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Dwindling Ancient Samaritan Community Looks To Ukraine For Demographic Remedy (with VIDEO)

By Maya Margit | The Media Line

November 14, 2018

Samaritan worshipers pray during a Passover ceremony on Mount Gerizim near the West Bank city of Nablus last May. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)
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Only 800 members of the ethno-religious group remain, with the population split between Kiryat Luza in the West Bank and the Israeli city of Holon

An ancient community living in the West Bank since biblical times has turned towards an unlikely source to solve its looming demographic crisis: Ukrainian brides. Nearly a dozen women from Ukraine in recent years have picked up their lives in Eastern Europe and leaped into the unknown, moving to a tiny hillside village in the West Bank where they converted to the Samaritan faith.

Once numbering nearly one million people, the Samaritans were almost wiped out at the turn of the 20th century following hundreds of years of persecution and forced conversions at the hands of various empires and rulers throughout history. Back in 1919, there were only 141 Samaritans across the globe.

The population has recovered somewhat since then, yet only about 800 members remain, half of whom have left the village of Kiryat Luza in the northern West Bank for greener economic pastures in the Israeli city of Holon, close to Tel Aviv.

Sustaining such a tiny population while keeping its traditions alive is one of the main issues the community faces, especially given its high ratio of men to women.

“One of the most noticeable challenges is probably marriage because there are more men than women here,” Abdallah Cohen, a tour guide and the grandson of a Samaritan high priest, conveyed to The Media Line.

“In fact, the ratio about seven years ago was two males to one female, which means that some men will not have Samaritan women to marry. This is a challenge especially because there’s a rule that if you want to marry someone from outside [the community], the woman has to become a Samaritan.

“Today we have about 11 [women] from Ukraine who became Samaritans and who are loving the community here, but who initially had some issues,” he added.

For outsider women, becoming a Samaritan is no easy feat. It involves following strict religious rituals like observing the Sabbath and upholding ritual purity. For example, during her menstrual period, a Samaritan woman is forbidden from coming into physical contact with anyone lest she render them “impure.”

Alla Ben Yehuda, 31, was one of the first women from Ukraine to join the Samaritan community. In 2010, she met her future spouse through a friend working at an agency matching Ukrainian women to foreign husbands.

“At the time, I had no idea who the Samaritans were,” Ben Yehuda recalled to The Media Line, noting that she herself was not registered to the matchmaking agency. “In the beginning, it was a bit difficult for me because I didn’t know the language and their religion was strict. When I lived in Ukraine, we didn’t keep the Sabbath. Also, [having to have] a separation period during my menstruation was hard.”

Ben Yehuda, who now has two children and lives in Kiryat Luza, said that while not being able to perform any domestic duties during her menstruation was initially challenging – as was the customary 40-day isolation period after childbirth – she has now gotten used to and enjoys her new life.

“For new women coming from Ukraine, it’s easier because now there is someone who can explain to them in their language what to do and someone who can answer all their questions. It’s easier than when I first arrived.”

An Ancient People

The Samaritans trace their ancestry back to the ancient Israelite tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Levy. In fact, their High Priest claims to be a direct descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron.

“The High Priest is selected based on age – usually he’s around 80-85 years old and from the Cohen family,” Abdullah Cohen, the Samaritan high priest, related to The Media Line. “Since Aaron, 132 generations of high priests have passed. Just as my ancestors did, I will carry on protecting the Samaritan community.”

The sect practices a religion very similar to Judaism, but with one major difference: The Samaritans believe that God commanded the ancient Israelites to build the temple on Mount Gerizim in what is now referred to as the West Bank. This stands in contrast to the Jews, who hold the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as their holiest site.

“There are about 6,000 differences between the Samaritan Torah and the Jewish Torah,” Abdallah affirmed. “However, if you open up both Torahs and want to look for those differences, you’d probably have a hard time. The biggest one is in the Ten Commandments: The tenth commandment for the Samaritans is to build an altar on Mount Gerizim.”

Three times per year, Samaritans make a pilgrimage to the top of Mount Gerizim, including on Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles. During this biblical holiday, members of the community decorate the ceilings of their homes with ornate configurations of citrus fruits. Historically, the Samaritans built “sukkot” (or temporary walled huts) outdoors during the holiday – much like their Jewish peers – but these structures would often get vandalized by neighbors or destroyed by inclement weather. For this reason, they are now found indoors.

On Sukkot, a special atmosphere permeates the village of Kiryat Luza, as Samaritans welcome their Palestinian and Jewish neighbors for festive meals, allowing visitors the rare opportunity to see Jews, Christians and Muslim Palestinians sitting together beneath the intricately designed sukkot.

Samaritans have long embraced straddling the divide between Israelis and Palestinians, and most members possess both sets of identity papers.

“We are a bridge of peace unto all the nations,” Ovadia Cohen, a Samaritan community leader, declared to The Media Line.

“What does this mean? It means that Jews, Muslims, Christians, the Druze – all come here and sit, have a dialogue with each other, and there are no political or religious arguments between them. We always act as a bridge between communities.”

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