A priest in love with Israel

Something really holy is happening in Israel, and I have to see it. I want to witness it.’

Father Erik Ross (photo credit: DAWID GRZESKOWIAK)
Father Erik Ross
(photo credit: DAWID GRZESKOWIAK)
Though he’s an unusually erudite man who has two earned master’s degrees and speaks at least four languages, Father Erik Ross, 40, doesn’t fully understand his own attraction to Israel and to the Jewish people.
One thing is certain. He’s not your typical Christian Zionist. He compares his life in a monastery to being on a religious kibbutz, where members of the community pray together and eat together. He describes the different Catholic orders as being “a little like the different kinds of hassidim.”
Raised in Wisconsin and currently serving as a Dominican priest in Poland, Ross also has an undergraduate degree in international relations from Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He worked as a lobbyist at the UN until he came to the realization that a political life wouldn’t be enough for him. “My relationship with God was the most important thing,” he told In Jerusalem.
Ross’s first trip to Israel was in 2009, when he was already a Dominican monk, studying for the priesthood.
He came to work in the library of the École Biblique, the Dominican-run French School of Bible and Archeology.
The library is located on Dominican property 200 meters from the Damascus Gate on Nablus Road.
According to Ross, the École is an academic institution with a huge, two-level library. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the lexicographer who played a key role in the revival of modern Hebrew, conducted research in that very place.
Asserting that the Dominicans have had a presence in Israel since the 13th century, Ross explains: “There’s a whole Christian world in Jerusalem that most Israelis don’t know about.”
He remained in Israel for 88 days. “That first trip, we went out on excursions. The head of the library took us all over Israel: the Golan, Beersheba, the Sinai Peninsula, Ashkelon. I came to see what Israel was through a Christian historical and archeological lens.”
That trip was not Ross’s first experience with Jewish people. “For three years, I lived in Manhattan and worked with Jewish thinkers as an editor of First Things,” an interfaith magazine that bills itself as “America’s most influential journal of religion & public life.”
“I was very keenly aware of the Jewish reality,” he says, contrasting himself with his Polish Dominican colleagues, many of whom have never spoken to Jews.
Ross noted about himself, “For me, Jews are not just people I’m aware of. They were my teachers in high school, friends in college, colleagues.”
Nevertheless, that first trip to Israel wasn’t fully satisfying. “I felt a little sad because the Israeli world seemed like it was behind glass.” He met plenty of left-leaning religious Jewish people, but not the “intensively religious people,” with whom he felt he had the most in common.
He returned in 2010 to study Hebrew with the Milah Institute in Jerusalem. The American who had already mastered Polish, French and Italian and had some knowledge of German was deeply impressed with what he discovered in Jerusalem. “I never had such good language classes as I had in Hebrew. Just flabbergastingly good. The way it was taught was so impressive to me.
“I was in love with Israel already and I wanted to come closer to it. I know that once you become fluent, you have much more access to the culture. Something really holy is happening in Israel, and I have to see it. I want to witness it.”
About that trip in 2010, Ross explains, “I really focused on the Jewish world. I listened to Yishai Fleisher’s radio show on Arutz 7. He invited me to do an interview at the Arutz 7 studios in Beit El. This opened the door to the world of religious Zionists.”
In 2013, Ross did another ulpan. Today, he spends time explaining to Jews how Israel looks through Catholic eyes, primarily through his blog on the Times of Israel website. And he teaches Catholics about Judaism.
“Most monks visiting Israel have never spoken to a Jew, except in the airport,” he explains.
All told, he’s visited Israel eight times and has collectively spent over 12 months living in the Dominican monastery in Jerusalem. “I have become comfortable in Israel,” Ross concludes.
He exposes Dominican monks and priests to a living Judaism, introducing other monks to synagogues in Israel where they encounter the familiar formula of separate prayer spaces for men. “They are amazed, in spite of themselves, to have the whole world of Jewish prayer opened up to them.
“They thought of Hebrew as a dead language. They hadn’t considered the connection between ancient Israel and contemporary Jews. I show them that, in Israel, we now have a living Hebrew culture.”
Ross is able to prove to his colleagues that “God is active in the Jewish people. Jewish people are pining for a relationship with God. And God responds to their sincere prayers and desires to be His children. God responds very generously to Jewish prayer.”
Ross has made friends with the Jewish people about whom he speaks. “I was permitted to encounter holiness among the Jewish people. I was invited to spend Shabbat with many families in Jerusalem. What a joy to do it, because in some neighborhoods the whole community celebrates Shabbat together. I have also celebrated the Passover Seder three years in a row with the writer Yossi Klein Halevi and his family.
“I want to be present with the Jewish people since they are a source of godly energy in the world. The healthy reaction is to be drawn close to the light. But I didn’t think I would be permitted to see it so closely. Something is happening there [in Israel] and people need to pay attention.”
Ross is a deep thinker. One can practically smell him pondering how to make sense of the Jewish people’s flourishing in contemporary times. “I don’t think anyone in the Vatican ever expected there to be a modern State of Israel. It took some time to recognize the State of Israel.
“There is a living community of Hebrew-speaking Jews in the Land of Israel. A slight majority of the Chosen People have come back to the Holy Land. This obviously has meaning. This ingathering of the Jews is a holy and important event. I think it’s the most important event that’s ever going to happen in my lifetime.
“The Jews are the Chosen People because God chose them. They cannot negate their chosenness even if individuals deny God. Catholics affirm that the Jews are chosen, but there is an open question. What exactly Jews are chosen for? What the chosenness means isn’t clear.”
Nevertheless, he is certain that “holiness is in the Jewish community. God responds to the Jewish people.
“What does this mean for Christians? Christian antisemitism is a problem for the Christians. It pollutes and perverts our relationship with God.” Ross mused about how the church “is changing very radically these days.
“In the meantime, the Jewish people are building a state. The longer Israel stands, the more people are forced to deal with its existence. There are still plenty of folks waiting for its demise. The success of the state is a testimony. It is something we need to pay attention to.
“Israel is a fact. This is not a theological thesis in some textbook. To meet living Jewish people, living as Jews in a Jewish society, to see a beautiful modern bus with ‘Hag Sameah’ written on it, is a huge deal... if only you open your eyes to see it.”
Returning to his personal connection with Israel, Ross explains, “My motivation is not completely rational. It really is about love, love for the Jewish people and love for God, who loves the Jewish people.”
In particular, he has been overwhelmed by “the enormous generosity I’ve received. People would have every reason to turn me away and shut me out. I’ve been amazed by the courage of Jews who invite me in nevertheless, over and over again.
“The courage comes from the Jews being home. They can be more generous. Living in Israel has given the Jewish people a justified confidence.”