A pan-Orthodox steering committee of scholars and academics sponsored this conference in June of 2011 on the St. Vladimir’s Seminary campus, to explore the possibility of the establishment of a new Orthodox College in North America. Recognizing the increasing desire, and longstanding need, for greater collegiality, familiarity, and scholarly collaboration among Orthodox academics, the committee invites all who are interested in thinking about Orthodoxy and higher education to listen this conference.
Thank you very much. Thank you for having me here. I thought before I tried to discuss what mutual benefit students from an Orthodox college would have to visit a location such as my small Christian village right outside of Jerusalem, I thought to just show you some regular slides that I usually show people across America, because I travel trying to convince people to come and visit Taybeh, where I’ve been living the last 17 years. Since I worked so hard to put Taybeh on the list for churches to have pilgrimages, I see it’s so appropriate that an Orthodox college would have a global connection or an international connection with an Orthodox Christian community, especially in the Holy Land.
Partly we suffer because we have no freedom of movement, so first of all we pray for peace and stability so people would continue to visit, so a connection with an Orthodox community like ourselves in Taybeh could be made in the future.
But what I wanted to say is where I currently live in Taybeh, it’s the only 100% Christian village in the West Bank in Palestine. It’s on the other side of the wall next to Israel. Our village of Taybeh is well-known for receiving Christ right before his crucifixion. We’re found by our biblical name, Ephraim, in the gospel of John 11:54, where Christ wanted to escape from the Jewish community and he came into an area called Ephraim.
Our name was changed over in the 12th century because the local Christians there always followed the gospel of love in terms of “love your neighbor, love your enemy,” and so the local Christians fed Salahadin’s horses and the soldiers, so the Islamic leader made a comment—“You are Taybeen,” in Arabic [which] means, “You are good people”—so we dropped our biblical name, Ephraim.
Our oral history says we picked up our new name Taybeh, but we have this beautiful history of 2,000 years of Christianity, and even before Christ came into the village, our village roots go back 5,000 years before the birth of Christ, as one of the most ancient places in Palestine. In the Old Testament, Ephraim is found with its Aramaic name, Ephron, and its Hebrew name, Ophrah, mentioned more than eight times in the Old Testament.
We think this is the reason St. Helen built the first church in our area. She built the first church in Bethlehem where Christ was born. She had a great passion when people told her the special spots in Christ’s life, where the first miracle happened, where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. St. Helen was very instrumental in documenting our Christian roots, so the first church in my village was built in the late fourth century. Maybe St. Helen never saw it finished, but she had a great passion to build churches where special things happened in Christ’s life. We think because the local people told her Jesus was received here, we’re known as the village of retreat, giving refuge to Christ, we think this is the reason she would have built the first church.
These are just some of the ruins. It’s still very much a holy place, but it’s had natural destruction. It’s 1,600 years old, but very much a holy place for the local Christians. Where the three churches are locked, they could go there and light their candles any time during the day. So for us in Taybeh, it’s a treasure. My husband, who makes the Palestinian beer, will say Taybeh beer is a treasure because people come to have a Taybeh beer tour, but the local Christians would say this beautiful archaeological site, the first church, is the treasure of our village.
From the four million Palestinians that live in Gaza and in the West Bank, we’re less than 2% Christian; less than 2% Christian from the four million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. In Israel proper, out of the six million, Israeli Jews that live there, less than 2% Christian also inside Israel proper.
Our patron saint is St. George. We have less than 2,000 people that live in the village of Taybeh. This is my church, the church of St. George. It had some renovations where a new bell-tower and front gate were put on. We live in a country where always we have to bring projects in; always we have to bring money in. Nothing happens unless… If I had ten million dollars, I would build a beautiful Orthodox university or college in my village of Taybeh and educate Muslims and Christians, but we’re always constantly begging for grants, and miracles have happened in our village since my husband David became the mayor. We’ve been working very hard to sustain our Christian community there and to connect it to communities around the world.
This is why it would be ideal for students to come. We’re not competent to have Orthodoxy in higher education because we have no Orthodox higher education institutes, so I would recommend that if there is a class taught at the Orthodox school that it would finish with a professor or instructor bringing students for a pilgrimage and having Taybeh as one of the locations that they would visit. I see that as something that could be more possible than a whole semester.
The most beautiful celebrated event for us is Palm Sunday. This is the time that Christ would have been in our village, right before his crucifixion. All of the Christian denominations march in the street to remember this beautiful entry of Christ into Jerusalem. It’s an [ecumenically] celebrated event for us in Taybeh.
