There are no tourists in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood. And even locals don’t always notice the Capuchin Franciscans coming and going from a non-descript three-house compound in the neighborhood. It does not stand out. But for many of those who know it, the St. Rachel Center is an indispensable refuge and a source of grace. The St. Rachel Center serves a kind of immigrant unique to Israel: those born in the country, but living there illegally.
The strong economy in Israel is a magnet for many immigrants, mostly women, from places like the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India and Eritrea, who find jobs as housekeepers, caretakers of the elderly, or as maids in hotels. But the state of Israel admits those immigrants only under very strict rules: they cannot bring family members, and they have to commit to not get married or have children in Israel. Violating any of those terms would immediately void their visas and would make them eligible for deportation.
But life happens. And immigrant women who get pregnant sometimes opt to remain illegally in the country, knowing that their children, ineligible for Israeli citizenship, will live in a legal limbo. The need of daycare for the growing number of such children has created a cottage industry of “children’s warehouses,” especially in major cities like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. In such warehouses, kids are left mostly unsupervised, usually in deplorable conditions. To respond to this need, the Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Jerusalem started the St. Rachel Center in September 2016. The center aims to provide safe, healthy and nurturing day care for the children of immigrants.
This September, a group of Catholic leaders visiting the Holy Land through an initiative of the Christian advocacy group known as the Philos Project were received at St. Rachel House by its director, Italian priest Fr. Benedetto di Bitonto. Constantly interrupted by the joyous children who flock to him, Fr. Benedetto showed off the spacious one-floor building, with two playgrounds and two large rooms, one of them serving as a nursery for babies.
Another large room serves as a meeting place for the children who come to the center after school. Other rooms serve as offices, study and meeting rooms, and there is also a small apartment for volunteers, most of them young European Catholics. Each school day, parents begin to drop off around 30 children at 7:30 in the morning, usually picking them up at 5:30 pm. Then, an additional 40 children arrive at 1:30 pm for an after school program that lasts until 6:00 pm. This program is especially important for the kids, since most of their parents are not sufficiently familiar with Hebrew and thus are not able to assist their children with homework. “We try to provide as much after-school activities as possible to these kids, most of whom are integrated in Israeli school system,” Fr. di Bitonto told CNA.
With his long beard, bright eyes and easy manner, Fr. di Bitonto seems like a man of long experience at the center. Very few would imagine that was ordained a priest in May, just four months ago. But there is an interesting story behind “Fr Benny,” and there is a reason he seems like such a seasoned leader. Benedetto grew up in a devout Southern Italian Catholic family, and first heard a call when he was 18. He decided to study comparative literature, including Hebrew, until age 24, when he joined the seminary in his Diocese of Pozzuoli. But he stayed only for a year. He went back to college to pursue his Ph.D., which led him to study Hebrew literature in Jerusalem, where he fell in love with the small local Catholic community.
After leading a group of pilgrims to World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, he returned to the seminary to become a priest at the service of the Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Jerusalem. By the time of his priestly ordination, “Benny” had accumulated significant cultural, pastoral and spiritual experience. During the visit of the Philos Project, Fr. Benedetto led the group to the small chapel where an icon of Rachel the Matriarch dominates one of the walls.
“Why did we choose St. Rachel for this house? Because she struggled to have children and died giving birth to her younger son,” Fr. Benny explained. “She is therefore the model of the mother willing to do anything for their children, and that’s what we aspire to do here, with God’s grace.” Catechism is taught to Catholic kids every afternoon, but, regardless of religion “every child in need of a refuge for the day is welcomed without hesitation,” Fr. di Bitonto explained. “This is our small contribution to unity, peace and friendship in the Holy Land.”
This hope for peaceful and friendly inter-religious unity in the Holy Land seems to be at the core of Fr. Benedetto’s priestly ministry.
In fact, according to Cécile Klos, a journalist from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem “the participants in the ordination celebration were happy for Benedetto, but also happy to have shared such a strong moment with people who are often very different in origin, language, administrative situation in the country and even religion.”
By Alejandro Bermudez
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