LDS Jews celebrate heritage

Festive meal and presentations showcase Jewish culture

The Salt Lake Tribune/March 31, 2007
By Jessica Ravitz

The custom-made pin on Troy Molling's blazer tips off that this evening will be different. It's a Star of David with the Angel Moroni, a fixture on most LDS temples, mounted in the middle.

Baskets outside the Salt Lake LDS Stake Center's main room are filled with kippot or yarmulkes, religious head coverings customarily worn by Jewish men. A sign encourages "All Brethren" to wear one.

"C'mon, Hon," a woman cries to her husband, who lags behind.

"I've got to put my hat on," he answers. "I don't know how to wear this thing."

About 350 people came out Thursday evening to attend a gathering hosted by B'nai Shalom, Hebrew for "Children of Peace," an organization that is described on its Web site as including Mormons who "share a common Jewish heritage or have an interest and love for the Jewish people and their culture." The group, created 40 years ago in part to encourage Jewish genealogical research to further temple work, meets the Thursday before every LDS General Conference.

On this night, one of B'nai Shalom's founders, Daniel Rona of Salt Lake City, runs the show - peppering his talk with an occasional "oy" and greeting people with "shalom." Born in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine (now Israel) but raised primarily in the U.S., Rona was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before he was 9. He is billed as the only LDS-licensed tour guide to Israel and likes to say that he provides the "bridge that connects the ancient Holy Land with the modern Promised Land," as put forth in The Book of Mormon.

At one time he was taking 1,000 tourists a year to Israel, but since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number has fallen to just a few hundred, says Denise Metcalf, Rona's assistant. Fewer tours means he has more time to do what he is doing on this night. Rona says he is "hop-scotching through" a Passover Seder, the festive meal observed by the Jewish people to remember their exodus from Egypt.

This explains the symbolic foods on the tables. Among them: The horseradish or bitter herbs, symbolic of the bitterness of slavery, and charoset (a mix of apples, nuts and honey), which represents the mortar Hebrew slaves used to build the pyramids. The Passover holiday begins Monday night, but Rona and his show-and-tell presentation can be seen year-round, up to three nights a week.

Guests stream into the room, past the Israeli flag mounted on the wall, to take their seats. Marvin Goldstein, a Mormon convert from Florida, plays piano, doling out traditional Jewish songs and a rendition of "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem.

Don Yancey, 63, of West Jordan, guesses 99.9 percent of the people in the room are like him - "half-and-half . . . Jewish and Mormon." But when Rona later polls audience members to see how many were born into Jewish homes, no more than two dozen raise their hands. A smattering of others point to ancestors as their link. B'nai Shalom's vice president, David Burt, says his Jewish line stopped in 1760. Gai Parkinson, 75, of Layton - wearing Star of David earrings and a matching necklace - says of her family, "We had Rosenbaums . . . a long time ago."

The bulk of people in attendance seem to be Mormons like DeAnne Flynn, 43, of Holladay, whose curiosity brought her through the door.

"Jewish culture is fascinating," she says. "It's fun to see the Jews here, too."

The Jews she speaks of include the two young men who stroll in dressed as Orthodox Jews, straight out of central casting. They wear crisp white shirts, black velvet kippot, and tzitziot - white fringes, part of a garment worn to fulfill a commandment - hang down over their black pant legs for all to see. The giveaway that this is not their regular attire comes when Jason, who refuses to give his last name, reaches out to shake a woman's hand, something an Orthodox Jewish man would not do.

The 21-year-old convert, who says he is moving to Israel to study, shares his testimony and reads from The Book of Mormon in 2 Nephi 30:7. "And it shall come to pass that the Jews which are scattered also shall begin to believe in Christ."

"Comeuntochrist" is part of Marlena Tanya Muchnick's e-mail address, which is befitting of a woman whose eyes tear when she says, "The future of Judaism is Christ." Muchnick, 66, of Seattle, also claims "the Book of Mormon is more Jewish than the Talmud," a collection of writings that constitute Jewish religious and civil law. The Talmud only holds the words of rabbis, she says, while "The Book of Mormon is written by Hebrew prophets and the descendants of Hebrew prophets."

Jeremy Wigington, 20, of North Carolina, tells the audience he was a rabbinical student when he met his first Mormons about 15 months ago. Two months later, he was baptized and is leaving on a mission this May.

Jewish Mormons or LDS Jews, as some of them call themselves, see no conflict in these titles. Culturally, they are Jewish, they say. Heritage doesn't go away, they might add. "How do you change someone's blood?" one person asks.

But not all converts see themselves this way. Reached in his Salt Lake City home, Norman Rothman, 80, says he doesn't attend B'nai Shalom events, nor does he have Passover Seders anymore. He doesn't think people can have it both ways. He says his life began anew at 37 when he found The Book of Mormon and was baptized into the LDS Church.

"I'm not running away from my background, not at all," he says. "Being Jewish, I'm very proud of that background. But I chose the church, and it comes first."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.