On Saturday morning, October 27, 2018, congregants met at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. During the service, a gunman entered the synagogue and opened fire with an assault rifle. The synagogue’s members had met to celebrate life; their synagogue became a scene of death.
In response to this horrific tragedy, vigils were held in many parts of Canada. The following Tuesday, my wife, Cathie, and I joined more than 1,000 people at Winnipeg’s Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. The service was simple and profoundly meaningful. Eleven candles were lit in honour of the victims. A children’s choir sang. Hebrew prayers were sung. The rabbis thanked those present for their support: “You have helped us to realize we are not alone.” As the service concluded, we stood to leave. A man turned to us and, with tears in his eyes, said: “Thank you for being here. I feel safe in your presence.” I stopped to consider his words. Jews have not always felt safe in the presence of Christians, nor of Canadians.
Recall some regretful moments in the history of the church, and of Canada. It didn’t take long for the early church to speak disparagingly of Jews. In the fourth century, the Council of Nicaea met to create an important confession of Christian faith, the Nicene Creed. Tragically, it also sought to disassociate the church from the Jewish community, calling Jews “this odious people.” During the Middle Ages, Jews were expelled from both England and Spain. In the 16th century, Martin Luther, to whom the church owes so much, also unleashed a written tirade against Jews late in his life called: “On the Jews and Their Lies.” He argued that synagogues and Jewish schools should be burned, that Jewish sacred texts be destroyed, and that Jews live in separate areas of the city. On November 9-10, 1938, thousands of synagogues were burned to the ground in Germany; copies of Luther’s tract were found close at hand. Sensing the approaching war in 1939, a ship called the St. Louis left Europe with close to 1,000 Jews seeking safety. This refugee ship was refused port in the Caribbean, New York and finally in Canada. The St. Louis returned to Europe where at least 254 of its passengers lost their lives in the Holocaust. Throughout much of western history, Jews have lived with suspicion, if not hostility, from their neighbours.
When we retired as Salvation Army officers, Cathie and I settled in Winnipeg, where I was invited to join the board of the Manitoba Multifaith Council. My years of service on this board have introduced me to the realities of anti-Semitism in our world. I have worked with the daughter of Holocaust survivors. It has also been my privilege as a Salvationist to pray at a bar mitzvah, and to be a reader at a Shoah service where the Holocaust is remembered. In recent years, I have joined with friends in Winnipeg’s Jewish community to privately sponsor Yazidi refugees. They realize their own story of genocide is being repeated with the Yazidis. My Salvationist colleagues in Winnipeg have joined in welcoming these refugees to our city; among other gestures they have provided beds and mattresses, and toques for Canadian winters.
There is a little-known story from our Salvation Army history. Colonel Stanley Preece was a British Salvation Army officer. When the war ended, Preece went to Eastern Europe with his wife and daughter to help the thousands of homeless youth and reunite them with their families. On one occasion, he came across a young Jewish girl in Germany and sought to reconnect her with her uncle in Holland. The necessary documents could not be secured, so Colonel Preece dressed this young Jew in his daughter’s Salvation Army uniform. They made it past the authorities and into Holland. After the war, Colonel Preece and his family moved to Canada. Years later, he was awarded the Officers Cross of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany and the Order of Canada by the Canadian government.
We live at a moment when a wave of anti-Semitism is sweeping our globe. Reasons for this are complex, but we engage this world as Salvationists. Let’s remember our history, and our core convictions. Let’s also imagine our Jewish neighbours shaking our hands with tears in their eyes: “Thank you for being here. We feel safe in your presence.” My hunch is that we, too, will sense tears in our own eyes.
Major Ray Harris is a retired Salvation Army officer. He attends Heritage Park Temple in Winnipeg.
Feature photo: © Diy13/iStock.com