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Mormons Renew Their Vow to Stop Baptizing Deceased Jews

December 13, 2002
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A renewed vow from the Mormon Church to end the practice of posthumously baptizing Jews has drawn a mixed reaction.

A Jewish official who met with church leaders this week believes the pledge is meaningful, but skeptics are focusing on the fact that the church made a similar vow seven years ago.

Church elders made the promise at a meeting Tuesday in New York, when Jewish and Mormon officials discussed allegations that church members are still baptizing many deceased Jews, including thousands of Holocaust victims.

Seven years after the church signed an agreement to do all it could to stop the practice, new evidence emerged that the church’s vast International Genealogical Index lists as many as 20,000 Holocaust victims — and perhaps many more — all evidently baptized by proxy after their deaths.

Ernest Michel, a Holocaust survivor who in 1981 was chairman of the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, notified church officials about the renewed problem.

Church elders Monte Brough and D. Todd Christofferson traveled from Salt Lake City to meet with him this week in New York.

During the meeting, the officials reaffirmed their intention to keep the 1995 agreement, "which means removing not only Holocaust victims, but all Jews who have been posthumously baptized from the list," Michel told JTA.

He added that in his opinion this intention "has never changed."

Michel also said Jewish and church officials agreed to prepare a joint memorandum outlining a procedure by which the church would remove all Jewish names from the International Genealogical Index.

The parties will likely be in close consultation for several weeks, he added.

Meanwhile, the church issued a statement to make clear its willingness to deal with Jewish concerns.

"When the church is made aware of documented concerns, action is taken in compliance with the agreement," Christofferson said in the statement, which was released Wednesday.

At the same time, Christofferson alluded to the difficulty of the task.

"Removing the names of Holocaust victims and other known Jews from a data base containing hundreds of millions of deceased persons is an ongoing, labor-intensive process requiring name-by-name research," he said in the statement.

To judge by recent Internet chatter, however, some Jewish genealogists are expressing strong doubts that a new agreement will solve the problem — and they are discussing legal action.

"How will they know someone is Jewish when they are extracting names from birth indexes, as they do on a weekly basis?" one Jewish researcher wrote.

"They didn’t know in the past," the researcher added. "What changes will take place in the future?"

Michel initiated an earlier round of negotiations with the church in 1995 after discovering that his parents, who perished in the Holocaust, had been posthumously inducted into the Mormon faith by zealous church workers acting "out of love."

After protracted negotiations with Jewish officials in 1995, the church removed the names of 380,000 Holocaust victims from its database and agreed to work to prevent church members from trying to convert deceased Jews who were not related to them.

Church followers are required to research their own family trees and to submit the names of their non-Mormon ancestors for baptism by proxy.

For each name submitted, a proxy is baptized in a Mormon temple.

Ignoring church policy, some zealous followers have culled names from a wide variety of historical sources, including memorial books of Holocaust victims from Central and Eastern Europe.

Helen Radkey, a genealogical researcher in Salt Lake City, recently conducted a limited search in the International Genealogical Index’s computerized list of 2 billion names. She found some 20,000 Jewish-sounding names from Lodz, Krakow, Bialystok and other former Jewish centers in Eastern Europe, and asserts that many had belonged to Holocaust victims.

Radkey supplied the results of her research to Michel days before Tuesday’s meeting.

"This issue is really important to me," said Radkey, an Australian-born Christian.

"The Jews have been treated badly by Christianity for 2,000 years. Any time someone or something in the Christian world seems to imply that the Jewish religion is inferior in some way, that is the bottom line for me. What the Mormons are doing is not acceptable, and the Jews need to say something."

Radkey and others contend that the 20,000 Jewish names are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

"There may be hundreds of thousands of Jewish names in there," said Bernard Kouchel, a retired builder and Jewish genealogist in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Having conducted his own search of the International Genealogical Index in recent weeks, Kouchel found scores of notable Jews, including Rashi, Maimonides, Menachem Begin, Irving Berlin, Samuel Bronfman, Marc Chagall, Hank Greenberg, Irving Howe and Gilda Radner.

Such revelations have led to angry accusations in Jewish genealogical circles that the church has done too little to uphold its seven-year-old agreement with the Jewish community.

Some genealogists have characterized the practice of turning dead Jews into Mormons as a brazen act that may obscure the historical record for future generations.

Expressing outrage in recent days at the persistence of a practice that they liken to the "forced conversion" of souls in the afterlife, some have hinted at the possibility of a class action lawsuit for damages.

Few have been placated by the church’s explanation that deceased persons may choose to accept or reject the baptism in the afterlife.

"From their point of view, it’s an article of faith, and from our point of view, it’s a slap in the face," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Some church officials have claimed that they cannot control the activities of all of their members.

Brough, one of the elders at Tuesday’s meeting, has said that Mormons who have submitted thousands of Jewish names for baptism intended only a "Christian act of service" and acknowledged that their acts were "misguided and insensitive."

Jewish representatives now agree that the church must exert more control over its flock.

"It’s clear that there has been no serious monitoring" of what goes into the International Genealogical Index, said Cooper, who participated in negotiations with church officials last year to remove more than 200 Jewish names from the list, including those of Albert Einstein and David Ben-Gurion.

"This is something that keeps coming up, and the church is going to have to find a better way to put closure on it," he said.

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