When I finally overcame jet lag, my husband and I went to see the movie “Philomena”. A journalist, Martin, and the main character, Philomena, are traveling together seeking her son, who was taken from her and adopted out by nuns a few years after the baby’s birth. As Martin and Philomena are driving along, she asks Martin if he believes in God. He answers that it’s a complex question and would require a complicated response that would take a long time to answer. He turns and asks her if she believes in God. “Yes,” she replies without hesistating.
Besides being a land of technology and innovation, Israel is a land of many faiths. It is a Jewish State in which, by law, there is freedom of religion. Officially, the State recognizes five religions: Judaism, Christianity (10 separate sects), Islam, Druzeism, and Bahai, and unrecognized religions are also free to practice. Percentage wise this breaks down to 75.4 percent of the over 7 million people in Israel are Jewish, 20.3 percent are Muslim, and the other 4.3 percent are the other groups.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs assists all the affiliations and contributes to the repair and preservation of holy shrines. All holy shrines are protected by the government and all are accessible to pilgrims,and religious institutions get State support and funding.
Most of the people of faith with whom I come into contact are Jewish. When I think of people of faith I know, three stories stand out.. The first is about a man with whom I work. He is an energetic, jovial man in his 50s, who loves people, laughter, and conversation. He and I were talking and complaining about taxes one day when an announcement came over the radio about someone winning a million shekels. I asked him what he would do if he won. With no hesistation, he answered, “I would buy a Torah for my synagogue.”
It seems simple, but in the days after that short conversation, I realized what I had heard. With a windfall of a million shekels (about $289,000), the first thing this man thought of was to buy a holy book for his community. He would be fulfilling a traditional, but hard to fulfill commandment. Buying a Torah scroll is not a modest purchase: the scroll, the first five books of the Jewish bible, is written by hand on parchment. It takes a year to write and costs around 103,926 shekels ($30,000). That would be nearly half the winnings.
Another story came not directly to me, but through a friend. A woman he knew on a kibbutz near the Jordan River had come with her husband from Europe to live in Israel. In Europe they had tried for years and years to have children, to no avail. A friend told them to move to Israel and they would have children. They took the advice, moved to Israel, leaving a whole life behind, and before long were parents of two sons.
In the third story, a Jewish visitor to Israel needs to go to the police station on some business. When she finishes, the police captain tells her that every time she comes to Israel it is a fullfillment of a commandment, so she should not only come, but she should move to Israel. She tells him she can’t because of her son’s serious illness. The policeman says “Bring him to Israel and he will be healed.”
These anecdotes deal with three of our most serious concerns: money, birth, death. It would be possible to collect similar anecdotes from any of the religions in Israel; Israel is a holy land to all of them. Sometimes the stories would amount to simple statements of faith, sometimes they would point to action resulting in what appeared to be miracles, and sometimes perhaps they would raise questions of belief and how to carry out those beliefs.
Besides the scientific and technological innovations in Israel, and all the media coverage of politics and problems, there exists this other vital side: mosques scattered throughout the country, Jerusalem’s many churches, the international center of the Bahai faith in Haifa . . . People of dozens of languages, faiths and beliefs, all stirring the universe for answers.