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Have LDS, Jews resolved proxy baptism dispute?

Published September 9, 2010 9:40 am

Religion • Some fear the practice will continue to include Holocaust victims.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The LDS Church and Jewish leaders in New York are looking forward to working together on relief efforts and other endeavors after announcing Wednesday the resolution of a sticky dispute: posthumous proxy baptisms by Mormons of Jewish Holocaust victims.

But not everyone is convinced the problem is settled.

The Utah-based church reiterated its willingness to eliminate names of Holocaust victims from its massive genealogical database. The Jewish delegation, headed by Robert Abrams, New York's former attorney general, acknowledged the church's good intentions.

"It is gratifying that the good-faith efforts undertaken over the years to deal with an important issue of sensitivity to the Jewish Holocaust survivor community have eliminated a source of tension," the two groups said in a joint statement issued Wednesday, "enhancing our ability to cooperate, including in important programs of humanitarian aid across the world."

This is the latest development in a series of talks that began in 1994, when Jewish genealogist Gary Mokotoff alerted his peers to the LDS practice known as "baptism for the dead" in which living people stand in for the deceased to offer that person a chance to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the hereafter. Mormons believe it is their moral obligation to do the temple rituals, while those on the other side can choose whether to accept the action or not.

The proxy baptism practice was deeply offensive to many Jews, who had suffered so greatly for their faith.

So Mokotoff and a delegation met with LDS leaders, who agreed to remove Holocaust victims from their master list.

The task proved more difficult than they thought. Many of those names continued to appear in the database.

The two sides met again in 2005 and 2008. One of the participants, Ernest "Ernie" Michel, declared that he no longer would meet with the Mormons.

But last year, Elder James Hamula of the LDS Church's First Quorum of the Seventy asked Abrams if he would put together a delegation of 10 Jews willing to visit Utah during the open house for the Oquirrh LDS Temple in South Jordan. Abrams assembled 10 people from a cross section of Jewish leaders, and the group spent two days touring Salt Lake City sites, including the LDS Humanitarian Center, Temple Square and the Oquirrh Temple.

The delegation stopped at the temple's baptismal font and asked about the Holocaust victims and proxy baptisms.

"That began a series of conversations I engaged in with Elder [Quentin] Cook [an LDS apostle] for 14 months," Abrams said Wednesday in a phone interview. "As a result, there is the kind of understanding that was announced today."

The "breakthrough," as the groups described it, is built on a new computer system that requires Mormons to agree not to submit names of Holocaust victims or celebrities for proxy baptism unless those names are direct ancestors of the submitters. Those descended from a Holocaust victim have to go through a special process to do proxy baptisms for a Jewish relative.

Though both parties seem pleased by the outcome, critics remained skeptical.

Mokotoff doubts any computer system can keep Holocaust names from reappearing in the church database.

"The only way this is going to be stopped is by the church reprimanding individuals doing it — first with a warning, then something stronger — maybe excommunication," he said. "It's the 55-mph rule of the Mormon Church. It's on the books, but no one enforces it."

The sad thing, Mokotoff noted , is that it's a controversy between friends.

Indeed, Jews and Mormons involved in the discussions agreed that they were friends who want to move forward, working together on joint projects such as humanitarian relief.

"We are hopeful now that [Mormons] will keep their word," Michel said in a Jewish Week article about the announcement, "and that this will lead to a much better relationship."

pstack@sltrib.com