In continuation of our conversation with Nun Maria (Valle), the sister superior of the Bethany monastic community (Palestinian Autonomy) and the Director of the Bethany School and Orphanage for Girls, she talks about the school, joy and challenges of her work as its director, the relations with the local Moslem community and the Palestinian government’s education offices, as well as about the ultimate priorities of teaching the Moslem girls in the Orthodox school.
The “Difficult” Bethany
—Mother Maria, you are presently the director of the only Russian Orthodox School in Palestine. Despite the fact that Palestine and Syria had over a hundred Russian schools before the revolution. Why did the first sisters of the Bethany community choose to organize a school and a hospital here in the 1930s?
—Nuns Maria (Robinson) and Martha (Sprot), the founders and the first two nuns of the Bethany Community of the Resurrection of Christ, were from Scotland. Initially, they belonged to the Anglican Church with all the ensuing consequences. It is not just that the community services at the churches of the West have a different kind of standing but that its meaning differs significantly in the monastic life there. It happened for historical reasons and it remains this way.
All of us, no matter what we are, influence the outcome of our work and bear impact on the place we are working at. Throughout her life, Nun Maria, the community’s founder, held a particular devotion to Sts. Martha and Mary of the Gospels, the sisters of Lazarus the Four-Days-Dead. Even before her conversion to Orthodoxy and her life in the Holy Land, she worked in India at Martha and Mary’s House. She was in India as an Anglican nun holding a medical degree and came there with the intent to do missionary work. It was as if she was finding Martha and Mary of the Gospels everywhere she went, be it in England and India or here in Bethany: the spiritual realm is always manifested in mutual relationship. At one point, she left India to do some business back in London and that’s where she met her friend, the future nun Martha.
When I visited England, I met with the relatives of nun Martha who shared some particularly intimate details about her life. Her family still held grudges against nun Mary who “tempted” nun Martha about first going to India (by the way, they never arrived there!) and then to the Holy Land. According to the relatives’ accounts, they changed their travel plans at the last moment and decided to stop by in the Holy Land, which was under the British protectorate at the time. It was the beginning of the 1930s. The pilgrimage to the Holy Land was done in a godly way at the time, when the people were neither rushed nor galloped around the holy sights. As a result, they came to meet the Holy Land and see themselves at a completely different angle… Once the two of them got there, things developed fast and with a flurry right from the start. At first, they settled in Gethsemane next to the Russian church and later converted to Orthodoxy. During tonsure, they received their original names of Martha and Mary.
Despite the fact that the church in Gethsemane was considered a memorial church whereas the Russian piece of property in Bethany had remained vacant since the First World War, they decided on moving there. This was where they established the Bethany Community of the Resurrection of Christ. This name is still used today. The letterhead on the official correspondence of the monastery says: “The Bethany Community of the Resurrection of Christ. The Monastery of St. Mary Magdalene.” Most people forget, but it is important to know that both the monastery in Gethsemane and the school grew out of the Bethany community. There are two directions—one for the monastics (Mary’s) and another to conduct the community service (Martha’s). Bethany today is governed by Gethsemane and the sisters are sent here from Gethsemane. However, this historical moment and this connection are just as relevant today. I was fully aware that Gethsemane originated from Bethany. If anything happens to Bethany, Gethsemane will wilt away, too. It will hit it on the rebound, that is how deeply interconnected they are. The connection runs deep. It does not matter if there are those who think of Bethany as a liability, a Damocles’ sword of sorts, hanging above every sister’s head (“but I could end up in Bethany, and oh my, Lord have mercy!”).
Gethsemane is rooted in Bethany. If anything happens to Bethany, Gethsemane will wilt away, too.
Bethany‘s “awfulness” stems from its location in the Palestinian Authority instead of Israel, plus it has more workload, fewer flowerbeds, it’s got the kids and the school. Additionally, we are open to the outside world. All have up there is pilgrims who are to walk along the designated paths. You are still able to find some time alone in Gethsemane. Even if you do not have the obedience to work with pilgrims at church, in the kiosk, or at the gates, you can easily find a way to avoid any contact with them. Actually, you can find a way to avoid anything in the monastery. You can close yourself off in your cell and stay there for at least a few hours. You are able to catch up on sleep this way.
