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.”


Israel's first female Reform rabbi with a government salary approaches retirement

Jerusalem — In a small kibbutz outside the central Israeli city of Ramla, Rabbi Miri Gold enjoys her last few months as Israel’s first female Reform rabbi on a state salary. “I’m on sabbatical, and I will retire at the end of this year at the age of 70,” said Gold.

Rabbis in Israel draw their salaries from the
government - but only if they are Orthodox. In 2005, Reform Judaism’s legal
arm, the Israel Religious Action Center, decided to challenge this longstanding
policy in the Supreme Court. They choose four Reform rabbis to petition the
court, including Rabbi Gold. The Court eventually found in favor of the rabbis,
and Rabbi Gold became the “poster child” for this major Supreme Court victory.
“The state agreed that rabbis of non-orthodox communities should be entitled to
salaries,” said Gold. “It was an historic precedent.” According to the IRAC,
the first annual salaries were paid in December 2013 to just those four rabbis.
Rabbi Gold is hopeful about the precedent set, even if the state has slowly and
reluctantly expanded funding for more congregations. “At the time there were
maybe five of us who were eligible. Today there could be 15,” said Gold. Still,
the right-wing Likud government drags its feet on fully implementing the “Miri
Gold Decision,” as the IRAC now calls it. Gold and her colleagues were not paid
by the Ministry of Religion, but instead by the Ministry of Culture. “The ministry of religious
services - traditionally controlled by the ultra orthodox parties - was not
willing to be in charge of the matter, so we agreed that the ministry of
culture would be in charge,” said Orly Likhovski, the director of the IRAC’s
legal department.

This is not the only case of the government failing to fully implement the court decision. Funding for city neighborhood rabbis are still reserved solely for Orthodox rabbis. This was partially due to the Ministry of Religion’s proposed changes to the entire system, which were first announced in 2014. “The state declared that no new rabbis would be employed as neighborhood rabbis and that rabbis who retire would not be replaced. However, there are still 120 neighborhood rabbis serving all around Israel – all of them Orthodox men,” said Likhovski. After the IRAC petitioned the court again in 2018, the Ministry of Culture announced changes that would finally allocate funding for non-Orthodox rabbis in the cities. However, Likhovski still found these changes to be insufficient and plans to challenge it again. “The criteria were drafted in a way which would result in a very little funding and not all of the reform congregations would be entitled to it,” said Likhovski. “This is why we are submitting another petition, demanding that our rabbis would be paid the same salary as neighborhood rabbis, as long as neighborhood rabbis continue to be employed by the state.”

Rabbi Gold’s story begins in the United States. Born into a Conservative family in Detroit, Michigan, Gold was inspired by the communal living she witnessed at an Israeli kibbutz on her first trip to the country. After college she joined a gar’in - a name for a group of diaspora Jews planning to make aliyah to Israel as a group. Rabbi Gold’s gar’in chose an abandoned collective farm named after the ruins of the nearby Biblical city of Tel Gezer. “Part of their reasoning for going to this abandoned kibbutz was one - it was in a great location,” said Rabbi Gold. The kibbutz is only minutes outside of Ramla and a short bus ride to both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But Rabbi Gold and her gar’in had another
major motivation for starting their settlement from scratch. “We had the
freedom to create our own policies. Which is sort of a liberal approach to
Judaism and left-of-center approach to politics,” she added. From the very
beginning, Kibbutz Gezer pursued any egalitarian approach to communal living.
“We wanted equal opportunities for women, which in the end become equal
opportunities for everybody,” said Gold. “Meaning - if the man wants to work in
the children’s house - great! But it was more in the direction of women who
wanted to do things that were not necessarily traditional women’s roles.”

Eventually, Gold decided to attend Reform rabbinical school. In 1999, Gold became the third woman to be ordained as a Reform rabbi in Israel. Gold founded her congregation, Birkat Shalom, immediately afterwards. Birkat Shalom is a “regional” congregation, which she says means : “it’s not of the kibbutz but it’s at the kibbutz and there’s involvement by those who are interested.” This immediately put Birkat Shalom in a precarious position with the government. The rabbis of regional congregations are paid by the state of Israel, but the state refused to recognize non-orthodox rabbis. Therefore, non-orthodox rabbis were limited in their legal functionality and unable to receive state salaries. Instead, Rabbi Gold’s congregation paid her salary out of their own pockets.

