Little Sisters of Israel: From Jerusalem, My Life Story

Bar mizvaBar mizva

Since my earliest childhood I knew that with my family we wanted to leave for "Palestine," which was the name of the country then still under British mandate.  The British officials had to furnish us with health certificates and entry permits, and we didn't have the money to pay for them.  And so it came about that I grew up in Belgium.  It was there that we spent the war years, 1939-1945.  We spent them in hiding, for the Jews were cruelly persecuted under the Nazi occupation.

When I became a Christian, this childhood desire of mine hadn't faded.  In 1950, Aliza and Marie Paule came to Jerusalem to make a foundation on the Israeli side of the country along with Little sister Magdeleine who made a foundation at the same time in the sector of Jerusalem under Jordanian jurisdiction.  Little sister Magdeleine sent me to Israel.  I had just turned 23 years old (I am 80 now!).  The State of Israel had just been proclaimed.  The 1948 war between the Arab countries and the new State of Israel was over.  The city of Jerusalem was cut in two.  A wall built at the end of the street we lived on Mamilla Street separated us from the Arab population of the Old City and from our Little Sisters living there.  On our side we lived in a simple neighbourhood, with neighbours who came from many different countries.  Aliza had a little ceramics workshop.

The years went by.  There was the war of 1967.  At the end of those six days of war—so painful for our Arab neighbors, and reviving old traumas for people on the Israeli side too—we had the possibility of contact with our Little Sisters in Jerusalem's Old City.  It was a shock.  We weren't prepared for meeting each other, neither they nor we.  From then on we had to learn how to interact, to listen to each other mutually, to try to understand a bit of what the others had lived and were living.  We had to learn the lesson over and over again.

Today there's a boundary separating Israel and the Palestinian territories, the "Separation Wall." Barbed wire and menacing signboards show it clearly.  These physical separations make the life of the Palestinians more and more impossible.  But I think that even if these kinds of walls would disappear, the walls in people's hearts on either side are not less serious.  This is where we want to be.  The conflict lies there, within people's hearts.  And sadly, will be there for many more years.  The solution is so far away.  But still, there are Palestinians and Israelis who have opted to root hatred out of their hearts and seek the paths of mutual encounter.

We too, on both sides, have the joy of our encounters, even if we still have a long road to travel.

The communityThe community

Our Region is composed of several Jewish Little Sisters who in the course of their lives found in Jesus the Messiah of Israel, and of Little Sisters from "the Nations."  We live a little taste of the Early Church, where Jews and non-Jews found themselves brothers and sisters in the Messiah, who "made the two into one" (Eph 2:14).  This is also what we live in our "St James" Christian Communities (St. James was the first bishop of the Church), which have gathering places for the liturgy in Hebrew in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and Haifa, as well as 3 or 4 other places where smaller groups meet.

In all there are 13 of us: 5 here in West Jerusalem including Guila who lives a few blocks away in a home for the elderly, 3 in Tel Aviv, 3 in Beer Sheva and 2 in the small desert town of Arad.  We love our country, the people to whom we've been sent and with whom the Church has a unique bond, for they are "the root that supports you" (Rm 11:18).  And conscious of this root, the Church discovers that the Jewish people have a special place in God`s plan for humanity.  This people remains the people who give witness to our God of love.

Our love makes us suffer all the more when we see that our successive governments make decisions that push aside any alternative but that of military force.  As my cousin who lives on a kibbutz said to me, "Unfortunately, neither we nor the others know how to speak any other way than with weapons".

There are 13 Little Sisters among Palestinian people too, 4 in East Jerusalem, in fact right in the Old City, 3 in Nazareth and 4 in Bethlehem.  2 who after 30 years in Gaza have just sorrowfully said good-bye to their neighbours will now live in another neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, close to the home for the elderly where Odile is living.  In both our regions our advancing ages have started to limit our energy and the things we can undertake.  But our passion to be part of a people, we among the Israelis and they among the Palestinians, is not diminishing.  What is growing is our search for living that passion together.  Our two peoples are linked by the love of the same land, and linked by a consuming need to live in peace.  If only our lives can be, as Little sister Magdeleine used to say “elements of peace”…and elements of the reconciliation that not all our neighbours are ready to recognize as the path to peace.

It's the Sabbath.  Since early this morning I can see from my window men on their way to their synagogues.  The men will spend long hours in prayer, then later on the women and children will arrive for the reading of the Torah.  Like the synagogues of all the branches of Judaism, they will end with Aaron's blessing, the "priestly blessing ":

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

Sunset over the Sea of GalileeSunset over the Sea of Galilee

May the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you.

May the Lord lift up his face upon you, and give you peace. (Nb 6:22-26)

It's with these same prayers that we and you pray.  And it's the same Torah that we read and meditate on, as they do.  We are close to one another in the desire to praise and glorify God.

In today's political climate here, we're no longer able to obtain work permits.  Hanni is the only one who has one, there in Tel Aviv, the "secular city" of our "Holy Land," and she continues working at the job she's held for 13 years.  What will be our place here if Little Sisters of working age can't get a job?  I'm confident that God will show us.  He is the one who wants us to be here.  Those who want to come and live with us will find some ideas.

It will soon be 60 years since I came to Israel as a Little Sister (with a few absences in between).  My early years here weren't easy for me.  First of all towards my family.  The fact that I had become a Christian and then a religious sister seemed to them like a betrayal of my people and my country.  But little by little, life's events such as births and Jewish holiday celebrations, illnesses and deaths, etc. allowed us to draw closer, and the family realized that I was still one of them.

A similar process took place for all of us, at the level of our presence as Little Sisters in the country.  Slowly the prejudices of people around us dissolved.  Our neighbors and co-workers observed our lives.  They saw us vibrate to the same fears, the same hopes, and the same joys as they did.  Doors started to open and friendships took root around us.

An enormous thank you to God wells up in my heart for this path.  "Do not be afraid, I am with you" is a phrase that comes back so often in the Scriptures. That's why "I praise you, Lord, with all my heart.  I tell the story of all your wonderful works!"  (Ps 9:1)