Reaching out to Israel’s Hebrew speaking Catholics

2012-01-23 Vatican Radio

How do you teach the tenets of Catholicism to Christian children in Israel who don’t know Arabic - the language most commonly heard in parishes there? With the country’s growing population of Christian “guest” workers, refugees and immigrants from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, the native Arabic churches are finding themselves in a dilemma –how to communicate the faith in a language everyone can understand. And in a land where these migrants are fast outweighing the stagnant numbers of native Arab Christians, that language is increasingly Hebrew.

The children born to Catholic Filipino parents today go to Hebrew speaking public schools in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where most of their friends are Jewish. They are perfectly integrated into Israeli society, and are taught about the Old Testament and Jewish feasts and customs, but know very little about their own Catholic faith.

In order to try to meet the growing sacramental and catechetical needs of Israel’s migrant community, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem set up a special vicariate for Hebrew speaking Catholics, including those of Palestinian origin who've received Hebrew educations.

Patriarchal Vicar Fr. David Neuhaus, the Jesuit responsible for them, estimates that more than 200,000 foreign workers are now present in Israel plus a large population of refugees numbering tens of thousands.

“We have a situation today in which Catholic children who are not Israeli, but are living in Israel, and are perfectly inculturated in Israeli Jewish, Hebrew-speaking society, are being educated in very good Israeli Hebrew-speaking Jewish schools and are receiving almost no Christian education.”

Fr. David explains that the Hebrew speaking Catholic Church has existed for decades in the Holy Land after it was officially erected in the mid-1950’s as a “pious association” not long after the foundation of the Israeli state.

“We are a very, very young Church,” he admits. “The sacramental community today is very, very small – somewhere between 400-500 people gathered in seven different communities. Five of them Hebrew speaking and two of them Russian speaking.”

But as more and more migrants and their children learn Hebrew, he expects those numbers to rise significantly and has been preparing for them.

“This is an enormous project for us. We are a very small, modest and poor group of people on every level but we are trying to turn out textbooks, catechetical text books in Hebrew.”

Fr. David and a small group of collaborators, including the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, produced the first three textbooks on Catholicism for youngsters: "Get to know the Messiah" (2009) and "Get to know the Church" (2010) and “Get to know the feasts and the seasons in the Church” (2011).

They’ve also set up an English and Hebrew website for the community: the St. James Vicariate, to share information about the Church, its feast days and provide links to papal and Church documents: www.catholic.co.il . It also updates the community on the Church’s dialogue with Jews – something which Fr. David, as a former Israeli Jew himself, takes especially seriously.

Besides helping care for the poor and elderly, the Vicariate also goes to foreign worker and refugee communities to organize activities and catechesis programs for children in Hebrew.

“Speaking Hebrew itself is a totally new experience for the Church, (ours is) a few decades old, as we live our Catholic lives in Hebrew.”

Fr. David notes a growing curiosity in Israeli society to know more about the Catholic Church and a trend towards presenting Christianity in a more balanced manner in Israeli school textbooks…

Listen to more of Tracey McClure’s interview with Fr. David Neuhaus: