Posted by Mark Paredes
Israeli Ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem likes to think outside the box. While serving as Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles, he initiated outreach to the region’s Latino and Christian communities, including the Mormon Church. When he hired me as his press attaché, Yuval told me to behave myself or he’d have to report me to Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, with whom he met every year. During his diplomatic service in Los Angeles, three Mormons were hired as consulate employees or interns, a Mormon conducted the bilingual Yom Hazikaron memorial service for the Israeli community at Yuval’s request, and a Mormon emceed LA’s Israel Festival for the first time. A timely e-mail I received this week shows that the ambassador’s admiration for Mormons (which is certainly mutual) has led to the hiring of more Latter-day Saints to serve on his staff, this time as representatives of Israel in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji.
Greg Scott and his Australian wife, Tara, were living in Hawaii when she expressed her desire to move back to her homeland. They heard through the Mormon grapevine of an opening at the Israeli Embassy, and Ambassador Rotem and Greg hit it off immediately during the interview. Yuval hired Greg to work as his chief of staff and asked Tara to serve as his personal assistant. Having a non-Israeli husband and wife working in the same embassy had apparently never been done before, but anyone who knows Yuval is not surprised that he was able to make it happen.
For Israel’s 60th anniversary celebration, the ambassador asked Tara to be the face of the embassy and emcee a high-profile event at Parliament House with the Prime Minister, members of Parliament, and leaders from the Jewish communities in Australia. Last year Greg accompanied Yuval to Israel and assisted him in hosting an official Australian delegation headed by current Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Greg’s impression of the visit? “I sat in on meetings with President Shimon Peres, Tzipi Livni, and other cabinet ministers. It was an unbelievable experience and Israel was simply a beautiful place to visit.” In keeping with Mormon custom, Tara has left the embassy in order to raise her new baby. Greg continues to serve the Jewish state proudly, and Mormons continue to be proud of him and Tara for representing us with distinction.
In Los Angeles alone, I know of Mormons who are working or have worked for the Israeli Consulate General, ARMDI, ORT, a leading Reform synagogue, The Jewish Federation, and an ultra-Orthodox school. There are undoubtedly more. Clearly, if Mormons are interested in reaching out to other faiths in order to build relationships of trust, the Jewish community reaches back in a big way, be it in California or Canberra.
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June 24, 2010 | 1:24 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
As I prepare to deliver pro-Jewish speeches in two eastern cities this weekend, I realized how fortunate I am to have such capable, caring colleagues on the LDS Church’s regional Jewish Relations Committee, which I advise. When I was the director of the committee, I called a young couple to serve with us. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce them on this blog.
Rachel Payne is a classical soprano and actress who studied voice at the Manhattan School of Music (which she likes to point out is across the street from the Jewish Theological Seminary). She has been involved with music since the age of 7 and currently sings in the choir of a major synagogue in Los Angeles. Here, in her own words, is why she enjoys working with the Jewish community:
“My involvement with Jews and Israel began at an early age. My parents went to the Holy Land without me when I was four years old and I was livid. I had been told so many Bible stories and seen the film The Ten Commandments so many times, and I wanted to go. When my parents returned, one of the gifts they bought for the family was a Hanukkah menorah. I remember that my mother took the time to light the candles and tell us about the tradition surrounding the holiday’s importance.
“I have always had a love and an interest in the traditions and the culture of the Jewish people as well as the landscape and history of Israel. So a unique and exciting destination for my honeymoon seemed appropriate. I married a man with a similar interest in the Jews and Israel, and not long after that trip we began serving in the Jewish community as liaisons between the Jewish and LDS people. I often find that it is through music that I have been able to make friendships, as my training is in classical music, and reading and singing in Hebrew is similar to the singing I do in Romance languages. I love the Jewish people, as I feel there is a forthrightness in the culture that allows for understanding and growth.”
The lucky man who shared this Israeli honeymoon experience with her is John Daniel (J.D.) Payne, a Yalie who is a screenwriter. It’s not hard to see what Rachel saw in him:
“I have had a life-long respect and admiration for the Jews and the special place they hold in the eye of the Lord as his covenant people. My respect evolved from theological to personal when, while living in Rome, I developed a relationship with an extremely well-educated Jew who became a friend and mentor. He told me I did not yet understand The Book of Mormon, the scriptural keystone of my faith, because, in his words, ‘I had not yet learned to think like a Jew.’ That remark set me on the path of learning I have now been on for roughly a decade.
“I was fortunate to marry a woman whose love for and interest in Jews matched my own. We honeymooned in Israel, which was, for more than one reason, a life-changing event. Standing at the Kotel on a wintry shabbat evening, I was deeply moved by what I saw. Here were Jews from around the world, all of different levels of observancy, celebrating their faith in a land that is theirs—not just spiritually, but politically as well. I had a deep conviction burned into my heart in that moment of how important it is to protect and preserve this, a place Judah can rightfully call home.