It is understandable that the sisters there still have their hands full; we are a busy community with a relatively large number of elderly nuns, so the trips to hospitals and shopping alone are enough to keep us busy. Add to that a huge orchard, cemetery, and the landscaping upkeep. Our icon painting and wood cutting shops. Icon restoration is one of those often-overlooked obediences: The icon was restored, but to an outsider it always looked this way. It is a busy life but when there are no services or obedience duties, you can shut in and have time for yourself.
—What about this division to have the community service in Bethany and “regular” monastic life in Gethsemane—was it like that since the very beginning?
—It started in Bethany. I don’t know whether it was intentional or the Lord just led them to have it this way. Nuns Mary and Martha both held degrees in medicine and I guess that they immediately sought out ways to support their community and in what direction to grow.
It is fascinating that the first sisters of the community didn’t even belong to Orthodoxy. Take, for example, sister Ulrike, a Protestant from Denmark. She came to know the first sisters Nuns Mary and Martha in the Old Town when they still belonged to the Anglican Church. She worked as a contractor in a French hospital there since she held a medical degree. They met each other and somehow became friends. When sister Ulrike’s contract expired, Nun Mary invited her to join them in Bethany.
Once, I was reading a passage from Sister Ulrike’s diaries where she said how astonished she was to receive such an offer because she wasn’t an Orthodox. When she asked nun Mary about it, she replied that they shared more than what kept them apart. I was overjoyed to see her answer! It just somehow was in tune with my situation, and even now, any sister sent from Gethsemane to Bethany needs to find some footing under her feet. You have to make sense of the situation and reinvent yourself. For example, you arrive at the monastery with your ideals about monasticism, monastic deeds, prayer, services, and… you end up in Bethany in the middle of complete chaos. Think of screaming and shrieking kids, Moslems throughout, hostile neighbors in a rather unfriendly environment, hot climate, trashy streets, and no priest. When you enter your cell and close the door, it wouldn’t even take 20 minutes before someone starts banging on your door. We have been sitting here with you for 20 minutes and we had someone interrupting us four times already. So, you must find yourself in all of this: where is my monastic obedience and what is it about at this moment?
“The Lord chose me to be here”
—You were going to stay at a contemplative monastery in Greece that had neither a school nor a hospital. Well, Gethsemane was like that in the beginning. How did you accept that there would be someone knocking at your door every 20 minutes?
—At some point, I realized that no matter what your thoughts are about monasticism, in the end, they would be shattered by reality. It is akin to family life! The less you understand it, the easier it is to survive and to handle the unknown. Because all of it will still be different. Then, having a teaching degree and a large family with many siblings helped me a lot. Not only the fact that there were four of us in the family but also that I grew up around some distant relatives including brothers and sisters four times removed. Since I had this particular experience, no monastery could easily scare me. You shouldn’t forget that the Lord leads you. It is one thing when you do it according to your will and another when you submit yourself to holding His hand. In this case, you become who you are supposed to be, an instrument in His hands. This feeling of grace, it is simply unmatched. I experienced a turning point explaining why I decided to stay, as I did not want to at first.
Anytime, when my level of irritability went off charts so that I could snap out of it or things could turn too nasty, or when all I wanted was to storm out and put my foot down, something would always happen. The best medicine was going to the Mother of God, and before Her icon, all of that heavy burden would simply lift off my shoulders and carry the nasty stuff away. “What is it? I can’t even have a fit of anger,” I was thinking later.
During those crucial moments, I reached to the Mother of God and, before Her icon, all of that heavy burden would simply lift off my shoulders and carry the nasty stuff away
—You were a novice. You even planned to return to the monastery in Greece. When did you arrive at an understanding you wouldn’t go anywhere even though you still could? When did you understand you musy stay here?
—I think it has happened at the very beginning. On the first day, when Mother Magdaline and I came to the Mother of God. As I stood there before Her icon, I realized I was here for a reason. I did protest, sort of, thinking that, well, I did stay here for a while, I received what I asked for, but I can still change something in the future…
—In other words, is there an instant understanding that this one is yours or not?
