By Florence Avakian
NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — In the bucolic setting of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, two outstanding students from Jerusalem’s Sts. Tarkmanchatz School joined two dozen American-Armenian students for the annual high school summer conferences. Nayiry Shahanian and Simon Khatchadourian, both 18 years old and born in Jerusalem’s Armenian convent, sat in the picturesque garden for a conversation with this writer.
“We were thrilled to make the journey to New York and take part in this rich and interesting program of Bible study, worship services, lectures, face-to-face communication and fun activities with the American-Armenian students,” they gushed.
This annual program started 10 years ago to bring students from Sts. Tarkmanchatz School by the Rev. Mardiros Chevian, the dean of St. Nersess Seminary. It enables young Armenian students to come to America to interact, learn about each others experiences, and strengthen their Armenian Christian faith.
This year’s main benefactors included Russell and Susan Kaishian (WI), and Neil and Renee Ferraro (MA). Also supporting the program were Gabriel and Sophia Ovanessian (NY), Gregory and Meline Toufayan (NJ), Vicken and Rosette Arslanian (NJ), Stephen and Kristina Findikyan (NY), Keith and Karyn Bilezerian (MA), and Glen and Kristin Dabaghian (NJ).
The two Sts. Tarkmanchatz students who both grew up in the convent of the Armenian Patriarchate in a “loving Armenian environment”, spoke glowingly about their educational life in which they have excelled. They had high praise for the school principal, the Very Rev. Norayr Kazazian.
“The school is his life. He was chosen for this role. He has made so many wonderful changes, including bringing in professionally certified teachers, renovating the school and its equipment, and increasing the number of donors and donations,” noted Simon. They are especially proud of their sparkling science lab, the new kitchen, the blackboards, and the desks and seats in every classroom.
“From an early age, courses in religion were emphasized,” related Simon. “In addition to intensive study in our own Christian faith, it was very important for us to understand the religions and rituals of both the Jews and Muslims. In our family lives and at school, we received a neutral upbringing. We were taught to love and respect all sides.”
The Sts. Tarkmanchatz School was established in 1929 and developed further during Bishop Guregh Kapikian’s service as its principal and has been rated as one of the highest-ranking schools in Israel, they revealed proudly.
“Father Norayr is the guardian of the school, and is continuing the sacred vigilance of Bishop Guregh whose statue has been placed in the auditorium. The school is not only very high in educational training, but the atmosphere is like a family, a protected and safe environment,” said Shahanian. “Especially during these last years, all the students have become so attached to each other.” Both teenagers have known each other since kindergarten.
“I wake up each morning to the bell sounds of worship services in St. James Armenian Cathedral,” reminisced Shahanian who lives with her family in a home that has a view of the Cathedral dome. “Everything is very close.” It takes her one minute to go from home to the Cathedral where her father is a deacon. “When I can, I go there and pray.”
Shahanian, who speaks four languages and defines herself as “kind, optimistic, happy, positive, strong-willed with a strong Christian faith,” hopes to become a kindergarten teacher or tour guide in Jerusalem. “I want to study and live in Jerusalem with my family. Jerusalem is like a magnet pulling you back. Once a year at Christmas, I go to Bethlehem and play drums,” she revealed, displaying a musical talent. Shahanian’s great-grandmother hailed from Dortyol. Her father was born in Gesaria, and moved to Istanbul, and her mother’s family is from Jordan. She has a 16-year old sister and has family members in the Middle East, Europe, Australia and the US.
Khatchadourian who calls himself “optimistic, iron-willed and always looking for opportunities in life”, with five languages under his belt, will be taking a “gap” year off to expand his driving skills and take singing lessons and music theory. His favorite composer is Mozart. His future includes studying linguistics at Hebrew University, then traveling to Germany to practice his knowledge of the language. His great-grandfather, a painter, fled Istanbul. His father, Aram, is a well-known tour guide in Jerusalem, and his mother was born in Bulgaria. Khatchadourian has a 19-year-old brother and an 11-year-old sister.
Both students are members of Homenetmen and Hoyechmen, and have traveled to Armenia with “Ari Doun” (Come Home). For Shahanian, who went a second time with her family, Armenia was “like heaven — the buildings, the land, the churches, the monuments,” she enthused. Khatchadourian added, “I was astounded. It was mind-boggling — the air, the pure water, the people. It felt like home.”
Though both Khatchadourian and Shahanian have traveled extensively — Khatchadourian to Europe, and Shahanian to the Middle East and Europe — both desire to eventually live in Jerusalem. They urge Armenians from all over to visit the ancient city, especially the Armenian Patriarchate. “It is something we love very much, and it always pulls you back,” said Shahanian, with Khatchadourian emphasizing, “and it is multi-cultural.”
And on this “unforgettable” trip to New York and the St. Nersess Seminary where they engaged with their teenage peers in worship, Bible study, and making “forever friends”, they both called it an “all encompassing experience. It was wonderful to meet people from different places, and practice our Armenian faith and identity with them. Being with them and learning from each other was like being one.”
Chevian, who has promoted and visited Jerusalem and the Armenian Patriarchate many times, said, “This endeavor each year brings me a great deal of satisfaction. Because of it, we have been able to connect young Armenian Christians of Jerusalem and America in a very special way. The benefit is definitely experienced by all of them. I thank God for the opportunity to make this happen.”