“After returning from home, my wife quickly became involved in working to further the ties between organized Latter-day Saint and Jewish communities in Los Angeles. We have served actively in the Jewish community, she (a professional opera singer) as a singer in several Jewish choirs, and I as a speaker for the Anti-Defamation League. We have organized meetings between rabbis and our own leaders; sent rabbis to Salt Lake City to learn about how Mormons go about engaging in tikkun olam; brought rabbis to our congregations to teach our people more about Judaism; held celebrations of LDS- Jewish friendship at both the Israeli consulate and Jewish Federation… and the list goes on. It brings me great happiness that, by those who know us in the Jewish Community, we are viewed not with suspicion, but as brothers. Fostering that perception and helping it to continue to spread is one of my life’s works.”
June 22, 2010 | 1:07 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
No one is, or ever could be, excluded from the circle of God’s love or the extended arms of His Church, for we are all His beloved sons and daughters. As President Hinckley said: “Our hearts reach out to those who struggle with feelings of affinity for the same gender. We remember you before the Lord, we sympathize with you, we regard you as our brothers and sisters”—God Loveth His Children, official LDS Church pamphlet
“The attitude of our tradition and of Reform Judaism toward homosexuals is clear… Judaism places great emphasis on family, children and the future, which is assured by a family… we canot accommodate the relationship of two homosexuals as a ‘marriage’ within the context of Judaism, for none of the elements of qiddushin (sanctification) normally associated with marriage can be invoked for this relationship. A rabbi cannot, therefore, participate in the ‘marriage’ of two homosexuals.”—Responsum, Central Conference of American Rabbis, October 1985
“Those who advocate homosexual marriage have not, in the opinion of our majority, met their burden of proof. That is, their arguments do not succeed in overcoming the opposition to this practice found in both the Jewish and the Western traditions…While we Reform Jews have departed from traditional practice in many areas, we continue to ‘abhor’ virtually all of the sexual prohibitions listed in Leviticus 18 and 20 as destructive of the Jewish conception of a life of holiness and morality…[To sanctify a same-sex marriage] would be a revolutionary step, one which would sunder us from all Jewish tradition, including our own, down to the most recent times.”—Responsum, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1996
I went to see the movie “8:The Mormon Proposition” on opening night in West Hollywood, a gay enclave in Los Angeles. Most of the 50 or so moviegoers were same-sex couples, and I was curious to observe their reactions to the anti-Mormon film. I didn’t have long to wait. The documentary’s opening scenes featured two young ex-Mormon men describing their courtship and eventual wedding in San Francisco on the first day that gays could legally marry in California. As they described their joy at finally being able to marry the person they loved after years of rejection, alienation, and heartache, the sounds of sniffles and muffled sobs filled the theater. Clearly their story had hit a nerve with the people around me, who undoubtedly had their own stories of rejection to share. This poignant moment alone was well worth the ticket price. I was also touched by the last part of the film, which examined the miserable lives of some gay teens in Utah. Unfortunately, the disingenuous “cry for an open dialogue” that appears on the film’s posters is likely to go unheeded by Mormons, who will understandably take offense at the film’s biased and dishonest portrayal of LDS beliefs and attitudes towards gays.
Full disclosure: if you had asked me before the Prop 8 campaign which issues I cared most about, gay marriage would not have made my top 50 list. Come to think of it, it still wouldn’t. A person’s sexual preference has always been irrelevant to me and, I suspect, to most Mormons as well. Like all Mormons I know, I oppose discrimination against gays in education, housing, and employment. I also support the designation of gays as a protected group for the purposes of hate crimes legislation (another Mormon who did was former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, who co-sponsored a hate crimes inclusion bill for gays with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy). When the President of the LDS Church, a man whom I regard as a modern Moses, asked Church members in California to contribute their time and means to the Prop 8 campaign, I dutifully made a contribution, emceed a town hall meeting on Prop 8, arranged a few interfaith meetings, discussed our theology with a journalist at the request of a local Mormon leader, and generally gave little thought to gay marriage until Election Day, when I went online from South Africa to view the national and statewide results. It wasn’t until gay activists stormed the Mormon Temple in Los Angeles a few days later that the issue became a front burner one for me.
Now for full disclosure of LDS beliefs on homosexuality. [Note to “8” producers: if you’re going to belittle our beliefs, at least make sure that you accurately state them. Given all of the ex-Mormons involved in your project, I have to conclude that your distortion of our theology was deliberate]. Like many faiths, including Judaism, the LDS Church does not take a position on the cause(s) of sexual orientation. Mormons are free to believe that homosexuality is innate, a choice, a predisposition, or all three. Based on my discussions with gays, I firmly believe that in almost all cases they are either born with same-sex attraction or develop it at a very early age. I’ve found that people who believe otherwise usually have had few if any meaningful interactions with gays. I’d be willing to bet serious money that most Mormons in California agree with me.