—Not really, you don’t grasp it at once that this is for you. It was like that when I discovered Orthodoxy: I visited a church, beheld God there, and stayed. If given a chance, I would have still searched for “my” parish or “my” monastery. I wouldn’t have chosen Bethany. I mean, by conscious choice, I wouldn’t say that it is for me. On the contrary, it was God’s choice! He made it happen that I stayed here. This way, the aftertaste is different.
When you get a chance to look back and contemplate what was going on at the time, you begin to realize that with all those meetings and experiences throughout your life, you were guided to be here. The Lord was taking you along some intricate paths, grooming you to take this particular position. At one point, I looked back and realized it was for a good reason.
When I was appointed director, I rebelled against it. Deep inside, I could not make peace with it: I was prepared to teach, but as a 28-year-old, I wasn’t ready to become a director at all. All other teachers at school were well established, experienced professionals, and they were older than me. This is an Arabic culture with certain peculiar traditions. Respect for elders, for example. And then, all of a sudden, they get a boss much younger than themselves. I had no idea how to build rapport. Besides, I didn’t know the language. I knew some high school-level English, but since the people used the heavily accented Arabic English, I could only understand every third word out of it. It was a disaster! I was sobbing for the first six months.
—Were you sent to Bethany from Gethsemane without notice?
—I was a novice in Gethsemane at first and would walk to school twice or thrice a week to work with a Russian-speaking girl who didn’t do well in the Arabic school. Later on, I was given a room there and assisted the sisters. At the same time, it was obvious that Mother Agapia (Stephanopoulos) trained me to learn everything about it. I went to see her and asked: “You surely don’t plan to make me a superior here, do you?” It sounded too absurd to me. I have been staying for a mere two years in the monastery, a young novice… She responds: “You know, we are switching the sisters soon, so you need to learn everything here to teach the newcomers later.” So, I made an honest and responsible effort to learn everything about the school with the goal of teaching others afterwards. In the summer, the new sisters arrived, Mother Christina went back to Australia, and Mother Agapia moved back to the monastery. Two sisters were appointed to assist me and later came an announcement that I am to remain here as the sister superior: “Matushka, but didn’t you promise me…” “Well, what did you want me to do? I don’t have anyone for this position.”
—If even you did not want to remain here, then, it means you understood the other sisters who shied away from Bethany!
—I understand them quite well since I have been through it, as well. You have to be patient here. Patience pays off later.
At first, I was furious at first and practically crushed later by the news of my appointment as a superior. I saw what Mother Agapia was doing and knew I wouldn’t be able to do it this way. She was predominantly occupied with fundraising as she traveled to America once a year, visiting parishes there and asking for donations, while back here she was mostly in charge of correspondence in her native English language. She visited the school once a day, primarily taking care of its finances and managing the repair workers during the school maintenance work. I abhor the financial part, I have no connections, and I have no idea how to do fundraising. Bethany was financially independent from Gethsemane by then. I was at a loss not knowing how to handle the new situation.
One day, we went to the Sea of Galilee and stopped by Fr. Irinarch in Capernaum. We were sitting there having a meal and the sisters told him about my appointment in Bethany. He laughed at us. “Well, you at the Russian Orthodox Church, don’t you have enough adults that you have to appoint kids? Well, isn’t it silly or what!” His words surely did not improve my mood. But he told me later: “I am going to give you some advice: For one year, do not change anything. Just go around, observe, listen, and only make the decisions that are needed at the moment. No long-term planning. Live for the now and decide today’s problems. Do it for one year.” It literally saved me. I was so lost that it sounded too good to be true: to do nothing for a year.
I started doing what I knew: the classroom visitations. Beginning with the math classes. As I was getting more and more involved, I saw so many odd ends that it made my mind boil over. Yet I remembered Fr. Irinarch’s words, so I kept going around observing and keeping it all to myself, listening and committing to resolve the day-to-day problems.
