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Hebrew Spoken Here

Inside Israel’s Hebrew-speaking Catholic community

by Michele Chabin

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In 1990, when Michal Reich’s parents no longer felt they had a future in post-revolution Romania, they decided to move to Israel.

Although they were practicing Catholics, her paternal grandfather was Jewish, and under Israel’s “Law of Return” policy, people who can prove they had at least one Jewish grandparent are entitled to settle there.

Determined to succeed in Israel, Michal Reich, then 13, attended a regular state school, where the language of instruction was Hebrew. At 18, she performed mandatory Israeli military service.

“Most of the soldiers knew I was a Christian and no one had a problem with it,” she recalls. A petite woman with dark hair, Michal sits in her small Jerusalem apartment with her newborn daughter Josephine nestled in her arms, nursing.

While Mrs. Reich, now 34, integrated almost seamlessly into mainstream Israeli society, finding a spiritual home proved more difficult. Unlike the majority of indigenous Holy Land Christians, she did not speak Arabic. She understood the Romanian prayers at her parents’ church, but most of the worshipers were foreign workers with no roots in Israel.

“I went to a lot of churches, but it wasn’t until six or seven years ago that we discovered the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Israel,” Mrs. Reich says, smiling at her husband, Doro, who is also from Romania. “The services in Jerusalem are unique. They’re small and intimate and the people are modest and unassuming, even if they’re professors.

“We care about each other like a family,” she says.

By any measure, it may be one of the most distinct cultures in all of Israel. With just 500 active members, including children, Israel’s Hebrew-speaking Catholic community is so small that many Catholics around the world, and most Israelis, do not know of its existence. It endures as a vibrant contradistinction: Catholics celebrating their faith in a country that is overwhelmingly Jewish, worshiping in Hebrew, marking Jewish feasts and traditions, and honoring many local customs. Yet they are undeniably, proudly Catholic.

The community was born in 1955. That year, a group of Catholics in Israel founded a pious association called the Work of St. James to help Hebrew-speaking Catholics live their faith in a Jewish society.

“The church began to realize there were thousands of Catholics in Israel who were not Arabs and not expatriates, who belonged to and integrated into Hebrew-speaking, Jewish Israeli society,” says the Rev. David Neuhaus, Latin patriarchal vicar of Hebrew-speaking Catholics.

Some were married to Jews, while others were from Catholic branches of predominantly Jewish families. A smaller number were Jews who, like Father Neuhaus, had converted to Catholicism.

Regardless of their backgrounds, most “strongly saw themselves as Jewish historically, ethnically and culturally, and at the same time Catholic,” he says.

But between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, the community dwindled dramatically, largely due to emigration and assimilation.

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