A Jewish delegation praised its tour of LDS Church’s welfare and temple facilities in Utah this week for strengthening interfaith ties and understanding.
“People just want to be understood,” said Saba Soomekh, who teaches religious and women’s studies along with Middle Eastern history at UCLA. “[It is] important to learn about other faiths, especially in the time that we’re living in today where there is so much misunderstanding and so much animosity.”
She was one of 11 Jewish representatives from Los Angeles and New York visiting the Salt Lake City area Tuesday and Wednesday.
Soomekh, who also is the American Jewish Committee’s assistant director of interreligious and intercommunity affairs, was especially inspired by a visit to the church’s Welfare Square in west Salt Lake City. The site showcases the faith’s humanitarian aid programs, featuring a 178-foot-tall grain elevator, a large storehouse, bakery, cannery, dairy-processing plant, a thrift store and employment services.
“[Welfare Square] is so impressive and [represents] something that I think every religious tradition — and not even faith communities, but everyone — should participate in,” Soomekh stated. “We can learn a lot from the LDS community in this way.”
The delegation also toured the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ newly renovated Jordan River Temple. The South Jordan edifice opens this Saturday for six weeks of public tours.
Former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams has visited Mormon temples in the past, but said he was once more reminded of how Jewish traditions are reflected in the LDS facility.
“To see so many of the Jewish Old Testament themes found in this temple and memorialized in this temple — it just really reaffirms the connection between [the two faiths],” Abrams said. “And there’s a powerful feeling of peace when you come out of [an LDS] temple.”
This week’s visit was the latest in a series of meetings between Jewish and Mormon leaders. In May 2017, the consul general of Israel in New York, Dani Dayan, and the New York Board of Rabbis hosted LDS leaders at a reception.
In October 2016, delegations from both faiths met in Jerusalem to mark the 175th anniversary of Mormon apostle Orson Hyde’s climbing of the Mount of Olives to offer a prayer and blessing for the Jewish people.
D. Todd Christofferson, a current LDS apostle and a liaison to the Jewish community for nearly two decades, said everyone benefits from such efforts at “mutual understanding.”
Such understanding also includes ongoing efforts by the LDS Church to keep its members from conducting vicarious temple baptisms for departed Jews.
Latter-day Saints are taught that such baptisms give their deceased, non-Mormon ancestors the opportunity to convert in the hereafter. However, despite strict prohibitions, some members have occasionally done, or attempted to, arrange proxy baptisms for deceased Jews, including victims of the Holocaust, sparking outrage in the Jewish community.
As it has learned of the baptism policy violations, the church has repeatedly issued apologies and followed up by removing identified Jewish names from its proxy baptism records.
“As we know each other better, we resolve conflicts that might exist, we avoid conflicts, and we’re able to collaborate in doing good things together,” Christofferson said. “We’re just better people with that kind of association.”
Jean B. Bingham, general president of the faith’s female Relief Society, joined Christofferson in hosting the Jewish delegation at a Tuesday night dinner.
She remembered growing up in New Jersey and attending Passover seders and Sabbath services with Jewish friends.
“The way to reach out to people of other faiths is to look for the things that we have in common and appreciate them,” Bingham said in the news release. “Yes, there are always things that are different, but even those things can be interesting when you find out more about a particular person.”
Taking the time to talk to one another is the key, she added. “In a one-on-one conversation, you find there are many things that you enjoy and that you can really actually love about another person.”