This month Los Angeles will host the 30th annual conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. For five days amateur and professional Jewish genealogists will explore ways to help themselves and others research their family histories. Recent years have witnessed a marked increase in the number of Jews interested in genealogy, and I know from personal experience that many knowledgeable consultants are ready and willing to help any Jew who wishes to begin researching her family tree. When she does so, she will almost certainly tap into the unparalleled resources of the LDS Church, which has over 4,000 family history centers available around the world to help patrons access the vast genealogical records stored by the Church.
In this city the Church enjoys an excellent working relationship with the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles, the host organization for the conference. In addition, we are proud to have consulted with the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance on its remarkable genealogy exhibit, “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves,” which happens to feature Mormon athlete Steve Young. Our regional Family History Center is open to the public and offers free courses on Jewish genealogy (it is scheduled to reopen in the fall). While the Church’s prominence in the genealogical field is acknowledged, the doctrine behind our passion for family trees is less well-known and is tied to Elijah. This famous prophecy by Malachi is found in all five books of Mormon scripture: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (Mal. 4:5-6). For Mormons, the return of Elijah anticipated at every Passover seder is not merely a quaint Jewish belief – it is a reality. We believe that in 1836, following the first dedication of a temple in modern times, Elijah appeared to the Church’s top two leaders and conferred upon them the “sealing” power, which allows designated priesthood holders to “seal” generations of families together forever using the same authority with which Elijah sealed the heavens for 3 ½ years. Fathers (and mothers) can be sealed to children, and children can be sealed to their parents, both living and dead. We view this as fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy of the generational turning of the hearts.
In order to be “sealed” to their direct ancestors, Mormons obviously have to find out who they were. The result is the Church’s extensive genealogy program. It cannot be emphasized enough how important family history research is to Mormons: one of the Church’s four missions is to perform temple work for our dead, and we do not believe that we can be saved without them. Researching their ancestors is as much of a religious obligation for Mormons as circumcising a newborn son is for an observant Jew. The blessings of modern technology allow us to share our expertise and databases with anyone who finds them useful, which has the added benefit of turning Mormons’ hearts to others and theirs to us, at least when they need help tracking down a family line.