Early Saturday morning, when the town of Migdal Ha’emek is still sound asleep, the tiny church of St. Nicolay is crammed with people. There is a strong aroma of incense and thin, yellow candles glow softly, their light reflected on the golden icons. The murmur of Russian words grows into loud singing and the 100-strong parish repeats the prayers after the black-bearded priest and a small choir behind him.
They are singing in Old Slavonic – the language that could be easily understood by the contemporaries of Ivan the Terrible, and nowadays is used only in prayer texts and church documents. Physically, the church of St. Nicolay is situated in the heart of this quiet and sleepy Jewish town in the North; spiritually it is a part of quite different world, the world of Russian Orthodoxy.
One has to strain his eyes to spot the cross on top of the church – a rare sight in a town with predominantly Jewish population. The simple structure is walled by a two-meter fence erected under the direct order of the municipality for the protection of the worshipers.
The church of St Nicolay was founded in 1894 and was partly funded by the Grand Duke Sergey, who also built the famous Russian Compound in Jerusalem. It has seen the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate and the birth of the Jewish state. The church functioned until 1948, and in 1953 Migdal Ha’emek was founded. Long abandoned and in ruins, in 2004 the church was reconstructed by Sophia – the association of Russian Orthodox Christians in Israel. The funds mostly came from private donations of the parish.
“We, the followers of the Orthodox church, are independent in thought,” says its English language Web site. “We believe that our primary adherence is to the Christian Orthodox faith which is our shared religion and culture and which erases the social and language differences to communicate in Christ. The association works to strengthen and to deepen Orthodox Christian presence and to provide welfare for the followers of the Orthodox congregation and all righteous worshipers in the Holy Land through truly benevolent work in religious, educational, social, development, publicity and legal aspects.”
On weekdays no more then 20 people might show up at the church; however, on Saturdays, Sundays and the major Christian holidays, such as Christmas, Easter and Trinity Sunday, the place is teeming and many have to settle for a place in the courtyard, says Oleg Usenkov, the press secretary of Sophia. After mass, the people gather outside in the courtyard, reluctant to leave, and exchange greetings and congratulations. The majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came with the large wave of aliya during the 1990s. Others are foreign workers from Romania and Bulgaria. There are also a few offspring of mixed marriages – Arab fathers and Slavic mothers – who speak mostly Arabic, but also some Russian.
The priest is Father Roman Radwan, an Israeli Arab born in Nazareth, fluent in Russian, which he mastered at the White Russian seminary in New York. His grandfather, Alexander Kavna, was the last rector of the Russian teachers’ seminary in Nazareth before the October Revolution in 1917.
“We wait for these Saturdays and Sundays impatiently during the whole week. I feel most alive here, in this church,” says Nadejda, a member of the parish. She came here from Moscow, being both a Jew and a Christian. “Weren’t Jews the first Christians? Aren’t we in the Holy Land? We do not harm anyone and do not wish to offend or be offended by anyone.”
The Russian footprint
There was a time, some 100 years ago, when the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in Israel was quite palpable. In 1860, the Russian Palestine Society was founded by the czar. Over a period of more than 50 years the society established hospices for pilgrims, Christian schools, a theological seminary and a number of churches all over the region, from Jerusalem to Beirut. According to a few Russian accounts, as well as the Catholic Encyclopedia, this activity greatly annoyed the local Greek Patriarchate, which saw itself in competition with the wealthy Russian church.
This rivalry came to an end with the October Revolution in Russia, when the Communist Party came to power. All educational and religious projects of the Russian Orthodox Church were effectively frozen. The ownership of its vast assets passed through many hands – the British government and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan recognized the White Church as the sole owner, while the State of Israel saw in the Soviet Red Church the lawful heir of Russian church assets on its territory. Eventually many of these assets were nationalized or traded for various commodities and goods. In the notorious 1964 “Orange Deal,” Israel purchased most of the Jerusalem’s Russian Compound from the Red Church for $3.5 million. Short of cash, it paid in oranges. Until the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russian pilgrims almost entirely ceased visiting the Holy Land and the influence of the Russian church was eradicated.
Since 1991 the tide has turned once again. Relations between Israel and post-Soviet Russia were reestablished, and a sizable flow of Russian Christian pilgrims resumed, reaching its peak following the introduction of a visa-free regime between the countries. Along with their Jewish relatives, many Christians also came here under the auspices of the Law of Return. Some converted to Christianity while still in Russia, others were of Russian or other non-Jewish origin in the beginning. Upon arrival, some immigrants, both Jewish and non-Jewish, embraced Christianity and joined various churches – Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican – or sects, such as the Messianic Jews or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
There are no precise figures on the number of non-Jewish immigrants or Jews who practice other religions, since some of them hide their religious views, fearing they and their children might be ostracized by society. According to Usenkov, the numbers are significantly higher than previous estimates.
“I think that there are at least 70,000 to 100,000 Russian Orthodox living in Israel today. Perhaps the real figures are even higher, but in any case this is quite a large section of Israeli society,” he says. According to Usenkov, a Jewish oleh from Moscow who embraced Christianity while still in Russia, there are also many immigrants, especially from mixed Jewish-Russian families, who turned to Christianity after their relocation.
