Vladimir Gridin, a professor of solid-state physics, is certain that the fact our meeting took place last Sunday, on Pentecost, the day believed to mark the birth of the Russian-Orthodox Church, was no coincidence. Nor did he believe that it was coincidence that the church where we met, at the end of Hagai Street in Migdal Haemek, was vandalized right before the sacred holiday. "Divine providence," he says. Even if one can ascribe a degree of divine providence to the timing of our meeting, it's doubtful the youths who desecrated the church and the adjacent priests' graves a few days before the holiday were so attuned to the nuances of Russian Orthodoxy that they specifically picked that day to commit their act of vandalism.
"A pogrom in the church," was the cry that echoed from the small community whose spiritual life is centered on the Church of St. Nikolai. What took place wasn't quite a pogrom, but it was the latest in a series of attempts to damage a holy place. On Friday morning, when they arrived for services, the congregants found the church windows broken, the icons overturned, a cross uprooted from a priest's grave and the edge of the grave ruined. A lot of effort went into shattering the windows, which were protected by a dense metal screen. A particularly malicious hand had to work hard to get in between the spaces to break the squares of thick glass one after the other. And yet, the police, whose local headquarters are very close to the church, insist the vandalism was just a prank by a bunch of 8- and 9-year-olds. "We've gone back to the early days of Christianity," said Gridin sadly. "Christians are being persecuted again."
A somewhat unusual group gathered this week at the door to the church. Unusual, both because of the way they'd broken with convention in the choices they'd made in their lives, and because they were all situated on the delicate seam between the Law of Return and the rules of halakha (Jewish law). This is the congregation of Father Romanus, a 46-year-old Arab Orthodox priest from Haifa, who is just as fluent in Russian as he is in Arabic and Hebrew. He learned the language while studying at a Russian theological seminary in the U.S., and founded his community here.
Not for nothing did the patriarch appoint him to be the spiritual leader of the non-Arab Orthodox (i.e., the Russians). And the community is very fond of him. Even though they speak with him in Russian, they address him by the Arabic term abuna (Our Father), which even in a Russian accent clearly expresses the affection they feel for him. And the feeling is mutual.
Before the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, the Orthodox community in Israel numbered about 40,000, the vast majority of whom were Arabs. Father Romanus says that, by all estimates, the community has tripled in size thanks to the immigrants. New churches have opened and old ones are booming. These immigrants are also very dedicated believers and have pushed the "old-timers" to extend the prayer services. From their perspective, incidentally, there's nothing unusual about their lives. If they're challenging not only the limited patience of the residents of Migdal Haemek but also the very Jewish definition of who is an Israeli, then it's not their problem. They feel totally Israeli and expect to be accorded their human and religious rights by virtue of the democratic character of the country in which they've chosen to live.
Lena from Musmus
Take the life story of Lena Kochetkova-Agbariya, 33, of Umm al-Fahm, for example. When her surname was still just Kochetkova, she lived in Kiev, where she studied geophysics and where she met Kifah Agbariya from the village of Musmus in Wadi Ara, who'd come to Kiev to study law, and married him. Nine years ago, they returned to Israel and ever since she's been known as "Lena from Musmus."
Lena laughs heartily as she relates all this, not seeing anything unusual in her life. She did not convert when she married; her husband did not insist on this. The neighbors, however, were a different story. In response, she began wearing a cross around her neck - not as an act of defiance, but merely as a statement of intentions. Since then, they've been living happily in Umm al-Fahm and raising their only daughter, who was baptized by Lena's mother during a visit to Kiev. The grandmother didn't inform them about her action at first, but once it was done, it was accepted as irreversible and all the girl's father could do was explain to his daughter that God is really in the heart.
Since her mother's death, Lena has become much more attached to the church; the funeral service for her mother was also held at this church in Migdal Haemek. Since then, she says, this church has been like a lifeline for her. Another lifeline has been her activity with the Russian-speaking group in the Israeli-Palestinian Women's Coalition for Peace. This is her Israeliness, and it is accompanied by a true faith that she is living in a democratic country in which she has civil and religious rights. Every once in a while, she also provides legal advice to the small Christian community in Migdal Haemek, which she gets from her husband, the Muslim attorney.