In addition, Mormons do not believe that having homosexual feelings is sinful, so long as there is no accompanying sexual expression of those feelings (the identical restriction is placed on unmarried straights). Gays who remain chaste can and do serve in callings in the Church, worship in our temples, teach Sunday School, and enrich the lives of their fellow members. You won’t get this from the film, but unlike some other conservative Christians, Mormons are not in the business of condemning others to hell or pronouncing God’s judgments upon them. God alone will judge us, and we leave it up to Him to determine the final disposition of a soul. Finally, I am unaware of a religious belief system that is so diametrically opposed to homophobia. We believe that everyone who has been or will be born on earth is literally a spirit child of God, our brother or sister. We believe that we all lived together with God before this life, fought on the side of good against evil in the War in Heaven, and chose to come to earth. Needless to say, these fundamental beliefs leave absolutely no room for hatred of others, regardless of their race, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or religion. A Mormon bigot should be an oxymoron, and Mormons who hate gays are hypocrites. Am I denying that there are Mormon homophobes? Of course not. Any organization of 14 million members is bound to have self-righteous bigots in its ranks, and we do have our share. However, it is deceitful to attempt to portray these people as representing the majority of straight Mormons, who regard gays as their spiritual siblings.
One major flaw in the film is the lack of context for the LDS Church’s long-standing opposition to gay marriage and promotion of gay relationships. To hear the anti-Prop 8 folks talk, the Mormon Church seems to be obsessed with gays. In fact, the Church opposes all sexual expression outside of male-female marriage, including pornography, adultery, fornication, and homosexual relationships, all of which it considers to be serious sins. Most of these practices do not have public advocates. There is no American Association of Adulterers, for example. [If there were, you can bet that the Church would oppose its efforts to promote infidelity]. However, there is an organized gay lobby, and while the Church has consistently opposed gay marriage, it has not opposed gays’ efforts to secure employment, housing, or educational rights (as a church that truly hated gays would have done). It might surprise some readers to learn that modern Mormon scriptures (The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price), which strongly denounce sexual immorality, do not mention homosexuality by name. While I have heard plenty of sermons advocating chastity, I have yet to hear one that singles out sexually active gays. Truth be told, the sexual sin that is denounced in stronger terms than any other also has an organized lobby, albeit one with a lower profile: pornography is harshly condemned by LDS leaders, and anti-pornography groups always count Mormons among their ranks.
The desire of gays to marry makes perfect sense. On a certain level I’m envious of those who have found a life partner, something I have yet to do. It also makes sense that gays would regard marriage as a civil right, which explains their outrage over the Prop 8 vote. If I thought that millions of Californians were actively conspiring to deny civil rights to their fellow citizens, I’d be marching in the streets as well. That said, I cannot empathize with the bigots in the gay community who attempt to portray people of faith who oppose gay marriage as homophobic haters. This is nonsense. As the above quotes show, even the leading rabbis of the Reform movement (the most liberal of Judaism’s three major movements) were opposed to performing Jewish same-sex wedding ceremonies until 2000, when they stopped citing Jewish law and tradition in their responsa on the subject, appealing instead to a sense of “justice,” “human dignity” and civil rights. During the Prop 8 public debate, every Orthodox rabbi who publicly cited Jewish law was criticized by a Reform counterpart who used entirely secular arguments. Were major Reform rabbis who opposed Jewish sanctification of gay marriages until this decade all a bunch of homophobes? Are Orthodox Jews seething with hatred against gays because they insist on following the dictates of Jewish law and tradition? How exactly does violating the Torah’s sexual prohibitions enhance human dignity? Is there an example in the Hebrew Bible or Talmud to support this? People whose deeply-held religious beliefs are incompatible with gay marriage deserve better than to be tagged with puerile labels by people holding a different point of view.
Far from encouraging dialogue, the documentary left me with a feeling of frustration and sadness. Unfortunately, this is an issue on which the two sides will never begin to agree. In the aftermath of Prop 8, a gay pastor and I set up a meeting of gay religious leaders and their LDS counterparts to see whether we could start a dialogue. The Mormons were unprepared for the raw emotion on display, and the meeting quickly fell apart. The low point came when an impassioned gay rabbi threw his marriage certificate down on the table and invited the Mormons to tear it up, then invoked his parents’ suffering in a concentration camp in an ill-considered effort to justify his marriage to another man. We were all speechless. While the LDS leaders tried to emphasize their warm feelings towards gays, all the people across the table wanted to discuss was the violation of their “civil rights.” They even tried to bring up the “separation of church and state” red herring. As we pointed out, no Mormon congregation in the state had done nearly as much to promote our cause as gay churches and synagogues had done to promote theirs. Unless they wanted to disenfranchise Mormons, Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, Muslims, and other Prop 8 supporters, they should admit that we have as much right as they do to promote our values and to vote accordingly. While tax-exempt religious organizations are not allowed to sponsor political candidates, they can certainly encourage their members to support initiatives that enshrine their values into law. The church/state separation principle has to do with government endorsement or prohibition of religion, not with the right of churches to support moral causes.
