Menu JTA Search

Baptism Controversy Flares Anew Between Jews and Mormon Church

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

What do Gustav Mahler, Theodore Herzl and Mordecai Anielewicz share, other than their Jewish roots?

The famed Austrian composer who converted to Catholicism, the founder of Zionism and the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto all have been baptized, posthumously, by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

These three giants of Jewish history are among the estimated hundreds of thousands of dead Jews included in the Mormon church’s genealogical files, which include some 200 million souls given posthumous baptisms as part of the church’s mission to convert all people and thus, they believe, hasten the resurrection of Jesus.

For years, Jewish officials have blasted the conversions as an insulting desecration, but the controversy is flaring anew this week amid charges that the Mormons have broken a 1995 promise not to add Jewish Holocaust victims to their International Genealogical Index.

Church officials insist they’ve kept to the agreement. And even among Jewish critics of the policy, there is some dispute over just what the Mormon church originally agreed to, and what it has done wrong.

But all the critics agree that, as Jewish genealogist Gary Mokotoff puts it, the Mormons should take Jews off the list.

“Baptism is the second ugliest word in the English language to a Jew,” Mokotoff said. “The first is gassed. The third is raped.”

“We have agreed to consider all possible options, including legal options, but we would much prefer to come to an agreement with the church in what I believe is, to all of us Jews, a very crucial and emotional issue,” Michel said.

Clinton voiced “concern” over the issue, Michel said. The senator’s office did not return calls for comment.

In 1994, Michel discovered that the Mormons had baptized posthumously his parents and various aunts and uncles who were killed during World War II in the Nazi death camp of Gurs, in southern France.

Michel’s family members were among an estimated 360,000 Holocaust victims and other deceased Jews listed in the Mormon genealogical archives.

The church agreed to remove “all known posthumously baptized Jewish Holocaust victims” who have no Mormon descendants, and eventually to remove “all deceased Jews” improperly added to the index.

But the contract is worded in such a way that the church is only responsible to strike “known” Jews — that is, those who are brought to its attention — from the list.

D. Todd Christofferson, a church official involved in the talks, said the church removed Holocaust victims listed before 1995 and has since followed the pact by instructing members not to add more.

“When the church is made aware of documented concerns, action is taken in compliance with the agreement,” he told The New York Times.

Christofferson told the Times that the church cannot monitor the situation completely and that some members might themselves add names.

Church officials were not available for further comment on the eve of Christmas, a church spokeswoman told JTA.

Malcolm Hoenlein, one of the signatories of the 1995 pact, said that all the parties to the agreement understood what was supposed to be done, and that it is not the Jews’ responsibility to bring new names to the Mormons’ attention.

The Mormons “have an obligation to live up to their commitment,” he said, adding that he hopes they will do so without legal action.

Mokotoff, who publishes Avotaynu, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy, and who began finding Jewish names in the Mormon archives before the 1995 conflict, said he sees no evidence the church has added new names to its rolls.

But Helen Radkey, an Australian-born genealogist who has been studying the baptism issue since 1999, prepared a report for Michel this October that found “thousands of entries” of dead Jews, many of them Holocaust victims. Most of the names are from Germany and other parts of Europe, she said.

Radkey said she checks the church’s online lists on a daily basis and has found that whenever news reports reveal famous Jews in the index their names are removed quickly.

It remains difficult to discern exactly when names on the list have been added, Radkey said. Most of the records she referred to indicate simply that a name was “submitted after 1991.” Only church members with passwords can delve further, she said.

The Mormon church’s genealogy lists are separated into CD-ROMS, which go until 2000, and online indexes thereafter, Radkey said. She said names listed online may well have been added in the past three years.

Among the notable Jews still in the online records, she said, are the founder of the Chasidic movement, the Ba’al Shem Tov; the Nobel Prize winning author S.Y. Agnon; and Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann.

Rabbi James Rudin, who helped broker the 1995 deal as director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said the real issue is that Jews remain on the list at all.

“Whatever Mormons want to teach their fellow Mormons to do is their right,” he said. “But when it crosses over to people who are not Mormons — and who are deceased and never intended to be Mormons — we have to be a voice for the voiceless.”

NEXT STORY