In Israel, a higher profile for Christmas

By Daniella Cheslow

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Foreign migrant workers from the Philippines and Africa Celebrate an annual Christmas-Hannukah party in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Dec 20, 2011. Tens of thousands of Christian foreigners from the Philippines and Africa have developed a religious subculture in southern Tel Aviv, what founders called the first Hebrew city. The city's Mesila foreigner aid organization helps them celebrate by throwing an annual Christmas-Hannukah party to help bridge between the migrants' backgrounds and the Jewish culture their children learn in Israeli schools.

Oded Balilty, Associated Press

TEL AVIV, Israel — The founders of Neve Shaanan, a neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv, planned their streets in the shape of a seven-branched candelabra — a symbol of their Jewish faith. Ninety years later, the streets are full of Christmas decorations, reflecting a flowering of Christianity in Israel's economic and cultural capital.

Tens of thousands of Christian foreigners, most of them laborers from the Philippines and African asylum seekers, have poured into the neighborhood in recent years. They pray year-round in more than 30 churches hidden in grimy apartment buildings. But in late December, their Christian subculture emerges in full force in the southern streets of Tel Aviv, whose founders called it the "first Hebrew city."

On the Saturday before Christmas, the center of festivities was the city's central bus station, a hulking seven-story maze of concrete. A plastic green fir spewed fake snow from its top in a shop near the main entrance. Christmas carols blasted from storefronts full of rice and noodles. Giggly young Filipino women took photographs with a Santa Claus figure to send to their friends and parents.

A few blocks north of the station, pastor Ruby Austria held her arms up and led prayers for 80 worshippers, most of them Filipino women, at a makeshift church on the third floor of an apartment building.

Women wept, clutching small children and singing along to Austria's prayers and a keyboard accompaniment. Nearly all of them were in Israel illegally because they lost their work permits when they had children.

"God is embracing us," Austria said. "May we see the true meaning of Christmas, that each of us will be able to see it in our lives and family."

Romeo Moralit, 35, arrived in Israel five years ago to work as a caregiver. He planned to buy a musical Santa Claus statue to bring cheer to his home, he said. Tel Aviv's Christmas celebrations paled in comparison to Manila's. "In the Philippines you see decorations everywhere, twinkling lights, and songs playing in all the shopping malls," he said.

For some, the holiday punctuates the divide between parents and children.

Nancy Domingo, who arrived in Israel 14 years ago from the Philippines, said her eldest daughter did not plan on eating traditional Filipino Christmas food. The 7-year-old, like the other children of migrant workers here, has grown up steeped in Israeli Jewish culture. The girl speaks Hebrew, learns about Jewish holidays in school and is familiar with Jewish dietary laws, such as the ban on pork.

"If I cook pork she won't eat it because in school they tell her pork is not clean," Domingo said. "She doesn't know Christmas, only Hanukkah."

Nearby, a mostly African church called Lift Up Your Head, runs an annual trip to Jerusalem's Old City and Bethlehem. Tour organizer Anthony Stephens, a Nigerian asylum seeker, said 150 people have signed up.

"People from all over the world spend a lot of money to come here, but for us it is like a gift because we are in the land," said Stephens.

Lift Up Your Head is sandwiched between two other African congregations on the first and third floors of an apartment building. These churches offer African-inflected gospel music, dancing in the aisles and fiery preaching that holds together an impoverished group far from home. On Saturday, pastor Jeremiah Dairo howled into a microphone between songs.

"Today you are in the right place and God will see you through, in the mighty name of Jesus!" Dairo said.

Not all Israelis are pleased to see the rising profile of Christmas, which to some symbolizes religious assimilation and to others a religion with a history of hostility to Jews. Moshe Avisar, 67, on his way back to Jerusalem, said the decorations in the bus station bothered him.

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