I don’t know how many non-Jewish organizations at Columbia held a Passover seder this year, but the
LDS Institute did. With Israel Apartheid Weeks observed amid calls for boycotts, sanctions,
and divestment targeting the Jewish state, it’s increasingly difficult to be a Jewish student on major college
campuses today. Having spoken at universities in several states, I’m as concerned as anyone over the
rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the world of academia. It took Yoram Gutman, the
Executive Director of LA’s Israel Festival, to help me realize that a great outreach stone for
Jewish students has been left largely unturned.
Although I have emceed the festival’s VIP ceremony for three years, Yoram somehow just found
out last month that I was a Mormon. During our phone conversation, he recalled that the Mormon
students at UC Berkeley, his alma mater, were the only ones who supported the Jewish students on
campus when they were attacked. Thanks to the kindness of those students, Yoram has
retained a positive image of Mormons to this day and graciously invited the Church to
set up a booth at this year’s festival.
The LDS Church has hundreds of Institutes, or Mormon Hillels, around
the world. Institute directors are either professional teachers within
the Church Educational System or retired couples who are asked to
volunteer their time. Almost all of the Institutes offer Old
Testament, Comparative Religions, and/or other classes with Jewish
content. Rabbis have lectured in Institute classes, and some
Institutes hold Passover seders. I recall a memorable lecture by the
Institute director at the University of Texas, where I attended law
school. Randal Wright began an Old Testament lesson by stating that
Jews were God’s covenant people, and ended by saying “we stand with
Institute directors around the world express similar sentiments. Knut
and Hilde Rade are a wonderful couple from Hamburg, Germany, who
are the Institute directors in Lund, Sweden. I met them during a
speaking tour last year that took me to Malmö, a city whose council infamously banned
spectators at last year’s Davis Cup tennis match between Israel and
Sweden. Following my speech, the Rades contacted the local
Jewish community. After several visits, the couple and their students
received permission to work in the local Jewish cemetery. They have
taken the students to clear away weeds on several occasions, and have two more visits scheduled
before they return home in July. Knut told me that one of the highlights of their
stay in Sweden was a visit to the synagogue for an evening of kosher
food and Israeli folk dancing.
Closer to home, the lucky Institute students at Santa Monica College are taught by Dr. Gary P. McBride
and his lovely wife Leisel. Dr. McBride has a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Counseling,
while Leisel obtained an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies with an emphasis
in Biblical Hebrew while raising their six children. The Arizona
natives’ love affair with Israel began in 1975, when they were invited
by the Church to tour the Holy Land. They both said that landing in
Israel was like coming home. Since the Church required teachers who led student groups to
Israel to have some expertise in the Middle East, the McBrides
enrolled in an Arabic class. Leisel also enrolled in two intensive
Hebrew classes, both of which involved an 80-mile daily commute. In
1983 their family was invited by the Church to live on the Ramat
Rachel kibbutz for 6 months. Following their stay in
Israel, the McBrides began leading yearly tours to the country
(their last one was in 2008). Hundreds of students benefited from
their wisdom during the two years they spent serving as Assistant
Directors of BYU’s Jerusalem Center on Mt. Scopus (1998-2000). In
their free time, the McBrides give lectures on the Holy Land. When I
left their office, they were considering which photo book of Jerusalem
to buy as a farewell gift for their Institute volunteer, Beverly
Eastland, a woman who hosts annual seders for hundreds of LDS students and young singles.
Hillel directors would do well to actively seek out the Randall
Wrights, Rades, and McBrides on campus. While
Institute directors cannot involve
themselves in political disputes, they can help to strengthen ties
between our two communities and lessen the isolation Jewish students
sometimes feel on campus. Does your Hillel rabbi lecture at Institute
classes? Does your Hillel invite Institute students to your Passover
seders? How about a lively Jewish-Mormon Purim party? Could your
synagogue invite the McBrides to speak at a luncheon? With any luck,
hundreds of Yoram Gutmans will be populating Jewish communities of the
future because wise Hillel directors forged ties with their Institute colleagues.
Hag sameach to all of my Jewish friends who are celebrating Shavuot.
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