Friday, November 6, 2015

He Brought Light to the City: A Tribute to Morris Zeidman

This fall, The Scott Mission will publish More Than Miracles, my new book on the story of this beloved downtown ministry:  "The Miracle on Spadina."  The book provides some very special insights from the late Elaine Zeidman Markovic, the daughter of its founders, Morris and Annie Zeidman.  But the first section focuses on the accomplishments of Elaine's remarkable father, Morris.

Morris Zeidman (1894-1964) was one of the most revered and visionary Hebrew Christians of the 20th century. In the spring of 1912, he arrived in Toronto from Poland, wandering through its teeming, poverty-stricken Jewish district, a penniless immigrant. No one could have foretold that he would rise from obscurity in one of the most WASP cities in North America to be acclaimed by his city and his country as “Canadian Citizen of the Year” half a century later.

How did Zeidman earn such respect? It's surprising that his primary identity was "your missionary to the Jewish people"—yes, that’s how he described himself frequently, and that was his original calling as a Presbyterian clergyman for almost 40 years. But he became best known as a leading public figure providing for the needy from the earliest days of the Depression and then creating one of Toronto’s great faith ministries to the poor, The Scott Mission.

Zeidman came to faith through another important figure—Rev. S.B. Rohold, the son of a rabbi, who was raised in Jerusalem. Rohold’s ministry in Toronto pioneered free medical care, prescription medicines, English instruction and practical assistance to the city’s Jewish immigrant community at the turn of the century. He created the Christian Synagogue, with a congregation that Rohold proudly identified as a “Presbyterian Hebrew Christian church.” As a Hebrew Christian pioneer, Rohold was elected in 1915 as the first leader of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America.

A sign in Yiddish proclaiming “The House of the Good Tidings of the Messiah of the Children of Israel” caught the attention of the 17 year-old immigrant Morris, lonely and seeking English lessons as he walked through Toronto’s Jewish district. He stepped inside, met Rohold and began his faith journey. A local pastor with a great heart for young people, Rev. Dr. John McPherson Scott, also nurtured Morris’s vision. With Scott’s prayerful support, the young man courageously completed high school courses, entered the University of Toronto and prepared for ministry at Toronto’s prestigious Knox College seminary, completing a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1925. (In 1920 Rohold left Toronto; called to Israel to serve in a new ministry in Haifa. Dr. Scott passed away in the same year.) The newly graduated Morris, together with his bride, Annie, whom he had met and worked with in the mission, officially took over the work.

As the effects of the 1929 Crash and the impact of the Depression began destroying livelihoods of men across the country, many climbed aboard railway boxcars, seeking work elsewhere. Many got off in Canada’s financial center—Toronto, walking north from city’s main train station into the area bounded by factories and warehouses—the old “Ward” area that was once the Jewish district.

Hungry, dispirited and sometimes in desperate need—they knocked on the door of the local mission. They often arrived at the back door during meal-times when Morris and Annie were sitting down to eat with their young children and the Zeidmans did not have the heart to refuse them.

Like many of the Jewish missions of the day, Morris’ mission had been founded on practical support for the poor. People came to them out of need at first, and then stayed because they found an unexpected blessing.  No religious commitment was ever expected in exchange for assistance.

In late October 1930, with winter fast approaching, Zeidman saw the growing number of men on the streets was going to be an urgent city problem. He wanted to start a soup kitchen but didn’t have the means. In the office of a local newspaper editor, John “Black Jack” Robinson of the Toronto Telegram, he was explaining these plans when a call came in from a local department store. They had leftovers from their Thanksgiving dinner: 130 gallons of turkey giblets. That was a cornerstone gift for a ministry that began to feed and clothe thousands of transients beginning in the Depression years—and still does today.

Zeidman was dedicated to prayer and faith. It’s often said he built his ministry one miracle at a time. One of the most touching stories found Morris on a train, praying that he might find favor with the owner of Canada’s leading department store, the T. Eaton Co. As he looked up, a gentleman had been seated at his dining car table. “Are you Mr. Eaton?” Zeidman asked. “Yes, Mr. Zeidman” came the reply. It was R.Y. Eaton, the president of the company. “What can I do for you?” It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.

