Israelity speaker series intended to help Jews, Christians rethink co-existence in Israel

June 13 event part of effort to build bridges
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jun 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-04 07:00:32-04

CINCINNATI -- When Cincinnati resident Maia Morag visits one of her "very Christian" friends, he sometimes tells her she doesn't look like a Jew.

She tells him that Jews come in different sizes, colors and shapes. He seems to think being Jewish is a racial thing, she said, rather than a religion whose adherents have a shared culture.

Morag, the community emissary from Israel for the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, said it's easy to imagine a Jew in Israel having the same conversation with a Christian -- in reverse. Israeli Jews, used to being the majority in their country, might have a preconceived and stereotypical view of what Christians are like.

Morag organizes the Israelity speaker series put on by the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Mayerson JCC. The series continues at 7 p.m. June 13, at the JCC, with a talk by Hana Bendcowsky, program director for the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.

The Israelity series (think: Is-Reality) is intended to help local Jews rethink their definition of reality in Israel. This year's series of talks, of which Bendcowsky's is the last, has the theme "Coexistence: Building Israel's Shared Society."

In her talk, "A Cross and a Star in the Holy Land: Jews and Christians in Israel," Bendcowsky will discuss the challenges Christians and Jews face in creating that society.

When it comes to Jewish/Christian relations, Israel is like a mirror image of the United States, Morag said.

Here, Christians are the overwhelming majority, with most people observing Christmas and other Christian holidays, but in Israel, where there is no separation of church and state, Jews are the overwhelming majority, and Jewish holidays like Hanukkah are celebrated.

Jews have been used to living in the minority for centuries, regardless of the country they've lived in. In Israel, theirs is the religion of 80 percent of the population and the official language is Hebrew, the language of their holy book.

Of the 8.5 million people in Israel, there are officially 165,000 Christians, Bendcowsky said. Unofficially, when you include migrant workers, there are probably twice as many.

Christians have long had a presence in the Holy Land, but they've been in the minority. In the past, Muslims were in the majority, but since the creation of Israel in 1947, Jews have been in the majority.

Most Christians in Israel are Arabs. The largest group of Christians, about 60 percent, belong to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Greek Orthodox Christians make up the next-largest group at 30 percent, followed by Roman Catholic, Maronite, Anglican, Lutheran, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopian, Coptic and other denominations.

The Melkites trace their history to the early Christians of Antioch, now a part of Turkey, where Christianity was introduced by St. Peter.

Bendcowsky's job is to build bridges between these Christian and Jewish communities. Those bridges are needed because many Israeli Jews have no experience living with Christians.

That's partly because Israeli children of different religions learn in different schools and usually live in different neighborhoods, Morag said.

Each community tends to see itself as the minority group, Bendcowsky said: Christians, because they are only 2 percent of the population; Jews, because they're outnumbered in the Middle East and the rest of the world.

When Israeli Jews look at Christians, they often see the baggage of persecutions that their ancestors suffered at the hands of Christians in Europe, she said, but Christians living in the Holy Land don't understand why Jews keep bringing up events they personally had nothing to do with.

She builds bridges by educating Christians and Jews about each other's faiths and traditions -- for example, by taking Christian school students to visit a Jewish school.

One thing she stresses to Jews is how vital it is that Israel protects and provides access to places revered by Christians, such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, purported site of Jesus' birth.

"When you live here, you think of it as Israel … it has nothing to do with the rest of the world," she said. "But for people around the world, this is the Holy Land … it means a lot to people around the world."