The prayer room at the Ecce Homo convent and Center for Biblical Formation looks exactly like you would expect such a space in an old, traditional Catholic convent located in Jerusalem’s Old City to look. Well-worn Jerusalem stone muffles the sounds of the bustling market outside, an imposing organ rises two stories over wooden pews, and the scent of incense wafts through the cool, dark air.
Twenty people gather to pray, opening up their prayer books, but rather than Latin, the words that come out of their mouths are Hebrew — the popular Jewish song “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem,” or “Bring Peace on Us.”
The Notre Dame de Sion congregation of Catholic sisters run the Ecce Homo Center for Biblical Formation with a revolutionary approach to Bible education: teaching Christian texts from a Jewish perspective. Both Jewish and Christian teachers explore parts of the New Testament, examining how ancient Jewish culture influenced Christianity’s early leaders.
But the Notre Dame de Sion sisters weren’t always this open to interfaith exchanges.
The congregation’s founding mission was clear-cut: its primary goal was to pray for the conversion of Jews.
Over the past century, the congregation has undergone a radical transformation, a 180-degree pivot in philosophy from praying for Jews to convert to inviting Jewish professors to teach the New Testament.
But rather than hide the less politically correct parts of their congregation’s story, the sisters are upfront about their journey, publicly grappling with the dark part of their history in a quest to encourage open-mindedness and tolerance among their students.
“We had terrible prayers in our liturgy that were very condescending to Jews,” said Sr. Margaret Zdunich, the director of the Ecce Homo Center for Biblical Formation. “We prayed for the conversion of the Jews, because that was normative. The church’s evangelization was that the ultimate goal was for everyone to be Catholic.”
‘The “in” thing of the day was for people to convert’
Theodore Ratisbonne, a prominent French Jewish banker, founded the Congregation of Notre Dame de Sion in 1843 with the support of his brother Alphonse Ratisbonne. Theodore Ratisbonne had converted to Catholicism in 1827, with his brother following in 1842. Prior to their conversions, both brothers were involved in supporting charitable endeavors within the Jewish community.
After their conversion, the brothers wanted to continue helping the Jews – but they felt the best way to do this was by praying for Jews to convert to Catholicism. “When we started, the ‘in’ thing of the day was for people to convert,” said Zdunich. “Theodore felt Jews needed to accept Jesus to come to God,” she said. “He forbade proselytizing, so we couldn’t be active about converting Jews, but we could pray for it.”
Following the Holocaust, the Notre Dame de Sion sisters were involved in the Catholic Church’s controversial policy not to return Jewish children to their families after the war if they had been baptized. Sometimes, Jewish children who were in hiding in Catholic institutions during World War II were baptized, in what the Church leaders believed was a strategy to save them from the Nazis. After the war, they worried about giving the children converted to Catholicism back to Jewish parents. “Children who have been baptized must not be entrusted to institutions that would not be in a position to guarantee their Christian upbringing,” stated a Vatican letter from 1946 examining the issue of baptized Jewish children.
The center of the controversy revolved around two French Jewish boys, Gerald and Robert Finaly. The boys’ parents sent them to a Catholic nursery in 1944, before the parents were deported to Auschwitz and killed. Their French Catholic nanny secretly baptized the children. During a lengthy court case, the Notre Dame de Sion sisters and some priests helped smuggle the children to Spain in 1953 in an effort to avoid giving the children to their Jewish relatives. Police arrested several sisters and priests who were involved in the kidnapping, and the Finaly children were reunited with their aunt and uncle after an eight-year court battle.
Not all Notre Dame de Sion sisters supported this position. Many sisters hid Jewish children during the Holocaust at great danger to themselves, did not try to convert or baptize them, and happily reunited the children with surviving family afterwards. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, has recognized seven Notre Dame de Sion sisters and one Father of Sion as “Righteous Gentiles” for their work rescuing Jews during the Holocaust.
Advocating for a New Approach
The arrests during the Finaly affair were a turning point for the congregation. “The superior general at the time said, ‘Something is wrong. We need to examine why we’re doing this, why we have this attitude towards Jews,’” said Zdunich. “We were obedient to the Church but we started advocating for change. We ourselves were not squeaky clean.”
