedom of movement is limited.”

Pastor Munther Isaac, Bethlehem

Serving at the Christmas Lutheran Church in the old city of Bethlehem, Pastor Munther Isaac is acutely aware of his own religious and national identity. “I am a Palestinian Arab Christian,” said Isaac. “I am a follower of Christ. And when I think of the elections, I just hope that people choose someone who is willing to have a serious conversation about making peace. Right now, current Israeli rhetoric is reflected by the recent Nation State law. I’m hoping for people who will make the country more inclusive.”

Isaac Simanian, Tel Aviv

Isaac Simanian’s spice shop in the bustling Levinsky market is always full of customers. “My parents were born in Iran,” he says from behind the counter, “but I am an Israeli Jew. I wear a kippah, but it’s important to me that all religions are welcome here.” Simanian plans to vote for the Likkud party in the upcoming elections. “I choose Netanyahu,” he adds. “No one is better than him.”

Zahi Khouri, Ramallah

Born in Jaffa, Khouri is one of Ramallah’s best-known businessmen. He has lived all over the world, and is the founder of the Palestinian National Beverage Company and produces Coca-Cola for the region as well. He opened up the Palestinian Beverage Company as a way to not only encourage local business in the area, but also to provide hope to the community. He is outspoken against Israeli occupation, but doesn’t think the elections will change much. “First, I am a human being,” he says. “Second I am Palestinian. Third, I am a Christian.”

Rabbi Dov Berkowitz, Shiloh

Born in Chicago, Rabbi Dov Berkowitz now lives in Shiloh, an Israeli settlement almost 30 miles north of Jerusalem. “I consider myself a Jew, a father, and a husband,” he says. Upon moving to Israel, Berkowitz never intended to move to a settlement. When he and his wife first arrived, Berkowitz says he was “the leftie here - the peacenik.” But after the first intifada, Berkowitz started to change his mind. “I deeply believe in creating peace with the Palestinians,” he says. “For me, Zionism means many things, but the bottom line of Zionism is that the Jewish people came back to Israel not to be killed.”

Omar Hmeedat, Dheisheh Refugee Camp

Omar Hmeedat calls himself a Palestinian atheist. “I do not support any political party,” he says. “I am even more critical of their agenda and the way they work. I also do not think this conflict should be religious.” Though he does not live there now, Hmeedat grew up in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, just a few miles from the old city of Bethlehem. He is now actively involved in non-political community organizing and urban planning research. At Al-Quds University, Hmeedat is majoring in media studies. “The elections won’t change anything,” Hmeedat adds. “I am Palestinian and will remain Palestinian. Whether I live in Palestine, Israel, or in Europe. This won’t change my identity.”

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Gush Etzion

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the founder of Torat Tzedek (Torah of Justice) and previous President and Senior Rabbi for Rabbis for Human Rights, is recognized around the world for his commitment to human rights and social justice in the region. He is originally from Pennsylvania, but he moved to Israel in 1994. “I identify as a human being,” he says, “and my Jewish identity and faith are not my wall with the rest of the world, but my bridge.” Ascherman is committed to inter-faith dialogues, and has previously been on trial for acts of civil disobedience. “As a human rights leader,” he adds, “I don’t tell anyone how I’m voting and I don’t affiliate with any political party, but I will vote and I will ask others to vote for a party that is honoring God’s image and every human being.”

Jonathan Harounoff is a master’s student at Columbia Journalism School, an alumnus of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and an incoming FASPE Fellow. Some of his work has featured in The Jerusalem Post, Religion News Service and The Harvard Gazette.

Leah Feiger is a religion, gender, and culture writer living in New York City. She is currently an intern at The Forward, and was previously a freelance writer based in Kigali, Rwanda. Her work has appeared in Ozy, Fodor’s, and Culture Trip, among others. Follow her on Twitter @leahfeiger.

Leah and Jonathan reported this story during a trip to Israel as part of a Columbia Journalism School religion reporting class that is sponsored by the Scripps Howard Foundation.

This story "16 Israelis and Palestinians Talk Identity, Before Elections: A Photo Essay" was written by Leah Feiger and Jonathan Harounoff.

Photographs courtesy of Leah Feiger.