Baha'i couple in Jerusalem: A minority of one

The Wismans, representatives of the Baha'i World Center, are the capital's only members of their faith.

Bahai world center 88 (photo credit: )
Bahai world center 88
(photo credit: )
Uniqueness is something that many of us strive for, especially in our accomplishments and sense of style, but it is not always easy to be a minority of one in a social or religious setting. Yet it doesn't seem to be much of a problem for Barbara and Kern Wisman, the Jerusalem-based representatives of the Haifa-headquartered Baha'i World Center. Living in the heart of the capital's German Colony, they feel perfectly at home, and not the least bit troubled that they are the only practitioners of their faith not just in the neighborhood, but in the whole city and its surroundings. In fact, although there are adherents in close to 170 countries, there is no resident Baha'i population in Israel. The 650-700 Baha'is who can be found here at any given time are all volunteers who have come from some 85 countries to do service for periods ranging from a few months to a few years. The Baha'is who live here as tourists or temporary residents do not engage in any form of missionary activity. Some people erroneously believe that this is in accordance with the country's anti-missionary laws, says Kern, but in fact it is a self-imposed Baha'i prohibition against seeking or accepting new believers into the Baha'i faith in the Holy Land that dates back to the time when the country was still under Ottoman rule. No one knows why. It is one of several inexplicable Baha'i regulations. The Wismans arrived from the US in September 1996, intending to stay for two and a half years before returning home. But they fell so much in love with the country that they still have not decided on a cut-off date. Their first three years were spent in Haifa, where they still work several days a week, and since then they've been living in the delightful sunlit apartment in Jerusalem that is one of several Baha'i properties in Israel. When they need to stay in Haifa overnight or for a few days, they have the use of another Baha'i-owned apartment. FOUNDED IN 1844, Baha'i, though one of the youngest of the world's independent religions, is also the fastest growing. Kern cites the fact that when the Universal House of Justice, the nine-member legislative authority of the Baha'i faith, came into being in 1963, the total Baha'i population around the world numbered 400,000. In the interim, the number of believers has increased to 5.5 million. Needless to say, neither Kern, 56, nor Barbara, 53, is Baha'i from birth. A direct descendant of US presidents William Henry and Benjamin Harrison, Kern was born in Kansas was raised as a believing and practicing Methodist, so much so that he seriously contemplated becoming a clergyman and enrolled at the Wesleyan University in Nebraska. However he was disillusioned by what he perceived as too much orientation towards the church and not enough towards people and universal values. So he dropped out and began exploring other religious philosophies. He looked into Judaism, Indian religions and Transcendental Meditation, but he didn't find anything that made him want to embrace any of them. So he decided to "just be a good guy" and to distance himself from religion. Kern's mother, an occupational therapist, had a patient who had lived in the Baha'i House of Worship in Panama. During their sessions together, she learned a lot about Baha'i, and one day said to him: "I think I've got a religion for you." He was sufficiently open-minded to go to weekly Baha'i meetings for two months, and was invited to an Ayyam-i-ha party in which Baha'i people give out presents and perform acts of charity. It was there that he met Barbara. The party was on the eve of a fast. Kern entered into the spirit of the fast and at the end of it said: "This is for me." The fast was a culmination of several factors, one of the most important of which was absorbing the basic teachings contained in the writings of Baha'u'llah, the founder of the faith, who is regarded as the most recent in a line of messengers of God who include Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus and Muhammad. The basic teachings of Baha'u'llah, who is buried in a Baha'i shrine in Acre, are directed toward world peace, harmony, equality and universal education. For the first time, says Kern, he encountered multiple religious truths. In all the religions he had studied before, there was not the same sense of cohesiveness. "They were all competing to get to the same place through different paths." Because Baha'i is not a competitive religion, but one that incorporates the most universal tenets of several creeds, it was to him "the path to the mainstream." Barbara was born a Presbyterian. Her grandmother was a lapsed Catholic who switched to the Church of the United Brethren; her father was a Methodist, her mother belonged to the Evangelical Free Church and the couple took their children to the Presbyterian Church. Perhaps because she was surrounded in her own home by various religious faiths, her sense of curiosity about other faiths was sharpened. She could never understand why people of different beliefs couldn't get along with each other and argued about religion "which was supposed to be loving, kind and unifying." She wanted to know where the Hindus, Buddhists and Jews fitted in. She grappled with the question in Sunday school, and it continued to prey on her mind as she grew older and saw members of her family marry into other faiths, into which some of them also converted. The first Baha'i that Barbara ever met was a shoe salesman who moved into her community in Nebraska. Soon after, Barbara moved to Omaha so that she could go to college, and to finance her studies worked part time in a hotel and restaurant where three of the other employees were Baha'is. They invited her to the Baha'i study circles and information meetings, and she went along to learn what it was all about. Initially, her mother was a little concerned that she might be joining some cult group, but her fears were allayed after meeting several Baha'is. THE PARTY where Kern met Barbara some 30 years ago was in February. In March, he became Baha'i and in May they got married in a Baha'i Dawn Prayers ceremony which was held in a children's park with no one officiating. There are no clergy in the Baha'i faith. The couple getting married makes vows in the presence of witnesses approved by the local Baha'i Spiritual Assembly. Relatives of the bride and groom, who came to wish them well, read prayers and sang. After the wedding, friends who were going to Panama gave them their trailer to live in. Two years later, their friends invited them to Panama to join other Baha'i volunteers. In Panama, Barbara worked as the assistant to the treasurer of the Baha'i governing body, and Kern was the assistant caretaker and then manager of the Baha'i House of Worship. The experience taught them both they needed more skills, so they