At Birkat Shalom, Rabbi Gold directed her
congregants in many social justice-oriented initiatives to further Kibbutz
Gezer’s greater goals of egalitarianism. Nearby Ramla is probably most famous
for being the location of no less than five high security prisons, including
Israel’s only all-female penitentiary and Ayalon Prison. Ayalon is particularly
notorious - Adolf Eichmann was executed there in 1962, and the assassin of
former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was held there for years while serving a
life sentence. Given the proximity to the prisons, Rabbi Gold’s congregation
felt compelled to direct its social outreach to the incarcerated population.
Birkat Shalom found a group working with prisoners in one of Ramla’s lower
security prisons. “We started to work with prisoners in rehabilitation from
Ramla. People who were likely to get out of prison in the next year or so. And
that went until the prison closed,” said Gold. Part of Rabbi Gold’s outreach in
the prison involved bringing in rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College in
Jerusalem. “We wanted to do some kind of a project that would be
mitzvah-oriented,” said Gold. “We’d get usually two students who were musical
and had a little bit of Hebrew knowledge. They would work with the prisoners,
play some music, and interact with them.”

After the prison closed, Gold wanted to continue working with students from rabbinical seminary. “We found out from another Reform congregation in Modi’in was working with this place called Beit Eden, which is a residence for very special needs kids,” she said. According to Gold, the children at Beit Eden all have severe cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome. After going to school, the children return to Beit Eden for additional care. Rabbi Gold, her congregation, and her rabbinical students focus on providing religious service for the children at Beit Eden. “They come once a month and do a little Kabbalat Shabbat who range in age between seven and 20.” Despite the severe handicaps, the children at Beit Eden have knowledge about their faith. “When you’re with them, you have a feeling that you’re in a nursery school, where they know enough that you can’t pull the wool over their eyes. You can’t say the next holiday is Tu BiShvat when the next holiday is Pesach,” said Gold.

Rabbi Gold’s replacement at Birkat Shalom is
already leading services, but she remains involved in her community and in her
outreach programs like Beit Eden. Her replacement, Rabbi Steve Bornstein, will
benefit from the government salary Gold fought to secure.


Muslim families sue Israel for right to bury their dead at a Jerusalem cemetery

This story was first published at Religion Unplugged:

JERUSALEM – Just south of the Old City’s monumental Lion’s Gate lies a smaller portal. White double doors framed by Arabic engraved tablets open to reveal a stone path shaded by a sheet metal awning. Where the overhang ends, the graves begin, hundreds of them overlooking the Mount of Olives, its green slopes dotted with graves of their own. As the sun sets, light slants against the long, flat gravestones. Farther down the path, red poppies grow between the headstones. Two young men in kufis stand by one of the graves, deep in prayer. At dusk, the living, a few solitary visitors, were as silent as the dead, meandering quietly among them.

Photo by Sara Weissman

PIn the hush of Bab al-Rahma Cemetery, it’s hard to imagine the place as anything but peaceful. For hundreds of years, people of faith have been buried just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, a place sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. But beneath this burial ground, running along the eastern wall of Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Temple Mount, lie layers of religious meaning and conflict. For Palestinians, it’s an active Muslim cemetery. For Israel, it’s a protected Jewish antiquities site. Burials there have been a point of contention in Jerusalem for over a decade.

Residents
of Silwan, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood bordering the Old City, traditionally
bury their dead in the southernmost part of Bab al-Rahma Cemetery. But for
years, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has technically banned burials in
the area, citing the need to protect antiquities close to the Temple Mount. Palestinian
families who consider themselves the land’s owners are pursuing a lawsuit
against the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the municipality of Jerusalem,
with their next hearing this summer. The hope is, if the Husseini and Ansari
families can reassert ownership, they can reduce Israeli interference at the
cemetery.

“In June, I hope that the court will be open to hearing our arguments and be convinced,” said Sami Harshid, a lawyer who’s been representing families in Silwan for 20 years. “Restricting people and using their burial places is equal [to] restricting any community conducting worship.”

Bab
al-Rahma Cemetery has already undergone its share of legal battles. In 1974,
the Israel Nature and Parks Authority classified it as a part of the Jerusalem
Walls National Park, giving the agency authority over the grounds. At the time,
the land was registered under the Islamic Waqf. In 2005, the Committee for the
Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount – a group of
Israeli archeologists and scholars – petitioned the High Court to ban burials
in the area, citing the area’s potential archeological significance. According
to Haaretz,
their statement called burials in the area “archeological crimes, which are
unacceptable to any cultured person, irrespective of political stands or
ideological positions,” comparing the Temple Mount to the Acropolis in Athens.

