‘This could only happen in Utah’ — Jewish congregation celebrates 50 years of an unlikely union

After merging Conservative and Reform members, Kol Ami embraces togetherness and a spirit of “trust and goodwill” with one another, Latter-day Saints and all the state’s residents.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Rabbi Samuel Spector, left, and Latter-day Saint apostle Gerrit W. Gong chat at the 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on May 7, 2023.

In 1973, Salt Lake City’s two small Jewish congregations — one Conservative, the other Reform — did something bold and, frankly, almost unthinkable in their respective traditions.

They merged to create Congregation Kol Ami, which means “all my people.”

Though not without bumps, the new community has continued to thrive for decades.

This week, hundreds of Kol Ami members, their neighbors and friends, gathered at This Is the Place Heritage Park to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the state’s largest synagogue.

“This could only happen in Utah, where we all seem to love each other,” Rabbi Samuel Spector said in his opening remarks. “We celebrate that coming together.”

Apostle Gerrit W. Gong of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints echoed that sentiment at the party.

“As we celebrate Congregation Kol Ami’s 50th anniversary, we celebrate many more years of rich association in Utah as neighbors and friends, brothers and sisters,” Gong told the assembled guests. “The friendship and community of our peoples span back to Brigham Young and continue forward to today.”

Latter-day Saint leaders “acknowledge the mutual respect our communities enjoy,” Gong said. “Our heartfelt desire is that this relationship will continue to grow in a spirit of trust and goodwill.”

Cantor Sharon Brown-Levy, who arrived in the Beehive State from Toronto two years ago, was effusive.

“We adore it here,” she said in an interview. “We are going to grow the community together.”

It was exciting to share this moment with the larger community, said Faye Lincoln, who has been on Kol Ami’s board for two years, “and to watch the congregation expand as so many new people are moving into the state.”

A big move

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Cantor Sharon Brown-Levy offers a blessing over the bread with Rabbi Samuel Spector during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on May 7, 2023.

Such harmony was not entirely predictable back in the 1970s, when the groups first explored the possibility of merger, said 85-year-old Bruce Cohne.

Cohne, one of two remaining members involved in the negotiations, represented Congregation Montefiore, which followed a strict Conservative tradition.

Though started decades earlier, Montefiore and B’Nai Israel Temple, a Reform community, by 1967 both were having financial struggles, Cohne said. It was especially tough to fund two religious schools.

They decided to share their education, he said, which worked well.

Seeing that success, leaders from the two traditions created a 20-member committee and began discussing the possibility of uniting the congregations.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Bruce Cohne, at a May 7, 2023, celebration, helped create Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City.

“Not everybody was in favor of consolidation,” Cohne said. “We had a quagmire of issues and roadblocks.”

After about a year, the committee was dissolved and replaced with two five-person committees.

The only condition to be a member, he recalled, was that “you had to commit to being in favor of consolidation.”

For more than two years, they met every Wednesday night except holidays, Cohne said. “We worked hard.”

The birth of ‘all my people’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbi Samuel Spector at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on Thursday Oct. 3, 2019. The synagogue is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Among the stickiest issues: the wearing of yarmulkes (the traditional skullcap), the tallis (fringed garments), and kosher kitchens.

Conservative Jews require a kosher kitchen; Reform members don’t.

They settled on two kitchens in the new synagogue.

Eventually, they sold both properties and bought the current Kol Ami site, 10 acres at 2425 E. Heritage Way on the south side of Interstate 80.

“We are the oldest surviving consolidated congregation in the United States,” Cohne said. “At the time we merged, there were two others, but they didn’t make it.”

Cohne, who was close friends with the late Latter-day Saint leader James E. Faust has been delighted to introduce Spector to the current leaders of Utah’s predominant faith.

For its part, Kol Ami works to “foster Jewish traditions and values,” members say in a video produced for the anniversary.

Jews have been in Utah for some 170 years, Spector said in the film.

“We are not an heirloom but a living fountain,” the rabbi said. The Jewish presence “has made our state richer, kinder and, our [collective] future, brighter.”

Spector looks forward to seeing what the next 50 years will bring.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Dale Brouillette and former Utah legislator David Litvack at the 50th anniversary celebration of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on May 7, 2023.