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.”