That the LDS Church was singled out for scrutiny by election officials responding to a targeted complaint doesn’t bother me in the least. After all, if we’re willing to raise tens of millions of dollars for a cause, we should be willing to take the heat from our opponents when they lose. If we fund the commercials, even indirectly, then we’re responsible for their content. However, the threats to Mormons’ jobs and “outing” of their Prop 8 contributions are less justifiable. I was the target of such efforts, and am pleased to report that Jews from several movements defended me when bigots tried to get me fired. Most of my defenders disagreed with me on gay marriage, but they were first and foremost opposed to intolerance.
I have a final thought. Mormons would do well to make an extra effort to combat anti-gay bigotry in our community. It is intolerable to think that a “good” Mormon parent would disown his child because of her sexual orientation, regardless of whether she is chaste. It is also wrong for a Mormon to condemn gays as people or to regard them as anything less than God’s children created in His image. One of the questions that is asked of members who wish to enter our temples is the following: “Is there anything in your conduct relating to members of your family that is not in harmony with the teachings of the Church?” How can a parent who disowns his child for being gay qualify for a temple recommend? We all have things we can work on in our lives, and we do not have to condone people’s lifestyles in order to make them feel welcome at our services and activities. Jesus Christ loved everyone, and we have an obligation to do so as well. I long for the day when a Mormon’s anti-gay feelings will be seen as a severe character defect instead of a slight eccentricity. I know that members of my stake (= diocese) are actively looking for service projects that they can perform with local gay organizations, and we hope to identify one or two ASAP. We don’t have to agree on gay marriage in order to work together to improve the world. While it’s relatively easy to splice together anti-Mormon clips and lash out at the Church, the real work of promoting dialogue is a lot harder—and ultimately more rewarding. I am optimistic that there are members of the gay community who are as committed to promoting understanding as “8”‘s producers are to undermining it.
June 18, 2010 | 1:01 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
Is Helen Thomas a Presbyterian?
One could be forgiven for wondering this after reading “Breaking Down the Walls,” a lengthy report on the Israeli/Palestinian dispute by the Presbyterian Church’s Middle East Study Committee that will be presented for a sustaining vote next month at the church’s General Assembly in Minneapolis. I had hoped that a committee dedicated to studying current events in the Middle East would survey the political/human rights situation throughout the region, but it chose to focus exclusively on Israel. For any Mormon who doubts the wisdom of her church’s policy of political neutrality, it is a must read.
I had high hopes for the report, whose authors claim to be “entrusted as ‘ambassadors of Christ’” with a voice “which is priestly, prophetic, and pastoral.” Their mission is a lofty one: “[W]e are compelled to speak pastorally to ourselves as a denomination and our partners in the region, and prophetically to other powers engaged in this ongoing conflict. We do believe that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) will once again speak with a clear, priestly, prophetic, and pastoral voice.” Furthermore, this prophetic voice would bring “present realities together in a way that gives honor and glory to Christ.” Mormons love prophets, and I couldn’t wait to read what modern-day Presbyterian prophets have to say about a region that is dear to my heart. The report is problematic on many levels, but its fatal flaw is its authors’ failure to remember an important truth that is boldly stated in their own report: “Prophets and pastors are called first and foremost to truth telling.”
Sadly, there is no truth telling in the following statement: “We still see the [Israeli] occupation as the major obstacle to regional stability.” There are two major wars currently underway in the Middle East. Was America’s invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan caused by Israel’s occupation? The bloodiest conflict in the region’s modern history was the Sudanese Civil War, featuring the mutual slaughter of Muslims and Christians followed by Muslim-on-Muslim atrocities in Darfur. What exactly did Israelis have to do with these fratricidal wars? The second-worst slaughter in the modern Middle East was the Armenian Genocide, which occurred decades before the establishment of Israel. Are Jews in the West Bank responsible for the enmity between Turks and Armenians, or Turks and Kurds for that matter? Number three on our list is the Iran-Iraq War. Does anyone believe that Jewish settlers in Hebron caused the centuries-old Shiite/Sunni or Persian/Arab divides? Ditto for the Algerian Civil War, the Lebanese Civil War, the Yemeni Civil War (which may soon reignite), etc. Anyone who seriously believes that Shiites, Sunnis, Turks, Kurds, Druze, Maronite Christians, Alawites, Persians, Arabs, Copts, and Berbers would be living in greater harmony if only there were no Jews in Judea is obviously bereft of both the spirit of prophecy and common sense. I wish that the governments of the region truly cared more about the Palestinians, but their actions show that they don’t. In addition, Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip have emboldened Hizbollah and Hamas, making the region more, not less, unstable. There may be good reasons for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, but enhancing regional stability certainly isn’t one of them.
