During the northern summer of 1973, I was visiting Israel as a pilgrim. Among the many places I visited was the great Marian shrine and Carmelite Monastery of Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) in Haifa where I used to live from June 1951 until July 1954, prior to coming to Australia as a migrant.
This monastery is remarkable for me because it lies at the western end of the beautiful Carmel Range (Carmel is Hebrew for "Vineyard of God"), with the Mediterranean Sea on three sides below, and it was here that I first met Fr Elias Friedman OCD with whom I eventually founded the Association of Hebrew Catholics (AHC) in 1979.
Father Elias, born Jack Friedman, was a medical doctor in the South African Army, whose family originally came from Russian-occupied Lithuania in 1881, following anti-Jewish pogroms.
One day in 1943, while walking on Table Mountain, Cape Town, he suddenly heard God say to him, "Jack, I want you to be a Catholic priest."
Jack was stunned, and replied, "But Lord, I'm only a Jewish doctor ... one thing at a time!"
Soon thereafter, he left the South African Army, became a Catholic and went to Avignon in the south of France to study for the priesthood with the Discalced Carmelites. He wished to go to the Stella Maris Monastery following his ordination.
It was there that Fr Elias – his name in religion – started formulating his ideas about the Jews and their rightful place in the Catholic Church. Even before I met him, he had written his magnum opus, Jewish Identity, and had it first published in India by the Capuchin Fathers.
He was not happy with it, as the printing was of poor quality, but he gave me a copy to read in 1973, and I read it on the way back to Australia. In it, he set out ideas with which I essentially agreed.
Basically, his ideas were as follows: during the earliest period of the Church, nearly everyone was Israelite (Fr Elias preferred that term to "Jewish") – Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Apostles and the predominant majority of the Church.
However, as the Apostles, and especially St Paul, went out to preach the Gospel, more and more Gentiles poured into the Church, not only diluting the number of Israelites in it, but inevitably bringing in Gentile ideas and practices.
Also, once the Church became predominantly numerically Gentile, it sadly started persecuting Israelites, so that Israelites looking into the Church did not feel welcome.
Nevertheless, over the centuries, individual Jews have become Catholics, but soon lost their Jewish identity, so important for many Israelites (but by no means to all). Thus, there were even great saints such as St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, and of course more recently St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), a patron of AHC.
According to Fr Elias, what was needed was that the Church officially establish a Hebrew Catholic Community, so that Jewish people who have become Catholics feel entirely at home in the Church which was in fact "theirs" from the very beginning.
Of course, Fr Elias was largely confined to his own monastery, and because of his medical condition in the latter part of his life, he could not travel far. He died in Haifa on 11 June 1999, and is buried at Stella Maris. He was 83.
It was largely through correspondence with me (he wrote to me two or three times a week!) that we established the Association of Hebrew Catholics (AHC), initially with headquarters in Melbourne, Victoria, for the first nine years, until September 1987 when it was transferred to the United States, with David Moss as President, since the US has the largest number of Hebrew Catholics.
I published a newsletter called the Newsletter of the Association of Hebrew Catholics in Melbourne until September 1987. Thereafter it was published in the United States by the same name until February 1993 when it was renamed The Hebrew Catholic.
It still has that name, and is published and distributed all over the world by David Moss from St Louis, Missouri, where our headquarters are now located.
I am often asked by people as to the membership of the AHC. Fr Elias was keen to register new members at Baptism. I was most reluctant to do so, being a Holocaust survivor with a long memory.
The first thing the Nazis did before rounding up Jews (Jewish, Christian or atheist) was to get lists, usually from the local Jewish Council, whether in a village or a town.
Things are not very good nowadays either with the rise of anti-Semitism in certain European countries, to say nothing of the spread of virulent anti-Jewish Islamism all over the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere.
In fact, for good reason, many Jewish people are quite reluctant to join us openly even after Baptism. Also they are not always willing to join the AHC for ideological or just personal reasons. Thus, I must honesty admit to my questioners that I really do not know how many Hebrew Catholics there are in Australia, or anywhere else in the world.
I think it is a plausible supposition that most Hebrew Catholics live in the United States and France, since these two countries have the largest Jewish populations outside Israel. But only the Lord in fact knows!
Finally, we are currently building up Havurot ( chaver in Hebrew means "a friend"), which are gatherings of AHC members and those interested to see what we are about, Jews and Gentiles; but note that we do not, and never have proselytised!
These groups meet locally and are fellowships of Hebrew Catholics as well as Gentile Catholics who gather from time to time on a regular basis, with no hard-and-fast liturgical or social rules.
The main purpose of these Havurot is to educate ourselves and others about our Hebrew roots in the Catholic Church, as well as to socialise. Any bona fide person can participate as an observer, or join.
The Melbourne havura meets at the St Francis Pastoral Centre, beside St Francis Church, corner of Elizabeth and Lonsdale Streets, Melbourne. Please contact Mr John Paterson on (03) 9807 5814, or Sr Mariana Handley NDS on (03) 9350 2681.