This school has become my world
Overall, school is my universe. I hail from a family of teachers, so teaching is in my DNA. My dad taught Math, Physics, and Astronomy in Kazakhstan at a math magnet school (the daughters of Nazarbaev, the country’s President, were among his students). He studied at Tomsk University. However, he had to drop out when his father got sick with cancer and he had to come home where his father literally died in his hands. Later on, being the eldest son, he took up the burden of caring for his family and went to work.
I am from a family of teachers, so teaching is in my DNA.
His mother and grandmother taught math as well (including at a prison for juveniles). My mother’s mother was a kindergarten teacher, while my mother was an engineer. My father chose to leave his teaching job on his own; when his class went to assist with harvesting at a collective farm, one of the VIP kids went fussy there. My dad, after two verbal warnings, took the boy back to his parents. His colleagues did warn him he couldn’t act this way. But he brought him home and immediately handed in his notice of resignation. He found a job as a mechanic in a local car depot.
He was a very talented teacher! His students would visit him at home all the time. I have a vivid childhood memory about astronomy and how they observed the Moon in a field scope. I still remember that full Moon in the field scope. His students taught me to read and write: I was the eldest child, so my dad would help mother by taking me with him to school or for school cleanups. A quiet and easy-going child, I used to sit at the back row of desks. That’s when his students got to educate me. They adored him and are still in touch with him.
—Has he visited you here in Bethany?
—He came here once when I was just tonsured and appointed director. He came with my mother to deliver an ultimatum: You remove these black rags of yours and we forgive you. I tried to explain to him that it is serious and that I had taken my vows, how I can’t just quit and go. So, it was hard with my dad, in general…
To counter my dad, I tried to avoid teaching. I knew that I have my dad’s genes and I must try to get rid of at least some of them. I finished school with honors and considered applying to law and medical schools, in addition to teaching. I had a cousin twice removed who studied law in Heidelberg, so I attended a couple of lectures with him there and liked it a lot. As soon as my dad found out about it, he put it quite succinctly: “You have no conscience to begin with, but there you are going to lose whatever little you have left.” I felt insulted but it made me think about what he meant by that. Since I couldn’t make up my mind about anything, I sent my applications to six universities and various faculties and I was accepted at every one of them (including the medical program). I had thought to myself, let fate determine it… However, as I was accepted everywhere, I had to make a conscious choice.
—You can hardly be called an indecisive person.
—I always wanted to do the right thing and avoid making a mistake. Overall, I had to make a choice but I still ended up being a teacher.
—Speaking of mistakes: Do we need to be afraid of them? If you are afraid of making a mistake, it often happens that you can’t decide anything at all.
—The one who does not make mistakes is the one who does not do anything. You ought to analyze your mistakes. You must locate it, analyze why it happened, and correct it later. You fall and fail only to get back up and keep going.
Sin is bad, a mistake isn’t. Sin is like missing a shot and committing a blunder. You can hit so far off course that you end up with scars for life and dire consequences for eternity. You can fix a mistake all by yourself but sins are to be cleansed through repentance and fellowship with God, because we need His grace and mercy.
—Aside from school, there is an orphanage in Bethany. How does it fit the notion of monasticism? I heard from other nuns that not having children was their biggest sacrifice. A monk may face other challenges but for nuns, it is the most difficult and the most important renunciation. Not the renunciation of marriage but of motherhood. Does it look as if you came back to what you had renounced?
—Maternal instincts run deep and strong inside us and it is hard to renounce them. It looks like the children in the orphanage are a constant reminder of your renunciation. They are also mostly the problem kids, and it is no small matter.
On the other hand, the lessons of life that you have missed come back to you. Before you gained valuable experience, or learned to understand and change anything in yourself, you are bound to come up against the same problem but under various circumstances.
The children in a family mirror you. They tell you exactly what your real self is. I understand that my father tried to suppress some of the traits I inherited from him. You learn a great deal when you can look at yourself from the outside. Once you begin to change something in yourself, you can also see the change in your child. It works with other people’s children, too. Of course, you have to take into account that you accept your own children more eagerly.