The biased report goes on to make an obscene analogy that has no place in a prophetic paper that purports to give honor and glory to Christ. The “psycho-traumas” of the Holocaust and the “Nakba” (“catastrophe,” referring to the establishment of Israel) are listed side-by-side, though the report dutifully says they “cannot be compared, nor should they be allowed to compete with one another.” I’ll say. In Europe, six million innocent Jewish citizens of various countries were gassed, burned, tortured, killed and raped by an anti-Semitic totalitarian state. They and their leaders did absolutely nothing to bring on this genocide, which was actively supported by Arab leaders like Amin al-Husseini, the Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the Palestinian Arabs who befriended Hitler and would later be indicted for war crimes by Yugoslavia (he fled to Egypt to escape indictment at Nuremberg). His relative, Yasser Arafat al-Husseini, shared his Nazi mentality and would go on to lead the Palestinian movement for decades. The prophetic report inexplicably mentions in the same paragraph a competing trauma: “the forced displacement of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 from their ancestral homeland by the Israel Haganah.” This is a moral outrage.
To begin with, it must be stated loudly and clearly that Palestinians are not a historical people like Armenians and Kurds. They have never had a country and do not have an “ancestral homeland.” Any mention of “Palestinian” before the establishment of Israel in 1948 referred to a Jew, not an Arab. Arabs were simply called Arabs. Indeed, birth certificates issued by the Ottoman and British Mandate authorities for Jews listed their nationality as either “Jewish” or “Palestinian.” Arab babies were Arabs, not “Palestinians.” Only two censuses were taken in Palestine by the British government, in 1922 and 1931. Assuming that the Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the area were Arabs, there were 659,000 Arabs in Palestine in 1922 and 851,000 in 1931, just 9 years later. Natural growth of a population that size cannot account for an increase of 192,000 Arabs in 9 years. When Israel was created 17 years after the last census, it’s safe to say that the Arab population of Palestine included hundreds of thousands of people whose families had lived in the area for many decades (even centuries) as well as hundreds of thousands of recent arrivals. While contemporary Palestinian Arabs have every right to refer to themselves as “Palestinians” and to demand a state of their own, they can’t invent a narrative by claiming to be a historical people.
In 1948, the Jews in Palestine declared a state on territory that had been allocated to them by a UN resolution. The next day, five Arab armies attacked the new nation in order to kill Jews, not to establish another Arab state (again, there was no concept at the time of a stateless Palestinian people). The Arabs in Palestine actively supported this genocidal war, and during the fighting many of them fled or were forced to flee their homes. Unlike Holocaust victims, who could have done nothing to prevent their annihilation, the Palestinian Arabs, their leaders and the Arab armies were complicit in the war to exterminate the Jews in Palestine: had they not attacked the Jewish state, there would have been no Arab refugees. Had they won, there would have been no more Jews. By the grace of God, the Jews prevailed, and the Arabs have never forgiven them for winning. Hundreds of thousand of Jews were expelled from Arab countries during this period, and Israel absorbed them instead of allowing them to languish in refugee camps for decades. Jordan occupied East Jerusalem, expelled its Jews (many of whom had lived there for decades), and destroyed its synagogues. To compare the fate of the Arab refugees, whose side lost a genocidal war that they and their Nazi leader supported, to the victims of the Nazi genocide is almost unforgivable. Having visited both Auschwitz and Palestinian refugee camps, I know that one question suffices in order to understand the difference between these monuments to human misery: what brought these people here?
Though it is led by a prophet, the LDS Church remains neutral in political conflicts, choosing instead to focus on the spiritual development of its members in 176 countries. It is a fast-growing church of nearly 14 million members, 6 million of whom live in the United States. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), on the other hand, professes to be guided by the spirit of prophecy as it declares “truths” about political disputes in the Middle East to the world. It should come as no surprise that the church has lost 500,000 members in the last decade, leaving only 2 million Presbyterians in the U.S. I fervently hope that this misleading report will be rejected by the General Assembly in a few weeks and that its authors will find more productive uses for their time. One suggestion might be to study carefully the words of actual prophets in the Bible. Once you see what real prophets have written, it becomes easier to spot impostors.
June 14, 2010 | 11:56 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
I gave a speech tonight to volunteers at the Mormon Temple in Los Angeles, one of the most pro-Jewish groups imaginable. One of the attendees was the great-grandson of LDS apostle Orson Hyde, who dedicated the Land of Israel for the gathering of the Jews in 1841, and he affirmed that his ancestor’s love for Jews has been passed down in his family’s genes. Another man told us that a Jewish woman had called the temple recently to reserve it for her son’s bar mitzvah, since it was the largest temple in town. Now that’s a celebration I’d love to see.
