Monday, January 17, 2011

A Jew, a Mormon, and a Buddhist walk into the gym...*

Salt Lake City

I walked into the Wagner Jewish Community Center on Wednesday night to hear an old friend speak. Mark Paredes, a former U.S. diplomat in Israel and Executive Director for The Zionist Organization of America, now writes for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles as a blogger on Jewish and Mormon (LDS) issues. As a Mormon who's had a decades-long relationship with the international Jewish community, he also travels the globe to make presentations like the one I attended Wednesday in Salt Lake. I knew Mark several years ago when I resided in Los Angeles as an LDS missionary.

I found myself in the back row of a medium-sized meeting room only half-filled with padded folding chairs. There were about 40 people in attendance. Most appeared to be between 40 and 70 years old. When I arrived, I wondered how many were Mormon, and how many were Jewish. Before I had time to develop assumptions, Mark simply inquired.

"How many children of Israel do we have in the audience tonight?" he asked. About two-thirds responded with raised hands. "Very well, then. And how many here are from the House of Ephraim?" About half of the audience raised their hands at this. Mark chuckled, realizing his mistake. I think he assumed that Jews would claim Israel, while Mormons would claim Ephraim--but a large number claimed both. They probably misunderstood his intention. At any rate, it was apparent that there were a good number of both Jews and Mormons in attendance.

The title of Mark's presentation was, "Advocating for Israel--Jews and Mormons." It was basically a message encouraging a positive relationship between the two groups. He brought with him a remarkable list of moments in Mormon history in which LDS Church leaders honored the Jews or gave support to Jewish projects (including the preservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and establishment of the State of Israel.) He then emphasized several doctrines that the two religions share in common. Both Mormons and Jews believe in the prophetic gathering of Israel. Both Mormons and Jews believe they are inheritors of God's covenant with Abraham and Moses. Both Mormons and Jews believe in the doctrine of Elijah's return.

Mark also remarked on a few Jewish-Mormon faux-pas. He advised Mormons not to try to prove to Jews that the Messiah has already come. The term "Messiah," itself,  is problematic in this debate. Jews believe that the promised Messiah is the one anointed as the king in the end of days, but do not regard Him as the son of God who will save mankind from its sins as Mormons and other Christian groups do. With regard to the ever-present concern that Mormons are pushy missionaries, Mark assured the audience that Mormons are under no particular obligation to convert the house of Israel.

Mark commented on the controversial statements made recently by Glenn Beck
regarding Jewish philanthropist, George Soros. Apparently, Beck had cast dirt on Soros by suggesting that there was a possibility that this holocaust survivor had actually been "a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps." Mark made it very clear that he and many other Mormons believe Beck was out of line. His commentary was relevant given Glenn Beck's popularity with Utah Mormons.

Following the presentation, Mark took questions.

A middle-aged woman was upset. She told Mark he had made statements about Judaism that weren't true. When Mark asked her to be more specific, she cited something he'd mentioned at the beginning of his presentation about the Israel CIA being the greatest terrorist organization in the Middle East, and his statement that Jews believe God creates evil. In response, Mark answered that what had offended her were simply misunderstandings. He never said that he believed that the Israeli CIA was a terrorist organization, what he said was that he had attended a class in which the teacher had expressed that opinion. Following his original statement about this, he had said, "That's when I knew it was going to be a long course," to imply that taking a class from such a conspiracy theorist would be tedious. In response to the woman's concern about God creating evil, Mark tried to remind her of the context of his statement. He had been addressing one of the doctrinal differences between Judaism and Mormonism, a scriptural interpretation. Mark explained that several rabbis had told him that the scripture in Exodus about God hardening Pharaoh's heart is evidence that God creates (or has control over) all circumstances in life, both good and evil. Whereas Mormons believe the scripture was translated incorrectly and should read, "Pharaoh hardened his heart," according to the Joseph Smith Translation.

The woman muttered her response to Mark's comments, "I've never heard that, I've never heard that."

"I'd like to talk to you about this after," Mark stated finally to close the issue.

Another Jewish individual in the audience, a man, asked a question that better fit the spirit of the meeting. He wanted to know what Jews should do to better connect with the Mormon community. "The JCC (Jewish Community Center) can probably answer that question better than I can," Mark replied. He encouraged both Mormons and Jews to invite each other to celebrations, service projects, and other activities. Most people in the audience nodded in agreement.

I felt pleased with myself; pleased that walking into the community center symbolized my contribution to the cause of neighborly unity. But when I got off my metaphysical high horse, I realized that I had not taken the time to ask the community center about service projects or celebrations I could attend. Nor had I stopped to introduce myself to new people.

Mark had quoted David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, as saying, "You know, there are no people in the world who understand the Jews like the Mormons." But I wonder how many Jews in Utah feel that Mormons don't have a clue about them. I wonder why so few people were in attendance at such a seemingly important meeting.

*The title for my article is one I've borrowed from the latest edition of Center Monthly, the newsletter for the Wagner Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City.


  1. What an interesting experience! Thank you for sharing. I'm excited about this blog. I always love reading your insights.

  2. Wow, this is awesome! Thanks for sharing--Will you be updating every week?

  3. Thanks. I'm working on this week's post right now. I will be posting on a weekly basis, but whether or not that will take place on the same day each week remains to be seen.