Growing up in a combination of Spain and Ukraine, Josue Campomar felt like he
had it all – girls always eyeing him, success in his work and studies and,
eventually, his own car.
But despite becoming a regular guest at the most
popular parties in Kiev, he found that something was missing. “I felt that I was
empty inside – I wasn’t really happy,” said Campomar, now 23. “Then my
girlfriend left me, and I came back to the church thanks to that.” And then he
came to Israel.
The eldest in a Roman Catholic family of 10 children,
Campomar moved from Spain to Ukraine 13 years ago, when his parents decided to
help the priest at the Parish of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary, located
in the Ukrainian capital. But he himself wasn’t always certain about becoming a
member of the clergy, toying with the idea that perhaps he “could live outside
the church” during his high school years. But eventually finding little
fulfillment elsewhere, at 18 Campomar decided to make the move and enter a Kiev
seminary, Redemptoris Mater.
After an initial two years of classroom
study and then two years of practical training in the south of Poland, Campomar
elected to do something e n c o u r a g e d increasingly by his seminary and
others – to spend some time in Israel and eventually study modern Hebrew at an
Ulpan programs are known to be a hub of diversity, predominantly
filled with new immigrants, Arab Israelis looking to learn Hebrew and Jewish
students spending a semester abroad. But ulpan teachers say that in
recent years, they have seen a remarkable influx of priests and
priests-in-training being sent to ulpan programs officially by their
“As long as I can remember, we’ve had many kinds of people
from all over the world – Christians and some Muslims and Jews,
obviously. But as for priests, I’ve never seen so many,” said Tali
Debbi-Sasson, who has taught since 1996 at the Hebrew University’s ulpan program
at the Rothberg International School and at Mila, a private ulpan in downtown
Debbi-Sasson said she has seen a particular increase of
priests enrolling in ulpan programs during the past two to three years and has
taught at least 10.
One student, Alexandre Comte from France, believes
that the influx stems from the gradual improvement in relations between
Catholics and Jews ignited by Pope John Paul II.
“After the Second
Vatican Council [1962-5], the church began to see the Jewish people in a new
way, and we understood that we had to improve our knowledge,” said Comte, 33,
who came here for the sole purpose of studying Hebrew. “John Paul II said the
Jewish people were our brothers in belief.”
His younger colleague
Campomar, however, initially came for a different purpose – to partake in a
year-long work-study program at Domus Galilaeae – also known as Beit Hagalil – a
monastery located in front of Lake Kinneret on the Mount of the Beatitudes,
where Catholics believe Jesus delivered his most important sermon. But a year
extended into two years, and now into three.
As many of his colleagues at
Domus Galilaeae have been choosing to do lately, Campomar decided to enroll in
Mila last October, and then at the Hebrew University in July.
Jerusalem, he stayed in the Domus Mamre monastery in Ras el-Amud near the Mount
“At Beit Hagalil, we get people who come to visit during the
day for free. We show them the house, and we always need someone who speak
Hebrew to guide the tours,” Campomar said.
“That’s why I learned modern
Thus far he has completed the third of six ulpan levels
according to university standards and is confident enough to give tours to
visiting Israelis at Domus Galilaeae.
“They do it perfectly in Hebrew,”
said Debbi- Sasson, who has at least five former students at Domus Galilaeae.
“They host Israelis, Germans, Greeks – people from all over the
After he leaves Israel, Campomar doesn’t intend to leave his
Hebrew behind. “For now I have to finish my studies, but I would like to even
continue ulpan in Spain or when I come back here in the future,” he
Once he is ordained – in approximately three years – Campomar plans
to spend some time working as a priest in Ukraine, but since his seminary
prepares them for missionary work, he says he’s ready to go anywhere, perhaps
even back here. And he is confident that his Hebrew skills won’t flounder in the
“To continue practicing my Hebrew, I’ll try to get in contact
with the Jewish community in Kiev,” said Campomar, who also plans to stay in
touch with all the Hebrew-speaking friends he’s made here.
Campomar, who arrived with no prior knowledge of Hebrew, many of his colleagues
who elect to study at ulpan have previous experience studying biblical
Comte, who came directly to ulpan with a group of seminarians
from the diocese of Paris, had taken biblical Hebrew every year in seminary so
he would be able to understand the Bible.
