Friday, August 29, 2008
OCMC supports Fr. Alexander [Winogradsky]
This article was published in Fall 2007 in the OCMC Magazine. As we come to the end of 5768, a year of shmittah\שמיטה release and rest for the earth, the 150th anniversary year of the birth of Eliezer Ben Yehudah. He revived Hebrew, a dream that came true.
The Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) recently began supporting the
work of Archpriest Alexander Winogradsky in Jerusalem. Fr. Alexander leads a small community where he performs the Liturgy in Hebrew. Offering Church services in the native language of the Israeli people has allowed Fr.Alexander to build bridges and reach out to those who are seeking Christ in this ancient
and Holy Land. Fr. James Bernstein of St.Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Brier, Washington, interviewed Fr. Alexander about his remarkable ministry.
Fr. James/ Fr. Alexander, you are authorized to serve the Divine Liturgy and other services in Hebrew in the Holy Land. Is the servicing of Orthodox
services in Hebrew a recent development?
Av A./ Hebrew is the language of the Old Testament or First Covenant, and is held in very high esteem because God Himself chose to deliverHis first message in this language. This is why I call Hebrew my “Father tongue,” and indeed the Lord’s Prayer begins as Jewish prayers often do: “Our Father Who art in Heaven – Avinu shebashamayim\אבינו שבשמים.” It is a paternal tongue, only written with consonants. Hebrew is also the major language of the Mishnah or Talmud, the oral tradition that explains the First Covenant.
The Church was born from first century Jewish Semitic Christendom, and thus the Greek Scriptures used by Orthodox Christians contain a lot of Semitic phrases or expressions. Hebrew has always been a living tongue,though at times limited to scholars and pious disputes. The revival of modern Hebrew as a spoken language is due to the insightful courage of Eliezer Ben Yehudah, who, in the nineteenth century, envisioned the ingathering of the exiled Jews, in the Eretz Israel (Earth of Israel – cf. Matthew 2:21). He thought that they would need a common language. Ben Yehudah was from Poland and met, in Paris, an Algerian Jew, and they simply began to speak the Hebrew they had learned from use in the prayers! He could have chosen Esperanto or any other language, but he chose Hebrew, feeling it was a special time to revive and make Hebrew a living spoken language.
The use of traditional and Biblical Jewish phrases common to both Judaism and Christianity enables the Christian faith to be connected with its roots. Hebrew is ancient, yet new, in its use within the Church. The Moscow Russian Mission in Jerusalem proposed a translation of the Liturgy in about 1845 that was blessed by the Holy Synod at that time. The version is excellent, and this is the text I use (with slight corrections or updates) when I celebrate the Divine Liturgy. It is used within the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Hebrew is also my “liturgical mother tongue.” As a child I learned to write in Yiddish, which is written with Hebrew letters, and I often read the prayers and the Psalms in Hebrew. Some find it astounding that an Eastern Orthodox priest knows so many of the prayers and Psalms in Hebrew by heart. In Jerusalem, both Jews and Christians read the Psalms regularly, and
this constitutes a significant link between us. As a priest whose ministry is to develop and organize Hebrew-speaking Orthodox Christian communities in Israel, I meet with a lot of Israeli people, Jewish or Christian faithful, for whom Hebrew is their primary language.
Over three decades, Hebrew grew into a mature colloquial language. This has a real impact on the children who go to church. At home, the children usually continue to speak Russian or Ukrainian with those of the previous generation, but speak mostly Hebrew among themselves. And indeed, this does have a real impact on the way they think, speak and pray. Our words contain a mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic and Greek which connect us with thousands of years of history and diverse cultures. The use of Hebrew has appeared as a great prophetic sign as we now speak the language of the Prophets.
Fr. James/ Are there many people in the Holy Land who prefer to hear the services done in Hebrew?
Av A./ We know that approximately 400,000 people among those who arrived in Israel over the past fifteen years – mainly from the former Soviet Union but also from Georgia-Caucasus, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania – had been baptized Orthodox Christians in their home countries. The former Soviets are numerous, and visit the monasteries and holy sites in large groups. They are usually very openminded, well-read and love to tour the country.
