Hebrew Catholics Follow Their Own Church

Sharing ‘Shalom HaMashiach’ at Jerusalem’s Evening Mass

‘Elder Brothers’: Members of Israel’s Hebrew-speaking Catholic community celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Father Gregorcz Pawlowski (center) a Holocaust survivor. He is flanked by Father David Neuhaus (right) and Pier Battista Pizza Balla (right).
‘Elder Brothers’: Members of Israel’s Hebrew-speaking Catholic community celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Father Gregorcz Pawlowski (center) a Holocaust survivor. He is flanked by Father David Neuhaus (right) and Pier Battista Pizza Balla (right).

By Donald Snyder

Published April 15, 2009, issue of April 24, 2009.
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The traditional Jewish blessings over wine and bread, the Kiddush and the Motzi, echoed through the sanctuary at 10 HaRav Kook Street in Jerusalem. It was a room of striking simplicity — with just one small cross in brown wood.

Four Catholic priests wearing white robes and green stoles stood at the altar, as one of them recited these blessings. But unlike the blessings at a festive Jewish meal, these were blessings of consecration, transforming the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. Just before taking Communion, church members exchanged the greetings of Pax Christi, Peace of Christ, saying to one another, “Shalom HaMashiach.”

At the Church of Sts. Simeon & Anna, all the prayers are in Hebrew, as was this Evening Mass for the community known as the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community of Israel.

This is not a messianic Christian gathering, but neither is it just another Catholic Church serving the country’s 22,000 Roman Catholics, most of whom are Arab.

Active since 1955, the Hebrew-speaking Catholic Vicariate, also known as the Association of St. James, was founded mainly to serve European-Catholic immigrants to the new Jewish state — many of whom are married to Jews — shortly after its founding in 1948. With branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba, the association is fully welcomed by the same society that bristles at the missionizing of Jews for Jesus. But in some ways, the backgrounds of several of its most prominent members are no less provocative. They include strongly identified Jews — including several Holocaust survivors — who converted to Catholicism and view themselves as a philosemitic redoubt of advocacy for love of Jews and Israel within the church.

“We see ourselves rooted in Israeli society with a real respect for Jews as they see themselves, and we follow the Jewish liturgical calendar and observe many of their holidays, like Sukkot and Hanukkah,” explained the Rev. David Mark Neuhaus, the vicar for the Hebrew Speaking Community in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Neuhaus also gives lectures about Judaism and the Bible to Palestinian and Jordanian Arabs training for the priesthood at Beit Jala Seminary and Bethlehem University.

The primary objective of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community, he explained, is to sharpen the church’s awareness of its Jewish origins and the Jewish identity of Jesus and his apostles.

The association’s population peaked at several thousand in the 1950s and ’60s. Today it has about 400 members. Many left to get better Catholic educations for their children. But despite dwindling numbers, this Roman Catholic community shows a robust spiritual commitment.

Most of the immigrants come from mixed Catholic-Jewish marriages in which the wife is a practicing Catholic and the husband a non-observant Jew. Children of these mixed marriages are often raised as Catholics. Some of the original members were Jews who had been baptized to survive the Holocaust and wanted to remain Catholic after settling in Israel.

One of the early Jewish members of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community was Brother Daniel, whose status as a Hebrew-speaking, Jewish-born Zionist Catholic priest created legal history in Israel when he sought citizenship there under the country’s Law of Return, the statute guaranteeing citizenship on request to virtually all Jews who enter Israel.

Born Oswald Rufeisen into an Orthodox Jewish family in the Polish town of Oswiecim —known in Yiddish as Auschwitz — the future priest was a member of the Zionist Bnei Akiva youth group during his teenage years. Rufeisen fled Poland eastward when Germany invaded in 1939, but he ended up as a slave laborer for the Nazis in Lithuania. Escaping again, he used his language skills to obtain a false identity and employment as a translator for the police in the town of Mir in what is today Belarus. There, he is credited with having saved several hundred Jews by warning them of the Nazis’ impending plan to liquidate the Mir ghetto and helping engineer their escape. He himself hid out for the remainder of the war in a local convent, during which time he decided to convert to Catholicism.

