Difficult Service in the Muslim World
A Conversation with Nun Martha (Wall), Director of the Orthodox School in Bethany (Palestine)
Matushka, please tell me how an Orthodox school originated in an Arab area?
The school for Arab Christian girls in Bethany, which is near Jerusalem and is mentioned in the Gospel, where the friend and disciple of the Savior, Lazarus, and his sisters Martha and Maria, lived, was established by the first abbess of the Russian Convent of St Mary Magdalene, Mother Maria, in the 1930's. The school was started as a health clinic where nuns from the Convent worked. At first, the local population was hostile to them, there were instances of stone-throwing. This continued until the first unfortunate incident: a woman burned herself with hot oil, and, not knowing what to do, the neighbors brought her to the nuns. They were able to help her. This was how it started. Two months later, they would tend to a hundred people a day. Later, the nuns, feeling more confident, began to visit the sick at their homes. They also took in sick children, who would stay for stretches of time at the clinic. One girl came to stay at the clinic, then another, and another… They gradually began to teach these girls to read and write. Soon a school was founded, an idea the nuns had had for a long time.
The School now has a seventy-year history. Over the years, the situation in the Holy Land changed often. There were relatively good, calm periods, and also times when we were in a state of war.
The number of Arab Christians in Palestine has plummeted rapidly in recent years. Is this reflected in the life of your school?
The situation became complex many years ago, since the Six-Day War, when the borders of Israel changed and Muslims flooded this area. Arab Christians began to flee Bethany and emigrate to other countries. By the 1970's, we were faced with the question: what do we do with the School, close it or not? It was decided to keep it open. Since 1972, the School is registered as a private Christian educational institution. There are many such establishments in the Holy Land, but ours is the only Orthodox Christian one. At this time, only two percent of our students are Christians. Thirteen Orthodox girls from Arab families and families of repatriates live and study in our dorms. There are two other girls from Catholic families. The rest are Muslim.
I wouldn't say that our presence here makes everyone happy. The territory and the school buildings is a tasty morsel or sorts which many would like to get their hands on. This is already partly under way. We have one neighbor. His family transferred a plot of land to the School many years ago. Ten years ago, a descendant wanted to take it back from us. Since the nuns had not surrounded the property with a fence in time, which is necessary in our situation, he tried to take the land back by force. We appealed to the courts, which in the end made no decision, though the law was on our side. In the end, the court, seeking to reach an agreement, divided the land in half, on the condition that the neighbor builds nothing on his plot. What he did was build a two-storey house up against the fence of our land. It was impossible to stop him.
Our property is located on the side of hill on two levels. The lower level is a big yard. Drug addicts enter our property almost every night. They climb over the fence, even three rows of barbed wire don't stop them. Every day we clean up the yard after them. There are no political problems in Bethany—this isn't Ramallah or Gaza. Bethany's problem is drug abuse.
Still, I would like to point out that all Christian schools here in Palestine are very highly regarded, since the level of education is incomparably better than that of regular, local schools. There are many more students who wish to study here than we can accommodate—there is a waiting list. The fact is that our School has small classrooms. If an average Arab school room has fifty students, we have no more than thirty. Yet over the last three years, the number of students has grown—now we have about three hundred fifty students. Children must be tested and approved before admission.
Every self-respecting Arab who is at all interested in the education of his child will scrape up his last pennies to place him or her into a private Christian school. They are not afraid that their children will convert to Orthodoxy, and in general, they tolerate the Christian symbols in the schools. But of course, we walk a thin line—there are spurts of dissatisfaction on the part of parents and teachers.
For example, our first semester ends on the Nativity of Christ, and we try to celebrate our school holiday in the Christmas spirit. Every year there is a great deal of stress, because the reaction of parents can vary. This year, for instance, the children learned Christmas carols in Arabic (we usually celebrate in three languages: Arabic, English and Russian). The carols had the words "Mother of God." The next day, a group of unhappy parents came, saying: "Our children will never utter those words!" But we still try to find common ground with them. In this case, we resolved the situation this way: the children who did not wish to sing that carol were not forced to.
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Who teaches at the School?
We hire local teachers who speak Arabic. We have twenty-two full-time and eight part-time teachers. It's somewhat easier with teachers. Half of them are Christians, half Muslim. Each one of them signs a contract in which they recognize that they are hired to teach at a Christian school and cannot in any way compromise our educational institution, Convent or nuns.