Vladimir Gridin's connection with Israel began 33 years ago. Then, when he was 19, he immigrated here with his mother and her Jewish husband, who was not his father. Gridin, who besides his many years of work at the Technion is also an accomplished painter and sculptor whose works are currently on exhibit in Tel Aviv, was baptized in St. Petersburg by his grandmother. He describes himself as a "thoroughly kosher Israeli." Both by virtue of his military service in the armored corps and his great love for the Hagashash Hahiver comedy trio - the usual Israeli package.
"In the past, up until a few years ago, I hadn't run into reverse anti-Semitism in Israel," he says. "In the army, they used to let me out on Sundays to go to church. I was a good soldier and that was my reward. For years I never felt like my rights as a Christian were being harmed in any way. That's why I'm a proud Israeli, a big patriot." Alongside his many accomplishments, Gridin has also married and divorced three times. One of his wives was Jewish and their daughter became very religious - and now his two grandsons are growing up in Kfar Chabad. When his daughter was a little girl, he tried to teach her the importance of "non-secularism" and to nurture in her an appreciation for the importance of faith. Evidently, she took the lesson very much to heart.
Irena Shegalov and Ilya Litwin, a mother and son who emigrated from St. Petersburg 12 years ago, also came to the gathering in front of the desecrated church. Upon their arrival in Israel they settled in Haifa. Ilya, now 35, completed a doctorate in physics at the Technion and is currently at work on a post-doctorate. At first, their story was rather typical of that of a family whose members were all Jewish - "ethnic Jews," as Ilya puts it, but essentially without religion.
After a year in the Jewish state, Ilya felt he couldn't live without faith, and set out on a quest among various religions and religious communities. From the start, he knew Islam wasn't for him, but he carefully considered all the rest. Mostly by meeting with people from different religions. Judaism was definitely an option, but Ilya felt the Jews he talked to were trying to brainwash him. "Like with Stalin," he says. "To them, there was just one way to be a Jew - their way. The Jews gave me the feeling that I don't understand anything." In Russian Orthodoxy, he found the answer. In 1996 he was baptized in Russia and his mother soon followed in his footsteps. Only his grandfather was upset and wanted to know what he was doing. And Ilya replied he had to do it for his soul. "The soul develops as you age," he says.
Funds from the czar
With the new religion, he also found a spiritual community to belong to. Another member of this community is Emilia Gvantmakher, a resident of Nazareth Illit who immigrated to Israel five years ago. She is an Orthodox Christian and came here following the immigration of her two grown daughters - whose father was Jewish. She says she had only positive expectations of her immigration to the Holy Land and didn't anticipate any problems. Since coming here, Gvantmakher, a historian and writer, has managed to learn the Torah by heart and write a book about the Holy Land. She also supervises a storehouse of used clothing for the needy, next to the church, and has already sent 17 aid packages back to her poor Orthodox congregation in Russia. She says she loves to come to this simple church in Migdal Haemek, where many of her Jewish friends have converted to Christianity, she says.
You'd have to be a person of strong faith to sense the divine presence in this ordinary-looking place at the edge of a residential neighborhood. Yet, historically, this is an important place. The Church of St. Nikolai was originally built here in the late 19th century with funds from the Czar's family: In 1880, Grand Duke Sergei contributed money to help ensure that Czarist Russia would have ties with the Holy Land. In those years, there was small village called Majdal in this location, some of whose residents were Russian Orthodox. The village and the church were destroyed in 1948. The site came under the custody of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. For years, the place stood abandoned and neglected. When the big wave of immigration from the Soviet Union arrived, the need arose to supply a place of worship for the community in the north. Two years ago they were granted a license, and a year and a half ago the lovely church was dedicated. Father Romanus was a natural candidate to lead it. His great-grandfather had good ties with the royal Orthodoxy of Czarist Russia, which sought to aid the Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land during the Ottoman period.
