December 15, 2010
Jewish Outreach: Whom to Call?
Since I began this blog seven short months ago, several local LDS leaders have written me to ask for a general profile of a person to call to work with Jews in their areas (remembering, of course, that divine inspiration is the overriding factor in issuing these callings). When I was the Director of Jewish Relations for the LDS Church in Southern California, I called three wonderful members to serve on our Jewish Relations Committee. Several years later, all three are still serving with great dedication. Based on our experience, and on the success that other LDS public affairs representatives have enjoyed elsewhere, I would recommend that members of similar committees have a deep love and respect for Jews, a desire to get to know them better, and the time to devote to the calling. In addition, the person should not be a Jewish convert to the LDS Church.
Like most people with a history of persecution, Jews have an uncanny ability to detect who their friends really are. If a Mormon really loves Jews and can express that feeling in a genuine way, Jews will respond with equal warmth and sincerity. Doors will be opened to her in the Jewish community that would otherwise remain shut. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of this attribute, which cannot be feigned and does not depend on one’s previous callings, marital status, gender, or other irrelevant factors. There are some people in the Church who have been blessed with a deep love for Jews and the ability to connect with them. I pray that a way can be found to use them in LDS outreach efforts throughout the world.
It is no secret that Jews are some of the most highly-educated people in the world, and are overrepresented in the professions, on university faculties, and on lists of Nobel Prize winners. Leaders in the Jewish community are almost always professionals with advanced degrees. As a result, Mormons who wish to deal with people at all levels of the Jewish community should have a good presence and be well-read and articulate. While a graduate degree should not be required of those who are called to serve, intellectual curiosity and intelligence will serve them well in working with this intensely intellectual, dynamic community.
Ideally, an LDS liaison should have the time to attend important events in the Jewish community and to meet with contacts as needed. Personal contacts are very important in interfaith outreach, and the more events one attends, the more people one can meet. A flexible schedule also permits more opportunities to serve in this kind of calling.
Now we come to the sensitive issue of Jewish converts to the Church. I know from personal experience that they are exemplary Mormons and harbor abundant feelings of goodwill towards their Jewish brothers and sisters. In almost all cases, they insist that they remain Jewish in spite of their conversion. Some even consider themselves to be more fully Jewish following their baptisms. While it might seem logical to call former Jews as LDS representatives to a community that they knew very well, there are good reasons not to do so. The reason for this has little to do with how Mormons view Jewish converts, and everything to do with how they are viewed by their former coreligionists.
Although Jewish converts to Christianity may continue to think of themselves as Jews, they are not regarded as such by the Jewish community. According to mainstream Jewish thought, when a Jew is baptized, he essentially excommunicates himself and is no longer considered to be part of Klal Israel (the worldwide Jewish community). Unlike a Mormon who leaves the LDS Church, a Jewish convert rejects both his ethnic identity and his religion. For this reason, it would be very counterproductive to have as an LDS representative to Jews someone who has voluntarily excommunicated herself from their community.
The above examples involve official contacts between LDS and Jewish representatives. Ideally, their efforts should supplement those of ordinary Mormons and Jews who create friendships every day throughout the country. While the LDS Church is somewhat limited in terms of which events it can officially co-sponsor with Jewish organizations, individual members of the Church do not face institutional constraints. When a Mormon tells me how much he loves Jews, I always ask him which Jewish organizations he has joined. Invariably the answer is “none.” With a Jewish organization for every political orientation and interest, there are almost unlimited opportunities for Mormons to befriend Jews who share their political views, interests, and passions.
It is heartwarming to see the mutual trust and respect that Jews and Mormons are developing for each other. To Mormons, we are seeing the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that Ephraim will cease to envy Judah, and Judah will no longer vex Ephraim. As of this writing, Jews are one of the religious groups that have been given priority status for official LDS outreach. This can only augur good things for the future.