Dr. Ze’ev Khanin, the chief researcher at the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, says there are no data that support this claim. “There are absolutely no statistics to show that there is a significant process of Christianization among the non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Upon arrival in Israel, only 5 percent to 7% declared their Christian faith. That’s why there is only one community in Migdal Ha’emek, and not 10 or more.”
Khanin acknowledges the phenomenon of Jews and non-Jews who turn to Christianity while here, but claims that it’s rare and uncommon. “The roots of this phenomenon are in Russia, where many people today are in some sort of spiritual search. According to our data, 10 years ago about 80% of the Jewish population in the former Soviet Union was secular and 20% religious. Among the religious segment, 12% were Christians and 8% adhered to Judaism. Today the tendency has changed – 12% adhere to Judaism and 8% to Christianity. So, as you can see, we are talking of margins of the margins.”
The burden of faith
However, not everyone is convinced that the intentions of the Russian Orthodox Christians are kosher. Anti-missionary organizations such as Yad L’Achim and many religious leaders suspect that spreading Christianity among the Jewish population is exactly is what the members of the parish are after. Usenkov waves off all accusations of being involved in missionary work. “Our faith forbids us to lure people into it. On the contrary, if someone interested in information about Christianity comes to me, I will advise him, of course. However, I will interrogate him about his intentions and try first to explain about the burdens and obligations before this person will be able to make up his or her mind,” he says.
Since the day it opened, the church of St. Nicolay has been met with suspicion and hostility. Albeit unwillingly at first, the people who gathered in its courtyard started telling stories of abuse and harassment against them. “Often the students of a nearby yeshiva pass by our building and curse us; others spit on the building,” Dr. Ilya Litvin, a member of Sophia, says.
The most recent violence happened in August during one of the church holidays. Unidentified youngsters began throwing stones at the worshipers praying in the yard, and a few people received light injuries. Father Radwan complained at the police station no more then 500 meters from the church, but the intruders were never located.
“At least we have our church and our priest, so we can observe our holidays, arrange for a proper marriage or child baptism, unlike many others,” says Litvin.
Despite the vast abundance of different churches here – Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Anglican, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian and many others, the Russian Orthodox, who today form the largest Christian minority after the Israeli Arabs, fall between the cracks. They can’t find their place in Arab churches, being estranged culturally and linguistically, and they claim to be neglected by the Greek Patriarchate. Hence the need for separate churches and other necessities, such as cemeteries.
The question of burials turns out to be one of the sorest points for the community. “The death of a dear one is always difficult, however the pain becomes unbearable when we can’t even bury him or her according to their religious belief,” says Father Roman Radwan. “The Arab local councils with Christian cemeteries cannot accommodate our dead, since they are in dire need for vacant plots themselves, and burial in secular cemeteries is very costly. Also in some cemeteries we cannot arrange a Christian burial ceremony.”
The association addressed a request to the Interior Ministry to obtain a license as a Hevra Kadisha to be able to bury its dead, however the official response was: “The society should obtain a plot of land for the cemetery and then seek a license from the Ministry of Religious Services.”
Members of the community stress that they are loyal citizens who pay their taxes and serve in the army. “The only thing different is our faith, but this is the only thing,” Usenkov says. “We don’t want to be outsiders. We wish to be recognized by Israeli society as part of it. We, and our Arab friends of Christian faith who pray and work together with us, are Israelis first of all, not Russians and not Palestinians. This is a very important point. The tendency today among the Arab Christians in Israel is toward radicalization and Palestinization. At the same time, while there are no responsible spiritual leaders among the Russian-speaking Christians, extremely dangerous and hazardous sects, some distinctively anti-Israeli and even bluntly anti-Semitic, attempt to spread their influence among them.”
Litvin supports his point: “We promote hard work, army service and values of tolerance and coexistence. So we adhere to Christianity and not to Judaism. So what?”
Time for the church of Zion
Besides the complaints of harassment and maltreatment by the authorities, the members of the community also cherish dreams of religious revival. “Christianity was born in this land, and we favor the crystallization of our faith from foreign elements,” says Usenkov, who believes that it is time to revive the Orthodox Church in the Holy Land. “Today we pray in the Russian language, because it’s easier for the elderly to use it as the language of communication. However, our heads and souls are in Israel, where the official language is Hebrew. It can unite all Orthodox Christians here – the Jews, the non-Jews and the Arabs – and the ancient church of Zion might be resurrected again.”
But all that is in the future, the activists of Sophia believe. Today, the community is in dire need of churches, priests and recognition. “Our small church hardly answers the needs of Russian-speaking Christians in the North, while in the South people die without seeing a priest, but the Greek Patriarchate doesn’t prepare Russian-speaking priests for our community, nor do we see new churches, although there is a huge need for them,” says Litvin.
Father Galaktion of the Greek Patriarchate says that it established a
committee to answer the needs of Russian-speaking Christians and that
Patriarch Theophilus III meets with Russian speakers during church
But the activists and the leaders of Sophia are positive that the
solution for their problems will not come from abroad, neither from
Russia nor from Greece. “We are an Israeli church. We are Israeli
citizens. And our goal is to serve the Christians of Israel who are
part of Israeli society. We seek rapprochement, not alienation, and
with God’s help we will succeed in our goal,” Litvin says after another
morning of prayers at St. Nicolay in Migdal Ha’emek.