Thursday, April 23, 2009

Again and again - IC XC NIKA

An Orthodox Christian
Priest of Jewish Heritage
Serving in Jerusalem

An AGAIN Interview with
Fr. Alexander Winogradsky

this interview was published almost 5 years ago in the famous AGAIN Journal; the interview was conducted by Douglas Cramer. TODAY, IT IS INTERESTING TO SEE THAT THE PROJECTS SLOWLY DEVELOP. IT IS ALWAYS GOOD TO LOOK BACKWARDS AND FORWARD AGAIN! THE PATH IS STEADFAST! HERE IS THE INTERVIEW:

AGAIN: Fr. Alexander, please introduce yourself, and the
work God has given you. How did you come to be an
Orthodox Christian priest of Jewish heritage serving
Orthodox Christians in Israel?

Fr. Alexander: I was born into a Jewish Russian family from
Nikolayiev, near Odessa in the Ukraine. Although I
was born in France after World War II, we were Soviet
citizens. I was educated in France, Switzerland, England,
and the Scandinavian countries, and graduated as a
linguist. At home, we used to speak many languages:
Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, French, Dutch, German.
My parents were Holocaust (I prefer the word Shoah)
survivors; my mother came out of the horrific concentration
camp of Majdanek, in Poland. I was raised in a
religious atmosphere, which put a certain positive and
permanent mark on my life: a great sense of pardon and

We had a link with Israel because most of our family
had supported the creation of the State of Israel, since
the time of the pogroms of 1880. Because of my parents’
age, I am still connected with some specific features of
a world that seemingly disappeared during the Shoah.
This Yiddish culture and the Eastern European Hassidic
traditions are important for a better understanding of
Jewish and Christian relationships in the State of the
Jews and the Holy Land.

I would like to point out that I do not consider myself
as being “ethnically” a Jew or Hebrew. We should be
careful, because God calls every single human being
without making any distinction. In Israel, there are two
“nations”: the Jews and the Gentiles. But I always refer to
Saint Paul, who said that God “create[d] in Himself one
new man from the two [Israel and the Gentiles]”
(Ephesians 2:14–16).

I don’t want to be misunderstood: I am a Jewish
Hebrew Christian Orthodox priest, but my flock is
composed of people of any nation present in the State
of Israel. My congregation therefore depends on the
Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which takes spiritual
care of the Holy Land, Jordan, and Palestine. As the
believers who come to me are Orthodox Christians, I try
to help them in all possible ways, but they are certainly
not exclusively Jews or Hebrews. There are a lot of
mixed couples, Ukrainian, Russian, Georgian, and
Romanian-Moldavian faithful. There are also people
from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as some
Tatars, Uighurs, and “Nentsy”—Siberian Inuits or
Eskimos—who have arrived in Israel. There are Arabs
and Armenians as well. However, we do use Jewish
languages for the services and the Divine Sacraments:
usually Hebrew, often Yiddish, sometimes Ladino, the
Spanish tongue.

AGAIN: Please help us get to know your flock. Who are
the people you serve within the Patriarchate of Jerusalem?
What are their backgrounds, and what are their
lives like now?

Fr. Alexander: There are first the people who came to Israel
as immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the
past 30 years, especially since the fall of the communists
in the 1990s. A lot of dissidents arrived before that time.
They went through hard times because they had been
baptized during the Communist period and were
ignored by the churches when they came to Israel. Then,
since 1990, about 400,000 baptized persons have come
to Israel under the Law of Return. Most of them were
received into the Russian Orthodox Church, some into
the Georgian or Romanian Churches.
As they settled in Israel, many did not know how to
live as Christian believers. The local clergy of the Orthodox
Patriarchate of Jerusalem had to face a new and
unexpected situation. This is very appropriate for the
Church, which is always on the move. It is important for

us to use the Hebrew language to help pave the way to
a healthy inculturation within an Israeli society that is
basically Jewish. This also has important ramifications
for the reading of the Bible. Every week, the Jewish texts
are explained throughout the country by the media. As
Orthodox Christians, we try to explain the Old Testament
roots of our faith and how the Gospel interprets
the old and new heritage in the land of Jesus.

I am very respectful of the laws in force which guarantee
“full freedom of speech and conscience” [Law 140/
1977]. This is a good rallying cry for the faithful who
want to be authentic Christians and to baptize their
children within a varied culture. A good understanding
and experience of Israeli society enables the faithful to
feel at home and not to view themselves as permanent
displaced persons.

Once, I was waiting for the bus at the Western Wall,
and a man came to me and asked in Spanish if I was a
priest. I said I was an Eastern Orthodox priest of the
Jerusalem Church. He then told me that he had arrived
two years ago as a newcomer from Argentina. His family
had left Harbin in China after World War II, and he
spoke Russian and Yiddish as well as Hebrew. This is
usual for the faithful here.

I try to hear confession a lot, and at length. Migrants
are often reluctant to speak or to confide. The soldiers
who can serve as “Orthodox faithful” in the Israeli Army
need also to tell about their spiritual path. And it is
important to visit the sick and the elderly. But some
people do not feel at ease, and a lot of patience is

I insist on the fact that we must serve the Divine
Liturgy strictly according to the Byzantine tradition.
Therefore, men of any age come to help as servers in the
altar in order to pray and better understand our tradition.
And it is essential for the faithful to pray and to
have access to catechism books as well as the Scripture.
We are very poor and need books in Russian, Ukrainian,
and Hebrew.

