Some 50 Copts arrived in Israel on Thursday on a direct flight from Egypt to celebrate Monday of the third week of Easter, which takes place on April 15.
The guests plan to tour holy sites in Jerusalem, despite a prohibition by Pope Shenouda III (the 117th Pope and Patriarch of the Church of Alexandria, who died in 2012) not to visit the Israeli capital as long as the city is under occupation.
This is just the second time since the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979 that a group of Copts arrives in Israel from Egypt, mainly because of the ban.
An Egyptian security source at the Cairo airport told Palestinian news agency Maan that additional groups would fly to Israel in the coming days, and that the total number of tourists could reach up to 4,000 people – a 40% increase compared to last year.
The new Coptic pope, Theodoros II, who took office in November 2012, has yet to make a decision on whether to adopt Pope Shenouda’s approach in regards to visits to Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, several senior Coptic Church officials have stressed in the past that the prohibition to visit Jerusalem was still valid and that there had been no decision to cancel it. As they did last year, church officials are threatening to punish anyone going to Jerusalem.
Most Christian Arabs live in the northern Israel, and the cities with the largest Christian populations are Nazareth, with 22,400; Haifa with 14,400; Jerusalem with 11,700; and Shfaram with 9,400.
The Christian population is also growing at a rate of 1.3%
The level of Christian education is notable, with 64% of Christian high school students earning a high school diploma, compared to 59% for Jewish Israelis and 48% for Muslims.
The average number of children for a Christian woman is 2.2, the lowest in the country among the different population sectors.
For the full list of 65@65 facts click here
At dawn on Tuesday morning, a large group gathered on a mountain in the Negev desert to reenact the moments leading up to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.
Dressed in robes and flowing dresses, these pilgrims prayed, sang spirituals and discarded the leftovers from their seder meals into the flames of a massive bonfire, in a scene that evoked comparisons to the film “The Ten Commandments.”
“It’s one thing to see Charlton Heston in a movie,” said Ahbir Ben Israel, who stoked the fire with kerosene. “But we know that the Exodus is not just a story, it’s our history.”
The burning of excess food from the seder meal is just one of the ways that the African Hebrew Israelites, also known as the Black Hebrews, try to “take that ancient reality and make it contemporary,” Ben Israel said. They also remain in their houses from midnight until daybreak – when the Angel of Death is believed to have passed over the Israelites’ houses – and, according to God’s instructions, sleep in their clothing in order to be able to flee at any moment.
“It reflects how serious we are about getting closer and closer to the Creator,” he said.
For a time, the Hebrews even slaughtered a lamb and smeared its blood on their doorposts, just as the Israelites did so that their first-born sons would be spared from death. They discontinued the practice after arriving in Israel in 1969 and adopting a vegan diet.
As African Americans who identify with the tribe of Judah and whose ancestors, they believe, endured two periods of enslavement – one in Egypt and in the United States – the Passover tale has special resonance for the Hebrews.
“Historically, we’re always inspired by the story of the people being led out of Egypt, and the many trials and tribulations that were experienced on that journey,” said Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda, a community spokesman. “We always felt like we were living it.”
He said he personally looks forward to the burning ceremony on the mountain because it allows him “to get rid of some of those characteristics, like doubt and fear, that you don’t want to carry into the next year.”
During this week of Passover, which they call the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Hebrews eat tortilla-like homemade matza and “fast” from Western music and movies. The Hebrews actually celebrate two Passovers; They commemorate their exodus from the United States, which they view as a modern-day Babylon, every May during a two-day festival known as New World Passover.
Their literal interpretation of the Torah extends beyond their observance of Passover to nearly every facet of their culture.
For example, they cite Genesis 1:29 as the reason for adopting a vegan diet: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” They point to Methuselah, who according to the same book of the Bible lived to the ripe old age of 969, as inspiration in their quest to achieve immortality.
Earlier this month, they celebrated Rosh Hashanah based on their interpretation of a verse in Exodus that identifies the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan (called Aviv in the Torah) as the “beginning of months,” not Tishrei, which is when most Jews mark the new year. (Like Karaite Jews, the Hebrews reject the Oral Law – the Mishna and the Talmud.)
