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.