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In West Bank Hamlet, Ukrainian Brides Help Samaritan Faith Stay Afloat

Members of the tiny Samaritan community attend a traditional ceremony at Mount Gerizim near the northern West Bank city of Nablus.

KIRYAT LUZA, West Bank -- At 33, Rafi Danfi was ready to marry. He had a house, a car, and a good job at an Israeli telecoms giant -- but he couldn’t find a bride.

It’s a common problem for men in the Samaritan sect, a religious community of several hundred people who follow a strict interpretation of the Bible and do not marry outside the faith.

There are just not enough marriageable women to go around. Ten women have left the faith and been excommunicated in the last two decades. Men can marry Jewish Israeli women who convert and adopt Samaritan customs, and some have joined a Samaritan community in Holon, a Tel Aviv suburb. But few are willing to move to Mount Gerizim in the northern West Bank, which Samaritans believe is sacred and where they maintain the only exclusively Samaritan community in the Holy Land.

The solution Danfi chose has become more common, too: He looked for a Ukrainian bride.

Samaritan Rafi Danfi is hoping to marry the Ukrainian woman he met online.
Samaritan Rafi Danfi is hoping to marry the Ukrainian woman he met online.

He fell in love with a 21-year-old music student he met online, and if all goes well, she will become the seventh woman from the Ukrainian port city of Kherson to join the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim -- the latest link in a lifeline that has helped keep the ancient sect going.

From a high point of more than 1 million souls, by the 1920s the sect had dwindled to 117 people, said Benny Sedaka, an unofficial spokesman for the group. Samaritans preserved their continuity by having many children and marrying Israeli women who converted to their faith.

Today, Samaritans number about 800, roughly split between Mount Gerizim and Holon. Thanks in part to the six Ukrainian women who have moved to the mountain, as well as several Israeli, Ukrainian, and Azerbaijani women who married men in Holon, their population is slowly growing.

For Danfi, it’s not about the numbers -- it’s personal.

“There’s love between us,” he said, pointing to a recent chat with his girlfriend, whose name he preferred to keep private. The screen of his mobile phone was full of messages in Russian, which he manages via Google Translate, and heart emojis.

The Samaritans, best known from the parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament, are thought to be remnants of the ancient Israelites. They follow a religion similar to Judaism, but they are not Jews.

This week, Samaritans are marking Sukkot, or the Feast of the Tabernacles, which marks the end of the agricultural year and the wandering of the Israelites in the desert. To celebrate, Samaritans hang colorful canopies of fresh fruit over their living rooms.

On October 16, Ukrainian-born Alexandra Krasuk brought her three children to their grandmother’s house, where they sprawled on the couches and munched on chocolate beneath a ceiling strung with pomegranates, lemons, and green citrons.

Alexandra Cohen (formerly Krasuk) and her two children in the village of Mount Gerizim.
Alexandra Cohen (formerly Krasuk) and her two children in the village of Mount Gerizim.

In 2003, Krasuk was studying management in Kherson when businessman Wadah Cohen spotted a photograph of the petite blonde in a dating agency catalog.

Cohen found himself single at 40. Two of his brothers are deaf mutes, which he said was the result of inbreeding.

He told his uncle, the late High Priest Shalom Ben-Amram Cohen, that marrying Krasuk would end his solitude and widen the gene pool -- and got his blessing.

Women outnumber men in Ukraine, which is struggling economically, and since the 1991 Soviet collapse some Ukrainians have pinned their hopes for a happier life on marriage to foreigners.

Wadah Cohen “came specifically for me,” Krasuk said. “So I thought, ‘This is a serious man, he wants a family and isn’t just here for games.’”

She only learned about the Samaritan faith when she arrived on Mount Gerizim, where she moved into Cohen’s elegant stone house on the village’s only street. Meanwhile, her new family encountered a blonde teen who couldn't understand them.

“She was like a doll,” said her niece, Shuruq.

Krasuk learned Hebrew and Arabic and agreed to follow the religious rules. Women are isolated during menstruation and after giving birth, for 40 days after a boy and 80 days after a girl. Her family dotes on the children.

"You’re not alone" in the Samaritan community, Krasuk said. "You always feel like you're in a big family. In Ukraine I don't have siblings, it's just my mom and dad."

Seven years after the Cohens' marriage, Azzam Altif, then a 52-year-old driver, traveled to Ukraine with a dating agency to find love. He met 17 women over the course of a month before his translator introduced him to her friend Alla Evdokimova, a 23-year-old bartender.

They hit it off, and Altif showed her a note that Krasuk had written for his potential wife, vouching for the life she chose and explaining the religion.

The Altif family
The Altif family

"It read, 'Hello, my name is Alexandra and I’m living here for seven years, and everything is fine," Evdokimova recalled. "It helped me."

She and Altif were married in Ukraine a week later, then returned to Kiryat Luza on the mountain, where they are raising two children. Now fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, Evdokimova runs a nails and waxing salon in the nearby Palestinian city of Nablus.

"Azzam has a good heart, he is a good person, and he does everything so that my children and I will be happy," she said.

“When I was single, I used to come home and just talk to the walls,” Altif said.

Evdokimova’s life has its challenges. Her father and brothers live in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and on a recent trip back to Ukraine she could not visit their homes and instead met them on the mainland.

But it has also become easier for her to live among the Samaritans. She has brought over two Ukrainian friends to marry Samaritan men, and introduced Danfi to his girlfriend. Like Krasuk before her, Evdokimova helps the new arrivals settle in and learn the ancient rules of their new lives.

The situation has its pitfalls. Village elder Husni Cohen said he worries the foreign women could divorce and move away with their children. The Israeli owner of one matchmaking agency that works in Ukraine said he stopped offering services to Samaritans because he believes their isolated community and religious rituals are oppressive to women.

Samaritan elder Husni Cohen stands under a canopy of fresh fruit, a tradition that helps mark the community's Sukkot holiday.
Samaritan elder Husni Cohen stands under a canopy of fresh fruit, a tradition that helps mark the community's Sukkot holiday.

But Samaritans' marriage to foreigners may come naturally to Samaritans, who themselves span two worlds: They hold both Israeli and Palestinian identity documents, each has a name in Hebrew and Arabic, and they are fluent in the two languages.

Jameel Cohen owns the village’s liquor store, which sells to local Samaritans, Israeli settlers, and Palestinians from nearby areas. He said he was pleasantly surprised by the Ukrainians.

“There are women whose husbands didn’t manage -- not financially, not at work, not at life -- and they turned their men around,” he said. Since Evdokimova arrived, he said, her husband has become a regular at synagogue and a frequent dinner host.

In the apartment below Altif and Evdokimova, Danfi has prepared the home he hopes to share with his Ukrainian girlfriend.

There are comfortable beige couches in the living room, and a small canopy of pomegranates and lemons for the holiday. He is researching Hebrew-language courses in the nearby settlement of Ariel for his girlfriend. She has already added 80 Samaritans as friends on Facebook, he said.

“It’s not like the past when someone who wanted to marry a Ukrainian would go to an office, like a transaction,” Danfi said.

Danfi said that his girlfriend recently asked him about his romantic history. He told her he once dated an Israeli, but broke off the relationship when she refused to move to the West Bank. After that, the two stared at each other in silence for three minutes online, he said.

He wrote her, in translation, “The love I had, I forgot, because you are my true love.”

“I shed a tear at that moment,” he said. “And she did too.”