September 2, 2010
Proxy Baptism Controversy: The End
“You know, there are no people in the world who understand the Jews like the Mormons.” – David Ben Gurion to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (and future LDS Church President) Ezra Taft Benson
These headlines would have hardly seemed possible two years ago. A prominent member of the American Gathering publicly expressed his frustration with the implementation of the group’s 1995 agreement with the Church, and it appeared that the two sides were going to have to agree to disagree on the feasibility of eliminating all improper name submissions of Holocaust victims. Thanks largely to the efforts of former New York State Attorney General Bob Abrams and other Jewish leaders, meetings were arranged in the past year that generated the goodwill that eventually led to this breakthrough.
It was apparent that the Church’s new computer system for submitting names for temple work was an important component of the agreement, so I contacted David Rencher, Chief Genealogical Officer for Family Search, the Church’s family history website. It would be hard to find a happier (or more helpful) man in Salt Lake City right now. I asked him what the Church was doing to prevent the unauthorized submission of names of Holocaust victims for temple ordinances (Jewish leaders have agreed that “authorized” submissions can be made by Mormons who are direct descendants of Holocaust victims or have written permission from a victim’s direct descendants to submit the names).
First of all, he pointed out that the Church has assumed more of the burden of flagging and eliminating these names. The 1995 agreement had placed the burden of identifying the names on the Jewish side, with the Church agreeing to eliminate any names that were brought to its attention. Now, armed with databases of names of Holocaust victims, a team of dedicated LDS volunteers regularly scans lists of submitted temple names to ensure that no Holocaust victims are included. If a name is found, Rencher said that the pedigree for the name (currently required for all submissions) will be examined closely to see whether the person submitting the name is a direct descendant. If there is a question, the person will be contacted. If the name is found to have been wrongly submitted, it will be deleted from the database. If Jews find names of Holocaust victims on Family Search, they can also ask to have them deleted from the database. Finally, Mormons who have written permission from victims’ families to submit their names to the temple (undoubtedly a small group) must send this documentation directly to the Church, which will review it before authorizing the submission of the names. Mormons found violating Church policies on name submissions will be contacted and asked to cease and desist. It is hard to fully express the pride that I feel as a Latter-day Saint after hearing the lengths to which my Church is going to address the concerns of Jews and to honor the memories of Holocaust victims.
Of course, it is important to realize that the law of unintended consequences is in play here for Jewish genealogists. Family Search is an important research tool for genealogists, including Jewish ones, and the deletion of Holocaust victims’ names from its database could complicate individual efforts to fill in Europe-based family trees. When asked about this, Rencher acknowledged this reality, saying that it was a tradeoff that the Jewish leaders were willing to accept.
The text of yesterday’s statement gives us reason to hope for increased cooperation in the future. Jewish leaders quoted in The Jewish Week echo my sentiments exactly. Bob Abrams reminded everyone that “we need as many friends and allies as possible,” and an American Gathering official observed: “we are living in a very difficult and critical time, and as an American Jew, I felt we shouldn’t keep on fighting a church that principally is very friendly to the Jewish community and has created an important center in Israel.” For its part, the official statement begins by noting that “Goodwill and friendship have marked the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jewish people” and closes with an expression of finality and optimism: “It is gratifying that the good faith efforts undertaken over the years to deal with an important issue of sensitivity to the Jewish Holocaust survivor community have eliminated a source of tension between our two groups, enhancing our ability to cooperate, including in important programs of humanitarian aid across the world.” Amen to that.
I am willing to host guest bloggers during my upcoming pro-Jewish speaking tour of Europe (Sept 10-24). If you would like to have your essay published on this blog, please submit it (along with a photo, if desired) by September 8. The topic should be of interest to both Jews and Mormons. Thank you.