The
court ultimately rejected the suit but encouraged authorities to protect the
site, causing police to restrict new burials in the southern part of the
cemetery. In 2012, the area where the burial ban was enforced expanded.
Finally, last May, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority completed a fence
around the cemetery, a decision met with protest from Palestinians. Silwan
residents saw it as another move to restrict Palestinian burials, part of a systemic
policy to curtail their rights and erode their cultural landmarks from the
landscape of Jerusalem.

“[People]
are very frustrated,” Harshid said. “They feel like the authorities ignore not
just their feelings but the real need to have burial space there.”

Photo by Sara Weissman

PJerusalem, in general, has a burial space problem. Centuries of funerals for the world’s faithful have finally taken their toll. As Jerusalem’s Jewish cemeteries fill, its burial society has resorted to some odd, albeit creative plans: burial complexes with multiple stories, graves carved into rock walls, and even catacombs. Muslims are also suffering from the lack of burial space, and people who live in Silwan specifically want to bury loved ones in Bab al-Rahma, both because of family plots there and because of the religious significance of the area.

When her uncle died, Sahar Abasi’s family buried him in her grandfather’s grave in Bab al-Rahma Cemetery, in accordance with a Muslim tradition to have layered burials. It was emotional laying a son to rest with his father. As her own father grows old, she can’t imagine burying him anywhere else. Abasi, the women project coordinator for the Madaa Silwan Creative Center, describes Silwan as the “core” of her life. She’s lived in the neighborhood since she was born.

“Everyone
has a last wish, and this is the last wish for everyone here – to be buried in
Bab al-Rahma,” she said.

To
be Palestinian on the outskirts of the Old City is to constantly reassert, “We
exist, we have roots, we have heritage…” Abasi said. Living – and dying – in
Silwan isn’t “heaven on earth… Now after their death days, [Palestinians]
deserve their rest, what they didn’t have in their lives.”

She
thinks Israel is slowly edging out Palestinians from East Jerusalem. The legal wrangling
over Bab al-Rahma Cemetery is just a part of it. “[Israel figured], ‘We’ll
start with the living, and now we’ll start with the dead people,’” Abasi said.

According
to Harshid, Bab al-Rahma Cemetery has a sort of patchwork of regulations now.
Small areas of the cemetery complex allow for unrestricted burials, while
others don’t allow for new burials at all.

In
the Southern part, Silwan residents can apply for court permission, but
“Palestinians don’t really trust the Israeli court system,” said Yonathan
Mizrachi, an Israeli archeologist in Jerusalem. Even though police can stop
burials, he finds that most mourners would rather take their chances.

Mizrachi
works with Silwan residents as the executive director of Emek Shaveh, an
Israeli NGO that focuses on the role of archeology in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. The organization often advocates for Palestinians impacted by Israeli
excavations.

For
Mizrachi, the archeological claims aren’t enough to ban burials. This is a case
where archeology is a “tool to change the character of the village, to create
kind of a new political order in this area,” he said. In Israel, “Every stone
becomes relevant and raises a lot of tension.”

Mizrachi
understands the desire to preserve Jerusalem as it once was. But this
preservationist ideology is applied selectively, he said. No one is arguing
Jews should stop performing burials in Jerusalem to protect potential
antiquities. The argument against burials isn’t just about artifacts. It’s
about the culture of the city.

“What
kind of city do we see when we visit Jerusalem?” he asked. “Do we see a
multicultural city? Do we see an Arab city? Do we see an Israeli Jewish city?
This cemetery reminds us we’re not the only people here.”

Mizrachi
is drawn to the conflict around Bab al-Rahma Cemetery in particular because
it’s “an interesting case of violating heritage rights in the name of
protection for heritage,” he said.

Mizrachi
doesn’t reject the idea that Bab al-Rahma cemetery has archeological
significance, given its location. But Mizrachi argues that civilizations have
been building on top of each other for centuries. Jerusalem is a growing city.
People live and people die. Some of them are Muslim.

“We have a history of layers,” he said. “The cemetery is part of it.”

Top photo by Sara Weissman


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.


Alternative Israelites

As published in the Jerusalem Post

Passover is the annual Jewish festival that marks the exodus from Egypt in ancient times. While most Jews around the world marked the holiday this year in mid-April, the African Hebrew Israelite community of Israel will celebrate an additional holiday on May 29 and 30.

