May 17, 2010
“There are no people in the world who understand the Jews like the Mormons.” —Prime Minister David Ben Gurion
”The Mormons are our brothers; the Christians are our kin.” —Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
It happened again this week. While waiting for a performance to begin at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, I struck up a conversation with two sisters seated next to me. The opera was based on a murder committed by one of their errant ancestors, and they were anxious to see the singers reenact their family drama. In short order they introduced me to their niece, and we exchanged greetings. During intermission I went to buy a snack, and when I returned to my seat one of the sisters turned to me with a big smile and said, “Our niece said to make you happy by telling you that we’re part Jewish.” It turns out that the niece was a Mormon who had recognized me from a church activity that we had both attended. If Mormons in this area know anything about me, it’s that I love Jews. And Judaism. And Israel. Needless to say, the second act of the opera was more enjoyable than the first.
I am often asked why I chose to spend 8 years of my professional life working in the organized Jewish community. Truth be told, for me it was never a conscious choice; Jews have played a continuous role in my life from childhood, and I jumped at a chance to get paid to work for their benefit. My brother attended the preschool at Temple Israel in Bay City, Michigan—the city’s best—upon the recommendation of my father’s kind Jewish boss, Mark Jaffe. The equally kind rabbi of Temple Israel, Dov Edelstein, invited our Mormon congregation to tour the temple one evening. I will never forget the feeling I had while viewing Torah scrolls for the first time and hearing of the rabbi’s journey from Auschwitz to mid-Michigan. I truly felt at home, and I left the temple with a deep impression that Judaism would impact my life in a profound way in the future. Over the next few years I checked out the Berlitz Hebrew book from the library a dozen times in vain attempts to decipher the exotic, backward script. It was not the last time that I would feel prompted to study the language.
I began college as a Russian major. During my semester abroad in Moscow, I volunteered as an interpreter for Time correspondent Nancy Traver. As luck would have it, she chose to file stories about Russian Jews, and we visited the city’s main synagogue several times. I still have vivid memories of prayers offered for the welfare of the Soviet state, videos of Israel shown to eager would-be émigrés, and a rushed phone conversation on deadline involving Nancy, me, Esther and Purim. Moscow was my first encounter with racism and anti-Semitism, and I left Russia with profound respect and love for the oppressed Jews who had opened up their lives to me. What I could not understand at the time was why people who were not particularly religious, people who by and large did not have an abiding faith in God, would risk social ostracism and discrimination by gathering regularly in a synagogue simply to reaffirm their peoplehood.
While serving as a diplomat in Guadalajara, México, I received two spiritual promptings one evening that would set my professional course for the next two decades. I felt that I needed to begin studying Hebrew immediately and hired a private Israeli tutor from the Colegio Israelita de Guadalajara, the local Jewish school. After 6 months of lessons, I received a cable from the State Department informing me that my next assignment would be ... the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. I arrived in Israel after spending time in Washington studying Hebrew and taking a seminar taught by German Arabist Peter Bechtold (currently at Portland State), and my framework for viewing the Arab-Israeli conflict was established while working at an embassy run by peace advocate Amb. Martin Indyk in a country besieged by suicide bombers. I prayed every day for the ability to spiritually discern what was behind the carnage on display, especially after viewing both the immediate aftermath of a horrific bus bombing in central Tel Aviv and the panic on Kings of Israel Square after Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. By the end of my tour in Israel, my spiritual request had been granted.
My involvement with the Jewish community in Los Angeles began with a job referral from Keith Atkinson, the LDS Church’s legendary Director of Public Affairs in Los Angeles. During our first meeting in his office, Keith called Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem (currently the Israeli Ambassador to Australia) and told him that he had found a press attaché for him. Yuval and I met the following day, and he ended the interview after 10 minutes by informing me that if I could discuss camels in Mauritania with him in Hebrew, I could do the job. The rest, as they say, is history.
In addition to my professional involvement with Jews, I am proud to belong to a Church that has no history of anti-Semitism, one that has always supported Jews and sought their welfare. Mormons believe that they are latter-day members of the House of Israel, and their actions show it. As the highlights below attest, the 14 million members of the most persecuted major religion in American history have a special affinity for the 14 million members of the most persecuted major religion in world history. Ben Gurion made the above-quoted statement to Elder Ezra Taft Benson, a Mormon apostle who would become the Church’s President decades later. In a major speech on Jews given in Calgary, Alberta, Elder Benson articulated the mission statement for this blog: “We need to know more about the Jews, and the Jews ought to know more about the Mormons.”
I wish to thank Rob Eshman, Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal, for giving me this opportunity to record my impressions of the Jewish community viewed through a Mormon prism. I am also thankful to people in both communities who have offered their support and guidance on this project, which has even managed to excite my dear mother, a technophobe who avoids the internet and in all likelihood will read very few of my postings. However, she does have a mother’s intuition that this blog will finally lead me to a nice Mormon girl who loves Jews, which in turn could result in her having more adorable grandchildren to spoil.
Let us pray.