The setting for the speech reminded me of the one Jewish practice that still makes me uneasy at times. Our meeting was held in the utility room of the temple apartments. No donor name was attached to the room or the complex. By way of contrast, yesterday I attended a gathering at the Bernard Milken Community Campus in West Hills, which is the Valley office of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, headquartered at the Goldsmith Center on Wilshire Boulevard. Jews are well-known for their philanthropy, and I admire their generosity. However, when I am asked by Mormons why many Jews seek public recognition of their donations, especially those made for religious purposes, I struggle to produce an answer.
While there are a few Mormon millionaires whose names are prominently associated with institutions they support (e.g., BYU’s Marriott School of Management), they are very much the exception, not the rule. Most buildings at BYU, like the university itself, are named for prominent LDS Church leaders and educators. The endowed chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University is named for former Church President Howard W. Hunter, a past president of the Pasadena Stake who in his youth attended Mormon services in a synagogue. Mormons tithe 10% of their income to the Church, and have no say in how the money is spent. Ditto for fast offerings, which they are asked to give every month in order to help the Church take care of the needy. Our temples bear the names of the cities and countries in which they are located, and our chapels are named for the wards (congregations) that meet in them. There is no membership fee to join a ward.
Synagogue membership fees and high holiday ticket sales seem perfectly logical to me. After all, if you don’t tithe people, the money has to come from somewhere. I also understand the desire to honor someone’s memory through a donation, particularly if he/she was a victim of the Holocaust or terrorism. It is the desire of living persons to honor themselves by giving money that strikes me as unseemly. I will never forget the first time I entered a synagogue’s sanctuary and discovered that many seats had been purchased by wealthy members of the congregation, many of whose names also lined the hallways of the temple. In its most extreme form, this craving for public recognition for one’s personal philanthropy is personified by Donald Sterling, the megalomaniacal owner of the LA Clippers who ensures that ads featuring photos of him and his charitable donees appear every day in the Los Angeles Times.
Though it would certainly be erroneous to assume that all or even most Jews are afflicted with varying degrees of “Sterlingitis,” there is no question that public recognition of personal religious philanthropy is much more common among Jews than Latter-day Saints. The best explanation for this practice was given by a prominent Jewish donor on the West Coast: “When I give a significant amount of money to a synagogue, I want to state publicly that I am a Jew who recognizes the importance of supporting our community and our faith.” While a Mormon can take satisfaction in his voluntary donations every time he sees a temple or chapel, there is usually no central authority that will build a synagogue. As a result, some congregants may want the world to know that they cared enough to sacrifice for its construction. Sometimes they choose to call even more attention to themselves by inviting friends to dinners, banquets, and other events where they are honored for giving money. Given the good work that synagogues and other Jewish religious institutions do, it’s easy to overlook the ego massaging involved in fundraising for them. However, those hagiographic newspaper ads have got to go.
June 10, 2010 | 12:26 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
Why isn’t Israel’s PR better? Last Monday I gave a briefing on the Middle East to members of a synagogue men’s group, and that question seemed to be on everyone’s mind. Why can’t Israel put some of its much-touted brainpower to use on the winning-hearts-and-minds front? Israel’s public defenders confront many challenges, some of which are also faced by Mormons who attempt to educate others about polygamy and their church.
I happen to agree with Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who recently observed that the problem with Israel’s PR is not a lack of competence or will on the Israeli side but a growing sophistication on the part of its foes. Three decades ago, no one was running well-orchestrated media campaigns against Israel. As the recent flotilla incident showed, modern technology and social media have allowed Israel’s many critics to unite and recruit as never before. Sadly, the rabbi who posted Helen Thomas’s anti-Semitic rant online revealed today that he has already received thousands of hate e-mails.
Continuity in government policies is another problem for Israel’s PR machine. When a coalition government can be brought down any day of the week by a no-confidence vote, and any peace process-related position taken by one prime minister can be changed by his successor, it’s hard to justify investing a great deal of time and effort to defend a policy that may not be in effect next year. Just ask someone who loudly made the case to one and all before 2005 that Israel absolutely had to stay in Gaza for security reasons. How do you think he felt after Israel’s government showed the world in that year that it disagreed with him?
By way of contrast, the Arab/Palestinian narrative has been unequivocal, clear, and consistent. Palestinian leaders are essentially saying the same things now that they were 25 years ago, and their demands are nearly identical. Whether or not one accepts all of their claims, it’s hard to deny that it is much easier to build a PR campaign around a consistent message.
