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Three priests

A trio of Roman Catholics struggle to reconcile their Jewish roots and their adopted faith.

Three priests
Photo by: Courtesy
Father Gregorcz Pawlowski believes he can be both a Roman Catholic priest and a Jew. The 78-year-old Holocaust survivor says Mass and tends to the other spiritual needs of the small Polish-speaking community in Jaffa. He also fasts on Yom Kippur and plans to be buried in a Jewish cemetery in his native Poland. He has asked the chief rabbi of Poland to say Kaddish at his funeral. His gravestone is already in the cemetery in Izbica where his mother and sisters were murdered. Pawlowski was born a Jew. He is not the only priest in Israel who continues to draw on his Jewish past to enrich his religious life. Jesuit David Neuhaus was born a Jew in South Africa and became interested in converting to Catholicism while studying in Jerusalem. He is the head of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community here and attends a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem on a regular basis. His congregants observe many Jewish holidays. Father Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, born during the Holocaust, embraces his dual identity as a Jew and Catholic. He was not told he was born Jewish until 12 years after he became a priest. Now he wants to move to Israel. All three of these priests are proud of their Jewish origins and say that being Jewish anchors their Christianity. They manage to bridge the gap between the two religions by embracing Jesus and his followers as Jews. The three priests laud the reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. This historic council repudiated charges of deicide against Jews, denounced anti-Semitism and ruled that the Mass may be offered in the vernacular, said Neuhaus during an interview at the Pontifical Bible Institute in Jerusalem. The Hebrew-speaking Catholics here had been advocating a similar position toward Jews ever since the community was founded in 1955. The spiritual journeys of the three are very different. PAWLOWSKI'S IS the most painful. He was born Zvi Griner in Zamosc, in eastern Poland. His world was shattered in the fall of 1942, when he was 11. Invading German troops ordered the Jews of Zamosc to march to nearby Izbica where they were massacred, but Pawlowski managed to escape and survive the Holocaust, partly with a forged Catholic baptismal certificate given to him by a Jewish teenager. Peasants in the rural area gave him food and shelter to keep him alive until late 1944 when Russian troops drove the Germans from Poland. He was near death from starvation and disease when the war ended. The Polish Red Cross placed him in a Roman Catholic orphanage, and he attended a school run by nuns. He told me that he became "zealous" in his pursuit of Christian studies and soon embraced Catholicism. "I came from a deeply religious family and I desperately wanted religion back in my life again," he said, speaking in Polish through an interpreter. He stressed that he didn't want to be seen as different from his Catholic classmates. The slightly-built, white-haired man was asked why he became a priest during our interview in his simple apartment in Jaffa. "I just kept learning and going along and I went into the profession," he explained, implying that it was the natural thing to do. "He was saying, in effect, he was part of a greater Catholic family, so it seemed like a smart thing to become a priest," explained Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland and a friend of Pawlowski. "It was like he went into the family business - he certainly didn't have an epiphany on the way to Damascus." He told his story in a monotone, his face expressionless. The trauma of his boyhood appeared to drain all emotion from his narration. He never smiled. NEUHAUS'S STORY did not originate in the Holocaust. The 46-year-old Jesuit priest was raised a Jew in South Africa and first became interested in Christianity while studying in Jerusalem. Neuhaus's parents sent him to a yeshiva in Jerusalem when he was 15. In Jerusalem he met a Russian Orthodox nun who was related to the family of the last czar of Russia, Nicholas II. "I was 15 and she was 89," Neuhaus said. "She had an incredible influence over me from a spiritual standpoint. She radiated the presence of God. Her influence raised many spiritual questions about my faith." He promised his parents he would regularly discuss his religious experiences with them and would make a final decision in 10 years. He was baptized as a Catholic when he was 26 and was ordained at 38, after many years of study. The primary objective of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community is to sharpen the Church's awareness of its Jewish origins and the Jewish identity of Jesus and his apostles. "We see ourselves rooted in Israeli society with a real respect for Jews as they see themselves, and we observe many of their holidays, like Succot and Hanukka," explained Neuhaus. He also gives lectures about Judaism and the Bible to Palestinian and Jordanian Arabs training for the priesthood in Beit Jala and also at Bethlehem University. Neuhaus points