By RON CSILLAG, Special to The CJN.
Each day, Rabbi Lazer Danzinger of Toronto and Ottawa-based Rabbi Karen Soria cater to the spiritual and emotional needs of Canada’s men and women in uniform.
Philosophically, the two are poles apart: Rabbi Danzinger is a Chabadnik and Rabbi Soria is from the Reform tradition. But they agree that they have encountered some of their most interesting and satisfying work serving in the Forces.
In fact, Rabbi Danzinger, 54, has loved the experience so much that last summer he switched from the reserves and joined the regular forces for a six-year hitch.
Posted to Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden outside Barrie, Rabbi Danzinger is the Forces’ first full-time Jewish chaplain since World War II.
“Things are fantastic, so much so that I decided to transfer,” he told The CJN. “I’ve been very warmly received.”
(In 2007, Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn of Ottawa became the Forces’ first Jewish chaplain since the end of World War II. A reservist captain, he was attached to 28 Field Ambulance in Ottawa. However, the Forces say Rabbi Mendelsohn has been “released” from duty and did not elaborate.)
To re-qualify for the regular force, Rabbi Danzinger, also a captain, underwent a rigorous seven-week course in drills, marching, fieldcraft and use of a gas mask – but no firearms training.
The Geneva Conventions, he points out, define chaplains as non-combatants and prohibit them from carrying or firing a weapon. “But we are trained in how to put a gun on safety.”
Born and raised in Toronto, Rabbi Danzinger attended Associated Hebrew Schools and the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto before graduating from Ner Israel Yeshiva.
After 20 years in the computer business and service as a hospital and prison chaplain, he joined the Forces in 2008 originally attached to Army Reserves’ 25 (Toronto) Service Battalion.
“As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am especially appreciative of the rights and freedoms that Canada gives its citizens,” he said of his decision to join up. “To be able to live as a Jew freely without fear is something to be grateful for. So in gratitude, I want to give something back to this great country.”
At CFB Borden, he’s one of eight chaplains, including an imam. “I get along very well with him,” Rabbi Danzinger says. He’s assigned to base technical services, with about 1,000 personnel.
He’s encountered “not very many” Jews. “There are a few.” (The Forces do not reveal members’ religions).
The two rabbis are tasked with ministering to the spiritual needs of all Forces members, regardless of faith, including facilitating worship. But sometimes, Rabbi Danzinger is pleasantly surprised when a Forces member reveals he or she is Jewish. “They say, ‘I’m so happy to see you here.’ It makes them proud.”
The father of seven, two of them married, drives home to Toronto every Shabbat. There is no minyan on the base.
He would welcome a foreign posting, even to a war zone. “It would be a complete privilege to be deployed.”
Rabbi Danzinger pointed out that while Christian chaplains have access to supplies such as vestments, Bibles and the like, Jewish ones scramble for kippot and prayer books. But the Forces are slowly rectifying that. “They’re playing a little catch-up,” he said, “but they’re doing it.”
Rabbi Soria, a captain in her late 50s, also tallies some firsts. She’s the first female Jewish chaplain in the Canadian Forces; she was Australia’s first female rabbi, and she was the first female rabbi to serve with the United States Marines during a four-year tour in Okinawa. She spent 11 years as a U.S. Navy chaplain.
Chicago-born, she came to Canada in 2003 and joined the Reserves last year, assigned to 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Portage La Prairie, Man. Last summer, she transferred to 33 Combat Engineer Regiment in Ottawa.
Comparing Canada to the United States, “I really do find a better fit with the Canadian Forces, and the reason is a philosophical one and a sense of the mission,” she told The CJN. “The Canadian Forces, in my experience, really sees itself as a peacekeeping [force], and that can include peace-making. The U.S. forces, in my experience, see themselves much more as war-fighting.”
She addressed that theme more pointedly a few years ago in an interview with Jewish Woman magazine: “I don’t believe either the military or the [U.S.] leadership has focused on the differences between making war and building peace. That’s come into sharp focus in Iraq.” She parted company with the U.S. military because of its “lack of treatment of human beings with dignity and respect no matter what their background, role and personal lives.”
Typical duties for both chaplains involve not only spiritual matters but counselling, whether over strained marriages, relationship or money issues, substance abuse or just the stress of armed service. Sometimes, it’s just lending a sympathetic ear, or as Rabbi Soria says, about “life stuff.”
Neither has encountered antisemitism in the Forces.
“When you put on a uniform, people know you’re part of a family,” said Rabbi Danzinger. “That’s a great ice-breaker.”
Said Rabbi Soria: “Being a rabbi is a non-issue. I have been welcomed with enthusiasm and interest.”
And it’s a part-time job: she “parades with” her unit one evening a week (meaning the unit meets and trains at that time; sometimes there is an actual parade) and goes in another evening a week for administrative work and to talk with other officers. She’s one of 27 female chaplains in the Forces.
Since 2008, the mother of four has been the spiritual leader of Temple Shalom in Winnipeg, where she travels every three or four weeks. As well, she teaches at Temple Israel in Ottawa and at Ottawa Modern Jewish School.
One sure sign of the acceptance, indeed of the success, of Jews in the Canadian Forces is seen in the small things.
Rabbi Danzinger boasts that the Forces chaplain general has welcomed the rabbi’s proposal for a kippah that conforms to CADPAT (CAnadian Disruptive PATtern) standards.
In other words, a camouflage kippah.
“It would be a tremendous morale boost,” he says.