The mainstream Mormon Church has not sanctioned the practice of polygamy for 120 years, yet many people around the world continue to associate the two. Just as Israel’s positions are often harder to explain than Arab ones, it is harder to explain the Mormon Church’s nuanced position on polygamy than it is to simply say that since it was once practiced by the church’s leaders, it should be considered part and parcel of the modern church. In 1890 the LDS Church discontinued polygamy, though it did not disavow it (i.e., it did not condemn the prior practice of polygamy by church leaders). The basic question for the church is not whether polygamy is inherently “right” or “wrong,” but whether it is authorized by God (which would implicitly make it “right” for certain people living at a certain time). Just as we believe that God authorized Abraham, Jacob and David to marry more than one wife, we believe that for several decades in the 19th century our church leaders were authorized by God to enter into polygamous marriages. In 1890 God revoked this authorization through a revelation given to the president of the church, and we do not currently practice polygamy. It has not been a part of Mormon practice for 120 years, and members of the church who marry more than one spouse today are excommunicated. This is a good thing: as a frustrated bachelor, I’m grateful that I only have to find one wife, not two.
In the end, both Israel’s supporters and Mormon defenders of the faith have to take the initiative to define their positions before others do so. A lack of continuity in government or church policies, real or perceived, makes it difficult at times to explain policies and beliefs that do not readily lend themselves to sound bites. However, I know that both communities are more than up to the challenge. If the men on Monday night are at all representative of Israel’s PR foot soldiers, their cause will never lack passion or ideas.
World Cup predictions (first day):
Mexico-South Africa (June 11): Coming off a decisive win against world power Italy, Mexico is a confident, much-improved team that has beaten several African sides this year. South Africa is playing at home before a supportive, vuvuzela-blowing crowd and needs to win this game if it has any hope of advancing to the next round. On paper Mexico is superior at every position, but first games in the World Cup have produced some real surprises (e.g., Cameroon’s defeat of Argentina in 1990). Prediction: Mexico wins by a goal.
France-Uruguay (June 11): Everyone in the soccer world knows that this game should be Ireland-Uruguay. While both France and Uruguay had to win playoff games in order to get here, only one of the teams chose to score the decisive winning goal with a pass from a clear handball. The French team has seen better days, and Uruguay has not played well in international tournaments in many decades (it last won the Cup in 1950). While I can’t wait to see the cheaters get their comeuppance in this tournament, I’m afraid that my gratification will have to be delayed until the Mexico game. Prediction: France by two goals in a very physical game.
June 6, 2010 | 11:52 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
What a wonderful Mormon/Jewish weekend. I am one of the few Mormons to have a goddaughter (the practice does not exist in our faith), and Saturday night was Shaina’s first art exhibit. I marveled at the talent of this precocious 13-year-old and was only too happy to purchase greetings cards bearing her designs. I then raced from downtown LA to the Westside, where I emceed a memorable Night of the Arts sponsored by our stake (= Mormon diocese). Hors d’oeuvres were served to arriving guests, who were invited to stroll through a gallery of artwork created by Church members. The entertainment portion of the evening featured piano and organ performances of Chopin and Bach, poetry and dramatic readings, a song from Les Miserables, tap dancing, and a Mexican folk dance from Sinaloa. Ballroom dancing capped off the evening.
Today I extended greetings on behalf of the Consulate General of Israel to dentists at the annual Israel Bonds Dental Division luncheon in Beverly Hills. These people really put their money where their hearts are when it comes to Israel, and it was an honor to address them. An added bonus came when I was seated at the same table with Rabbi David Wolpe and Cantor Arianne Brown of Sinai Temple. The rabbi revealed that his mother’s job at the University of Pennsylvania’s Dental School enabled him to go to college tuition-free, and the cantor gave a moving rendition of the American and Israeli national anthems. I love several national anthems, including La Marseillaise and Het Wilhelmus, but the words to Hatikvah (“Our hope is not yet lost, The hope of two thousand years, To be a free people in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem”) are probably the most expressive of its citizens’ yearnings. The Jewish ones, anyway.
The speakers at the pro-Israel rally at the Israeli Consulate General managed to be both impassioned and eloquent. The most memorable lines were uttered by Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who had this response to Helen Thomas, the veteran journalist who recently ordered Israel to “get the hell out of Palestine”: “The Jews are not in Palestine. They’re in the State of Israel, where they belong, where their ancestors lived for 2,000 years.” A personal highlight for me was chatting with Michele Bachmann, the conservative Minnesota congresswoman. She is a mother of five and foster mother to 23 children, so she occupies a very high pedestal in my world. My mother worked as a social worker in foster care for many years, and our family has unbounded admiration for foster parents who create loving homes for needy children. May her tribe increase.
I am deeply appreciative of the way in which my life is enriched by both Mormons and Jews, and hope to be able to convey this in my presentations at Kehillat Israel synagogue tomorrow night and at an interfaith conference at the University of Southern California on Friday. Shavua tov.