We may seem warm and fuzzy on the outside but we know too well what a pigsty is hiding inside us. You just gloss it over before seeing other people, but then this child comes your way. You get all worked up instantly. Where did that meekness, piety, humility, and love go? By all means, the monastery skins you alive. But in the presence of children it is a lot easier to peel off the old layers.
His Grace Mark never ceases to reiterate that you should always remain a monastic under any circumstances. You chose to live facing God and you must stand before Him no matter what is going on around you. No matter where He placed you, be it in jail or in a time of persecution. Of course, life in the monastery has everything nicely arranged—you are closed off from the outside world, living a communal life, and your temptations are minimal compared to a family life beyond the monastery’s gates. The latter faces temptations from outside, and the former from inside. As a result, all your ugly deformities pop up here and there. Just think of those passions running high! It’s tempting to find out: what exactly did you choose? You’ve got to sort out your top priorities.
Surrounded by Moslems
—You live in Bethany surrounded by Moslems. Many of your schoolchildren are Moslems. They cannot be converted or baptized here. The first thing the pilgrims ask is: What’s the goal then? What is the meaning of your service in a place where it is impossible to report back the results of your work: Baptized so many etc.
—It bothered me a lot for a long time until I realized at some point that the problem is our desire to make progress reports. But all the Lord wants us to do is to work. Work is what matters, not the results. You must sow and labor day in and day out.
I must add that my goals regarding the relationship with the Moslem world and my role changed dramatically during the last sixteen years of directorship. In the beginning, I came here as a proud Christian. I was told I wouldn’t be able to baptize anyone for it is going to be fraught with consequences. I thought at the time that martyrdom would really be a good choice, too (another question is whether you will be deemed worthy of it).
In actual practice, I tried hard to lower the degree of fanatic confrontation. My goal was to familiarize as many Moslems with Christianity as possible so they got the chance to see what it was and learned to respect it. Even though they were unable to convert, at least they learned about it. It took some time. I tried to increase the number of Christians at school by hiring Christian teachers, enrolling Christian children, and making the Moslem celebrations less visible. The Moslem teachers were hired in line with the principle of freethinking: I would choose to hire someone without a head covering over a hijab-wearing one. Similarly, I chose not to enroll a child whose mother was wearing the whole body covering that showed only her eyes.
Actually, in the context of inter-faith relationships, we introduced a separate subject: critical thinking. At first, it was part of the math curriculum.
In the context of inter-faith relationships, we introduced a separate subject: critical thinking
—Was it your invention?
—Initially, I taught our teachers, and later it was introduced as part of the curriculum in the first through twelfth grade. I supervised and observed how it was taught by doing class visitations. Critical thinking is something that cannot be limited to just one lesson as it transitions over to another group of subjects. Finally, the children began asking questions. One of our teachers was had graduated from our school and taught Koran, but she had also been a math teacher in the past. She was the one who gladly took on the job of nurturing in our kids the ability to have critical thinking and ask questions. She was prepared to answer their questions without hesitation. It was hard since Islam, grounded in obedience, does not allow doubt or questioning. Instead, we held some lively discussions at school. In addition to that, we introduced obligatory debates in English for high-school students to improve their language skills. They could choose among the complex and controversial topics, such as vaccination, GMO, etc. Before the disputes, the teachers held their own in-depth discussions in the staff room.
It struck me that the Moslems can’t explain the meaning of their religious laws. Their rigid standards stipulate what is right or wrong. But they are unable to explain properly why it is so. And they can’t question it either. So, it is hard and atypical for them to analyze anything or dig in to find an answer. The Christians are better prepared for the debates and we can point to the source of our principles.
When the time came to hold discussions, I realized that we share a common foundation. It also relates to our moral values as the area where we can connect in many ways. I can rationalize the ideas from the Gospels while they can listen and search for parallels in Koran.
We were inspired to exhibit genuine respect towards one another. If before I treated the Moslems somewhat snobbishly thinking they are surely misguided, then later it became clear that there were devout believers among them who tried to live their lives according to God’s law. Only then did I realize that we could discuss profound moral questions with our senior students, developing their thinking ability without insulting Islam or downplaying and cutting corners about Christianity.