The majority of the people there tend to be Orthodox people, but throughout the years other Christian denominations do such a wonderful job in giving service and helping others and truly expressing love for neighbor that many of the Orthodox pray in other Christian denominations throughout the years. In addition to the Orthodox Church, we have Roman Catholic practice. There we use the [term] Latin Church to describe Roman Catholic practice.
All three churches that we have run educational institutes. The Orthodox church has the Orthodox school from pre-school to 12th grade, and the Latin Church has an elementary and secondary school from pre-school to 12th grade. The Melkite Church runs a nursery, the small kids, the pre-schoolers. Our churches are very important because they give different services for education for health. We give these services to Muslims and to Christians, so even though our Orthodox school is run by the patriarchate, the majority of the students are actually Muslim students, but we continue our Christian witness.
This is a photo of the Melkite church, and right in the background the fourth-century ruins, a small monastery in the top. We have two guest homes for people to overnight. People can overnight for less than $25 in Taybeh. Nothing like the Hilton; it’s more like dormitory-style rooms.
One of the projects we were able to bring in to give job creation to people is a grant that helped renovate 69 homes in our village. We suffer from 50% unemployment, so constantly to bring projects in our village is very important.
Taybeh and all of the West Bank and Jerusalem have been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. What that means is we have no freedom of movement. All around us on the mountainsides are illegal Israeli settlements, which means colonies, Jewish homes for Jews only, to also expand to make a greater Israel. So we’re slowly being closed in. We have three illegal Israeli settlements around Taybeh. What does this mean for us? It means we have no freedom of movement because they use the roads easily, can get into Jerusalem, where they want. We need permits to get into Jerusalem. They control the natural resources, the borders, everything. That means they have water seven days a week, 24 hours a day. We have the water shut off Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday—no water in Taybeh.
On top of this mountain is the Israeli post, because I live in the highest mountain region in Palestine. At night I can see the lights of Jerusalem on one side. On the other side I can see Mount Jordan. Right down below me the Jordan valley where St. Mary of Egypt spent more than 40 years of her life asking for forgiveness from God. All this beautiful area that [will] enrich a student’s life spiritually when you come there. We have a very difficult time moving around or we don’t have this beautiful air conditioning; we don’t have central heat. So students, if they ever come for such an exchange, kind of have to be prepared, that it is a cultural shock to be in a developing country.
Another photo of illegal settlements around us, again, that control all the natural resources and the borders. A huge big destruction for us has been the Israeli army and settlements uprooting more than one million trees, huge big destruction not [only] to Palestinians that harvest their trees and try to sell the olives to make a living, but huge big destruction to mother nature, because uprooting a tree that’s about 800 years old is a huge destruction to the earth.
My husband, David Khoury, who’s a Hellenic College graduate, [and] my brother-in-law, Nadim Khoury, a Hellenic College graduate, wanted to return to Palestine and to invest in Palestine and to help their country, especially when we thought Israelis and Palestinians were making peace at signing the Oslo Agreement in 1993 in front of the White House lawn. We had great hope that peace will come, and unfortunately since September 28, 2000, we haven’t had a normal day. Things keep getting worse each and every day, but they have a great love for their country, and we make the only Palestinian beer there. It’s the only micro-brewed beer in the Middle East. It’s a very strange way to express our Christian presence, but the beer for us means the freedom to be Christians in a Muslim land where beer is forbidden by the Quran. We diversified and we bottled Taybeh olive oils since 2000 because the farmers were stuck with their olive oil because of the Israeli closure, so the bottle on one side is the bottle available in France, and the other bottle available when you come visit us in Taybeh.
One way that we’ve been trying to be creative to survive there because we live behind the wall is to use our good name of Taybeh beer, bring people in the village for a village celebration so they can end up buying oil and honey and embroidery and all of the local goods that five-woman cooperatives make, so with the 50% unemployment, the festival has been a huge big booster, a big part of my volunteer work. We’ve had six successful village festivals. I work in an area of helping create jobs for people through the festival. I work in an area of helping [people] have affordable housing.
The Orthodox patriarchate is the biggest landowner in all of Israel and Palestine, so we asked for some land to be returned back to our church of St. George so we could use it to build homes for families that don’t own land, don’t have homes, and I was not successful to raise the millions that my church needed for 30 homes, but through the $16,000 that we have now raised, we started with 12 skeleton units. This summer we’re building the 19th skeleton home. It gives hope to young families that are getting married so that they can have their own place to start their own families, improve their living conditions, because there people can’t afford to live on their own. They just get married, live with their mom and dad.
