Getting to Know Our Christian Neighbors: A Different Part of Jerusalem

On Friday 4/30, an oversubscribed group of about 30 Jewish residents of Jerusalem learned about a different side of their city.  They were taking part in a study tour to learn about the Christian communities of the Old City, an event created as a follow-up to the successful study session held at Kehillat Yedidya, on the topic of “Why Do Some Jews Spit on Christians in the Old City,” held on March 15.  One of the conclusions from that night had been that a root of the problem is that Jewish residents of Jerusalem know close to nothing about their Christian neighbors.  This group of Jews, made up of members of Kehillat Yedidya, a Modern Orthodox community in the Baka neighborhood of West Jerusalem, as well as university students, visitors and other Jerusalem residents, sought to learn about a part of the city that they never see.


The tour was led by Daniel Rossing, founder and director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and one of the first co-chairpersons of ICCI, gave an overview of the complexities of dealing with them, from his vast experience as the former director of the Department of Relations with Christians of the former Ministry of Religious Affairs.  

 The tour began with a visit in St. James’ Armenian Seminary, with Archbishop Aris Shirvanian.  The archbishop told the all-Jewish audience about the history of his people here, in Jerusalem, and about his life, being born in Haifa and living under both Jordanian and Israeli rule of the Old City.  In addition, he talked about the issue that he and his fellow clergy and seminarians face with regards to ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting on them.

Archbishop Shirvanian then led the group into the heart of the Armenian Patriarchate, the tranquil part of the Old City, usually closed to the public, where nearly 500 Armenians live.  The Jewish participants in the tour, most of whom had never encountered a member of the Armenian community, were interested to learn about how Armenians interact with so-called “mainstream” Israeli society.  They were impressed to learn that, in school, Armenian children learn Armenian (Classical and Modern), Hebrew, Arabic, English, and French and that the vast majority of Armenian high school graduates continue their studies at Hebrew University.

One tour participant commented that, before this tour, he had only thought of the Armenian Quarter of the Old City as a shortcut to the Jewish Quarter.  Now, for the first time in his life, he thought of the Armenian Quarter as a fascinating community, in its own right, and a part of Israeli society. 

The tour continued, as Daniel Rossing led the group into the Greek Patriarchate of the Christian Quarter, on top of the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  As the participants looked out over the panorama of the city, they learned about the diverse Christian communities that have established their presence in the land of Israel over many centuries. 

Then, the participants met with Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa OFM, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land .  A representative of the Vatican, Fr. Pizzaballa spoke about the issues that his community faces as they are representatives of the Vatican.  His frank and succinct briefing was genuinely appreciated by all who had the privilege of meeting him.

The tour concluded with a visit to the Sisters of Saint Vincent orphanage, located just opposite Mamilla Mall.  Although every participant had been to Mamilla many times, none of them were aware that there was this place, hidden behind a wall that provides so many services to children from poor families, as well as the mentally and physically disabled.

At the conclusion of the tour, one participant commented that he had visited sites on the tour that he had never been to, despite having lived in Jerusalem for 40 years.  Another noted that this was her first time meeting Christian clergy and truly learning about these communities.  All expressed hope that more Israeli Jews would make an effort to learn about Christian minorities here. Indeed, more and more Jewish Israelis are taking an interest in Christian minority communities: there were three other Hebrew language groups touring the Christian Quarter on Friday morning. 

The tour concluded with a call to action.  Plans are being developed for future events which will take concrete steps to express Jewish solidarity with Christian minorities living in Jerusalem.

Photo Credit: Shalva Weil