Just as the Sion sisters began a process of internal soul-searching and changing their direction, the Catholic Church also began undergoing a massive transformation with the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII called for an Ecumenical Council, an assembly of 2,500 Roman Catholic religious leaders meant to settle doctrinal issues. Between 1962 and 1965, the Vatican released 16 documents that dramatically changed the Catholic Church, modernizing the Church to respond to the dramatic cultural changes happening across the world after WWII.
With the Second Vatican Council, the Church pivoted from being a closed fortress, concerned with its own survival, to a religious institution more open to the outside world.
Conversion was no longer the ultimate goal for interactions with non-Catholics. The Notre Dame de Sion sisters were instrumental in advocating for better Jewish-Catholic relations in the Second Vatican Council.
Changing a hierarchy as large as the Catholic Church was like trying to get an ocean tanker to do a 180-degree turn on a dime. Many members and leaders within the Church resisted the new approaches, and some factions continue to resist the changes today.
In 1965, Pope Paul VI published Nostra Aetate, “In Our Time,” about the Catholic Church’s new relationship with non-Christian religions. The document condemned anti-Semitism, recognized the kinship between Christians and Jews, and, perhaps most importantly, renounced the idea of “deicide” — that contemporary Jews are responsible for the murder of Jesus.
The document states: “What happened in Jesus’ passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon all Jews of today. As the Church has always held and continues to hold, Christ in his boundless love freely underwent His passion and death because of the sins of all, so that all might attain salvation.”
Behold the Teaching
After Vatican II, the Notre Dame de Sion congregation continued to be a leader within the Catholic Church for its relationships with Jews. Today, the congregation is best known for its unique approach to Christian texts, inviting Jewish professors to teach parts of the New Testament.
In Jerusalem, the congregation runs the Ecce Homo Center for Biblical Formation, a pilgrim house and study center located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter. The building incorporates the “Ecce Homo arch,” built in 135 CE by Emperor Hadrian. The arch is located at the Second Station on Via Dolorosa, the path Christians believe Jesus followed on his way to crucifixion. Ecce Homo is Latin for “Behold the Man,” which is what Pontius Pilate said to the masses ahead of Jesus’ crucifixion, according to the New Testament.
The Center for Biblical Formation began in 1984 when a Dominican priest and a Sister of St Joseph started a French-language Bible study program in Jerusalem. The Bible study eventually moved to the Notre Dame de Sion building in the Muslim Quarter, which had previously served as a girls’ school. Today, the center offers intensive study programs focusing on common holiday themes like “Passover and Easter” and the Jewish holiday feast period in the fall. The center also offers courses on the New Testament, such as the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The course examines different ways that ancient Jewish culture affected the lives of biblical figures.
“We look at the Gospel in the context of Judaism,” said Zdunich. “How does that inform our reading? We look at the Gospels as midrash or commentary.”
Around the same time as the Center for Biblical Formation started offering its first courses, Notre Dame de Sion Sr. Maureena Fritz helped found Bat Kol, another Christian study program in Jerusalem. Bat Kol focuses almost exclusively on teaching Jewish texts to Christians.
“When we read the Old Testament, we say, ‘This is a community’s relationship with its God,’ so what does that mean for us today?” asked Sr. Celia Martin, the executive assistant at the Center for Biblical Formation. “We can’t understand the Second Testament unless we go back, dig into, and have a good understanding of the [First Testament] scripture from a Jewish perspective,” she said.
“A few years ago I did a course on Leviticus at Bat Kol, and all the teachers except two were Jewish,” said Martin. “Some Christians might say Leviticus is about purity laws. But by the time I finished the course, I had a significant understanding of Leviticus being about relationships: relationships to the land, relationships to people, relationships in all its spectrums.”
Dr. Marcie Lenk, one of the regular professors at the Center for Biblical Formation and the academic director of the Bat Kol Institute, said the Notre Dame de Sion congregation completely changed her life as a Jewish person and a teacher. Growing up an Orthodox Jew in Teaneck, New Jersey, Lenk said, her knowledge of Christianity was limited to what she heard from her community: “Jesus was a Jew, Christians have tried to kill us or convert us, so we should be afraid of them.”
