School of Joy: Meeting the needs of at-risk children in a challenging corner of the world

Contributing Columnist

Meet Father Mamdouh Abusada, director of the School of Joy in Beit Sahour, Palestine. Father Mamdouh is a Catholic priest in the historically Christian town of Beit Sahour, just East of Bethlehem. Father Mamdouh was a pastor of family programs in the early-1990’s when he saw a significant need for children with disabilities to receive an education. In 1993 he and his family started the “School of Joy” for children with intellectual disabilities.

School of Joy now has 51 students, including nine residents, with various intellectual and developmental disabilities. School of Joy teaches Christian as well as Muslim students. Father Mamdouh says that education without discrimination is part of the school’s public witness.

Around the world, people with disabilities experience various forms of stigma and discrimination. That is especially true in Beit Sahour, where poverty affects many families’ diet, health care and the overall learning environment for children. In fact, the founders of the school initially were prompted by a significant number of homeless children with disabilities they noticed in their area. Some of School of Joy’s students were abandoned by their families. Some are orphans.

Father Mamdouh says he sees people changing their attitudes toward their children. To illustrate this, he told me the story of a father, frustrated by the slow learning of one child, who exclaimed, “I wish that God hadn’t given me this child.”

Father Mamdouh responded, “If you don’t see in the face of your child the face of your Lord Jesus, you’ll never be a good man.”

That child eventually joined School of Joy’s vocational training program and learned to work with olive wood. Over the years, he developed his talents as an artisan. Ironically, the child who once had frustrated his father grew up to become the main breadwinner of the family.

As Father Mamdouh puts it, at the School of Joy, “The most neglected become the most important.”

Old biases against the disabled continue in many families. Parents may even try to hide one child’s disability. Sometimes staff from School of Joy can only discover a child in need of education upon visiting families in their home. As a result, the School of Joy has on staff a psychologist and social worker to help children and their families.

Stigma is not School of Joy’s only challenge. Teaching online during the COVID pandemic has been as difficult for School of Joy as for schools in other parts of the world. The staff decided they could host just 10 students in person and would have all the others learn from home, which required extra planning for teachers and especially for low-income families. Few families can provide Zoom for their children’s classwork because of daily challenges with maintaining electricity and the Internet in the West Bank.

Funding is the school’s most significant need, Father Mamdouh says. Families often are only able to contribute small amounts to the cost of their children’s education. Donors are the main backbone of the school’s budget, but a typical donor only sponsors a child for a year or two, requiring constant attention to fund raising. Since tourism to Bethlehem has dwindled during the pandemic, this also has decreased awareness of the school among foreign visitors.

All of these dynamics also must be navigated through the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resulting maze of legal and financial requirements both for students and the school itself. Farah’s story illustrates just one of the complications. She has been a student for several years at School of Joy after having been refused enrollment in public schools. Farah was caught in a legal requirement that all public-school students must have a birth certificate. She does not have one because birth certificates in the region must name both parents and Farah’s unmarried mother declined to name the father. Thus, she has no birth certificate and no access to local public schools. Father Mamdouh repeatedly tried to help obtain a waiver for Farah from authorities, but so far has been unsuccessful.

When asked why Father Mamdouh is so committed to this work, he says, “We’re human. Jesus came for all. Humanity is very important to me. Humans should treat everyone the same, without discrimination. We’ll all be okay if we do this.”

School of Joy is one of many institutions in the Bethlehem area in which Christians and Muslims work together. According to Father Mamdouh, the Church can play a unique role in helping people to realize their shared humanity. That requires, he says, seeing the face of the Lord Jesus in the face of one’s neighbor, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, whether able-bodied or disabled.

Students celebrating their school work in a photo taken before the COVID pandemic.

If you or your community would like to visit the School of Joy on a trip to the Holy Land, contact us at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).

Global Diversity of Love for Mary includes Greek Orthodox Bread for the Feast of Dormition

EDITOR’s NOTE: Our regular Holidays & Festivals columnist Stephanie Fenton writes about the global diversity of interest in Mary, the mother of Jesus in her column about the Assumption or Dormition of Mary. In addition, from his current base in the Middle East, Kevin Vollrath sends us this column about a local custom of symbolic (and delicious) bread baked for the Dormition. Here is Kevin’s story …


Naila Libbis, a Palestinian Greek Orthodox believer who lives near Nazareth and bakes her bread in an outdoor oven at her home.

MARY is venerated by Christians today in a wide array of traditions that have evolved and spread around the world since the earliest centuries of the faith. One tradition is a molded bread that the faithful can smell baking this week—and, if they are lucky, can taste—in Orthodox neighborhoods of the Middle East.

