A Real-Life Samaritan Leader Explains What It Means to Be a Good Samaritan

There are less 1,000 Samaritans living in the world today. Community secretary Mabrook Ishaq is one of them. He told us his story.

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Aug 30 2018, 1:20pm

All photos by Christopher Beauchamp 

People always are asking, “Who are the Samaritans?”

Some people know our name from the parable of the Good Samaritan who helps a man that has been robbed and left for dead on the roadside. Others know our name from the story of Jesus being given water and medicine from the Samaritan woman at the well.

Some of the Palestinians think we are Jewish, while some Jews think we are Palestinian. In some ways we are both. Regardless, we are friends to everyone. Although there are less than 1,000 of us in the world, I believe in my heart we could bring peace to this whole region.

Mabrook Ishaq stands in front of a handmade Samaritan Torah scroll that he claims took ten years to complete.

I live in Kiryat Luza, above the city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank. We were given an opportunity to move here and build houses in 1990 so that we could be next to our holiest site, Mount Gerizim. Before this pilgrimage, our community lived in Nablus and would come up to Gerizim once a year to make the annual sacrifice for Passover. When we first moved to Kiryat Luza, it was hard for my family. There was no infrastructure, no phones, no roads. We had to build everything that we have in the village.

I grew up with the Palestinians in Nablus. As a child, I had many friends in school. No one treated me poorly because I was a Samaritan. So when I visit the city today, I still get a warm reception. I am just a neighbor. Unfortunately, most people outside of Nablus have little understanding of who the Samaritans are because they have not seen or interacted with us.

We are original Israeli people. We left Egypt 3,656 years ago. Like the Jews, we believe in the Ten Commandments and the Torah that were given to Moses by God. We are descendants of the tribe of Menashe and Ephraim, who were the sons of Joseph. When the Northern Jewish Kingdom was exiled to Babylon by the Assyrian King Sargon II in 725 BCE, the Samaritan people stayed behind. We stayed on this land and persevered the original Hebrew language and Torah. Even today, we still speak and write in the ancient Hebrew. This is a language modern Jews can no longer speak.

One of the biggest differences is that our holiest place is Mount Gerizim. However, Mount Zion in Jerusalem is the holiest place for Jews. Why is Mount Gerizim a sacred place for Samaritans? It is atop Mount Gerizim that Adam and Eve had their first meeting. It is where Abraham went to slaughter his son. It is where Noah built his ark. So this is such a wonderful place for our community to live.

We have many ancient artifacts in our community that are sacred to us. Most important is the Abisha Scroll. This text was written by Abisha who was the great grandson of Aaron, who was the brother of Moses. Abisha wrote it on the skin of sacrificed rams just 13 years after Joshua entered Israel.

Naila Handosh, a Palestinian woman from Ramallah visits Mabrook Ishaq for a spiritual consultation.

Today, we have two leaders in our community. We have the high priest who is the spiritual leader for all the Samaritan. He is the big man who is makes all of the religious decisions for us as a people. Then we have the secretary of the community who works as the spokesperson for us to the outside world. He also makes sure that projects of infrastructure are being started and completed for the people who live here. I am the current secretary of the Samaritan community.

In 2012, I approached the Palestinian Prime minister and asked to lead a special project to improve the infrastructure in Kiryat Luza. He granted me the permission. This not only changed the village for the better but also set me on the path to be a Samaritan leader.

Right now we are building a kindergarten, a new street, and working to improve water and electricity. These are great projects. But I cannot work on Saturday because this is the day we have kept for praying and eating with family. On this day, we don't even use electricity and we only wear our traditional clothing.

Also known as the Pentateuch, the Samaritan version of the Torah is completely written in an ancient form of Hebrew.

There are 788 Samaritans left in the world. Half of us live here on in Kiryat Luza atop Mount Gerizim. The other half live in the community of Holon outside of Tel Aviv. For us in Kiryat Luza, we have both a Palestinian ID and an Israeli passport. I also have a Jordanian Passport from before 1967 when Jordan was in charge of this region.

In 1917, there were only 147 of us left, but after 100 years, we are almost at 800. I hope in another 50 years there will be 1,000 of us. But I do not think I will be alive to see this. When you walk around Kiryat Luza, you see that we are running out of space to live. Land is a sensitive issue in this part of the world, but having a growing population is not a bad problem. It is on me and the members of my generation to keep our community growing so our special traditions do not vanish from the Earth. It is a strange responsibility to be part of such a small group. I am always wondering about our future even if I will not be around to witness it.

One of the problems for us is that we have more men than women. It can be very hard for a man to find a wife who lives in the community that he is not related to. For thousands of years, we have only been a few different family lines, so a brother will tell his sister, “I want my son to marry your daughter.” This has made a problem when cousins are marrying and sometimes the children have genetic disorders. Also, the Samaritan women are going to university and getting great skills, so they sometimes tell their father, “I don’t want to marry my cousin. I want to marry someone else.”

A Jewish woman from the outside can convert and marry into our community. She might do this if she is having trouble finding a husband or maybe she is not pretty. In 2002, our high priest wanted his son to have a wife and be happy. He was told about a business in Tel Aviv that could match his son with a beautiful woman from the Ukraine. These women are coming from a poor area and want to go somewhere else. The Samaritan people live more comfortably than these women are used to. So, the high priest passed an edict that we can marry these women and now his son has a beautiful wife from the Ukraine. Years later, we have eight families with Ukrainian wives. Every summer the families visit the Ukraine to see their wives’ families. Everyone is happy.

My wife, however, is from the Samaritan community and I thank God we are happy together as a couple. Together we have one son and one daughter. I hope they can find someone from our village to marry.

Palm reading is often utilized when doing a consultation in Samaritan mysticism.

The Samaritan community is especially known for our special math. Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews all come to us for our calendars and calculations. We can tell you when the holy days like Ramadan will be for the next 600 years.

They will also come to visit us when they have personal problems. If a husband and wife are having trouble with each other, the high priest might give them a different name to call one another. This comes from God changing Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah so they might have children late in their lives. The new spiritual name from the priest re-identifies them as a person that you should love as a gift from God. From this moment, they are no longer the spouse you have been quarrelling with. They are someone new. Names are powerful.

Maybe a husband is cheating on his wife or someone is putting bad energy on you. I am one of the people who can fix these problems. I ask you the name of your mother, have you touch the Torah, and I read the lines of your hand. I have a secret book written in ancient Hebrew that has been passed down to me by my father called the Aljees. I take all of your information and apply it to the code inside of the book. It is with this code that I make the calculation for you. Whatever the calculation is, I will write it on a piece of paper. This paper which we call Shabat will be soaked in hot water with tea and you will drink it. This will solve the problem.

I truly believe that if the Jews and the Palestinians would let us all sit down and make a calculation for peace, we could make everyone happy. The calculation is how we Samaritan make our math, and our math will give you the truth.

This story was told to Justin Fornal over a series of several interviews. Read more work by Justin at jusitnfornal.com and follow him on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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