Chief Rabbi joins Archbishop of Canterbury on landmark Jerusalem visit

Chief Rabbi joins Archbishop of Canterbury on landmark Jerusalem visit

Ephraim Mirvis and Justin Welby visit the ancient city, praying at the Western Wall and going to Yad Vashem

Noga is a freelance reporter on Israel & Palestine

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, praying together.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, praying together.

Ephraim Mirvis served as something of a guide for his old friend Justin Welby during the first joint visit to Jerusalem of an Archbishop of Canterbury and a Chief Rabbi.

Meeting at the Old City’s Jaffa Gate on Wednesday, the two strolled towards the Jewish Quarter, where Mirvis pointed to the first flat he lived in with his wife, as newlyweds, and described the huge explosion heard when archeologists uncovered Hezekiah’s tunnel, now a gated site teeming with tourists.

“It dates back to the 8thcentury before the Common Era,” the rabbi mentioned, adding that the fact is “ironic, as UNESCO just passed another resolution denying Judaism’s connection to Jerusalem”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, accompanied by his wife, crossed the border into Israel from Jordan earlier in the day,  as part of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land lasting more than a week. According to aides, Welby invited the Chief Rabbi to accompany him on the Jewish segments of his day in Jerusalem.

The two men, whose friendship dates back decades, have an uncommon amount in common: both embarked on their married lives in Israel, both lost a child, and both became leaders of their faiths.

While the Mirvises lived in Jerusalem for the first two years of their marriage, the Welbys honeymooned in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, where Christians believe Jesus walked on water. Their tour includes a private return to the northern lakeside city.

A Jerusalem-based Anglican cleric, who accompanied Mirvis and Welby to the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem, described the visit as an “essential part of the Archbishop’s mission of reconciliation.”

In a few hours, Welby visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most important Catholic site in Jerusalem, the Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy site, and the al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

Both men were plainly  moved by the visit to Yad Vashem. The Archbishop lingered by a slender tree planted in memory of a British soldier, the incongruously named Charles Coward, who rescued hundreds of Jews at Auschwitz, asking many questions about the rescue of Jews in Europe.

Exiting the memorial to children killed in the Holocaust, Welby took time to compose himself before signing the Memorial Book. He wrote: “No strength of words, no horror of mind, no revenge can adequately reach the depth of human evil here described: neither can good intentions or fine thought replace the lost. But here is the beauty of human remembering set out by a people of learning.”

Mirvis expressed the hope that “our fragile and divided world will indeed achieve peace”, adding: “That will be the ultimate tribute for us to pay to the victims of the Shoah.”

‘A special spiritual moment together’

Seventy-five years after the wartime establishment of the British Council of Christians and Jews, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis told Jewish News that his unprecedented visit to Jerusalem alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury is symbolic of ever deepening ties between the Jewish and the Anglican communities.

“We spent a very meaningful day together,” he told Jewish News at the Western Wall plaza, having just concluded a joint prayer with the Archbishop. “Through being together in Jerusalem, and having that very special spiritual moment together, we want to send out a message that it is important for people to be in dialogue together,  to raise issues – sometimes there are challenging issues, and let’s discuss them as well.”

The world is so fractured, he said, “that we need a lot more harmony and understanding”.

Asked about growing anti-Semitism in the UK, the Chief Rabbi issued a plea to keep it in perspective. “We’re a thriving community,” he said, “we’re developing, more and more Jewish schools, more and more synagogues, a very strong bond with Israel, a lot of Jewish pride. In the midst of that, we are challenged by increasing anti-Semitism. It is a problem and it’s a growing problem, but it’s a problem that should be seen in the overall of a good and healthy situation.”

He said the “warm and friendly relationship” between him and the Archbishop should be seen as “a reflection of congenial ecumenical relations in the UK”.


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