For millions of Christians around the world, of course, Mary is a beloved part of nearly every season of the year—and images of her are displayed in homes and gardens. In Orthodox and Catholic churches, Mary has a number of feasts through the year, including her birth (September 8), the Presentation at the Temple (November 21), the Annunciation that Mary would become the mother of Jesus (March 25).

The Orthodox Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God commemorates Mary’s death without suffering and then her bodily resurrection. It is analogous to the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, celebrated in many Western churches. Both are observed on August 15 for those using the contemporary calendar, and August 28 for those using the Julian Calendar.

While Mary is adored by millions of men, women and children around the world, her exact role in the faith differs across the many branches of Christianity. For centuries, Protestants have shied away from venerating Mary, cautious of equating her with God. Even Catholic pontiffs over the past century have publicly expressed a range of perspectives on Mary’s role within the faith. For example, Pope Francis’s talks about Mary’s role in the Christian salvation story take a different approach than those by the earlier Pope John Paul II.

Where Eastern and Western branches of the church agree is that the events surrounding Mary’s death were miraculous. The Orthodox Feast of the Dormition celebrates her death without suffering as an indication of God’s faithfulness to God’s beloved.

This range in belief and custom evolved over the centuries partly because of the Bible’s lack of details about the end of Mary’s earthly life. A variety of sometimes conflicting accounts about Mary’s life and death emerged throughout the ancient Middle East.

One of the earliest traditions emerging in Bethlehem was that Mary began to pray at Jesus’s tomb, which annoyed Jesus’s critics. They asked her to stop. The story is described in the Oxford Early Christian Studies volume by Stephen Shoemaker, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption. As Shoemaker tells it: Mary moved from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where she performed miracles and healings, inciting those critics to ask Roman soldiers to stop her. The Holy Spirit warned Mary and the apostles that soldiers were coming, and transported them to Jerusalem. The critics found her in Jerusalem and attempted to burn her home. While being ministered to at her tomb in Gethsemane, Christ received Mary’s soul, and Mary’s body was taken into Paradise.

Other early accounts of Mary described by Shoemaker begin with an angel telling her of her impending death and giving her a palm from the Tree of Life. Mary returns home in Jerusalem to alert her family, and the apostles are transported to her, miraculously. After a night of preaching, Christ receives Mary’s soul and and gives it to Michael. Mary’s body is taken to the Mount of Olives, where the apostles await Christ’s return. Paul asks about the mysteries Jesus taught, and Jesus’s followers begin arguing about how to preach the gospel. Eventually, Christ returns, vindicates the Pauline Gospel, and takes Mary’s body to Paradise, where it is reunited to its soul.

Today, Palestinian Christians continue to celebrate Marian feast days throughout the year—including a regional custom of a specially flavored bread that is popular to this day in Bethlehem and other ancient Christian communities.

This kind of wooden mold forms the raised symbols on the finished round loaves.

A Symbolic Bread for the Feat

Many Greek Orthodox believers living in the region today still bake a symbolic bread unique to this feast.

Two recipes are commonly used, says Naila Libbis, a Palestinian Greek Orthodox believer who lives near Nazareth. Every year, she bakes these two versions, drawing on family recipes handed down orally.

The first recipe is enjoyed by families at home around the time of this annual festival. As Naila demonstrates this variety, she pours 1 kilo of flower into a big bowl, blending it with more than two cups of water, a big spoonful of yeast, a smaller spoonful of sugar and a bit of salt. She blends and kneads and lets the dough rise—working the dough until she reaches a consistency that she can form into round, flat loaves. Traditionally, these loaves were baked in a wood stove, but Naila and many other home bakers now use outdoor gas or electric stoves manufactured in the region.

Each year, she also makes a second spiced version of the bread that is used in her Orthodox church as the bread for this holiday Eucharist.

For this special bread, she starts with the same ingredients as her family loaves, but adds roughly twice as much sugar, then mixes in a big spoonful of mahlab as well as a smaller amount of mastic. Naila’s family has passed these customs down by word of mouth, judging the exact amounts by eye and the feel of the dough. She said she hopes that sharing her story may inspire other bread-makers around the world to experiment with this custom to help keep it alive.

If you are reading this story and want to try this mixture, you can Google a wide range of other Greek-inspired “breads with mahlab (or mahleb) and mastic.” If those ingredients are not available in stores near your home, they are available in various quantities via Amazon—as are Greek Orthodox circular stamps for holy breads. (One example of a stamp is listed here on Amazon, but there are many others listed on Amazon, as well.)


KEVIN VOLLRATH is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion & Society at Princeton Theological Seminary. He produced this series of columns as the Ambassador Warren Clark Fellow of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). His home base is in Lambertville, NJ, but he currently is conducting fieldwork in Israel-Palestine.