returned to Nebraska, where Barbara went to university to study accountancy, and Kern got himself an apprenticeship as a diamond setter with a large jewelry company. When the jewelry company closed its Nebraska operations, it offered Kern a job in Union, Missouri, just outside St. Louis. It was an offer he couldn't refuse. The company marketed jewelry nationwide, and was willing to make him head designer. So the Wismans moved to Missouri where they soon opened their own jewelry store, although Kern continued to design for the company that had brought him to Missouri. The Wismans were the only Baha'is in the community, just as they are in Jerusalem. While attending a jewelry fair, they met a haredi couple from Denver with whom they became very friendly. The Jewish couple wanted to make aliya, but didn't want to relinquish their source of income. They persuaded the Wismans that it would be to their advantage to sell their store in Missouri and move to Denver to manage the Jewish-owned store. After relocating to Denver where they spent approximately 18 months, the Wismans attended a presentation by the Baha'i World Center and decided to offer their services. WHILE THE Wismans are always eager to learn more about Judaism, various branches of Christianity and Islam, they are very careful in their responses when asked about Baha'i. It's not that they're trying to be secretive. It's a matter of treading the fine line between simply imparting information or saying something that could be interpreted as trying to attract people to their faith. Baha'i comprises three unities: the unity of God and the belief in only one God; the unity of religious truth in that there is truth in all religions and this truth comes from the same God; and the unity of all mankind in that there are no distinctions based on race, creed or caste. "We recognize the fundamental truth that exists in all religions," says Barbara. "There is one God but different road maps. The fundamental goal of Baha'i is the accomplishment of world peace, and one of the fundamental requirements in pursuit of world peace is education, which is extremely important, especially the education of women." Baha'u'llah, who was born in 1817 into one of the great patrician families of Persia, grew up in an era in which women rarely received an education. Even in affluent circles, not all women were literate. But because he advocated the unity of all mankind, it was imperative that women receive the same educational opportunities as men. All the basic tenets of Baha'i are directed toward world peace and the elimination of prejudice. In this context, Kern clarifies the Baha'i concept of consultation. "Solving a problem is not an adversarial situation," he says. "None of us has the right answer. If you enter into a problem-solving situation, it's as partners trying to find a solution, rather than as adversaries trying to convince each other." In the quest for peace, Baha'i also promotes use of a universal language - not necessarily Esperanto, but a language known to everyone in addition to their native tongue. "People need to communicate with each other. An auxiliary language can be adopted for communication purposes," says Kern. AS MEMBERS of Israel's international community, the Wismans along with a handful of other Baha'is enjoy quasi diplomatic status and are on the guest lists of most diplomatic missions, attending social and ceremonial events all over the country. This does not give them an elevated status over other Baha'is. It's simply that part of their work involves making foreign diplomats aware of Baha'i and hosting them and various dignitaries from their home countries at the World Center on the slopes of Mount Carmel, and taking them through the breathtaking gardens that were designed and laid out by Shoghi Effendi Rabani, the great-grandson of Baha'u'llah. The quasi diplomatic status derives from a 1987 exchange of letters between the State of Israel and the Baha'i World Center in which the State of Israel officially recognized the World Center as the Baha'i international headquarters. Baha'i also enjoys NGO status with the UN and like the UN maintains offices in New York and Geneva. Aside from cultivating and befriending diplomats, the Wismans are community oriented and extremely active in a variety of organizations. "When you're part of a community you have responsibility," says Kern, a past president of the Jerusalem Rotary Club. Because the Rotary Club meets at the YMCA, many of its members have also served on the board of the Y and have involved fellow Rotarians, including Kern, in Y activities. It was a natural place for him to go because Baha'i is active in everything related to interfaith and intercultural projects. Interfaith groups in which Kern is active or at least attends meetings include ICCI, Encounter, the Israel Interfaith Association and the Rainbow Group. In most of these he's more of a listener than a doer because of the religious focus. "I'm a supporter, but I'm a community of one, and it would therefore be inappropriate to be involved in the dialogue." Barbara is the treasurer of the International Women's Club. She also belongs to a cooking club, a book club, a quilt group and is involved together with Kern with the Friends of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, Friends of the Israel Museum and Friends of the Hebrew University. In all the time that they've been in Israel they've never felt any form of discrimination. On the contrary, they've been made to feel very welcome. They love the Israeli candor. "People are very genuine because they tell you what they think," says Barbara, acknowledging that it can be very difficult living in an environment where one has no family. But she's met many people in Israel who have become almost as close as family and with whom she wants to maintain contact after she eventually goes home. For its volunteers who come to Israel, the Baha'i World Center provides only the most essential necessities: accommodation, food and medical expenses, plus an expense account based on whatever job one is doing for Baha'i. The Wismans also have a car at their disposal because they do so much traveling. However, when they were stationed in Haifa during their first three years in Israel, they had to rely on public transport. Coming to Israel is definitely an act of devotion. "It's not a career move," says Barbara. "You do it with the idea of sacrifice," adds Kern. "It affects your job, your status, your hireability, your insurability." Most of the long-term volunteers have either taken early retirement, are on sabbatical or have budgeted for a year or two out of their savings and investments, or alternatively are young people who have just graduated from university and have not yet entered into a profession. The Wismans keep asking themselves how much longer they can afford to remain here, and always come up with another excuse for extending their stay. "We've been exposed to a kaleidoscope of Judaism," says Kern, "and we don't have to take sides."