Middle East

Cheeseburgers in Jerusalem

It was the night before Melanie Preston's immigration flight to Israel and the 28-year-old daughter of a Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father knew exactly what she wanted to eat.

"I want a cheeseburger, right now," she said, scanning a trendy South Florida menu. "You can get cheeseburgers in Israel, but you can't get a really good one. You know?"

This wasn't just a wisecrack about the kosher tradition of separating meat and dairy products. This was the kind of symbolic issue that Preston faced when she signed up for one of the free tours that have taken 70,000 young Jews to Israel during the past five years.

The global Birthright Israel program is open to young people between the ages of 18 and 26 who have never been on an organized tour of Israel. It doesn't matter if they have one Jewish parent or two. It doesn't matter if they have no idea why some Jews eat cheeseburgers and some do not.

"There are cheeseburgers in Israel. You can get them at McDonald's and some places serve them just like regular hamburgers," said Marlene Post, chair of Birthright Israel in North America. "You make your choices. If she's planning on being religious, then she will never see another cheeseburger in her life. If she's going to be secular she will have all the options she would have anywhere else."

This tension between Judaism the faith and Judaism the culture has been part of Israel from the start. Thus, one of the key philanthropists behind www.BirthrightIsrael.org is Wall Street legend Michael Steinhardt -- an avowed atheist. Nevertheless, he joined the Israeli government and a coalition of donors, foundations and civic groups to fund this experiment.

The young people can select tours that emphasize education, art, recreation, religion or nothing in particular during their 10-day visits. They float in the Dead Sea and hike the Golan Heights, hang out with young Israeli soldiers and meet Holocaust survivors, visit security checkpoints and tour in buses tracked by on-board global positioning systems.

It isn't hard to spot the agenda, said Roman Smolkin, a 24-year-old computer professional in Aventura. Insiders stress the need for young people to "bond" with the state of Israel. Others talk about helping them establish a sense of "Jewish identity," whether religious or secular. Clearly, the constant late-night socializing is meant to facilitate friendships, some hooking up and even Jewish marriages.

"I think they're just trying to get people like us to be us, to be ourselves. They want us to act like young Jews," he said, during a dinner with Preston and several other tour veterans in South Florida. "But the people funding this must be thinking in terms of a very long-term investment for Israel and for Judaism. They must be thinking that they give us this trip now and, 30 years down the road we'll be different people."

For Harrison Heller, the impact was immediate. When he returned to Boca Raton he promptly signed up with Students for Israel and began speaking out politically. He still considers himself non-religious, although he now wears a prominent Star of David necklace.

"The whole religious thing is impossible to avoid," he said. "One of the very first application forms that we had to complete came right out and asked that question. It said, 'Are you Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or just a Jew?' You can't get more direct than that."

Preston wrestled with the faith issue as she prepared for "aliyah" -- the Hebrew word that means "to ascend," or move to Israel. She said she was raised "sort-of Reform" and "did the Christmas thing every year, but with no church services." Before Birthright Israel, she thought a "kibbutz" was a kind of boat.

Long after the tour, she had a tearful epiphany when she heard a Scottish folk singer attack Israel during a music festival in Montreal.

"What I've discovered," she said, "is that it's almost impossible to get involved in the life and politics of Israel without getting underneath that into the religious questions. ... That's what Israel is all about. It's great. It's scary. I love it. It's frustrating. I'm moving there.

"What can I say? I know that I can't escape the Israel question now, because it's my question."

An Orthodox parable for today

MIAMI -- The elderly husband and wife were screaming at each other as they waited for an audience with the Orthodox archbishop of Tripoli. Metropolitan Theodosius VI could hear them and so could his young Lebanese assistant. Finally, the couple stormed into the office. They agreed on only one thing -- divorce.

"I will deal with you separately," said the archbishop. Then he gestured for his aide to linger. This was going to be a learning opportunity for Philip Saliba, a master class in the realities of church leadership. Half a century later, he remembers what he learned.

It helps to know that, Theodosius soon became patriarch of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the ancient church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Then in 1966, he consecrated Philip Saliba as metropolitan of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

So the old world was teaching a lesson to the new world, a lesson that the 72-year-old Metropolitan Philip turned into an emotional parable during last weekend's 46th Archdiocese Convention, held at the Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami Beach.

This was a parable about the growing pains of Eastern Orthodoxy in America, a story about trying to honor the past while facing the future. Grasp this parable, Philip told his priests and lay leaders, and you will begin to understand the hurdles facing churches in America as they strive to gain autonomy from the old country.