Welcoming the millions of “other” Christians around the world as they prepare for Great Lent

Father Elias Khoury with some of the children and parents from his Greek Orthodox parish in Jadeidi, Israel.



‘Why are we ‘celebrating’ the fast of Great Lent this month?’

EDITOR’S NOTE: Right now in America, there’s not a hotter question than: What does it mean to be “Christian”? Of course, that question is freighted with our own “local” political meaning in the United States today. Here at ReadTheSpirit magazine, our goal week after week is to cover global religious and cultural diversity—because we believe that learning about diversity leads to healthier communities.

Around the world, Christians make up nearly a third of our population, according to Pew Research. However, North America is home to only about 12 percent of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians. That means our American battles over who can be called a “Christian” can sound like a local family feud among the nearly 2 billion Christians who live in South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.

This week’s cover story reminds us, as Americans, about another vast swath of Christianity—nearly 300 million Christians who most Americans tend to forget: the Orthodox. Thanks to researcher Kevin Vollrath and our long-time friend Mae Cannon, ReadTheSpirit plans to bring readers a monthly series of stories from this ancient Eastern branch of Christianity. You can read our latest Cover Story on Mae Cannon’s work from 2020, headlined: As millions of Christians move toward activism, you should meet Mae Elise Cannon, an ethical organizer. Among her many commitments, Mae is executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, which made this new monthly series possible. You can learn more about Kevin at the end of this column.

We start this week with a story about Father Elias Khoury, a Greek Orthodox priest in Jadeidi, Israel, who is preparing for Great Lent to begin on March 15. That may surprise many of our readers, because we reported on the start of Lent for Western Christians last month! In fact, this year, the Western and Orthodox calendars vary by almost an entire month.


Father Elias: ‘As Christians, our life is a fasting period.’

Father Elias Khoury

Contributing Columnist

When Father Elias Khoury, a Greek Orthodox priest in Jadeidi, Israel, talks with his community about the Fast of Great Lent, he uses words like “celebrate” and “joyful” that may sound surprising to Christians living in the United States. Millions of American Christians—Catholics and Protestants—began Lent on February 17 with Ash Wednesday. Because church calendars vary between Western and the ancient Eastern churches, Orthodox churches will begin the period of reflection that leads to Easter with Clean Monday on March 15. And very much like Father Elias’s sermons in the Middle East, Orthodox clergy emphasize the great joy families should feel while giving up a whole host of favorite foods.

For Americans, giving up chocolate during Lent seems like a major sacrifice. In the Orthodox world, observant families abstain from meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, wine and oil.

What’s joyful about that?

This kind of fasting is a reminder of the watchfulness and humble self-denial with which Christians should live their lives, Father Elias says. “As Christians, our life is a fasting period. We’re not just doing it one day or one week. It’s not just a celebration of a memorial day. It’s something that we live, not just during times like the Fast of Great Lent, but all of our life. It involves much more than what we are eating and drinking. We must learn to become watchful and fasting is living in that awareness, when you watch yourself always. It’s a daily process and our job as Christians.”

That is also why Great Lent is part of a much longer process that actually began weeks ago for Orthodox communities—preparing week by week with scripture readings, prayers and a gradual paring away of foods to be ready when Great Lent begins.

The seven weeks of Great Lent are preceded by four weeks of preparation in which the faithful give up whole sections of their normal diet until a family’s dinner table is, for the duration of Lent, stripped of animal products, wine and oil. Far from arduous, it is a joyful time of drawing near to each other and God, with daily prayers and inspiring Bible readings. Lent is a celebration because it gives us the opportunity “to live the biblical story” liturgically, from creation in Genesis to redemption in Revelation, as Father Elias puts it.

“Our readings during this time are joyful and not sad,” Father Elias says. “We’re celebrating the Kingdom of God on Earth! It’s part repentance, and part happiness that God gave us salvation”

Before becoming a Greek Orthodox priest, Father Elias worked as an engineer. He has been married for over 20 years and has two kids. He also enjoys teaching in a local middle school.

Turning to the Triodion

The Triodion preserves ancient Eastern Orthodox traditions for this special season. Some centuries-old manuscripts of the Triodion are richly illustrated like this 15th-century illumination that shows Jesus speaking with a woman at a well.

Orthodox churches don’t have an Ash Wednesday and, instead, they begin Great Lent on Clean Monday, which refers to the cleansing from sin resulting from Lenten fasting. Clean Monday this year is March 15, 2021.

These churches are guided by the Triodion, their liturgical book for Great Lent, beginning on the Sunday of the Pharisee and Publican (Luke 18:9-14), four Sundays before Clean Monday (11 Sundays before Pascha, Orthodox Easter).