Lenk met some Notre Dame de Sion sisters in the 1990s at an interfaith study group in Jerusalem called Bnei Avraham. Her interactions with Christians in the group – and the realization that they weren’t trying to kill or convert the Jews around them – inspired Lenk to start studying more about Christianity and its connections to Judaism. Lenk eventually did her doctorate in Early Christianity at Harvard University, and today teaches Christian texts to Jews and Jewish texts to Christians.
Lenk sees the New Testament from a very Jewish perspective.
“The Sermon on the Mount [Jesus’s seminal sermon above the Sea of Galilee, outlining his morals and philosophy] is building on and expanding on laws from the Jewish scripture — that was the scripture of Jesus and other Jews around him,” said Lenk. “These are internal Jewish conversations about what it means to do God’s will… at the time that Jesus and the Apostles were talking about it, they were Jews having a Jewish discussion.”
Lenk, who identifies as a religious Jew, said she also helps Christians understand why parts of the New Testament are so offensive to Jews, especially the parts about how the Jews killed Jesus. “As a Jew, I try to help these Christian groups see what is noticed by a Jew who is reading this, which might not jump out at them,” she said. “We have a discussion about how the reading of the scripture itself can affect relationships between Christians and Jews.”
Although some Christian students have been uncomfortable with a “nonbeliever” teaching the New Testament, Lenk believes her mere presence brings a deeper level of understanding to the conversations. She teaches some of the classes together with a Christian or Catholic professor, with each offering their own perspective on the same text.
“If we’re having a discussion about race and racial issues and everyone in the room is white, the conversation will be on one level,” said Lenk. “When you bring people into the room who are black or brown, the conversation changes. There’s a sense of, ‘oh, we need to listen differently.’”
“I’m not sure that the words that I say or the passages I read or the interpretations I give to the readings are so different from that their own Catholic or Christian professors will give,” Lenk added. “But there’s a feeling, sometimes people hear differently when there’s an ‘other’ in the room. I’m the other. I think that it’s useful. It’s been an important in my life to have ‘others’ in conversation. I have learned a lot from people who are not like me, and now I am the ‘other.’”
Lenk, who is also the director of the Christian Leadership program at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, said the openness to hearing different perspectives in faith serves to strengthen connection to the text rather than weaken it. “When we retreat into our faiths, we don’t have so much respect for others. But actually opening ourselves up to a deep understanding of other religions or other communities challenges us to care about them, not because that the polite thing to do or the safe thing to do, but to actually see them. It makes for a better religion, and for a deeper faith. If I fear learning about anyone else, what does that say about the shallowness of my own faith, that it’s always in danger?”
Learning from ‘the other’
Over the past 50 years, the Notre Dame de Sion sisters dove into the idea of learning from Jewish communities. Zdunich recalls a number of sisters who attended Leo Baeck College, a Reform Jewish rabbinical school in London, while wearing their full nun’s habit and veil. The congregation no longer wears habits, but there is still a sister at Leo Baeck who is now completing a PhD.
Like many rabbinical schools, the congregation requires young women who want to become Notre Dame de Sion sisters to complete a year of studies in Jerusalem. Zdunich said they have found that one of the most important factors in building interfaith respect is physical presence in Israel, and being among a Jewish majority.
“A big part of the [Center for Biblical Formation] program is taking the participants around,” said Zdunich. “We always take groups to Yad Vashem. It’s a really intense experience for people. Our students are very global; we have a lot of students from Asia, India, and Africa, places where there is not a big Jewish community and they don’t necessarily know the story of the Holocaust.”
“I can’t tell you how many people say this program has been life-changing,” Zdunich continued. “They say, ‘I’ll never read the Scriptures the same way again.’ They are meeting living Judaism, and this is huge in raising their awareness.”
Patricia O’Reilly, the director of Program Development at the Ecce Homo Center for Biblical Formation, said teaching Christian texts from a Jewish perspective is highly meaningful when it is done in Jerusalem.
“Look at this place,” said O’Reilly. Outside the classrooms, a terrace opens onto a panoramic view of the Old City. The Dome of the Rock Sanctuary glints in the sun, church spires stretch for the sky, and the white Jerusalem stone buildings hug the contours of the land.
“We’re a five minute walk from the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Temple Mount,” she said. “You can see archaeology and faith. As soon as they arrive, a lot of our job is done, because the location is so magnificent.”