At Vicariate St. James, St. Rachel Center emerges from confinement test strengthened

By: Geoffroy Poirier-Coutansais/PLJ - Published: June 18 Thu, 2020

At Vicariate St. James, St. Rachel Center emerges from lockdown strengthened Available in the following languages:

JERUSALEM - The Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel is also gradually committing to de-containment. In the Talbieh district of Jerusalem, the Saint Rachel Center, which was created in 2016 and which welcomes daytime children of Catholic migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, went through a period of intense and significant challenges, thus demonstrating the relevance of the work of the Vicariate to the poorest populations in the country.

For a month and a half, Holy Land residents have lived in conditions of confinement, with restrictions on movement like those adopted in almost every country worldwide. The confinement caused unprecedented instability, isolation, and vulnerability among the population, particularly among the most vulnerable in our society.

The Vicariate of Saint James, intended for Hebrew-speaking Catholics of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, works with migrants and asylum seekers in Israel. At the Saint Rachel Center, which it has administered for four years, nuns, priests, social workers, and volunteers accompany these children whose parents, already in a situation of high economic and social insecurity, found themselves helpless facing the prospect of containment.

The first rumors of confinement caused great concern among the families of migrants, explains Father Rafic Nahra, Vicar of the Latin Patriarchate for the Hebrew-speaking Catholics of Israel as well as for migrants and asylum seekers. The Center, which normally receives around sixty children, was also forced to close its doors in mid-March, complying with the measures taken by the civil authorities in the context of the global health crisis: some populations (Indians, Filipinos in particular) often live together, several families sharing the same accommodation, consequently with high overcrowding. The issue of containment takes on entirely different dimensions from what it may be in Israeli families, with the risks of contamination much greater.” 

Forced by the civil authorities to close Saint Rachel, the Center officials quickly realized that certain families would not be able to live in this confinement for such a long period. “Imagine a mom and her three teenagers locked up in the same room for five weeks! [...] the assumption was simply inconceivable.” Since the Center has a large space, with playgrounds, Father Rafic and his collaborators took the risk of welcoming certain children under confinement conditions: “The idea was, while scrupulously observing the sanitary rules imposed by the government, to live here together, like a big family.” Nine children were accommodated in the two large houses of the Center, their mothers having taken up the challenge of being completely separated from their young for the duration of confinement. However, the number is very small compared to the sixty children who visit the Center each year throughout the year. “We cannot save everyone, confides Father Rafic, so we had to make choices and give priority to families for whom the weight of children in confinement would have been the most difficult to live with.”

Regarding the education of children, the transition from schools to online education has enabled officials to establish a healthy timetable for, with days divided between classes in the morning and sports and recreational activities in the afternoon. “The leaders of the Center are in contact with their teachers and write down all the homework to be done. We also had people who, by phone or Skype, could help them with their homework […] It was organized so that we could help the children to live as if they were in a family.”

Some volunteers say they have lived an unforgettable period. Among them Gaultier, a young Frenchman in a gap year as part of his engineering studies at the Ecole Centrale de Nantes: “both volunteers and children were happy to carry out activities that we did not have the habit of sharing: Gardening, guitar, singing, discovering new sports… […] This confinement will remain for me an exceptional moment of the mission which has allowed me to establish different links with the children and the volunteers that I probably would not have been able to forge.”

Liturgical life was also adapted. Twice a week, Father Benedetto Di Bitonto, originally from Italy, celebrated Mass in the open air in the playground, before a small assembly scrupulously observing the sanitary rules (wearing a mask, seats spaced two meters apart). Masses in streaming could also be celebrated, daily, by the different Hebrew speaking communities of the Vicariate (Be’er Sheva, Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem)

The confinement having created terrible economic problems for migrants and asylum seekers, Father Rafic had the idea, at the beginning of April, to launch a fundraiser. “We wanted to help at least the most difficult cases, those who had absolutely nothing.” If the most important was the payment of rent, the Patriarchal Vicar tells us that some families found themselves in an alarming situation of food insecurity: “We were receiving dire calls for help, some having nothing to eat.” Father Rafic, however, had no question about the money going only to the people at the Center Saint Rachel. “With the help of the various chaplains responsible for the Hebrew-speaking faithful in the country, we were able to come into contact with families from other parishes of the Vicariate of Saint James (Indian, Philippines, Sri Lankan) whose needs were particularly urgent.”

On the other hand, the end of confinement, in the narrow sense, does not in any way mean a return to “pre-pandemic” living, explains Fr. Rafic. “The sanitary rules are now very strict, and the children divided into small hermetic groups [...] We must be close to them at all times, ensuring that they wash their hands regularly ...” Besides, the two schools, Gymnasia and Paula Ben Gurion, where all the children of the Center attend school, experienced an explosion of cases after their reopening. “All the children were placed in quarantine for 14 days ... two intense weeks during which it was necessary to be in contact with the health services to make sure that the children would be tested. Four of them were infected. It was necessary to obtain that they could be placed in hotels requisitioned by the State services for the patients of COVID-19.”

Spiritual life, for its part, was able to gradually resume its course, with Masses celebrated at the entrance of the courtyard of the Vicariate: “the priest was able to set up a small tent in the courtyard so that we were not seen by all the neighbors [...] Then as soon as the authorities authorized the gatherings inside, the Masses were again celebrated in the chapel of Saint Siméon and Saint Anne.” Father Rafic acknowledges that he had to double the rhythm of the Masses on weekends, to limit the number of participants and thus respect the rules of distance. “There are now two Masses on Sunday at the end of the day instead of one, so that the presence is roomier. The same rules have been applied in other parishes in Israel, in Be’er-Sheva in particular.”

On the last day of confinement, the St. Rachel Center was fortunate to have the visit of Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Accompanied by the Chancellor of the Patriarchate, Father Ibrahim Shomali, as well as Deacon Firas Abedrabbo, the Archbishop presided over the final Mass in this time of confinement.