I was convinced that the opposition to Islam was senseless. The Lord will probably sort us all out Himself. My job was to dedicate the attention to our small Christian flock. This is when I introduced the weekly Law of God lessons for our teachers.
—Who teaches it?
—We’ve got Abuna Khadr. He is my deputy director. Not long ago, he was ordained a deacon and then became a priest. He is very efficient, and he made many home visits bringing the Holy Communion during the quarantine. His wife is Russian and they have two sons. He joined me in our studies for Christian teachers. At first, we were horrified: They knew so little and so much time has been lost! We are currently in the third year of this program.
Generally speaking, the level of knowledge among the Palestinian Christians is rather low. All they know for sure is that they are not Moslem. However, I see some gradual improvement here.
—What about the Moslems outside the school area? I am sure you don’t hold Bible studies for them? What do they think of you?
—For the last few years, we have observed the growing tendency of Islamization of society. In this respect, we have recently witnessed increased hostility during our contacts with the locals. Some of the families who previously came on their own to enroll their daughters dropped out as a result of an increasingly hostile attitude. They are in search of a good education for their children but in the end, they can’t come to terms with us. Others enroll their girls through primary grades only, and later, to avoid any unwanted interactions, they withdraw them. In the past, I probably hadn’t even paid attention to those instances but I think the frequency of religiously motivated aggressive responses has greatly increased.
“I am known as an ‘angry nun’ at the Palestinian Ministry of Education”
When it comes to our relationship with the Palestinian Ministry of Education, I even have the nickname of “angry nun” there.
There is a committee of Christian schools’ directors. At first, there were fifteen of us and almost all of the schools belonged to the Jerusalem district. Then, three departments were formed to include Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Ramallah. The schools in the Ramallah district are located right in the ministry’s backyard, and they are the most law-abiding ones. Under the watchful eye of the ministry, they know quite well how to find their way around. Bethlehem is the most Christian of all Palestinian towns, so it is easy there. The schools in Jerusalem are in close contact with the state of Israel and its specifics. Despite being under the Palestinian authority, these schools receive funding from Israel, so they have to comply with their particular demands.
We do experience some tense moments with the ministry. It happens when they try to back all of us into a corner (we are often called to the Palestinian Ministry of Education) and I am singled out to articulate our position. They know I can speak bluntly if needed. It works this way. Besides, all other directors of Christian schools taking part in these meetings are Arabs, citizens of Palestine, with some Syrians, Jordanians, or Lebanese, and therefore I am the only foreigner.
According to modern standards, the schools must be registered under a local resident’s name. Some of the schools were opened 150 years ago but still… Our school was also registered under Mother Nonna, one of our Palestinian sisters from the monastery. She is our former student and a professional teacher who taught at school. But I am the one who takes care of the school and the officials have to deal with me. They tried to refuse to deal with me and demanded Mother Nonna’s presence. Three years ago, they somehow agreed—I am not quite sure how—to register the school in my name.
Whenever the officials cross over the boundaries, I have to remind them they can’t pursue their agenda here
Whenever the officials cross over the boundaries, I have to remind them we are a private school and they can’t pursue their agenda here. They can close it down but we won’t bow and scrape before them. We reject blind obedience. Frankly, I have a problem with obedience myself, not to mention blind obedience. Private schools have operated here for more than 150 years. I usually tell them that the Christian schools were here long before today’s Israel or the Palestinian Autonomy with their ministry. I remind them that their Koran tells them to respect those who are older, so they need to respect us since we have been here for a long time! You can’t reshape us to fit new trends.
—What can interest them with regards to school bylaws or educational programs?
—They seek power. They give no money though, which is good, otherwise, they would have leverage over us. They can’t even get enough money to support their municipal schools that have forty to fifty students in their classrooms. We’ve got twenty per classroom. There are two classes in each primary grade level with one for every secondary grade. Our largest group of twenty-five children is in the fifth grade as it was formed from two fourth grade classrooms. There are 369 students in the school. In Palestine, to receive a decent education, you need to enroll in a Christian school. The majority of Palestinian university students graduated from Christian schools.