So here is the rest of the parable.

Theodosius asked the elderly husband what was wrong with his wife. He offered a familiar litany: She didn't cook, she didn't clean and she refused to shine his shoes. The husband left and the wife came in. She said her husband was lazy and unaffectionate. He gambled, drank too much and leered at other women.

The archbishop listened and then faced the two of them. Recalling that moment, Philip thickened his Lebanese accent to imitate his old teacher's voice. All Theodosius said was: "You are having very serious problems. Go home! Come see me next year!"

Philip was confused. He said he did not understand the wisdom of this response to the couple's fury. What was he supposed to have learned?

That is easy, said the archbishop. The husband and wife were very old. During the next year, they might kill each other. In a year, the odds were good that either the wife or the husband would die. That would solve the problem.

The audience laughed. Then Metropolitan Philip's voice grew serious. Never forget, he said, that people in the ancient lands of the East truly believe that "time and death" will solve most difficult problems.

The audience stopped laughing. This was the meaning of the parable.

After all, it had been two years since the American archdiocese -- which has grown from 66 to 228 parishes during his tenure -- overwhelmingly approved an appeal to the Holy Synod in Damascus for autonomy and the ability to manage more of its own affairs. And it had been two years since Metropolitan Philip survived a life-and-death showdown with heart disease.

Hotel hallways were buzzing with reports of calls from the Istanbul offices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, symbolic leader of the world's Orthodox churches, seeking delays in autonomy efforts affecting the growing churches in North America, and their bank accounts. After all, changes in the convert-friendly sanctuaries of the Antiochian archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America, which has Russia roots, might spread to others -- even the Greeks.

Some leaders "in the East," said Metropolitan Philip, are convinced that if he dies, the autonomy issue will die. Delay the decision and time and death will solve the problem.

Shouting in Arabic and English, Philip vowed that he would not let this happen.

"No! No way," he said. "I will rise from the grave!"

Hours later, the conference approved -- by a 99.6 percent margin -- sending the latest draft of an autonomy resolution to the Holy Synod, a document prepared by leaders from America and the old country. The synod should meet in October, but recent meetings have been postponed.

In other words, the phrase "Byzantine politics" exists for a reason.

"If this step is delayed," Metropolitan Philip said, Orthodox unity in North America "will be set back for 100 years."

Anti-war is not enough

It's no surprise that Johann Christoph Arnold opposes the war in Iraq.

The senior elder of the Bruderhof communes in America and England opposed U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, the Holy Week bombings of Serbia, the first Gulf War, the Vietnam War and the Korean War. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. His social-activist resume covers half a century.

"I am more than a pacifist," he said. "The teachings of Jesus do not permit war. They do not permit armed conflict. ... Yes, I know that there is torture. I know that there are genocides and massacres. But I do not even believe that war is the answer to great evils of this kind. Violence leads to more violence."

But this time around, Arnold has not joined the marchers.

In fact, he has become troubled by the barrage of images of anti-war protests in the U.S. and abroad. Arnold said he respects the motives of the marchers, but he believes that it's time for anti-war activists to shun tactics that lead to bitterness, division and, in extreme cases, violence.

Right now, he said, people of faith -- on both sides of the Iraq debate -- must strive to actually help people whose lives are being touched by the war. It's hard to work for peace, while attacking others.

"How can we judge others without judging ourselves?", he asked. "What do we gain from angry words, now that war has started? What do we gain by pointing fingers at our president, our Congress and our soldiers? ... Now is the time for desperate prayers, not more protests. I am afraid that more protests will do more harm than good."

These are idealistic words, but Arnold leads a highly idealistic community of believers. The Bruderhof movement -- the name means "place of the brothers" -- began in the rubble of World War I Germany. Before long, the tiny Protestant group's commitment to nonviolence led to persecution. Arnold's parents were refugees who fled Nazism.

Today, the Bruderhof remain committed to simple living and the sanctity of life. While sharing some characteristics of the Amish and Mennonites, their communes are highly active in technology and publishing -- especially through the Internet.

On the World Wide Web, Arnold has begun pleading for a change among his colleagues in the anti-war movement. The bottom line, he said, is that being anti-war is not enough. The war is real. Thus, it's time to focus on the needs of real people. The pain in military families might be a good place to start, he said.

"As stories of injury, capture, imprisonment and death seep home from the front lines, it will become unbearably, overwhelmingly real," he wrote, in an epistle at www.Bruderhof.org. "And unlike those of us who can turn off the TV set when it all becomes too much, these people will have no choice in the matter. They will have to grapple with the suffering of their loved ones until they find a purpose or meaning in it. And we must too."