At the given time we have three nuns at the School. One serves as Director, the other two work the dormitories. They also teach and work as administrators, and receive pilgrims.
I have an education degree. I am German, graduated university in Germany and teach mostly math—that is my specialty—and also English.
How is it that you speak Russian?
I descended from the Volga Germans. I was born in Karaganda [Kazakhstan—ed.], and at the age of eleven moved to Germany. There I stopped speaking Russian. I understood, but did not speak it. We lived in a small town, everyone there was German. I was baptized at the age of twenty-one, started learning Church Slavonic in church, remembering the Russian language as I went. Then, when I came to the monastery, I still spoke with an accent, and made mistakes. I have lived in the Holy Land for five years already, and work at the school for three.
What subjects are taught here?
Mainly, the curriculum follows that of Palestinian schools. The difference is that from the first grade, children are taught English, from the fifth grade, Russian, but on a basic level. Children who live in the dorms speak Russian better, since they spend all their time with us. They have five hours a week of English, five of mathematics and seven hours of Arabic. We use textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education of the Palestinian Authority. Another difference is that our days off are Friday and Sunday, while in Israel, Sunday is a working day.
You mentioned dormitories. How are they supported?
When the School was established, they immediately considered building a dormitory. The children here are mostly from needier families. As I said, we now have thirteen girls and one boy—the younger brother of one of our students. We concentrate on the moral and spiritual education of these children. They observe the morning and evening prayer rule in the chapel. Every day, the girls conduct a procession of the cross with an icon of the Mother of God throughout the school grounds. Every week, the students attend divine services at the Convent of St Mary Magdalene or other churches in the Holy Land. The nuns of our Convent teach the Law of God in their own language. Everything for the girls is paid for, including education, board, food, medical care and transportation, since five or six times a year they visit their families.
Do you keep in touch with the graduates of your school? What happens to them after they finish?
The last ten years children have left without finishing ninth grade, and disappeared. It is difficult to say what happens to them. This year, a girl is finishing ninth grade, the graduating class, for the first time; the school only provides a ninth-grade education. She will either have to return to her family or continue her education at another school, but she refuses to do either. We are thinking about how to resolve this problem.
Our children have no problem transferring to any other school. We had to close our tenth grade because of the wall separating the Palestinian from the Israeli territories. The problem is that the children here, while in the tenth grade, at the age of 14, receive a passport. Of the population of Bethany, which is about 18,000, three-quarters have Jerusalem citizenship. Jerusalem, not Israeli, citizenship. This citizenship is very important, because it grants the right to unimpeded travel and to medical insurance. Jerusalem citizenship is given if you are registered in the city of Jerusalem, so most of the families with many children who have homes here in Bethany, rent either an apartment, or a room, or even a corner of a room, in Jerusalem. A few years ago, the Israeli government passed a law whereby the condition for receiving such citizenship is residential registration and registration of students in Jerusalem schools. This brought an end to our tenth grade.
What tuition do you charge?
Since this is a private school, the students, of course, must pay tuition. The official tuition from grades 1-4 is 1,800 shekels a year, grades 5-9 is 2,100 shekels. Compared with other Christian schools, this is a very minimal amount. Only a third of operational expenses of the school are covered by the tuition paid by the parents.
Another third is paid from an English charitable foundation which sponsors Christian educational institutions throughout the world, especially in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. This support has been ongoing since 1956. However, it makes great demands on us. The English philanthropists seek out sponsors who are prepared to pay for the education of children from needy families at our School. We have one hundred fifty such students. We are then obligated, six times a year, to ensure that these children correspond with the sponsors. They write in English, but they must be checked, because we have certain restrictions. For instance, they cannot ask for money for expensive purchases or operations, but this happens—the children bring their letters home and their parents write them on their behalf, asking the sponsors for concrete things. We must account in detail where the money goes.
The final third is from donations. Our basic bills are paid at the beginning of each month, and teachers' salaries are paid at the end, and I always tremble that I will run out of money to pay them. But the Lord always provides exactly the amount of money we need. We sense His assistance and the care of the Mother of God for our children and for each of us. Without this we could not carry out our difficult but grace-filled and crucial service within the Muslim community.
Interview conducted by Olga Kiryanova