But the ‘New World Passover’ is not about Moses and the exodus from Egypt. It is about a mid-20th century prophet known as Ben Ammi who shepherded several hundred African Americans from the South Side of Chicago to southern Israel in the late 1960s.

The group, who are not formally recognized as Jews, have lived in Israel ever since. They now number over 3,000 and constitute the largest community of African-American expatriates in the world.

Ben Ammi, who was born Ben Carter and later became identified as the group’s messiah, passed away in 2014, but his spirit still lives on in the community he founded in Dimona known as the Village of Peace. His portrait stands just beyond the entrance, on a banner that commemorates “50 years of the Great Exodus – 1967 to 2017,” surrounded by golden halo-like rays around the prophet. Virtually every home in the urban commune has a picture of Ben Ammi on the wall, and all rituals, from birth to death, involve his words and teachings. 

IN MID-MARCH, I spent two days living in their guesthouse and getting acquainted with their world. The most important thing I learned was that Ben Ammi’s charisma is still a guiding light. He was the supreme leader sometimes known as Abba Gadol (‘Great Father’) during his lifetime, and left behind a structure for the community that was a response to the oppression African Americans were facing in the United States. (He also built a community that was self-sufficient, with separate schools, food, clothing, and other ways of life – but they’ll tell you that since they weren’t allowed to partake in society, they didn’t have any other choice.)

Despite Ben Ammi’s passing, his edicts still carry final authority, with no possibility of replacement. Much of the system today – from the political structure with princes on top, to social roles in the community – has been carved out of the principles Ben Ammi set in consultation with his council of Twelve Princes who help translate his precepts into policy mandates.

The Cohanim (Prophetic Priests) are trained in the community’s institution of higher learning known as “School of the Prophets.” They preside over spiritual affairs in a community that is not Jewish, identifying instead as “Israelites” or “Judaeans”. The community believes they descended from the 12 tribes of Israel, and everyone can pray to and ask Yah for assistance, but all of the community’s cultural mandates – including veganism, polygamy and wearing clothes made from natural fabrics – are expressions of their strictly spiritual, rather than religious, commitments.

Among the Twelve Princes who rule today is Prince Gavriyah Ben Israel, 82, one of Ben Ammi’s oldest friends.

“The Bible is a history book,” said Ben Israel. Ben Ammi taught them that the Torah speaks about the children of Israel going into captivity in ancient Egypt, followed by another 400-year captivity, though this time, the children would be taken into captivity by slave ships carrying Africans. “When we were in America, we looked around and there were no other people who went into captivity. We’d been there 400 years,” Ben Israel explained.

Ben Ammi began attending meetings of black Israelite groups in Chicago, fitting the puzzle pieces together during the unrest surrounding the Civil Rights era and establishing himself as a leader within the Israelite group. 

“There was fighting, shooting and dying everywhere. One day, Ben Ammi told the group, ‘It’s time for us to leave,’” said Ben Israel.  

Ben Ammi led the splinter group of Black Hebrews that decided to move to Israel.

“We’d violated the Yah of Israel’s law, and in order to restore us, we had to return to the laws of the God. And that’s what we did.” Yah had created a smokescreen of unrest in America, he said, to help them escape the ‘Land of Great Captivity.’

AFTER LEADING Yah’s flock to Israel, he continued to lead the community, helping them obey Yah’s divine laws and overseeing their strides toward creating the “Kingdom of Yah” deep inside the desert of Dimona.

During the 1950s, Dimona was developed for new European immigrants, particularly Russians. The original group of Israelites, mostly from Chicago, arrived in Jerusalem by way of Liberia in 1969, three years after Ben Ammi said he’d received instructions from Gabriel to deliver his people to the ancestral homeland of Israel.

According to the community, when they arrived in 1969, they were resettled in the Negev town of Dimona, where Israel keeps one of its nuclear installations. Though they were originally offered citizenship by the Israeli government under Israel’s Law of Return, their status was challenged and revoked so that from 1973 and the early 1990s, the community had no legal standing, and many members of the group – who had renounced their US citizenship – were rendered stateless.

Things came to a head in 1986 when the Village of Peace decided to do a “non-violent march on Jerusalem” after a group of Hebrew Israelites, who’d been working as migrant workers at an orange-packing company in the middle of the country, were arrested and slated to be deported. Their settlement was immediately surrounded by Israeli forces. 

“Prior to that, a few of our brothers and sisters would be deported every year – but 47 deportations was a bit much,” said Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, the information minister of the community. They began to organize, he said, but the troops wouldn’t budge.

