Tight-knit Group of Jews Live in Utah, Home to This Year’s Olympics

Utah is probably the only place where a Jewish political candidate has ever been criticized for being a gentile.

On the campaign trail in 1916, Simon Bamberger, who was elected the state’s first and only Jewish governor, had to argue his way into a meeting hall by saying, “As a Jew I’ve been called many a bad name, but this is the first time in my life that I’ve been called a damned gentile.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons formally are called, is based in Salt Lake City and is a dominant presence in the region. In a custom some Jews find disconcerting, the church describes all non- Mormons as gentiles.

Whether they’re called gentiles or not, Jews definitely are a minority in Utah.

Nonetheless, Salt Lake City, which is hosting the Winter Olympics beginning Feb. 9, has had a Jewish presence for almost 200 years and today is home to more than 3,500 Jews.

Leaders of the small community report good relations with the Mormon establishment.

The region boasts a brand-new Jewish community center just yards from the Olympic Village — although the facility has more non-Jewish members than Jewish ones — a Reform-Conservative synagogue and Chabad house, each of which have a mikvah, and a Reconstructionist congregation.

The Jewish community is hosting two receptions for Israeli and other Jewish athletes. In addition, the Olympics will host an exhibit on the history of Utah’s Jews, which will appear together with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s traveling exhibit on the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Salt Lake City’s Chabad rabbi, Benny Zippel, will serve as the Olympics’ Jewish chaplain.

Given the heightened security arrangements in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, even Zippel won’t know until the last minute just how many Jewish athletes are competing, or who will be needing his services.

Utah’s first Jewish settlers arrived in the 1820s. Most were fur trappers, explorers and, later, merchants capitalizing on the California gold rush, said Eileen Hallet Stone, author of the book “A Homeland in the West: Utah Jews Remember,” and curator of the Olympic exhibit on Utah Jews.

In the 1860s, Utah’s small community of Jewish merchants suffered from a boycott of non-Mormon stores. Ultimately they wrote to Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, asking him to buy out their businesses.

Young didn’t, but the boycott eventually was lifted, Stone said.

Another milestone in Utah Jewish history came in 1911, when approximately 200 Jews arrived as part of a communal farm. The farm failed within a few years due to poor training and difficult agricultural conditions, but some of the Jews remained.

In recent years, Utah’s Jewish community has been relatively stable — with an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Jews — said Teresa Bruce, executive director of United Jewish Federation of Utah.

The federation raises just less than $600,000 a year, she said.

The majority of Utah Jews live in Salt Lake City, but nearby Park City — home of the Sundance Film Festival — has a growing Jewish population and its own synagogue.

Utah has several Jewish families that have been there for generations. For the most part, however, the community is “very transient,” said Bruce, who moved to Salt Lake City from San Francisco 14 years ago.

“Many people will move here because of careers or because they’ve taken early retirement,” she said.

Rabbi Frederick Wenger, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami, the Reform-Conservative synagogue, said the Jewish community has become younger and more diverse in the 15 years he has lived there. Chabad and the Reconstructionist congregation are relative newcomers.

“There was a historic Jewish community that went back to the founding of the state, and they’ve been built upon by people who’ve come in for the University of Utah and high-tech positions,” he said. “It’s a community that is asking for more options than in the past.”

So what is it like to be Jewish in the shadow of the Mormon headquarters?

Wenger, who moved to Salt Lake City from Skokie, Ill., which has a much heavier Jewish influence, said the Mormon presence “makes us more active and makes our members just a bit more dedicated than they would be if we were in a community that makes religion less of a priority.

“Being here makes you appreciate your Jewishness and Judaism,” he said.

The community’s size, coupled with the large number of newcomers, makes it friendly and tight-knit, Bruce said.

“You walk into synagogue the first time and you’re immediately recognized as a newcomer,” she said. “Suddenly, 8-10 people are greeting you, and before you know it you’re invited to Shabbos dinner.

“The common denominator with so many people not having family here means that you adopt everyone not only as being friends, but mishpoche,” she said using the Yiddish word for family.

Proselytizing is a strong component of Mormon culture, but Jewish leaders say they generally have enjoyed good relations with the Mormon church, as well as other religions.

For his first Chanukah in Salt Lake City, in 1992, he put up a menorah outside the Chabad house, Zippel said. That gesture attracted an invitation to meet from Gordon Hinckley, who now is the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquarters.

After meeting, the two established a “very nice, friendly working relationship,” Zippel said.

Proselytizing does take place, but it is fairly rare, he said.

Zippel, who is originally from Milan, Italy, said he tries to counter the proselytizing with a positive message about Judaism.

“It’s more important to talk to Jews about the strengths and values of Judaism, rather than putting down Mormonism,” he said.

“One of the strong points of the Mormon church is that they value very much the beauty and the richness of Judaism,” he added. “When you tell them you’re an observant Jew and believe in mitzvot,” or commandments, “and Torah from God, they respect it very highly.”

In the early 1990s, many Jews were outraged when it became known that Mormons — who believe the dead can achieve salvation through proxy baptisms — were posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims. Jewish genealogists now monitor Mormon baptismal lists to make sure Jews are not included.

Wenger said there have been occasional conflicts about separation of church and state in the public schools. Still, he said, “generally speaking we’ve found the community to be very receptive when we’ve alerted them to it.

“There’s been no issues that we couldn’t resolve,” he said.

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