Ulrich Sahm was born in Germany, raised in England and then in France. Being the only German student in his class, he was drawn to the little group of Jewish students, becoming the "Jew of my gentile classmates," he recalls. After he went to visit the homeland of his classmates, he began to study in Israel and eventually settled down, got married and became a father.
Over the centuries, many non-Jews, mostly Christians, have settled in Jerusalem for many reasons - religious faith and ideology being only one of them. In Jerusalem met two of those who decided to leave everything behind, put their trust in this country and start a new life in Jerusalem, not specifically for religious reasons but for the beauty and the homely feelings they have developed towards the holy city.
"If it wasn't for Israel, I wouldn't have been able to adopt my two sons," says Dr. Etienne Lepicard.. A devout Catholic born and raised in France, Lepicard has been living in Jerusalem, which he considers his home, since 1986.
Sahm, a journalist, reports for numerous TV stations and newspapers in
Germany about the local conflict and Israeli society. Lepicard, a doctor who specializes in bioethics, created the Oil Press House in Ein Kerem, where men and women of goodwill are invited to rest, meditate and dialogue with people from the three monotheistic faiths.
Both speak Hebrew fluently, have studied Jewish sacred texts and have raised their families here, but neither has renounced his nationality or faith. Although they are well integrated into Israeli society, they still feel different. "I, for example, have never mastered the art of cracking open sunflower seeds," admits Sahm, 57, who has lived here since 1972. Lepicard is still living on a tourist visa.
"During the British Mandate," recalls Dr. Amnon Ramon, a researcher specializing in the Christian communities in Israel at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, "there were about 30,000 Christians here, most of whom were not connected to the religious Christian institutions. They were Europeans who came here for different reasons, including work opportunity, though the religious connection to the Holy Land was a factor."
"The first time I came to Jerusalem," recalls Sahm, "was at the end of high school in 1968, and I obtained a very modest stipend. I had studied theology since I was 14 as part of my Protestant education, and though I already had long debates with my priest, I wasn't really a believer but I was not indifferent. Theology fascinated me."
Sahm didn't have a "regular" childhood. His parents, devout German
Protestants, were diplomats representing the new German regime in the first years following the end of World War II and, as such, he spent years out of his native Germany. "I studied at the International School in Paris, where my classmates were also the children of diplomats, and many of them were Jews. There were about six Israelis, and most of the teachers were Jews, while I was the only German there. As a minority, I became very close to the Israelis. I even taught myself Hebrew after listening to them talking. I bought a Yiddish newspaper - to learn the alphabet...
"In 1965, Germany and Israel already had diplomatic ties. Things were fine between the two governments, but in Israeli society things were not easy regarding Germany and Germans," Sahm continues. "In my class in Paris, all the Jewish students and the Israelis knew a lot about the Shoah, but I never felt any anti-German feelings towards me. Perhaps because my own attitude was not apologetic. In my family, we all felt anti-Nazi. My uncle, after whom I am named, was one of the conspirators against Hitler, and he was hanged for that. During the war, my parents were in Sweden, and since I was raised not to consider myself as part of the Nazi history, I met Jews and Israelis free of any guilt feeling. These Jewish friends considered me a friend, and I was invited to their homes."
Sahm recalls his first trip to Israel as simply a visit to his friends from high school. "I came from the very special atmosphere of Europe after 1968, while in Israel it was totally different. Here it was after the Six Day War, nothing to do with the freedom, youth and peace things we witnessed in Europe. But despite the differences, I have had only positive experiences as a non-Jew and especially as a German, even from people who bore numbers on their arms."
Sahm returned to Germany, began to study and returned in 1971, this time with a real stipend, and started to study Hebrew literature and Judaism at the Hebrew University.
He rented a small room in Nahlaot, filled with books.