—Such a glaring contrast has them on edge and they make attempts to get their hands on the Christian schools. For example, they demanded that we hold our school breaks at the same time as theirs. I explained that we have different traditions and different saints, so it is completely unclear why we have to match our schools’ schedules. Provide a rationale for why it should be this way! Give me some number of days per year and I will faithfully work during them as needed but it is strictly up to me to decide how I am going to use them. Then they wanted to have the school year end on the same day in our schools. I asked them again: Why? There are some privately owned schools with sports intensive programs and schedules fully dependent on sports. In Germany, for example, a school with a soccer-intensive program holds training camps all summer long and general subjects study sessions during winter months, whereas a skiing school’s schedule is the other way around. We’ve got it this way, too. You can measure the academic achievements of the educational process but nothing else.
“One day, I took our high school students to Yad Vashem”
—What is your relationship with the Israeli side? Even though the Palestinian Christians aren’t part of the conflict, the Palestinian Moslems are.
—We have few connections with the Israeli side. Our contacts are generally limited to getting permission for the transfer of our children to their public places, such as museums, zoos, and exhibitions. All of the entertainment is located on the Israeli side and we need an official permit to take a trip there. It is always a nerve-wracking process since they do not always grant the pass. We can arrange everything with the museum and the transportation company, but in the end, the pass may not be granted.
—How professional and transparent are they?
—Well, we are in the Middle East, so everything here is grounded on personal ambitions and emotions. Things do move around more smoothly in Israel than on the Palestinian side, but if some pen pusher all of a sudden throws a temper tantrum, he can easily deny us access just because he wasn’t in the mood for it. It can be even worse in Palestine but you can navigate past these obstacles more easily because you already have your connections and you’ve learned the ropes.
We do feel a certain level of animosity from the Israeli side. We could have just ignored the whole thing and quit taking the children out on those trips but it would mean being completely stuck here. We should take into account that the excursions are an integral part of the educational process.
I had once taken our senior students to Yad Vashem. It was such a unique experience for them! It begs to be continued and repeated. I had very involved volunteers who stepped in to be in charge of this trip. I did not even hope to find any well-wishers! The teaching staff at school is open for discussions but I could never think that they would agree on taking such a risk and go on with the plan since the relationship with Israel here is formed and controlled by public opinion. It is one thing when you arrange public discussions at the school level and another when you take the children on a trip. We decided to tell the children instead of their parents about our plans to do this trip and have them bring a hand-written permission slip from parents allowing them to go to this museum. I was aware of how it could backfire but still went on with the plan, understanding its vital importance.
—How did you come up with this idea?
—We had a professional psychologist visiting from St. Petersburg who regarded Mother Maria (Skobtseva) with great reverence. We held a debate with our seniors about the value of life within the context of history and various religions. They got fully involved in this topic, which generated lively discussions. They concluded that at different times and at varying historical periods, people were willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of others regardless of their nationality or religion. This lady psychologist talked about “The Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations” with trees planted in memory of non-Jews who were saving the Jews. One of them was Princess Alice of Battenberg, mother of Prince Philip and grandmother of Prince Charles; she buried here at Gethsemane. She was a niece of Elizaveta Feodorovna. The story of her life completed the picture, making it personal for everyone living here now. Then, the psychologist suggested that they visit the Avenue. So, in the beginning, there was no conversation about visiting the museum as a whole. We decided that the senior students only, beginning from the ninth grade, would take this trip. During a school day, we walked around making an announcement and saying it was going to be a voluntry trip but that their parents would have to present their written consent in the event the children do want to join it. In the end, we had fifty percent of senior students signing up. When we saw how many people brought their signed consent forms from home, we immediately booked a bus to get things going.
—Was your trip confirmed with the Yad Vashem museum? I am sure there aren’t too many school tours from Palestine among their visitors.
—No, we just went there. They walked along the Avenue of the Righteous and later stepped inside the museum located next to it. It had a striking effect on them, and even without a professional narration or a tour guide, it left the children heart-stricken.
We didn’t hear from anyone for a few days. And then the trouble began: the Ministry of Education called asking to explain what motivated us to arrange such a trip.
