Okay, the title is a little misleading. There are a ton of tourist churches that commemorate various Bible events all over the country. But there are NOT a lot of churches that have congregations and communities that attend all the time. Obviously, Israel is not a Christian country. There are a small minority of Arab Christians, as well as some Christian expats, and monks and nuns who live here to take care of the holy sites.
As far as the LDS church goes, there are small branches (congregations) in Jerusalem, Tiberias, Tel Aviv, and Bethlehem. On a very good day at the Galilee (Tiberias) branch that I attended, there would be 20 people. A lot of times there were only around 10.
I was kind of freaked out by the branch when I first got there. Last year, most of the members were significantly older than my parents. Things got better over time, but it was hard at first to not have anyone remotely close to my age to talk to. Actually, there weren’t even a whole lot of people there who even spoke English. Randomly, there are a lot of Spanish speakers.
I’ve learned a little bit about the demographics of the church in Israel. The reason that there aren’t any ‘native’ Israeli young people is because basically every single one of them either went inactive or left the country. You can imagine how hard it would be to not only be the only Mormon, but the only Christian among people you know. There are also practical challenges involving language barriers and transportation. It’s a church policy to not have manuals and other things written in Hebrew (complicated politics involved there- the Israeli government is very paranoid about proselyting), so young people that grow up in Israel can’t learn about the church in their native language. Because church is held on Saturdays due to work/school schedules, there isn’t any public transportation. There are very few people in the branch who have cars, and the branch covers a big geographic area.
When I first got to Israel, the policy was that the branch paid for taxis to bring members to church. Since Tiberias is about an hour away from Haifa, that would be too expensive for individuals to pay for every week. A few months into my time there, higher-ups made the decision that the church couldn’t pay for that anymore. I’m sure it was pretty expensive, but that was the only way 80% of branch members could get there. Instead, afterwards, the husband of the missionary service couple that lived at the branch house in Tiberias started making the trek to Haifa every week to pick up as many people as could fit in the car.
I was lucky to always have a ride even though it was always crowded. Real picture of how we sat last week. There were also 5 other people in the car. It was so ridiculous that we laughed a lot the whole way home.
Unfortunately, that missionary couple (they weren’t typical proselyting missionaries, that’s not allowed there...they were technically part of the BYU Jerusalem program), were released last week and no one is coming to replace them. So now I don’t even know if the branch will continue, at least not in the capacity it has been. I’m not sure how anyone besides to 2-3 families that have cars will make it out there... I guess we’ll see!
It was a very interesting experience to attend church there. I mean, it’s so weird that I got used to having the freaking Sea of Galilee as the backdrop for sacrament meeting.. Most weeks I would get picked up around 8:30 and get home around 3. That’s a lot of time to devote to church! But I probably won’t get blessings for it since I complained several times haha ;) I usually helped out in the Primary. The Primary consisted of 2 cute and hyper American girls whose family came to Israel for their dad’s job.
When I first arrived, they asked me teach Relief Society (the women's class). Thankfully I think they either forgot about it or gave up on me, because I only ended up having to do it once. It was my first time teaching a lesson at church besides Primary, and it was an epic disaster. I was already nervous, but then several things went wrong. There were maybe 6 people in Relief Society that day, and 3 of them only spoke Spanish and a little Hebrew. The lady that usually translated from English to Spanish wasn’t there that day. I did my best to translate some things to Hebrew, but I really don’t know any church vocabulary in Hebrew (hmmm I wonder why). The Spanish speakers started getting really frustrated and saying angry things at me in Spanish. One of them threw her manual down and left the room, and the other ones just kept laughing at me. The Relief Society president at the time, who is very old and recovering from a recent stroke, started sobbing uncontrollably (unrelated to my lesson) and telling us about her sister that died 30 years ago. I really didn’t know how to handle that...
Anyways, they never asked me to teach again, and I made no effort to volunteer or remind them. I was traveling a lot in the months after that, so that helped. It’s slightly funny now, but I’m still a little traumatized by that event. At least I guess the next time I end up having to teach at church it can only improve from there.
Here’s some other things that would only happen at the Galilee branch:
-Being told at church all. the. time. NOT to do missionary work
-Hearing the sacrament prayers, and sometimes talks and lessons in Hebrew.
-Huge tour groups of mostly old people from Utah Valley visiting every month. Actual quote from said people: “Why are you here? You don’t look like a native.”). Every month their incredulousness that a young unmarried girl would choose to and be “allowed” (they really said that several times) to live in Israel was hilarious.
-Only 15 people present, but sometimes up to 6 different native languages represented (English, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Arabic, Tagalog). Here's the program:
-Giving a talk every month and at least one prayer every week.
-Potluck dinners every single month (which might I add, you have no choice whether you want to attend because your ride is attending haha).
-Sleeping over at the branch house (after our Thanksgiving dinner activity on a Friday, some of us slept over to avoid road tripping on Saturday morning).
-The branch president is an Arab from Nazareth. His family can’t come to church because Arab schools don’t have off on Saturdays.
-Having stake conference in Jerusalem :)
-YSA activity held here:
-Just interacting with a very random group of people that are in Israel for all sorts of odd reasons and have interesting life stories
All in all, I’m really thankful I had a way to get to church every week. It was kind of a crazy experience that I didn’t really enjoy at first (I learned that it’s hard to be lonely at church!), but by the end of my time in Israel my attitude was much improved. I will always miss this view. I realize that I’m lucky to have had this experience attending church in the area where Jesus lived. #nbd
I hope this blog continues, because I've really enjoyed writing it for the last 3 years. It's so nice to have this now to be able to look back on all of my adventures in Israel and Europe.
I don't know if my life will still seem exciting to read about now that I'm home, but I still have a few ideas of things I want to write about. We'll see...