He soon discovered that German literature, including the authors who emerged after the war, were still ignored in Israel. Besides improving his Hebrew, Sahm was required, as part of the curriculum, to study the Talmud. Later on, he studied Yiddish. While still a student, Sahm began writing for Haaretz, at the request of editor Gershom Schocken himself, writing reviews of books published in Germany.
"We were the only ones who dared to publish anything connected to modern German literature, and it was very warmly received. I realized that prior to my contribution, modern German literature was some kind of taboo in Israel."
Sahm doesn't recall when he decided to stay here for good. "I studied and then I began to teach, and the years went by. I wanted to know as much as possible about Judaism, more Talmud. The variety of religiosity here fascinates me. Although I have remained a German Protestant, I am very sensitive to what I experience around me."
"I CAME here almost by mistake," says Lepicard, now in his late 40s. "I was asked by my professors at the medical school of Lyons to spend time as an auxiliary nurse in a hospital. I thought that if I already have to spend my summer in a hospital, at least I want it to be somewhere abroad. So I registered at the central hospital in Beirut. It was 1978, the civil war broke out and I didn't know what to do. Someone suggested I look for somewhere close to Lebanon - and Israel was the first choice because it is Jesus country. I arrived in Nazareth at the French hospital and spent six weeks there, which was a very moving experience.
"After I returned to France, I resumed my medical studies and lived in a post-1968 Christian community, which sees Judaism as the roots of Christianity. Toward the end of my studies when looking for a topic for my MD thesis, I was interested in working on some aspects of biblical anthropology. I had contacts with some of the finest doctors there, especially two who were observant Jews. Through this experience, I became more interested in the ethics of medicine, and more specifically, the ethics of medicine in the Jewish sources. As a faithful Catholic, it meant a lot to me. That's how I became closer to all the issue of Judaism, the ethics of Judaism - and I began to study for my thesis."
Lepicard chose three topics: contraception, abortion and euthanasia. "I
looked into the Bible and up to the Talmud era - I didn't go further. It was deep, interesting and exactly what I was looking for. After eight years, I returned in 1986 on a sabbatical year during which I studied Hebrew. After that, I registered at the medical school of public health at the Hebrew University and at the department of Jewish thought in the Faculty of Humanities there. My partner, who is a professional tour guide, joined me from France and we started to work with groups of tourists, mostly Christians. Besides the tours to the holy sites of Christianity and of the history of Israel, we welcomed the tour groups to the house we opened in Jerusalem, to make these tours something beyond mere touristic issues, to explain what this place was about," he says.
"In 2001, I completed my PhD at the Hebrew University on a topic that brings together the history of biology, medicine and the Holocaust and I began to teach at the medical school of Tel Aviv University. But I continued to live in Jerusalem. For us Catholics, Jerusalem is at the center of our faith."
Lepicard runs, with two friends, a Jew and a Muslim, the Oil Press House, near the Sisters of Zion monastery in Ein Kerem. It has three guest rooms for pilgrims, scholars or any guest, and serves as a rest house for artists and writers seeking a serene retreat. The main room, with the oil press in its center, serves as a dining room as well as a concert hall for classical or world music, scheduled to start this fall.
"Only an open house like the one we offer can bring people from different religions and beliefs the perfect stage for dialogues, mediation and prayer to promote peace and understanding," says Lepicard.
"SINCE 1948, the Israeli policy toward foreigners who wanted to settle in Israel has become harsher," says Ramon. "Israel is not happy about non-Jews who wish to live here - and it is not by mistake that the ministry in charge in the first years of the state was the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which was also responsible for visas to foreigners. In fact, the policy for years has been to give a visa to a foreigner, for example a priest or a nun, only when another one was leaving, thus making room for another one."
According to Ramon, the peak in foreigners, mainly Christians who wanted to live here, especially in Jerusalem, was in the years following the Six Day War. "Many saw in the victory some sign of a divine involvement, and they wanted to be part of what was going on here and what was expected to happen. That included intellectuals and volunteers, besides priests and nuns."