Many come to my services by buses and then we collectively make a pilgrimage to a holy site. A number of them want to go to confession,
but because they are suspicious also want to protect their privacy. This is an outgrowth of their communist background and educational system. Most Russian-speaking churches gather about sixty faithful each week. The use of Hebrew attracts the younger generation. These
faithful are thoroughly Israeli, and as such they have to deal with Israeli problems including military service, the educational system health care and administration, relationships with the
Jews, and mixed marriages. Over the past ten years I have seen many young children become adults using Hebrew as their mother tongue. They clearly want to pray in Hebrew. At the same time they are very interested in the Arab Christian Orthodox heritage in the Holy Land, and the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus Christ. They want to have a church life that does not disconnect them from the Israeli reality. The use of Hebrew in the Orthodox Church constitutes for them a sign of divine favor and prophetic revival.
It is important for the Church to have Hebrew communities speaking the language of the Bible, as it has significant ramifications for the reading and understanding of the Scripture. This is important for the entire Church. We are now able to more profoundly explain the Old Testament roots of our faith and how the Gospel is to be lived in the land of Jesus.
Fr. James/ Do you think that it is possible for Orthodox Christianity to also have a Jewish ethnic expression as it did during the time of the Early Church?
Av A./ All people or ethnic groups enjoy equal rights as members of the Body of Christ. The Orthodox Churches have traditionally encouraged praying in local vernacular languages. In my church of Saint Nicholas in the Old City of Jerusalem we pray mainly in Hebrew, but also include Modern Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, some Yiddish, as well as Georgian, Finnish, German, French or English as needed. It depends on who is attending the services. I call this a “symphony” a collection of voices into one. True, Christianity is linked to Judaism in a very special way. It would be good for Christians of Jewish origin and theIsraelis to know that, in Israel, it is possible for the Orthodox Christian faithful to feel at home here and not to view themselves as displaced persons.
The use of Hebrew among Orthodox Christians here is growing, and it is for me
prophetic and resurrectional.
Fr. James/ Being the only priest authorized to serve such a large community in Hebrew makes your task overwhelming. Do you have any hope of having other clergymen continue to build on your ministry?
Av A./ We live in the Holy Land. You may find ancient artifacts anywhere. Hebrew in a sense is a living artifact or relic in the Church. With the help of OCMC, I have organized spiritual pilgrimages after the Divine Liturgies. Soon, I plan to have some young men blessed as readers and create a native Israeli Eastern Orthodox clergy who are at home here. This requires the development of educational programs that are respectful of the enculturation of Christianity in the Jewish society. Just as the Jews plant trees everywhere, we need to have local believers dedicate their lives to Jesus and plant spiritual seeds throughout the land, in full respect of personal identities. This presupposes that we need help: prayers, financial support and educational exchanges for training the future priests abroad.
In the past three years, I have developed links with some Russian institutes of theology that are very interested in our existence in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. They provide assistance in the education of readers and possible sub-deacons. It would be good to find some seminaries and institutes in the west that would also provide similar assistance, even if only through the internet or brief encounters and conferences. These efforts assume that we have funds with which to sponsor the studies. We have many visitors to our services here in Jerusalem who appreciate meeting us and receiving our warmhearted hospitality. During these visits connections are made and doors of opportunity are opened. Perhaps they will be opened wider still.
Israel would like to have Hebrew-speaking Christian communities, as they are
similarly very interested in Aramaic-speaking congregations. It could pave the way towards more understanding of Christianity among Israelis. It is a real challenge, but Christ says that “nothing is impossible to God” (Luke 1:37). Continued prayer and financial support will make it happen.
For two thousand years, the Resurrection of the Lord has been proclaimed everywhere in the world. Now we renew our faith in the Resurrection here in the Holy Land among the ‘People of Christ’s Flesh,’ where it all began. May every single person here ask, “Who are you?” and discover ultimate identity in the Living God while truly following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
This Jerusalem Ministry is a real "challenge", an "impossible task" that imposes much respect for each individual and their identity. Still, it allows a lot of people to find their way. Funds to help support this important ministry can be sent through the Orthodox Christian Mission Center.
Please designate: Jerusalem Ministry or Winogradsky/Jerusalem Ministry on
checks and send to OCMC, PO Box 4319, St. Augustine, FL, 32085-4319.
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Photograph: Blessings from Jerusalem
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