AGAIN: Please spend a moment discussing language.
You must be one of only a few priests in the world
serving the Liturgy frequently in Hebrew, and you serve
in many other languages as well. Are there any interesting
language-related stories or insights you’d like to

Fr. Alexander: I always use different languages in the
services because the main point is to be understood, to
get to what the celebration means. Therefore I serve
in Hebrew, but also in Ukrainian, which is a major
language here, as well as Modern Russian. I serve in
other languages depending on who is attending the
services. Sometimes it is necessary to sing in Romanian/
Moldavian, or Georgian. I use Church Slavonic for the
Feasts. In the South, I need to serve mainly in Russian
and Hebrew, as the youth have forgotten the Slavonic
At the moment, there are very few priests serving
in Hebrew. This was not the case some 20 years ago
in Jerusalem, when Hebrew was more in vogue in the
churches. It is indeed my “Father tongue.” I have always
used it, heard it, and written it, and it is the language of
the Father in the sense that God is Our Father in Heaven
and gave the first Covenant in this language. I pray every
day with the faithful in Hebrew, and I can feel today how
living Modern Hebrew is growing and developing. I
consider it is a part of the resurrection, because a speech
shows that a people are alive and can communicate.

It is important for believers to enlarge their understanding
of Hebrew, and not to exclude themselves
from society by their language. Our Christian Orthodox
faithful may sometimes be shy about speaking and
writing Hebrew. They have a Soviet background that still
can imprison them within a sort of Russian nationalism.
I do my best to avoid any kind of nationalism. The
Orthodox tradition has always supported the translation
of Holy Books and prayers into every tongue. People do
not seem to be aware that the Hebrew text of the Divine
Liturgy has been used for 150 years, since a Russian
Jewish priest in Jerusalem made a translation that was
blessed by the Holy Synod of Moscow.

I would never have imagined that I would one day use
such languages as Yiddish or Afrikaans (South African
Dutch) for the spiritual benefit of Israeli citizens. But it
is very important. I have a spiritual daughter in Jerusalem.
She is 34 years old, with two children, originally
from the north of Russia. We speak Russian. Many years
ago, I came to visit her, and her mother and grandmother
were there. There was a long silence. Suddenly
“Grandma” (Bubele) said something in very bad Russian,
and I answered her in Yiddish. There was such
relief! We all continued in this tongue: we could just be
who we are.

The same sort of thing often happens in confession,
because most believers mix their speech with Hebrew
words or sentences that most Russian or former Soviet
priests would never understand. As a Yiddish saying
states: “The tongue is the pen of the soul.” And spiritual
life consists in opening it wider and wider: quite a

AGAIN: As has often been the case before, events in the
Holy Land are playing an important part in world affairs,
particularly as they pertain to the current war. Do you
have any insights regarding how the Arab and Jewish
peoples can move towards healing and reconciliation,
and how we in the West can better come to understand
them and their world?

Fr. Alexander: This is more than a challenge, and it is
important not to dream, but to act. Arabs and Jews are
part of the present Israeli society and its development.
I don’t discuss war, politics, tactics. It is a challenge for
a people who were absent for more than two thousand
years to create a modern society with those who have
lived here for centuries. I serve in Hebrew and different
tongues in a church located in a Jerusalem Old City
Arabic compound. The Arabs know I will pray some in
Arabic, and they are very friendly Orthodox faithful.
They know that I pray, and am not using any language
for political or ethnic reasons. God is far beyond that.
We have to search for God, to truly say “Christ is risen—

Christ is in our midst,” rather than emphasizing linguistic, cultural, or strategic differences.

AGAIN: Is there anything else you would like to share
with our readers?

Fr. Alexander: I suppose most readers are North Americans.
I always have fascinating discussions with the pilgrims
and tourists from the United States and Canada. They
are always welcome to attend our services, and then to
get some information about how and why we pray the
way we do. In Hebrew, “Again” would usually be translated
“Shuv”: “new, renew, create anew.” In the Holy
Land, God gives me the chance to make things new,
open, peaceful.
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 a land
where every single person is facing the question, “Who
are you?” With God’s help, may they reach their own
identity to the full. .

Since 1998, Fr. Alexander Winogradsky has set up a variety of ministries centered
in Jerusalem, serving Orthodox Christians from the former Soviet Union and
Eastern Europe. He is delighted that the unexpected emergence of such a
significant number of Orthodox Christians in a Jewish-Arab society is providing
tremendous opportunities for dialogue and reconciliation. Yet the challenges for
one priest to oversee this extensive ministry are overwhelming. His fervent hope is
to develop a spiritual education training program, allowing his ministry to expand
and include many others desirous to serve the Church.

Funds to help support this important ministry can be sent:
through the Orthodox Christian Mission Center.
Please make checks payable to OCMC, and also earmark on the checks:
“Winogradsky/Jerusalem Ministry.” Send to OCMC, P.O. Box 4319, St. Augustine,
FL, 32085-4319. Funds sent through OCMC are tax-deductible.


For more information:

Fr. Alexander Winogradsky
P.O. Box 14136
Jerusalem, Jaffa Gate 91141 ISRAEL

Passkha 2009 in my church of Hagios Nikolaos close to the Patriarchate and the Anastasis.
Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher - Anastasis
(Credit photo: A.K.)

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