Ben Ammi announced that the community would renounce the march and fast instead. On receiving this edict from the messiah, everybody agreed and fasted for five days. In retrospect, Yehuda said, they realized this was a turning point in their relations with the media and the government, which, after a few months, began to regard them better.

“In 1990, then-interior minister Ariel Sharon came to visit, had a meeting with Ben Ammi and said, ‘I’ve grown up with you in this land. You’re not a threat, and we want to normalize our relations,’” said Yehuda.

THAT BEGAN a procedure by which the African Hebrew Israelites redocumented themselves as American citizens and then obtained permanent residency. By this point, at least one wall in every apartment had a picture celebrating Ben Ammi.

Ben Ammi also set very strict health standards for his community. These range from particularities about the required number of no-salt days, no-sugar weeks and raw food days, to nutritional supplements, fasting and regular physical exercise (at least thrice a week).  

I met one of the health ministers and “healers” of the community, Yehoshua Ben Yehuda, 46, who wore a traditional red and gold suit, a long, beaded necklace and braided blue cords – a biblical stipulation that members can wear anywhere on their clothing. Yehoshua is from Gary, Indiana, which he hastens to mention is “where the Jacksons are from,” and told me it was “live day,” which meant that only raw food would be eaten.

 “My father-in-law studied health at the School of the Prophets here,” said Yehoshua, referring to Yehuda. “He, inspired by Ben Ammi, impressed upon me the power of natural healing.” Growing up in a Pentecostal Christian family to parents who were professors, he was never satisfied with what he was searching for.

Ben Ammi also wanted the community to return to basics in the way it approached childbirth. Among the African Hebrew Israelites, babies are born without hospitals, doctors or drugs involved.

A spokeswoman for the community, known as Amalyah, explained it this way: “Humans are the only creatures that go to a hospital to deliver. Delivery is a natural thing. The baby’s going to come out whether you’re in a hospital room or alone by yourself. It’s the law of nature.”

Amalyah, who was wearing a cotton skirt with a knitted woollen sweater under a bright purple beret (worn by many women in the community), recalled the birth of her first child in the community 35 years ago. She had to follow a “High Holy and Sacred Diet” (a sesame-seed-heavy routine for new mothers prescribing what to do daily, at every stage of pregnancy), recalling how her ballet classes paid off because she would plie every time her midwife asked her to squat whenever she was having labor pains. Most of all, she remembers waiting for her baby to be born so that her family could be graced by Ben Ammi.

Her son was named by Ben Ammi himself. She remembers visiting Ben Ammi’s home, where the spiritual leader held the baby in his arms, looked into his eyes and prayed with him. 

“A month or two after spending time with him,” Amalyah said, “[Ben Ammi] was inspired to name him Tseyon – which literally means, ‘the place where Yah dwells.’”

It was a moment as special as she’d imagined, leaving Amalyah and her son with a glow and a smile that lasted for months.

Among other unconventional practices, Yehoshua said, is polygamy, a long-held tradition of the Black Hebrews that is rooted in the idea that biblically, having many wives is the norm.

As part of Ben Ammi’s agreement with the government, the community promised to renounce the practice, forbidden by Israeli law, as well as agreed not to take on any additional members of the community, but residents of the community think it’s time to re-negotiate parts of the agreement given their higher social standing.

Primarily involved in construction work and seasonal labor, many African Hebrew Israelites are also engaged in a variety of entertainment-related skills, and have been representing Israel on the international stage. Ketreyah Fouch, 22, is well-known for being a finalist in Eurovision 2019. In 2003, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown visited the community, among many other high-profile visits over the years. Many African Hebrew Israelites also perform in jazz and soul bands around Israel, and some have represented the country in sports competitions around the world, according to Haaretz. 

BUT CHALLENGES persist. The African Hebrews have bought land a kilometer away from their village and have plans of moving out by 2020. The architectural plan involving 282 units has been approved, but financial and political hurdles are impeding the process – the community gets no funding from the government, and many of them are undocumented, despite young people conscripting into the army.

The community’s only political stance is peace. 

“Israel is supposed to be a light onto the nations,” said Yehuda. “Some people interpret financial prowess, high-technology sectors and military domination as evidence of that light.” Prime Minister Netanyahu, he said, recently made a statement to Iran about Israeli’s missile being bigger than that of Iran. “We’re clearly missing the mark.” 

Hopefully, he said, Ben Ammi will have his way and establish the peaceful Kingdom of Yah.