Highlights in Jewish-LDS History
1) The first edition of the first Church newspaper, Evening and Morning Star, was published in June 1832. In the first article, “To Man,” Church leaders announced that the newspaper “comes to bring good tidings of great joy to all people, but more especially to the House of Israel scattered abroad, for the Lord hath set His hand again the second time to restore them to the lands of their inheritance.”
2) A “School of the Prophets” was founded in 1833 to provide secular and spiritual instruction to Church leaders and members. Hebrew was a featured course of study (10 hours/wk), and the instructor was Joshua Seixas, son of Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas, rabbi of Shearith Israel in New York.
3) In response to an article entitled “What Do Mormons Believe?” written by a newspaper editor, an 1834 article in the Church’s newspaper Messenger and Advocate stated our beliefs in the form of a creed. Among them was “We believe that God has set His hand to recover the remnant of His people, Israel; and that the time is near when He will bring them from the four winds and reinstate them upon their own lands which He gave their fathers by covenant.”
The closest thing Mormons have to a creed today are the 13 Articles of Faith (number = 13 Principles of Maimonides). The 10th Article affirms: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the 10 tribes.”
5) On April 3, 1836, Moses and Elijah appear in the Kirtland Temple to confer the authority to gather Israel and the power to seal families together forever.
6) In 1839 the Saints founded the town of Nauvoo. Joseph Smith got the name from “naveh” (“oasis”) in Hebrew, and the town in its heyday rivaled Chicago in size.
7) On October 24, 1841, Apostle Orson Hyde offered a prayer on the Mount of Olives dedicating the Land of Israel for the gathering of the Jews. The Orson Hyde Memorial Garden was dedicated in 1979 on the Mount of Olives by Church President Spencer W. Kimball and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who also awarded Pres. Kimball the Medal of the City of Jerusalem. In addition, a park honoring Orson Hyde was dedicated in 2005 at Netanya Academic College in Israel, where a chair in Mormon Studies was established.
Apostle George A. Smith rededicated the Land of Israel for the gathering of the Jews in 1873. The Land of Israel received at least 11 apostolic blessings before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Two apostles (including future Church President David O. McKay) were in Jerusalem in 1921 when the Allenby proclamation was made.
9) After the murders, the presiding apostles issued a “Proclamation to the World.” It said, in part, “The Jews among all nations are commanded to prepare to return to Jerusalem in Palestine, and to rebuild that city to the Lord. And also to organize and establish their own political government under their own rulers, judges, and governors in that country.”
10) For more than five decades (1870s-1920s), the Church seriously considered establishing a Mormon colony in Palestine.
11) Mormon pioneers arrived in the Utah territory in 1847. The first Jews arrived in 1849. The first Jewish worship service was held in 1864 in Salt Lake City. Rosh Hashana was celebrated in Temple Square (the city center) in 1865. Brigham Young donated his personal land for a Jewish cemetery in 1866. The High Holy Days were celebrated in the Seventies Hall (used by Church leaders) in 1867. In 1903, Church President Joseph F. Smith spoke at the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for the state’s first Orthodox synagogue, which was largely paid for by the Church.
12) In 1851 Jacob Rich, a Jewish settler traveling with a Mormon caravan to California, brought the first Torah (which had a separate cart) to the San Bernardino valley. For decades it was the only Torah between Pasadena and Phoenix.
13) Louis Cohn was elected to the Salt Lake City Council in 1874. The Chamber of Commerce founding charter of 1887 lists the names of several prominent Jews. The first Jewish governors in the country were elected in Idaho (1914) and Utah (1916). Salt Lake City had a Jewish mayor by 1932, more than four decades before New York City.
14) The Salt Lake Temple was dedicated on April 6, 1893, during Passover week.
15) Heber J. Grant (Church president, 1918-45), a strong critic of anti-Semitism, was a Jewish National Fund booster. He pointed to the Balfour declaration as a divine portent and called for the Saints to look forward to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
16) In 1948, Church President George Albert Smith publicly and privately assured prominent Jews of Church support for the new state. We have always maintained good relations with the government of Israel.
17) Israel Bonds were first issued in 1951. In 1952, Church President David O. McKay purchased $5000 of them on behalf of the Church and made the following statement: “This is done to show our sympathy with the effort being made to establish the Jews in their homeland.”
18) Brigham Young University began sending students to study in Jerusalem in 1968. A permanent facility on Mt. Scopus was opened in 1987.
19) The Mormon Tabernacle choir toured Israel in 1993 and performed with the Jerusalem Symphony.
20) In 2006, LDS Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff established the Utah chapter of the America-Israel Friendship League.
21) Prominent LDS scholars serve with Prof. Emanuel Tov of Hebrew University on the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation (Brigham Young University was asked to digitize the scrolls).
22) The Church donated $50,000 to Magen David Adom (Israeli Red Cross) in Israel during the recent war in Lebanon.
23) In 2008 the Church donated $25,000 to Jewish World Watch for its solar cooker project in Darfur.