This is one photo: the families can finish the home on their own. This is one photo of one family that has put in the kitchen by themselves, the bathroom, the floors, and they’re actually living in their home. We give them skeleton units to give them hope to stay there, because many people want to come to America where there is no oppression, there is freedom, better salaries.
Not only do we suffer under Israeli occupation, we also suffer under fanaticism. We had 14 homes burnt to the ground in our village. My home was number 15. I was very blessed that my home was saved. Because we have no freedom of movement, the Israeli army needs to give the okay to the Palestinian police to come to us, and it took six hours to give the okay, so all 14 houses were burnt. If we had emergency services, having freedom of movement, maybe they would have saved even the first home.
So we continue to live under this great 60% unemployment, closure. The Israeli army blocks the roads, and it means you can’t take your car across, so you would buy all your goods and you would walk a long distance. It’s meant as a hardship so you don’t want to live there any more, day-to-day kind of psychological torture. The wall was built will all American tax-payers’ money. $7,000,000 a day goes to Israel to keep up this occupation and to ethnically cleanse Israel and Palestine from any non-Jew. Basically, it’s democracy for Jews only.
So this wall, it’s a shameful wall that has affected 80% of our Palestinian population, because you used to go across the street to go to school or across the street to work in your dad’s shop or across the street to visit your grandma—and now Israel built a wall between you and your school, so you still have to go to school, it’s just you can’t go across the street, and it doesn’t take three minutes any more. You have to go all the way around the wall where the only gate is there, so you spend an hour going to school. And you still need to check on your grandmother even if it takes you an hour, so instead of going across the street you still need to be respectful. Taking care of the elderly is an important thing in the Middle Eastern culture.
The green shows what Palestine is before the creation of Israel, and as the occupation policies continue and Israel’s effort to make a 100% Jewish homeland, you could see the green of Palestine disappearing from the map. [In] 1948, when Israel was created, more than 500 villages were just erased from the ground, more than 700,000 Palestinians ran away from their homes to save their lives, thinking some Arab army will come back, help them return to their homes. That’s why now we have this huge catastrophe: 7 million Palestinian refugees in the refugee camps, because people gave birth to their children’s children in these camps, and they have a key to go back to their home, but no right to return. So when you hear this [phrase], “No right to return,” it means people losing their homes in 1948. My husband being a student in Boston, every year for 25 years he returned home in the summertime in order to have his right to return, because also Israel makes policies that if you leave for more than one year to either study or to work to send money to your family, you lose the right to your residency. So my husband returned every year while we were living in Boston, to have his right to own property and to live in Palestine.
We appreciate it very much if we have connections to our Orthodox community, whether it’s with churches but especially with future Orthodox college. I feel that what has a cutting edge for Orthodox colleges would be activities, programs, especially these days connecting to the global community. And what better community to connect to than our Orthodox community in the very place where Christ was born and resurrected? Because I can’t ever afford to raise money to bring Palestinian students here to go to college, we helped to develop a program where money is raised to help pay for our students to study there locally, at Birzeit University or Bethlehem University, because college there, instead of costing $40,000 a year, for $2,000 each year at Bethlehem University or Birzeit University you could study mostly any bachelor’s degree.
Although I could never have Orthodox higher education, I try to have Orthodox witness in higher education by helping students pay for their university education. Again, it’s a small scholarship, only $500, not in the millions that you would think endowment programs are in this country, but my way of sharing the message from the Gospel, to love one another, to love Christ. I think any Orthodox college always has to have this as a focus, in its programming, in its staff, in it students: how do we always put Christ first in our lives, and what is Christ asking for us? So when a student, Orthodox or not, comes to an Orthodox college to meet God, what better way to meet God than to serve your neighbor? And [this is] something that my community in Taybeh could offer future students for an exchange.
Thank you. I’m sorry if I talked more than ten minutes, but I’m guaranteed it was not 15 minutes. I want to finish by saying that the difference between thinking about having an Orthodox higher education in this country and Orthodox higher education in my country is just like day and night, because you have everything here. It’s just like the difference between this beautiful room and sitting here in air conditioning, listening to programs and being in the cafeteria and wanting to take your… I mean, it was so hot for me in the cafeteria that I thought about these two rooms being so very different, Palestine from the US. Thank you.