Although this was Comte’s
second time attending a summer ulpan at Hebrew University, he and the other
French seminarians came expressly to study Hebrew and not to give tours at a
place like Domus Galilaeae or stay for an extended period.
spent nearly the past six years studying at the seminary’s headquarters in Paris
– where he ultimately intends to serve – and is currently studying theology for
the next two years at a branch in Brussels, where he hopes to continue studying
While his family members – who largely reside in a small
town near the Swiss border, where Comte grew up – believe in God, none had ever
entered the church professionally before, he said. And he only decided to join
the priesthood when he was 27, after spending two years teaching art history at
a divinity school in Paris. “It was really during the experience of teaching
these two years that I discovered that while I could be happy giving my life to
teaching art history, I could also give my life to God,” Comte said.
cites three reasons for a priest-in-training to learn modern Hebrew. “The first
obviously is that it’s easier to learn biblical Hebrew when you know modern
Hebrew,” said Comte, who was officially ordained as deacon – the first degree in
the sacrament of orders – a few weeks ago and will officially become a priest in
June, after seven years of study.
The second motive, he explained,
involves understanding all the songs and prayers that embody modern Jewish
culture. To stay truly up to date with Catholicism, clerics must also stay aware
of current trends in Judaism because “there is only one history – there is only
the history of Moses, and there is only one Lord,” he said.
strive to get to know the Jewish culture better, it’s not to make Jewish people
know Jesus Christ – it’s for us,” he said. “We have to do this, to improve our
The third reason, he said, is to become more familiar with
the modern history of Israel and the construction of the State of Israel because
all that happens in Israel is interesting for all the nations.
that all seminarians in Paris can come here to learn modern Hebrew which, like
their studies in France, is free to the students and paid for by church tithes.
Aside from markedly improved relations between Catholics and Jews, he also
credits the French seminarians’ interest in Hebrew and Judaism with the fact
that the former archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, was
“Many seminarians do this every year,” Comte said,
noting that for the past few years between one and six seminarians have come
from Paris to study at summer or semester-long ulpan programs.
their brief stay, they have the opportunity to stay in a private house owned by
the diocese of Paris, situated near the Damascus Gate.
seminarian, Leandro Setuval, is a bit more rooted here and hopes to stay in the
country long-term. Setuval, 27, came from Brazil five years ago to study at the
Redemptoris Mater Seminary of the Galilee, situated on the Mount of the
Beatitudes near Domus Galilaeae. After receiving an invitation from his seminary
program, Setuval quickly decided to study at Ulpan Mila from October 2006 to
Like Campomar and Comte, he wasn’t originally set on
becoming a priest. “Like every Brazilian, I dreamed of becoming a soccer
player,” said Setuval, the third of eight children.
religious education I received, I lived a pagan life – parties, girls, games,
He had given up on God and religion after his father died during
“But four years after his death, after a period of living without
peace, God gave me a great gift: He gave me back peace, and He made it possible
for me to serenely accept this event. From that day onward I began to see that
God and only God can turn suffering into joy, and He is the only one who
responds to rejection with love.”
In gratitude for the peace he now
attributes to “God’s forgiveness,” a teenage Setuval set his sights on attending
seminary. Now with just three years left of his studies in Galilee, Setuval
finds Hebrew useful not only for giving tours while volunteering at Domus
Galilaeae but also to understanding the history of the religion in which he is
so deeply involved.
Knowledge of Hebrew is “very important to better
understand the root of our faith,” said Setuval, who loves Israel so much that
he would love to settle here.
“My staying here in Israel doesn’t depend
on me; but if it did, I would stay here forever,” Setuval said. He hopes to work
within the Jerusalem Patriarchate, which encompasses Israel, Jordan and
While neither Campomar nor Comte intends to make his permanent
home here, each expressed an equally deep connection to the land. “At last, in
Israel, I was able to experience how faith in God is really a gift,” Comte
“When I am in France or Europe, the common culture is Christian, so
it’s normal to believe in God. But we don’t realize that our beliefs are not
simply a European belief. Our beliefs are from Israel, from Judaism. In
Jerusalem, everybody is Jewish and the streets are filled with Jewish people.
It’s here that we really realize that this is a gift. In theological terms, we
realize it’s a grace.”
Meanwhile, among Campomar’s most cherished moments
have been “the times of prayer at the Holy Sepulchre,” where he felt that “God
was talking to [him] personally,” and “the [Israeli] people,” whom he described
as “very open” and willing to listen when he discussed religion with
“Hebrew was always a very famous language because of the Bible,”
Campomar said. “To learn this modern language, we can say it has come back to
life after a long time.”