June 4, 2010 | 12:45 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
At a briefing for Jewish leaders (and honorary Jews) in Los Angeles held earlier this week, the Israeli Consul General led a spirited discussion of recent events with an audience of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular, religious, gay, straight, Republican, Democratic, Persian, Ashkenazi, and Sephardic Jews. Only one issue can unite these communities within a community. By way of example, I saw very few non-Orthodox Jews at the memorial service held in Los Angeles for the Chabad rabbi and his wife who were gunned down in Mumbai, India. Straight Jews at the service for the gay Israeli teens shot to death in Tel Aviv were few and far between. However, Jews from all walks of life will attend the massive pro-Israel rally scheduled for this Sunday at 2:00 p.m. The largest gathering of Jews in the city since 2006 should be a sight to see, and I know several Mormons who will be there.
As inspiring as the rally is sure to be, it is useful to think about what to do after the event’s glow has faded. How can Jews make their case to the world? What if anything can be learned from the Mormon community about promoting one’s values? Different approaches taken by prominent Jews on two continents have helped to frame my thinking on this subject.
During a meeting with a Jewish leader in Amsterdam, I asked him what he thought of Geerd Wilders, the controversial pro-Israel Dutch politician. “We could listen to him speak all day—on Israel,” replied my host. “The Jewish community in Holland is genuinely grateful to a prominent politician who openly speaks of his love for Jews and Israel.” However, Mr. Wilders’ extreme anti-Islam statements (he has called for a ban on the Koran, the “Islamic Mein Kampf”) and intolerance of Muslim beliefs and practices are hurting Jews more than most people realize. In an egalitarian society like Holland’s, a politician who promotes the closing of Islamic schools and the banning of halal ritual slaughter does so with the knowledge that Jewish schools and kosher slaughter will disappear as well. My Dutch friend pointed to positive relations between the Jewish community and the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, the country’s second-largest city, and claimed that Muslim and Jewish leaders were actively working together to preserve their schools and religious practices. Relations between the two communities are not perfect, he said, but Islamophobia is not the solution.
I’d like to bring him to LA to speak. I can think of several speakers (all non-Jews) who have made careers out of publicly denouncing Islam at every turn in order to cash checks from Jewish patrons (though it must be emphasized that the overwhelming majority of Jews do not support their efforts). I’ve sat through many of their speeches and read some of their books, but have yet to see how the Jewish cause can be made by criticizing the faith of 1.5 billion people. Case in point: while working at the Israeli Consulate, I was asked to organize a meeting of a dozen prominent pastors and two Mormon representatives with several consulate officials. Although we had a full agenda of interfaith items to discuss, we never made it to item #1. The pastors spent thirty minutes denouncing Mohammed, Islam, and Muslims in very un-Christian ways. The Israeli consuls reminded the pastors that many Israeli citizens are Muslims, while I tried in vain to remind everyone that we had an agenda to follow. However, nothing could dissuade the pastors from slamming Islam, and the visibly frustrated consul general was forced to call an early end to the useless meeting. The two Mormon representatives could not believe what they had heard, and the senior leader pulled me aside afterwards to ask how Jewish-Christian relations could be strengthened by denouncing another religion. All I could do was apologize for wasting his time and reiterate that the views expressed were not those of the consulate or its staff. Everyone who can read a newspaper recognizes that the Bin Laden brand of radical Islam needs to be defeated. Do we really need to pay speakers, sponsor conferences, and fund organizations to repeat this refrain? Seems like a colossal waste of money to me.
Where the money should be directed was made clear this week. A rabbi who oversees a large Introduction to Judaism program told a synagogue audience that whenever students considering conversion ask him to make the case for Judaism, he always declines. With all due respect, I believe that he is wrong not to do so. The world would be a better place if there were more Jews in it. I love to see media figures like Michael Medved and Dennis Prager promote Jewish values. More synagogues are actively looking for ways to promote Judaism to unaffiliated non-Jews and interfaith couples. Prominent rabbis like Joseph Telushkin and Harold Schulweis are leading advocates for promoting Jewish values to the world. In the case of Rabbi Schulweis, his values led to the creation of Jewish World Watch, which has cared for thousands of refugees in Darfur and the Congo. Rabbi Schulweis doesn’t help these people just because he is a kind man; he helps them because he is a kind Jewish man. If the promotion of Judaism and Jewish values to non-Jews received as much funding as the anti-jihadist/Wahhabist/radical Islam crowd, we would see miracles happen. As a former Mormon missionary who currently serves on a church public affairs council, I have seen how effective this approach can be. If you define your values clearly, articulate them in the public square, and share them with all who will listen, good people will rally to your cause. Fourteen million Mormons in 176 countries can testify to this, and I travel at my expense around the world to remind them of the history and theology we share with Jews. In this week’s Torah portion we read of the ancient Canaanites who knew this about the Israelites: “they have heard that thou Lord art among this people, that thou Lord art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night” (Numbers 14:14). If only the inhabitants of this and other lands could hear modern-day Israelites proclaim similar tidings on a regular basis. Shabbat shalom.