VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Thousands of Catholic children in Israel know the Jewish roots of their faith far better than most Christians, but they have little understanding of Christianity.
Jesuit Father David Neuhaus, vicar for Hebrew– and Russian-speaking Catholics for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, is preparing some of those children — the children of Filipino guest workers — for their first Communion.
When he asked them what they knew about Easter — using the Hebrew word, which is the same for Easter and Passover — they sang him one of the traditional hymns from the Passover seder or supper.
“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God took us out with a strong arm and a mighty hand,” they sang.
While some Christian catechists would have been horrified, Father Neuhaus said his approach was to respond, “Kids, that’s great. And do you know the next part of the story? Of Jesus coming?”
Father Neuhaus, a papally appointed member of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, met with reporters at the Vatican Oct. 15.
About 500 people depend on the seven Hebrew– or Russian-speaking Catholic communities in Israel for their sacramental life and weekly Mass, he said. But the outreach of the apostolate is much broader as it assists the chaplains to the immigrant communities, including the 40,000 Filipino workers and the 10,000 Sudanese refugees, who have children in Israeli Hebrew-speaking schools and do not read or write the language of their parents.
The Hebrew-speaking apostolate is developing its own catechetical materials and already has published “Get to Know the Christ” and “Get to Know the Church,” Father Neuhaus said.
“One of the challenges of these catechetical books is that they would build on what the children are already receiving in school,” which “is what Christians all over the world are so hungry for and that is the Jewish background to our Christian faith,” he said.
“Our children know the Jewish background to their faith much better than they know their faith,” the Jesuit said.
Father Neuhaus said that while many Christians in Israel do not feel fully accepted as part of Israeli society, he is trying to help the Hebrew-speaking Catholics see their linguistic and social connection to Israel’s Jewish majority as a bridge between Christians and Jews.
The Jesuit, an Israeli who was born and raised Jewish, said that at the age of 15, he “discovered the figure of Jesus” and after “a period of 10 years of dialogue with my parents, who are Jewish,” he was baptized at the age of 26 and entered the Jesuits at the age of 30.
“We have seen the most incredible transformation” in Catholic-Jewish relations over the last 50 years, he said. “It is one of the most hopeful things that happened in the 20th century.”
The Jesuit said that from the time Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities were formed in Israel in the mid-1950s, they have seen one of their roles as promoting among all Catholics “an awareness of our Jewish roots, the Jewish identity of Jesus Christ and the Jewish identity of the early church.”
Second, he said, community members want to teach Israeli Jews about Christianity. “There is an incredible hunger, not of Jews who want to convert to Christianity, but Jews who are intrigued by this church that has such an impact on the history of the world” and about Jesus, he said.
Community members also hope to use the fact that they are fluent Hebrew speakers inserted in Israeli society to comment about and explain Christianity to Jewish audiences.
The third aim — “the most delicate, but very important,” he said — is “to be a bridge also to the church in the Middle East. We are called to understand with great sensitivity the situation of Arab Christians, particularly in Israel and Palestine.”
A Catholic-Jewish dialogue in Israel, he said, will look different than it does in the United States or other places where Jews are a minority and Christians are the majority.
“Insistence on the Shoah (Holocaust) is not going to go very far, because our Catholics do not feel in any way responsible for the Shoah. Insistence on the rights of a Jewish marginalized minority is not going to go very far because the marginalized minority in our situation is the Christians, not the Jews,” he said.
At the same time, he said, the region’s Christians must separate politics and faith and come to a realization that “the Old Testament and the history of Israel is an essential part of who we are as Christians.”