On his arrival in Israel in 1959, Rufeisen, by then a Carmelite monk, requested citizenship under the Law of Return. Amid great controversy, the government denied his application, narrowing the Law of Return to apply only to Jews who had not embraced another religion. Rufeisen’s case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled 4-1 against the priest. Instead, Rufeisen became an Israeli citizen through naturalization, and lived there, a key member of the Hebrew-Catholic community’s Haifa branch, until his death in 1998.

Due to the Brother Daniel ruling, the Rev. Gregorcz Pawlowski did not even try to come to Israel under the Law of Return. Born Zvi Griner to an observant Jewish family, Pawlowski, now 78, was an 11-year-old boy in Zamosc, Poland, when the German army arrived and slaughtered his parents and his younger sisters. He managed to escape, and survived the war with a forged Catholic baptismal certificate, begging local peasants for food and shelter. He was near death from disease and starvation when the Russians drove the Germans from Poland in late 1944. Pawlowski was placed in a Catholic orphanage, where he attended a school run by nuns. He became a priest after surviving the Holocaust. A longtime member of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic Vicariate, he also ministers to a Polish-Catholic community in Jaffa. Nevertheless, he plans to be buried in the Jewish cemetery in Izbica, Poland, where his mother and sisters were murdered. The slightly built, white-haired priest has asked Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, at his funeral. He also fasts on Yom Kippur. His simply furnished apartment at 4 Ben Zvi Street has two names on the door: Gregorcz Pawlowski in Latin letters, and beneath it, in Hebrew, Zvi Griner —two different names for a man of seemingly incompatible religious identities.

Speaking in Polish through an interpreter, Pawlowski told his story to this reporter in a monotone, his face expressionless. The trauma of his boyhood appeared to drain all emotion from his lengthy narration. He never smiled.

Neuhaus, the community’s vicar, is a 46-year-old Jesuit priest raised as a Jew in South Africa. His path to Catholicism began when his parents sent him to study in a yeshiva in Jerusalem as a teenager.

Neuhaus told of how in Jerusalem, he met a Russian-Orthodox nun related to the family of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. “I was 15, and she was 89,” Neuhaus carefully explained. “She had an incredible influence over me from a spiritual standpoint. She radiated the presence of God. Her influence raised many spiritual questions about my faith.”

Neuhaus promised his parents that he would discuss his religious direction with them and wait 10 years before making a final decision. He did as he promised, converting and becoming ordained at the age of 26.

“I attend a Reform synagogue regularly,” said Neuhaus. “I go to the synagogue as an expression of who I am historically, socially and, to a certain extent, spiritually. The melodies of the synagogue are much closer to my heart than the chants in a Benedictine monastery, because I grew up with those melodies. Many of our members attend synagogue as an act of solidarity.”

Neuhaus points out that Israel is the only society where Jews constitute a majority. The Jewish religion, history and culture establish the rhythm of life for the Catholic community, he said.

“For us, the universal Catholic reflection on the Jewish identity of Jesus and the Jewish roots of our faith is not just one element in our renewal after the Second Vatican Council,” Neuhaus said in an interview with Zenit, the Catholic news service that covers the Vatican. “It is also part of our daily existence.”

In an interview at the Pontifical Bible Institute, Neuhaus said that some members of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community helped formulate the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which repudiated charges of deicide against the Jews, denounced antisemitism and ruled that Mass may be offered in the vernacular. These reforms were contained in the founding charter of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community 10 years before Vatican II convened, Neuhaus said.

Neuhaus views his community as one that led the way for Catholics to see Jews as brothers, not as evil people determined to subvert Christianity. Its members live according to the words spoken by Pope John Paul II when he visited the Great Synagogue of Rome on April 13, 1986: “You are our dear brothers or, we might say, our elder brothers.”

Contact Donald Snyder at feedback@forward.com

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