Karaliah Eshet Prince Gavriel Ha’Gadol left Chicago in 1967 with the founding members of the community, which now numbers about 2,500. She spent two and a half years in the jungles of Liberia before moving to Israel and said her favorite part of celebrating Passover is being with her family in a land where she feels “free to worship Yah” – the preferred Hebrew term for God in the community – “with nobody dictating to you how and when to do so.”
For Elkannon Ben Shaleakh, who was also part of the vanguard group, the significance of Passover is the opportunity it provides “to start over again.”
The walls of the bungalow he shares with his wife and several other families in the community’s compound in Dimona, called the Village of Peace, are decorated with photos of civil rights leaders, including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as several portraits of Ben Ammi Ben Israel, the spiritual leader of the community, whom he called “a Moses-type figure.”
At his seder on Monday evening, there was no gefilte fish, brisket or matza ball soup. Instead, Ben Shaleahk and his family feasted on eggplant parmesan (with soy cheese), stuffing with gravy, kale greens, salad and soy ice cream for dessert.
He explained that the bitter herb that is traditionally eaten during the Passover seder represents “the 400 years of slavery and poverty in America.” The sweet charoset, meanwhile, represents the Hebrews’ joy of living as a free people in their homeland.
While his journey has not been easy – one of his children died in Liberia after falling into a well, and another son, Aharon, was killed by a Palestinian gunman while performing at a Bat Mitzvah in Hadera in 2002 – he said he and the rest of the Hebrews have sustained themselves through their adherence to the Bible.
“We were caught up in the Book, and we were trying to live it out,” Ben Yehuda said. “We’re still doing that.”
Just when it seemed that he was about to sail through the Orthodox conversion oral exams with flying colors, Yage Wong found himself stumped.
“What blessing do we make on an eggroll?” a member of the rabbinical court asked the 27-year-old, who hails from a town near China’s Yellow River.
“What is an eggroll?” asked the perplexed young man, who today goes by the name Yaakov.
The rabbi headed toward the computer on his desk, googled the word “eggroll,” and showed a picture of the tasty Asian appetizer to the aspiring convert.
“We don’t eat that where I come from,” said Yaakov. “It must be a Western food.”
Yaakov dreams of becoming the first rabbi to lead the Kaifeng Jewish community, a small Jewish community in China’s Henan province, in more than 200 years. This week, he got one step closer to that goal. After immersing himself in the Hod Hasharon town mikveh, a ritual bath, and affirming his acceptance of the mitzvot, he was officially pronounced a Jew.
Yaakov was not alone. Five of his peers, all in their 20s, also participated in the conversion rituals, becoming the first group of men from this remote Jewish community to be accepted back into the fold after hundreds of years.
“It is the closing of a historical circle,” said Michael Freund, the director of Shavei Israel, a non-profit organization that reaches out to members of lost Jewish communities around the world, among them the Kaifeng Jews, and helps reconnect them with their roots.
Yaakov and his friends are members of a small group of descendants of the Kaifeng Jews, who in recent years have expressed interest in exploring their religious roots and becoming full-fledged Jews. They were preceded in 2007 by a group of four Kaifeng women, who completed the conversion process in Israel.
“My grandparents always told us that we were descendants of the Jews,” said Yaakov, as he prepared to enter the mikveh. “We didn’t eat pork in our house, and we didn’t eat the blood from animals. I decided that I wanted to know more.”
The Jewish community of Kaifeng was formed roughly 1,000 years ago, when a group of Jewish merchants, presumably from Persia, settled in this region of China adjacent to the silk route. The Jews lived among themselves in a segregated community for hundreds of years before they began assimilating and intermarrying with local Chinese.
At its height, the community numbered as many as 5,000 Jews. Today, about 1,000 Chinese can trace their roots to them. Only a small fraction of that number, however, are active participants in the recently revived community.
In October 2009, Shavei Israel received permission from the Ministry of Interior to bring seven Kaifeng men to Israel so that they could explore the possibilities of conversion and aliyah. (The seventh member of the group was able to complete the conversion process several weeks ago, since unlike the others, he was already circumcised and therefore did not need to wait the extra time to recuperate.)
