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“Intermarriage is one of the major issues we face,” explains an Armenian Jerusalemite speaking on condition of anonymity. “One of my daughters is engaged to an Arab Christian from Haifa. A second has a Russian Orthodox boyfriend.”

Some community members say the mother’s background often determines how children will be reared.

“When the mother is Armenian, she instills Armenian culture and values,” says Mihran Der Matossian, vice principal of the Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School, which enrolls children whose parents are non-Armenian.

Fostering Armenian pride is more difficult in Haifa. A religiously diverse city in northern Israel, Haifa’s once bustling Armenian community nearly vanished soon after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

“The Armenian school that existed until 1948 closed and never reopened,” notes the Rev. Tirayr Hovakimian, pastor of Haifa’s only Armenian church, dedicated to St. Elijah. Without an Armenian school, the community’s 250 Israeli-born Western Armenians and more than 1,500 Soviet-born Eastern Armenians have no choice but to send their children to either Arab Christian or Jewish schools.

“Most children attend Arab schools because they’re Christian schools, but there are some who are married to Jewish women and more integrated into Israeli life,” Father Hovakimian says.

The threat of assimilation poses a real problem, the priest notes. “We are trying our best to help families stay Armenian, not to integrate into Jewish or Arab society.”

Toward this end, the old stone church runs a youth club three times a week in the evening. Here, the Armenian-born Father Hovakimian and older members of the community teach the youngsters basic, intermediate and advanced Armenian.

The pastor has also enlisted the community in the renovation of the church. Anonymous donations have funded repairs to the external staircase, air conditioning and heating systems, and the installation of a cross mosaic, created by community members. Yet, some degree of accommodation for local custom is unavoidable.

“Here, Sunday is a work day,” Father Hovakimian says. Accordingly, weekly liturgies are held on Saturday. Zaven Panoian says his family does its best to maintain its culture while integrating into Israeli society. The Panoians sent their daughter to a Hebrew-language Jewish school.

“My wife, who attended the Armenian school in Jaffa, doesn’t know Arabic all that well,” he says. However, he does not believe this has hindered her. “The Jewish school gave her the tools to function in Israel, where we live. I have cousins who went to Christian schools, and they have even more difficulty finding jobs.”

After his daughter graduated from high school, Mr. Panoian encouraged her to perform a year of Israeli National Service — an alternative to the military service Israeli Jews are required to complete, but Muslims and Christians are not.

“She’s a volunteer at our local hospital, Rambam Hospital,” Panoian says. “The experience is giving her life tools.” This also makes her eligible for a variety of government benefits.

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