Sadly, over time, the leaders of the local church presbytery became least supportive of Morris’ work. He was often subjected to nitpicking complaints about his expenses—largely because he raised such large amounts of support, which he generously gave to those for whom it was intended, the poor. His own family lived in barely adequate housing, but Zeidman was renowned for scrupulously directing gifts to those who were desperately needy.

In 1941, as winter again approached, he gave up his position and founded, with Annie, The Scott Mission. The work had long been named the Scott Institute for his mentor, Rev. Dr. Scott. Now that name would live on as an independent ministry to the poor. The work grew and eventually became one of Toronto’s best-known outreaches to the poor with the slogan: “The Gospel of Hope to All.”

An aspect of Zeidman’s work that is less well remembered was his startling bravery in a time when the scourge of anti-Semitism was still common in Canadian church life. He personally experienced this when he brought new Jewish believers to church with him. Christians didn’t want to take communion with Jews.  His sister, a devoted believer, was refused entrance into a local ladies’ Christian organization. In 1935, one of the leading evangelical pulpits in the city invited North America’s most virulent anti-Semitic Protestant preacher, Rev. Gerald B. Winrod of Wichita, Kansas. Morris was outside that church (which today faithfully supports the mission) leading the protests.

Begninning in the 1930s, Zeidman began actively to promote the concept of indigenous, independent Hebrew Christian churches. That dream was not realized in his lifetime. However, the modern Messianic movement brings that vision to life and his grandson, Andrew, is one of the contemporary Messianic leaders in Toronto.

He also served as General Secretary of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America from 1934 to1944. After the war, he made a heart-breaking return to his native Poland, dispensing aid as possible and listening to the many stories of cruelty that had destroyed 6 million of his people, including much of his own family. On his return, he earnestly helped many Holocaust survivors who came to Toronto.

Zeidman’s success was built on qualities of a sterling character. People trusted him. But he also knew how to promote the work—through weekly radio programs, streetcar advertisements, newspaper fundraisers and strong visibility in the community.  His weekly ministry updates in the local newspapers, eventually called "The Good Samaritan Corner," played a key role in keeping both donors and the wider public aware of the people he served and their needs.  In More Than Miracles, selections from those columns over the decades show the heart and passion for people that were evident as a powerful witness of God's unfailing love for the poor, the transients and the suffering.

Before his death in 1964, Zeidman received multiple honors from his city and even the church that had once snubbed his ministry. One of the most remarkable of these was Canada's "Citizen of the Year" in 1961. He was particularly pleased to receive an honorary doctorate by his seminary and, in response, granted them the gift of a Torah scroll which still sits in the center of its great library. Many evenings, as a student there, I admired the Torah scroll and thought of his legacy. As a student I also wrote an extended paper on the Scott Mission (it has been referenced in other scholarly research on the mission) and met Morris’ son, Alex. Tragically, Alex Zeidman passed away in 1986, but members of the Zeidman family continue to take a leading role in the Mission.

Today, the Scott Mission is a remarkable facility: expansive, with great storage rooms and large kitchens. Hundreds pass through its doors each week receiving help in a variety of languages. Hundreds more receive instruction in the Bible in their mother tongues. All are welcome and the ministry continues to exude the vision and care of the founders.

The book includes many selections of poetry from Annie Zeidman and Elaine Markovic, but I’ll close with a quote from one of Annie’s poems that exemplifies the spirit of their ministry:

Bethlehem is far away, far, and long ago…
But just down the street, perhaps around the corner,
Is Bethlehem in poverty, Gethsemane in tears,
Nazareth misunderstood, Calvary unpitied—
May we dare to seek Him there?
Friend, let us go!


1 comment:

  1. Brother Ben. I just caught wind of this post and it has brought me to tears. My hearts desire is to see the Jewish people receive Jesus as their long awaited Messiah. When I was at Light of Messiah, I felt the three plus years I spent there was a waste because nothing was happening and no Jews were being evangelized. But thanks to being reacquainted with organizations such as Chosen People Ministries and New Covenant Forum, I am starting to sense that revival is happening among the Jewish people to receive Jesus. I've toiled to the point of exhaustion talking to Jew and Gentile about my faith and I felt that the message is on deaf ears. But God is telling me to carry onward with hope. Thanks for everything and Shalom Alechem.

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