out that Israel is the only society where Jews constitute a majority. He says that the Jewish religion, history and culture establish the rhythm of life for the Catholic community. During a Mass that I attended at the community's church in Jerusalem, the Church of St. Simeon and Anna, the traditional Hebrew blessings for bread and wine were recited. The room where the service was conducted was striking in its simplicity. There was just one small cross in brown wood. All the prayers were in Hebrew with words that are familiar in Jewish services, but here the use of these words was very different. Unlike the blessings over the bread and the wine that are served at a festive Jewish meal, here they were Catholic blessings recited during the communion service that transforms the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. WEKSLER-WASZKINEL, unlike Neuhaus, did not freely choose to become a Catholic. He was raised from infancy with this religious identity. His story is one of tangled identity and two mothers who saved his life. He was born in 1943 in the ghetto of Stare Swieciany, then part of Poland and now in Lithuania. His birth parents, Jakub and Batia Weksler, knew their baby risked death at the hands of the Nazis. Batia Weksler contacted a Catholic couple, Piotr and Emilia Waszkinel, and begged them to take her infant son. To accept this request was to risk death. Weksler-Waszkinel said his birth mother appealed to Emilia Waszkinel to save the infant's life, saying that someday he would become a priest. The Catholic couple agreed to accept the infant and raised the little boy as their own. At 17, Waszkinel told his parents that he would enter the priesthood. They had misgivings. He couldn't understand why they were not happy. As he was growing up, he noticed that he did not have the same Slavic features as his parents, and he was once taunted by town drunks who called him a "Jewish bastard." Doubts about his origin gnawed at him, but he continued studying for the priesthood. Waszkinel was ordained when he was 23 and he still wondered who he really was. Twelve years after his ordination, when his mother was hospitalized, he asked her about his origin. She told him that his birth parents had been Jews and that they had died in the Holocaust. They were wonderful people, she said, and they loved him. He was stunned and decided to seek the advice of another priest. Karol Wojtyla had been Weksler-Waszkinel's professor in Lublin. By then he was pope John Paul II. The pontiff responded: "My beloved brother, I pray so that you can rediscover your roots." Waszkinel now wants to go to Israel to learn more. ISRAEL'S FORMER ambassador to Poland, Shevah Weiss, told me that thousands of Jews who were hidden and raised by Poles to survive the Holocaust did not learn their true identities until late in their lives. Weiss, 74, who spoke of Waszkinel during an interview in his Haifa apartment, has achieved celebrity status in his native Poland, where he lectures monthly. He called Waszkinel "one of the great authorities of the dilemma of people belonging to two nations and two religions." According to Weiss, "Waszkinel has written about the double moral and religious loyalty - the double biography." He said the Polish priest uses the same moral values to belong to two faiths, although the Catholic Church is his official affiliation. However, in spite of this official affiliation, Weiss said that "Waszkinel's soul is linked to the history and the theology of the Jewish people especially during the dark days of the Holocaust." Weksler-Waszkinel has written and lectured about Jewish-Christian relations. He has condemned the Church for having spread anti-Semitism for 2,000 years. He wrote that the Second Vatican Council's enlightened view of Jews was "an explicit rejection of old mistakes that persisted for centuries. One can safely say that the council diagnosed and defined this old chronic and still very dangerous disease as anti-Judaism." His comments are contained in a collection of essays about Jewish-Christian relations. Now, Weksler-Waszkinel wants to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which permits anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent to be eligible for automatic citizenship. His application may fail because of a 1962 Israeli Supreme Court decision which denied a bid for citizenship to Daniel Rufeisen, a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite monk. The court argued that the average person would agree that Rufeisen was not Jewish. The lone dissenting opinion, by an Orthodox Jew, said that Rufeisen should be considered a Jew because Halacha says that a Jew cannot repudiate his or her Jewish identity. The 1962 decision has embroiled the Jewish world in controversy over the question of "Who is a Jew?" Subsequent court decisions have muddied the issue further. Nevertheless, Waszkinel told me that he is determined to go to Israel as a Jew. "My parents were Zionists. Their dreams went up in flames in the Sobibor concentration camp. I want to go there and immerse myself in Jewish life. I really don't know what that means. That's what I want to find out."

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