When he was still a boy, Father Romanus liked to read the holy books his great-grandfather translated from Russian to Arabic. Looking back, he says, the whole trajectory of his life, including his leaving Haifa University to attend the Russian Orthodox Seminary in New York 20 years ago, seems to have led him directly to his current position. A position, one should say, that also involves a certain irony: To some degree, the non-Jewish immigrants were directed here to improve the demographic balance with regard to the Arabs.
The unspoken attitude was: "It doesn't matter if they're Christians, as long as they're not Arabs." And so these immigrants came and found spiritual shelter in the form of an Arab priest. "I feel more Russian than Arab," Father Romanus says. "My spiritual children are Russian-speakers by and large. Sometimes I suggest to the members of the congregation that maybe one of them ought to be their spiritual leader, but they only want me. I have a mission with them. And so there shouldn't be any misunderstanding - I know I'm accused of missionary work and I was even questioned once by the police about it. But we don't go where we're not wanted and we don't distribute books. I only go where I'm invited, and that's to Russian-speakers."
Feel the heartbreak
He first met Russians at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, says Father Romanus. They would come from Tiberias, Nazareth Illit, the Krayot (the northern suburbs of Haifa), Acre, Migdal Haemek. They'd heard he spoke Russian and sought him out. He began to hold prayer services for them in Russian, once a month at first, and then every week. And now he does it several times a week. Every so often, they'd pass by the church in Migdal Haemek, see the ruins and "feel the heartbreak." The Greek Patriarch Irineos gave them his blessing to rehabilitate and operate the church.
But the rebuilding effort was disturbed by threats that before long turned to actions. When the church began operating a year and a half ago, a nun from the congregation used to sleep in the doorway, viewing this as a holy mission. One night, when she left the spot for a moment, someone set her mattress on fire and caused all her meager possessions to go up in flames. The acts of harassment have been unrelenting. Romanus is outraged: "I still remember studying the Scroll of Independence in school. It talks about a state without discrimination of religion, race or nationality. It's important for all citizens to feel they belong to this country, and it's important for the state not to be afraid of the non-Jews living in it. We are not endangering the state. We only want to pray."
It's possible to pray, but only in the dark. Though it began functioning a year and a half ago, the church has yet to be connected to the electricity grid, or to the water system. There's no plumbing, no bathrooms, no fence to protect it. Only the stones from the original fence are scattered around. The worshipers live in a state of constant apprehension; even the church bells which are supposed to ring loud and clear at the hour of worship are rung very softly.
The method is familiar: Whenever the establishment wants to get rid of certain residents, it hangs them out to dry, so to speak, in the hope that they'll get the hint and leave of their own accord. Father Romanus and his congregation get the hint, but they have no intention of going anywhere. "We're not leaving," Father Romanus declares, adding: "It's not good for the State of Israel to put itself in the same patterns of behavior like those of the totalitarian regimes, like the Nazis, like the Soviets, like Iran."
'It strengthens us'
And Gridin laughs and says that if Rabbi David Grossman, the chief rabbi of Migdal Haemek, wants to produce archbishops here, he should just continue the way he's been going. "The Christian Church arose out of persecution," he warns, and makes the sign of the cross. "It only strengthens us. Just imagine the reaction if the city of Moscow wouldn't supply water and electricity to the big synagogue in the city and what the reaction would be if the police there didn't provide the synagogue with protection."
And just as he mentions Moscow, Father Romanus gets a call - officials from the Russian delegation in Jerusalem are calling on behalf of the patriarch of Moscow to find out just what happened. They promise that a letter of protest is already on the way.
Moshe Levy, spokesman for the Migdal Haemek municipality, says the Church must take up the matter of the electricity with the Israel Electric Corporation. As for the water, he says: "The church originally declared its intention to rehabilitate the place as a historic site and did not inform us of its intention to operate it as a place of worship."
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