What would this look like, in real life?

If peace activists hold vigils, he said, they might seek to create prayer services that truly welcome veterans and members of military families, rather than offend and antagonize them. More churches should organize gatherings to write letters of support to the troops stationed in the Persian Gulf and at home. Someone will need to organize efforts to counsel and console those who lose loved ones and the soldiers who return home, their lives changed forever by combat.

It would help if churches -- on the left and right -- offered day care, babysitting and after-school activities for young children whose mothers or fathers have been called into active military service. Who will help the mothers who will soon give birth while their husbands are on the front lines?

"This is how we can work for peace," said Arnold. "If we can help one child of a soldier, if we can comfort one grieving family, it we can share the pain of one soldier who has been wounded in soul and body, then we will have done something positive. Then we will have done what Christ calls us to do."

Which Church of the Nativity?

The Gate of Humility into the Church of the Nativity is just over four feet high and was added in 1272 A.D. to help repel raiders.

Visitors must stoop or bow in submission. Once inside, most tourists - about 1.25 million a year, in peaceful times - quickly queue on the right side of the 5th century Orthodox basilica and wait to enter the Grotto of the Nativity beneath the high altar.

I passed through the gate two years ago and headed for the altar icons. A priest appeared.

"You are American? You are Orthodox?", he asked, before assisting me. "We have so few people who come here to pray."

Frankly, I was glad to have a guide in the maze. The main lesson I learned was that the Church of the Nativity is not one building.

Nevertheless, most news about the recent Bethlehem siege described it has one church served by 30 or more priests, monks and nuns. Sadly, the reality is more splintered than that and recent events may have deepened the cracks.

Journalists said Palestinians in "the monastery" exchanged fire with Israeli troops. Which monastery? There are separate Roman Catholic and Greek monasteries and an Armenian Orthodox convent. "The priests" said they were not held hostage. Which priests? Gunmen raided food supplies and trashed monastic cells. In which cloister?

It is not even clear how the Palestinians entered "the church."

Time reported that they used the Gate of Humility. Yet it's hard to imagine several dozen al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade leaders, Tanzim militia, Hamas fighters and Palestinian Authority police being allowed through the Gate of Humility with 90 weapons, including assault rifles, and enough explosives for a reported 40 booby-traps.

Newsweek and numerous other publications say they shot their way through the main doors of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine, a 19th century sanctuary adjoining the Orthodox basilica. But some reports said the Franciscan priests opened these doors, perhaps due to fear of being taken hostage.

Either way, how did gunmen get from the Franciscan passageways into the ancient basilica? Why did Palestinians - as shown in news photos -- end up sleeping on its cold stone floor, rather than in the Catholic sanctuary's pews? Orthodox churches do not have pews.

The Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem believes these are not trivial questions. His words could not have been more blunt, as reporters surveyed the Greek monastery after the siege.

"All the media concentrated on the Franciscan quarter, where little damage was done," said Patriarch Irineos I, according to a Washington Times report. "Why? The Franciscans actually let the gunmen in then guided the gunmen to our rooms. ... The Franciscans then blocked their own rooms' doors with iron bars."

The New York Times and other publications reported that the most militant Palestinians appear to have lived, fought and died in the quarters of the Orthodox monks. Greek clerics feared Muslims would even attempt to claim these bloody sites as shrines. At one point, gunmen tried to bury one of their dead in the Greek monastery's garden.

Franciscan priests did report that gunmen tore up Bibles for toilet paper. The organ in their church was damaged, as was a mosaic. Meanwhile, Palestinian and Israeli leaders traded accusations about who caused fires in the monasteries. The militants stole candelabra, icons and other golden objects, but left them behind with their weapons. Everyone leaving the basilica passed through a metal detector.

A Vatican envoy quickly ruled that St. Catherine's had not been defiled. The first Mass after the siege was celebratory, complete with the sound of a tambourine. Reporters noted that this church's main gate had been repaired, since it appeared that gunmen shot off the lock.

Next door, Patriarch Irineos led solemn reconsecration rites, before the first Divine Liturgy in his violated sanctuary. One altar had been used a common table, the baptismal font as a washtub and parts of the nave as latrines. The Grotto of the Nativity was used as a morgue. And Eastern Orthodox believers were unable to celebrate Holy Week and their Easter on May 5.

Was this another tragic first in the history of one of Christendom's oldest churches?

The siege raised agonizing questions inside the Church of the Nativity, as well as outside of its ancient walls.