Magazine

The language of the Lord

In recent years, an increasing number of priests and priests-in-training have been sent to ulpan by their seminaries.

Alexander Comte
Photo by: Courtesy
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.

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 seminaries.

“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 Jerusalem.

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.

While in Jerusalem, he stayed in the Domus Mamre monastery in Ras el-Amud near the Mount of Olives.

“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 Hebrew.”

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 world.”

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 said.

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 meantime.

“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.

Unlike Campomar, who arrived with no prior knowledge of Hebrew, many of his colleagues who elect to study at ulpan have previous experience studying biblical Hebrew.

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.

Comte has 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 modern Hebrew.

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.

He 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.

“When we 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 knowledge.”

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.

Comte said 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 originally Jewish.

“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.

During their brief stay, they have the opportunity to stay in a private house owned by the diocese of Paris, situated near the Damascus Gate.

Another 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 August 2007.

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.

“Despite the religious education I received, I lived a pagan life – parties, girls, games, etc.”

He had given up on God and religion after his father died during his childhood.

“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 Cyprus.

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 said.

“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 them.

“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.”


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