The Israeli rabbinate typically refrains from converting individuals who are not eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return – in other words, individuals who do not have at least one Jewish grandparent. Indeed, a request by another young member of the Kaifeng community, Wang Jiaxin , who arrived in Israel at about the same time as the current group, was rejected by the rabbinate.
Jiaxin subsequently underwent a Conservative conversion in the United States and then applied for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Two months ago, his request was denied by the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Interior did not respond to a question about why his application had been rejected.
Last summer, however, a special exemptions committee did approve the conversion requests submitted by Yaakov, Shai, Yonatan, Moshe, Tzuri, Gideon and Hoshea – as they are known today – who have been studying for the past several years at Givat Hamivtar, a yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement of Efrat. Two months ago, they all passed their oral examinations at the rabbinical court, and six of them were subsequently circumcised.
And now, at long last, the big moment has arrived.
In typical Yeshiva-boy style, the young Chinese all have the tassels of their four-cornered tzitzit hanging out of their shirts as they enter the small building that houses the mikveh. An employee of the Hod Hasharon Religious Council hands them nail clippers and instructs them to clip both their fingernails and toenails. One by one, they are guided by three rabbinical judges to the ritual bath that lies behind a closed door. After they affirm their commitment to observe all the mitzvot, they are greeted with big hugs and cries of “mazal tov!” from their friends and teachers, who have come from the yeshiva to share this big day with them.
“I feel as if I have been reborn,” said 25-year-old Yonatan, formerly Xue Fei, who has just rushed out to call his friends in Efrat to inform them that he is now officially a member of the tribe.
Now that they have completed their studies, Yonatan and his friends plan to move to Jerusalem before joining the Israeli army. Yonatan, who practiced dentistry in china, says he then wants to become certified as an Israeli dentist. Tzuri wants to become a Jewish ritual slaughterer, and then perhaps open an authentic Chinese restaurant in Jerusalem.
Waiting for them on a small picnic table outside the mikveh are shots of whiskey in plastic cups. They raise their glasses in unison, but don’t drink a sip until Tzuri recites the appropriate blessing, and Freund makes the following promise: “Our next job is to find you all nice Jewish woman.”
Thanks to our guest blogger, Chutzpah in the Kitchen, here’s a brief history of Purim, and a great recipe for making the traditional Purim dessert.
Over 2,000 years ago, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish people were exiled to live in ancient Persia. During the time that the Jews lived there, the King’s adviser, Haman, convinced King Ahasuerus that they should assassinate all of the Jews because they followed their own laws and customs, instead of the laws of ancient Persia. The king, who was something of a womanizer, was preoccupied with hosting parties, getting drunk and finding a new queen, so he told Haman to do as he pleased with the Jews. When the leader of the Jewish people, Mordechai, got wind of the plot to kill the Jews, he sent his beautiful niece, Esther, to meet King Ahasuerus, in the hopes that the king would find her attractive enough to make her queen. When Esther became queen, she explained the plight of the Jews to the king (the king didn’t realize that Esther was Jewish herself), who put the kibosh on Haman’s plan to kill the Jews. In short, everyone lived happily ever after.
The holiday of Purim commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from death, and is celebrated by giving baskets of food (usually treats) to family and friends (mishloach manot), giving charity to the poor, and public recitation of the Scroll of Esther. Other customs include drinking wine, dressing up in costumes, and general partying.
It’s also customary to eat triangular shaped cookies filled with fruit and other fillings. Enter the hamantashen! Named for the villian in the story of Purim (Haman), these pastries are shaped like a triangle, which is reminiscent of the hat that Haman wore.
The dough itself is actually quite simple- the tricky part with this treat is the folding and pinching, and ensuring that when baked, they don’t open up into a giant mess! The recipe that I use is from a really old cookbook, called The Spice and Spirit of Kosher-Jewish Cooking, out of my mom’s collection. I’m sure there are many variations on this recipe available online, but I’ve been using this one since I began baking as a teenager and it has always served me well.
Check out the step-by-step instructions (with more photos!) here.