The phenomenon of Filipina caregiver Rose Fostanes winning X Factor Israel is a moment of pride for some Israelis. A foreign worker, one of hundreds of such generally invisible residents of the country, stepped up to the microphone and belted out, “I am Beautiful,” “Made This Way” and, in the emotional finale, “My Way,” in the process, becoming a highly visible star. The people of Israel voted her as their favorite over younger, also talented Israeli Jews. But some Israelis preferred to speak of our sense of collective guilt about our need for and treatment of Filipino caregivers.
I believe that encountering Rose was an experience of peeking behind the walls that exist between “us” and “others” in Israel. Most of the walls are invisible blinders that we wear to protect our sense of self. At the same time, these walls prevent us from seeing the many services provided by these “others.”
In Jerusalem, where I live, there are also physical walls surround many buildings, protecting “us” and “them” from each other.
Jewish Jerusalemites are so used to walls, particularly around Christian institutions, that they rarely ask what lies behind the walls.
A case in point is the Ratisbonne Monastery, in the middle of west Jerusalem, on Shmuel Hanagid Street. When I tell my fellow Jewish friends that I teach there, they insist that they have no idea where it is, though they are usually quite familiar with the Yeshurun Synagogue next door. Built in the 19th century, the monastery is an enormous complex, a castle among the modern apartments of today’s Rehavia neighborhood. It was built in 1874 by the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, an order founded by two brothers, Marie-Theodore and Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne, French-Jewish converts to Christianity. The order was devoted to Christian Jewish understanding, with the goal of bringing Jews to convert to Christianity.
The Shoah changed all of that. After the war and the founding of the State of Israel, in coordination with the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate statement denouncing anti-Semitism and encouraging interreligious dialogue, the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion began to devote its efforts to teaching Christians about Judaism, in order to teach them to respect Jews as Jews. I myself have been invited for decades by the Sisters of Sion to lecture about Judaism to Christian groups from all over the world. For many years, the Ratisbonne Monastery housed the Center Chretién d’Etudes Juives (Christian Center for Jewish Studies), where Christians were able to study Jewish texts with Jewish scholars.
Since 2004, the Ratisbonne Monastery has been home to the Jerusalem campus of the Studium Theologicum Salesianum (STS), the Salesian Pontifical University. Students from 33 countries attend classes there, in a fouryear program culminating in a bachelor’s degree in theology.
Despite the fact that I am a Jewish woman, I was invited this semester to teach a course in patristic literature (first to fourth century writings of the earliest Christian theologians) for these young men, most of whom are studying for ordination as Catholic priests. Lest you think that my identity is insignificant, try to imagine a haredi yeshiva hiring a Christian woman to teach Talmud. Yet I have always felt welcome and respected by both students and colleagues at STS. For the students and for me, our time together is a process of opening holes in the walls that separate us, and this coming together serves to inspire us to see how much more each of us can be.
While the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion is devoted to interfaith understanding, the Salesian order is focused on youth ministry, following the calling of its founder, Don Bosco. Here in Israel this means that it runs programs for young Catholics, particularly children of foreign workers. There are weekly worship services in a number of languages, including the Philippine language of Tagalog.
Which brings us back to Rose Fostanes. One live-performance episode of X Factor took place on Christmas Eve. In Israel, the Jewish calendar is the official national calendar, and so there was no reason not to have the episode on that date. Of course, none of those responsible for producing the show could have known that one of their stars would be a Christian Filipina woman.
Rose appeared and performed with her usual power, but I was struck by the fact that the Jewish performers and judges all acknowledged the date and wished her a Merry Christmas.
If not for Rose, the holiday would probably not have been mentioned. Acknowledgment of Christmas on a popular television show served to remind the (mostly Jewish) viewers that the Jewish State of Israel is home to many people who are not Jews, and that despite all of the walls, we are interrelated.
The Congregation of Our Lady of Sion intentionally teaches Christians about Judaism, while expanding the perspectives of the Jews invited to teach about our traditions. The Salesians of Don Bosco open themselves to learn from Jews, while serving the needs of the Catholic foreign workers who help Jewish Israeli families. X Factor Israel provided us all with an opportunity to see past the walls we build around ourselves, to understand that we are better human beings, better Jews and better Israelis when we see each other.
Dr. Marcie Lenk is a member of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project and co-director of New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel.
Learn more about New Paths at newpaths.org.il.