Observant Orthodox families are far more familiar with fasting than most American Christians. That’s because they are asked to abstain from animal products, wine and oil on most Wednesdays and Fridays (unless those days happen to be special feasts).

However, during the special week following the Sunday of the Pharisee and Publican, that weekly fasting is suspended. Why? Because, in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee boasts about his fasting: “I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” With a tinge of irony, Orthodox believers try not to be like the Pharisee so they skip that week of fasting.

Then, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son marks the beginning of the second week of preparation and is the only week of preparation with standard fasting (on Wednesday and Friday). This parable continues the previous week’s theme: framing fasting properly. Both the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Pharisee and Publican teach heartfelt repentance. The Prodigal Son parable, in particular, teaches that returning to the father is a gift; according to Father Elias, this means “we can’t be proud of our grace,” and neither can the Publican.

The third Sunday, the Sunday of Judgment, marks the beginning of Lenten fasting. Known as “meatfare Sunday” in English, and “the lifting of meat” in Arabic, this is the last day to eat meat until Pascha nine weeks later. The liturgy focuses on the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) in which Jesus judges people according to whether they treated the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and the prisoner as though they were Jesus himself. One finds God in other people, and must learn to “relate to the others as Jesus relates to them,” Father Elias says. One cannot be reconciled to God without being reconciled to other people, in whom one must find Christ.

The Sunday of Forgiveness is the final Sunday before Great Lent. It recalls Adam and Eve’s banishment from the garden, reminding believers of the depth of their sin and need for forgiveness. The return to paradise is a common Lenten image for Orthodox believers, so it is fitting to begin Great Lent by remembering our exile from the garden. This Sunday also includes a reading from Matthew 6:14-21, emphasizing our need to forgive each other in order to reconcile with God. Like the Sunday of Judgment, we remember that we do not fast alone and need other believers to seek God, Father Elias teaches.

Also known as Cheesefare Sunday, the Sunday of Judgment is the last day dairy products can be eaten. At this point, one might be wondering why Orthodox believers stop eating animal products during Great Lent? Orthodox believers stop eating meat and dairy in order to reconcile with God, each other and animals. True reconciliation must involve action in addition to prayer, or as Father Elias puts it: “Reconciliation and prayer are the two wings needed to fly.”

He explains further, “We are the new Adams trying to come back to heaven through this action.” According to Orthodox biblical interpretation, Adam did not eat meat during his life at all; no one ate meat until after the flood when God specifically gave Noah and his kin permission (Genesis 9:3). By not eating meat or animal products, the faithful move closer to paradise. This Sunday in particular also reminds observers that animals were created by God and received God’s blessing. In fasting from animal products, one also reconciles with animals.

LAGANA BREAD is a traditional Clean Monday delicacy because it can be made without any oil. The strictness of the fast varies, family by family. A popular online food writer among Greek Orthodox families in the West is The Greek Vegan, Kiki Vagianos. Her recipes range widely throughout the year, but some of her recipes do fulfill all the fasting rules. She also makes note of the variance in strictness of fasting, offering options in preparing her recipes. Click on this photo to find her Lagana recipe and explore her website.

So, what do Orthodox eat during Great Lent?

The day after Cheesefare Sunday is Clean Monday, or the first day of Clean Week and the beginning of Great Lent. Clean Week and Holy Week prescribe the most serious fasts, during which many congregants abstain from all food until noon or 5pm every day. Many priests will abstain from all food Monday-Wednesday and Thursday-Saturday.

Orthodox believers observe the fast with various strictness, but Father Elias was clear that most of his congregants fast in some capacity from animal products, especially during Great Lent.

In Orthodox homes, Great Lent—and other fasting days throughout the year—are times to enjoy a host of healthy, traditional foods that often become family favorites. Some of these dishes are even popping up in more health-conscious homes in the West. Bulgur wheat and parsley—a variant on tabouli—is a mainstay in the U.S. now. Observant families also enjoy a wide range of rich soups, stews and casseroles featuring root vegetables, greens, chickpeas and other ingredients that are popular in vegetarian cooking around the world.

Want more ideas? Check out The Greek Vegan, where recipes are presented in formats that are familiar to Americans. Also, be warned: Only some dishes on that website are appropriate for Great Lent.

Throughout the entire season of Great Lent, Father Elias says, the focus is on using these spiritual and physical disciplines to continually refocus ourselves on prayer and deepening our faith. Therein lies a major difference between simply healthy eating and religious fasting.

“You can diet without prayer, but you cannot fast without prayer,” Father Elias says.

Inside Father Elias’s church.


KEVIN VOLLRATH is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion & Society at Princeton Theological Seminary, writing in this series as the Ambassador Warren Clark Fellow of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). He lives in Lambertville, NJ, while he waits to begin his fieldwork for his dissertation in Bethlehem once travel resumes.