—Was it a simple phone call, or a written inquiry?
—Yes, by phone, and a very polite one. There was a young woman on the other end who spoke English well. I answered why I needed to do it. She retorted asking why was it necessary to do it specifically in Yad Vashem. I responded by saying: “Where, in your opinion, should have we taken the kids? I presented the whole underlying idea before you. Is there anything on the Palestinian territory that comes close to “The Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations” where the Palestinians would have expressed gratitude to the foreigners and representatives of other faiths who helped them or fought for the Palestinian interests?” She said: “Well, but we have the Sector of Gaza”. I asked her: “So, you are seriously calling me from the Ministry of Education with the suggestion that I take my school girls to Gaza and risk the lives of your children there? If you tell me it’s worth doing, I will do it.” She replied: “Well, certainly not, there are other museums in Palestine.” I said: “What Palestinian museums can be visited to support the idea behind our trip? None. You could have planted your garden of the righteous but you didn’t…”
She said that since she studied in a Christian school herself, she understood my goal to broaden the children’s perspective. But what should she tell the ministry’s execs? I said: “Doesn’t the ministry aim at broadening the children’s horizons? Tell them all the reasons I just presented to you and refer them to me.” In general, I was thankful for her comment about “broadening perspectives”. It was one of the rare occasions when I could see that the teachers’ work wasn’t wasted.
There were calls to lynch me and close down all Christian schools
A few days later, an article full of slander was published in English and Arabic in one of the local papers. It was published online, not on paper. It hammered me. However, the negative and positive comments online were divided equally. Half of them were very aggressive, down to calls to lynch me and close down the Christian schools, etc. The other half of commenters said that this was exactly the reason why their children should attend the Christian schools, and how everyone is tired of perpetual bitterness and confrontation.
Later on, I was even stopped on the streets of Bethlehem and asked whether this trip had taken place or not. I am confident that it was a worthwhile thing to do, and after my conversations with our students, I realized how important it was for them to see their enemy as a victim. It is one thing to see your enemy as a soldier who can take you down, and quite the opposite to see him as a human being who lived in pain and through an awful disaster of his own.
One girl asked me, “If they know how painful it is to be persecuted for their nationality, then why do they treat us this way?” Then the Lord, I think, helped me to respond correctly. I told her if she asks this question in this manner, she is likely to fail at getting the correct answer. We can immerse ourselves in psychology and be reminded that children who suffered abuse often become violent as well. But it was important for me to go on this trip with you so that you could understand, that you can also start acting this way if you end up in the halls of power. For me, it was much more relevant to discuss not what they do or why but to make you think about how you act in their place. I believe that these conversations, the discussion of these ideas to widen their outlook on their situation can in the end bear fruit and cause changes in our common future.
It was important for me to have the children think: how what they have done in the same situation and what solution would they have chosen?
—Not long ago, I had a conversation with Fr. Emil Sufani, who for many years has been the director of the Arabic Catholic School in Nazareth. They established a school exchange program with a Jewish school in Jerusalem. He also organized joint trips to Auschwitz for Christians, Moslems, and Jews. They are Arabs from the Israeli side so they operate in a slightly different environment. Yet, it is still an amazing experience. Interestingly, the local Catholic authorities shrugged off his initiative, staying out of his way yet never signaling any support.
Finally, my last question is about martyrdom. I like St. Philoumenos of Samaria, the saint recently canonized by the Church of Jerusalem who was killed in the 1970s. He was forewarned about the danger but never left the place of his service. At the same time, he wasn’t known to possess any particular spiritual gifts, being neither a great ascetic nor a preacher or a theologian. He was just like any of us. So, when they decided to canonize him, the people who personally knew him said: “But didn’t we drink beer and watch soccer with him! What kind of a saint is this?”
In your opinion, what virtues does one need in order to keep a person from resigning his position, running away, and escaping danger? How can anyone attain that level and, at the crucial moment, not run away but remain faithful to Christ?
—One should cultivate the habit of making wise choices. Every day. Then, God willing, you will also be able to act accordingly during that crucial moment.