With the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel and the tricky issue of intersectionality sometimes putting a crimp in Jewish interfaith efforts, Jewish-Mormon relations are apparently humming along out of public view.
A low-key initiative that has brought together leaders of the Mormon Church and representatives of several Jewish organizations recently marked a decade of cooperation with a series of meetings at the Mormon Church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City.
The program, which included leaders of the New York Board of Rabbis and the American Jewish Committee, was organized in cooperation with Robert Abrams, former New York State Attorney General, who has served as the Mormons’ liaison to the Jewish community.
The Mormon Church last week announced the Utah activities, which follow joint programs here and in Israel over the last two years, in a press release that called the visit “part of an ongoing series of relationship-building experiences and meetings.”
After conducting their dialogue work largely behind the scenes for several years, the Jewish and Mormon participants agreed that their relationship was strong enough to go public, said John Taylor, director of interfaith relations at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church’s official name). “It was a natural decision,” he said in a telephone interview.
The increasing level of Jewish-Mormon cooperation, which parallels established Jewish interfaith programming with Catholics and Protestants, has developed under the cloud of criticism of posthumous Mormon “proxy” conversions to their faith of many Jews, including Holocaust victims.
As part of Mormon doctrine that believes that the deceased have a choice in the afterlife whether or not to accept an offer of baptism, members of the church, which maintain extensive genealogical records, can submit names of dead people for baptism. According to church records, the list of Jews in this group includes celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, as well as thousands of Jews who died in the Holocaust, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, and, most recently, four of the shooting victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Jewish and Mormon participants in the ongoing ecumenical programming said the church has abided by its two-decades-old agreement that bars such conversions of Jews or celebrities to Mormonism. They said proxy conversions that were done subsequently were the actions of isolated members of the church, without the church’s sanction.
“We take it very seriously,” said Taylor.
According to Abrams and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, the church excises names of illicitly added baptism names from the online list once they are reported to church authorities.
The Mormons have sincerely sought to improve their relations with the Jewish community, said Abrams, an active member of the Jewish community here who served as attorney general from 1979-93. He said he was approached a decade ago by Mormon attorney friends who said their church, which many mainline Christians consider heretical to standard Christianity, saw the value in creating a bond with another minority religion in this country.
“The church has enormous respect for the Jewish community and for the State of Israel,” Abrams said. “There are great similarities” between the two communities — including an emphasis on education, the importance of family, a tradition of humanitarian outreach activities, and a history of persecution, he said.
Abrams recruited friends in his Jewish circles on an interdenominational basis to take part in the Jewish-Mormon initiative. The joint activities included a 2017 visit of church leaders here, and a 2016 mission in Israel on the 175th anniversary of an early Mormon apostle’s journey to Jerusalem.
The Jewish leaders’ recent visit to Salt Lake City, during which the hosts arranged for kosher food at all meals, included time at Mormon welfare facilities and at the newly renovated Jordan River Utah Temple. In addition, officials of Yeshiva University have exchanged visits with their counterparts of the church’s Brigham Young University.
Rabbi Potasnik said future activities with Mormon leaders would include discussions of the religions’ common theological beliefs.
Abrams, who has invited Mormon leaders to Shabbat dinners in his Manhattan home, said participants in the programming may sponsor future joint humanitarian activities and a biennial symposium.