Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

My Friends the Sisters

It was surreal – the feeling I had the first time I went to Ecce Homo, on Via Dolorosa, in the Old City of Jerusalem. “Am I really walking these ancient streets in this holy city, as part of my work-day?”

None of that excitement has waned. Each time I go there, entering through the Damascus Gate, then strolling through the shuk and past the various Christian hostels until I reach the entrance, I am exhilarated; going inside and up to the second or third levels to overlook the Temple Mount – that experience is beyond words! I feel so privileged to live and work in Jerusalem.

I am particularly blessed to be able to work with people who appreciate the spiritual significance of this city. Whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslims, those of us who feel the sanctity and the great potential of Yerushalayim (Jerusalem, al-Quds) share something very special.

Ecce Homo Convent Arch on Via Dolorosa, Old City, Jerusalem
Ecce Homo Convent Arch on Via Dolorosa, Old City, Jerusalem

Few of my Jewish friends realise that there are others here who love Jerusalem as we do. Most are unaware of the Sisters of Sion, whose religious commitment includes “to witness to God’s faithful love for the Jewish people and the promises given them for all humanity.”

When I go to their home at Ecce Homo, I feel I am with people whose love and appreciation for the city is like my own. They are spiritual women in the heart of the most sacred city of Jerusalem. Their site – a basilica, a hostel and a learning centre, atop a well-restored archaeological excavation – overlooks Al-Aqsa and the Temple Mount and gives a panoramic view of the entire city. The sounds of children playing, pilgrims passing and the muezzin calling blend with whatever activities we are doing there. It is as if all of Jerusalem is present and welcome. It is a Christian site in the Muslim Quarter with a mission to build bridges with the Jewish people.

Despite the fact that 50 years ago, the Catholic Church, in Nostra Aetate, officially repudiated its older teachings that the Jews were responsible for the murder of Jesus and extended the hand of friendship and respect to the Jewish people, many Jews remain sceptical about the Church’s attitude towards them. This includes many younger people, born after Nostra Aetate, who have been brought up to be suspicious by parents and teachers whose memories of the past prevent them from trusting statements of atonement or apologies. It is particularly the case in Israel, where many young Jews never meet Christians.

It is not really surprising that those who suffered in Europe from the antisemitism for which the Church was largely responsible should be reluctant to trust or forgive. However, were they to meet the Sisters of Sion, they might be a little more open to the idea that the Church really has changed.

I first became aware of the Sisters in Australia through their involvement in Krystallnacht and Yom HaShoah commemorations. It was always heart-warming to observe that the Jewish community did not stand alone in its commemoration of the worst times in European history. Sister Marianne Dacy, who worked at Sydney University managing the Australian Jewish Archives, became a close colleague and friend. Marianne and other sisters were our partners in the Council for Christians and Jews, which encouraged friendship and greater understanding. It was she who first invited me to join Facebook, after my children had told me that it was “not for my age-group.” I told them that it was “kosher” for me to join if a nun had invited me! I was so happy that she was visiting Israel at the right time for me to invite her to my son’s wedding.

I had met Australian Sister Mary Reaburn, a wonderful theological thinker and Bible scholar, on a couple of occasions in Australia and knew that she was based in Jerusalem. Her presentation on the Book of Ruth at an international conference left a profound impact on me. Unfortunately for me, she returned to Australia at about the time that I came here – but I have had the pleasure of meeting her socially and hearing her speak in academic settings and look forward to the next time we will meet.

Sisters of Sion
Sisters of Sion

Since my Aliyah, the Sisters of Sion who live at Ecce Homo, in the Old City of Jerusalem, have become an integral part of my work and social circle. Sisters Bernadette and Trudy are fellow Aussies and represent the basic decency and willingness to “roll up your sleeves” that I always associate with the Australian ethos. Bernadette, born in Melbourne like me, studied theology and sociology; Trudy, who was born in Holland but came to Australia as a young child, is a psychologist. They both are members of the Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Dialogue in Jerusalem, where we meet each month. It is always so nice to hear the “right” accent.

I work most closely with Sister Rita, originally from Canada, and the Scottish born Sister Maureen. Rita has been here since 1997. Maureen was for a number of years the Superior General of the congregation and is now the Director of the Centre for Biblical Formation in Jerusalem. I am so grateful for the way they have advised and supported me since I began working in the field of interreligious dialogue in this wonderful but challenging city. They know the landscape. They want to do whatever they can to promote understanding and peace. They welcome our programs to their home, to Ecce Homo – one of the most holy and inspiring places anywhere – going beyond hospitality to creating a sense of partnership, of sisterhood.

There is perhaps some irony that the Theodor Ratisbonne, who built the school on the site of Ecce Homo, was a French Jewish convert to Christianity. With his brother, Alphonse, the Congregation of the Sisters of Sion was founded in 1843 “to witness in the Church and in the world that God continues to be faithful in love for the Jewish people and to hasten the fulfilment of the promises concerning the Jews and the Gentiles”. From the beginning, the Order focused on creating a safe spiritual home for all children and a place of welcome for Jewish women. That is not to say that they were not committed to the Church’s mission of helping all to discover Christianity, believing at the time that it was the correct path to salvation; but their attitude towards the Jewish children in schools run by the order throughout Europe and in Jerusalem was characterised by respect and tolerance of religious difference. During the Shoah, the Sisters were heavily involved in rescue efforts, forging documents for Jewish children and hiding them in schools. After the War, the Order changed its mission from “conversion of the children of Israel” to exploring the best way of being a “friend” to the Jews.

The Sisters’ special relationship to the Jews was recognised in 1964 when Cardinal Bea, spoke of their “special right” to speak out and encouraged them to continue their work with the Jews as a way to “make up for the ingratitude, unkindness, and injustice of Christians to these people – faults which the Church has committed throughout the ages.” Because of the relationship they built with Jewish communities, the Sisters of Sion were able to communicate the most important expectations Jews had from the Church as Nostra Aetate was composed. Sister of Sion, Magda Manipoud, was active in lobbying for an explicit rejection of accusations of Jewish responsibility for deicide. She also expressed Jewish concerns about proselytism. Both these issues are addressed in Nostra Aetate, released 50 years ago.

The small group of Sisters who live at Ecce Homo have seen their work change radically, too. The site of Ecce Homo was purchased under the Ottomans, then developed under the British Mandate. The school built and run by the Sisters on the site was considered a prestigious place to learn, catering for children of all religions. The school continued under Jordanian jurisdiction but after 1967, needs changed and the Sisters opened an ulpan, teaching Hebrew and Arabic. After ten years the ulpan moved to the Hebrew University and the “Centre for Biblical Formation” began, offering courses in various languages emphasising the Jewish roots of Jesus and Christianity. The Community was constantly able to change its ministry to meet the needs of the times and always with an emphasis on Education and formation in accepting differences and respect for the other.

Ecce Homo and the Sisters host Elijah Interfaith Summer Institute 2014
Ecce Homo and the Sisters host Elijah Interfaith Summer Institute 2014

In addition to maintaining their own spiritual lives, the Sisters run Ecce Homo as a pilgrims’ guest house in collaboration with a French community called Chemin Neuf and try to ensure that their facilities are abuzz with interfaith dialogue. The Elijah Interfaith Institute, where I serve as Director of Educational Activities, has found a home for its Jerusalem activities there, with like-minded partners.

The first Sisters of Sion in the mid-nineteenth century, women educators with a special interest in fostering Christian-Jewish friendship, were ahead of their time in the love and respect they afforded all of their students, regardless of their faith. One hundred years later, they helped to shape the Church’s first declaration of goodwill toward the Jewish people. Today, the Sisters of Sion still have a distinctive vocation. They see it as their God-given role to love the Jewish people and build bridges between the Jews and the Church, without proselytizing, and to provide a haven of mutual respect in a city so often divided by religion. How privileged I feel to know them.

The next Elijah event at Ecce Homo will be the the Elijah Summer Leadership Institute, August 16-21, 2015. Click here for more information.

Peta Jones Pellach is a fifth generation Australian. She made Aliyah in 2010 and took up her position as Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia, India, Iceland, Poland and Morocco to participate in and teach interreligious dialogue. She is also a teacher of Torah and Jewish History, a Scrabble fanatic and an Israeli folk-dancer.

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About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.
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