For Jewish Mormons, hybrid identity seen as no contradiction

Phyllis Miller’s experience growing up in Southern California wasn’t much different from that of many American Jews.

The product of an intermarriage — her mother wasn’t Jewish but later converted — Miller’s family attended synagogue occasionally, kept the kids home from school on the High Holidays and ate matzah on Passover.

But Miller’s religious life took an unusual turn in her high school years in San Diego, when she embraced the Mormon church.

After a year of resistance from her parents, she was baptized at age 16 in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She later moved to Utah, enrolled in Brigham Young University, married a Mormon and raised six kids as Latter-day Saints, or LDS.

For decades afterward, Miller felt part of her identity was missing. So about 20 years ago, she started celebrating Hanukkah again. Later she found her way to a synagogue seder. These days Miller, 55, often wears her Star of David necklace and every six months she attends the semiannual gathering of B’nai Shalom, a Jewish Mormon group that holds events in this city on the eve of the twice-yearly LDS general conferences.

Make no mistake, however: Miller is still Mormon. She just celebrates her Jewishness, too.

“I still consider myself Jewish,” said Miller, whose grandfather was Larry Fine, one of The Three Stooges. “I feel like I just added on to my faith.”

Miller is among at least hundreds of Jews across North America who have converted to Mormonism yet still practice some Jewish traditions and identify as Jewish. They see no contradiction between the two.

“Being Jewish is my heritage,” Miller said. “It’s not like you can just get rid of it.”

The numbers of Jewish Mormons are difficult to estimate. The B’nai Shalom LDS & Jewish Facebook group has about 450 members. Some 200-400 people usually show up to the group’s March and September gatherings, which typically include a potluck dinner with traditional Jewish foods, a lecture, Jewish music and dancing — and plenty of schmoozing.

Victor Ludlow, a longtime religion professor at BYU who helped launch the Mormon university’s Near Eastern and Jewish studies programs in the 1970s, and has served two five-year terms as an LDS bishop, says the Mormon church smiles upon hybrid Jewish-Mormon identities. Jewish rituals such as Hanukkah lightings and Passover seders are seen as positive cultural rather than religious traditions – as long as the practitioners still believe in Jesus and the Book of Mormon.

“If it doesn’t interfere with their practice as Latter-day Saints, as long as it’s something that’s positive, that enriches their lives, there’s no problem with them. In fact, they’re encouraged,” said Ludlow, who is retired. “And there are enough commonalities between the two cultures that sometimes it’s not as much as a cultural shock for Jews to become Mormons as it is for Christians.”

Among those commonalities, according to Ludlow, are that both peoples are bound by a covenant, are or have been led by living prophets, build temples and observe dietary laws. Both religions use the word gentile to describe people outside the faith. In Utah, which has a Mormon majority, it is the Jews who are the gentiles.

Mormons also feel a kinship with Jews as a people persecuted for their faith. Mormons cite the hostility of American Christians, especially in the decades following the religion’s founding in 1830 by Joseph Smith, as echoing the Jewish experience.

That’s all cold comfort for the parents of Jews drawn to the Mormon church. When Mitch Cowitz, a native of Toronto, told his Jewish parents he was interested in converting to Mormonism, they were aghast, insisting he meet with rabbis and someone from an anti-cult group.

“They did everything but try to disown me,” Cowitz recalled.

They failed. Cowitz was baptized at age 21. Though he’s now a Mormon bishop, he says he hasn’t left Judaism. Cowitz lives in Thornhill, a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Toronto, and still celebrates many Jewish holidays. He also closely follows news from Israel.

“It’s my people. I consider it my land as well. I still consider myself Jewish,” said Cowitz, 50. “But I believe that the Book of Mormon is God’s word that has been revealed in these modern days. That’s what originally spoke to me. And the whole concept of Jesus Christ as the messiah.”

In an interview with JTA, a few commonalities in the experiences of Jews who convert to Mormonism emerged: The individuals tend to be from relatively assimilated or mixed-faith families, grew up in locales without a strong Jewish community, discovered the Mormon church through friends and had their crucial first encounter with Mormonism in their formative late-teen years. All encountered parental resistance. Many cited the Mormon focus on family as one of the faith’s most attractive elements.

Jason Olson, a U.S. Navy chaplain serving in Japan, is the son of a Jewish mother and Lutheran father. Growing up in Phoenix, he went to Reform Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah and observed Jewish holidays, but his family also celebrated Christmas and Easter. That confused him, and prompted a religious quest that led him eventually to Mormonism, thanks to some LDS friends in high school.

Those were difficult years, Olson recalls.

“I had privately embraced Jesus as the messiah, but I was still outwardly living a Jewish life and struggling with my identity,” he said.

Though he kept studying with rabbis, they couldn’t shake his convictions, and at 18 he was baptized. But that was hardly the end of Olson’s Jewish road. When it came time to serve his requisite tour as a Mormon missionary, he was sent first to New Jersey and then to the Orthodox Jewish stronghold of Monsey, New York. His encounters there rekindled his interest in Judaism and prompted soul-searching that eventually led him to spend several months living in Israel.

For college, Olson went to BYU and majored in Hebrew Bible. After graduation he enrolled in a doctoral program in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis, the Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian university in suburban Boston. Eventually Olson became a Navy chaplain – as a Mormon. But Olson, 30, still considers himself Jewish.

“In religious practice, I’m a Latter-day Saint, but I still embrace Jewish traditions,” Olson said in a telephone interview from Japan. “I still will light Hanukkah candles and have a Passover seder. I feel it’s part of my religious and cultural heritage. I personally don’t see any contradiction between Jewish tradition and the Christian faith that I have embraced.”

Aside from converts like Olson, there are thousands more Jews who have embraced Mormonism and no longer identify as Jewish, according to Ludlow, who has been dubbed the “Passover Patriarch of Provo” for hosting several traditional seders every year — mostly to teach Mormons about the Exodus story and Jewish traditions.

“There’s hardly a Mormon congregation between Boston and Washington, D.C., that doesn’t have some Jewish individuals who have converted to the church,” said Ludlow, who was born and bred in the LDS church.

Harold Levy, 67, a retired teacher in California who converted to Mormonism at 36, says he has come to appreciate Judaism more in the decades since his baptism. Now he studies Judaism and even went to Chabad for services last Rosh Hashanah.

“I used to take Judaism for granted,” said Levy, who is deaf and communicated with JTA through instant message. “Now I understand Judaism much better and enjoy it more. I am a member of LDS, but inside I am still Jewish.”

Letters to the Editor: Entitlements, Women of the Wall, Mormons, Christians, Prager

Eshman on Entitlements

Rob Eshman correctly notes that tzedakah is not merely charity but is also a religious and community response about social justice (“Entitled,” Oct. 19). Nowadays, “entitlements” are frequently used as a synonym for charity. However, Eshman inadvertently undercuts his own argument by failing to point out an essential fact: For working Americans, Social Security and Medicare are earned benefits paid for by payroll deductions.  

Gene Rothman
Culver City

What Happened at the Wall?

In your article on “Kotel Arrest Galvanizes Jews” (Oct. 26), it would have been nice to read a comment from someone “on the other side” of the argument. The only dissenting line was that Hoffman’s report of her imprisonment was inaccurate. Was there no one to talk to who opposes what Hoffman is doing?

The article also gives the impression that women are forbidden to pray at the Wall, a fact we all know to be false. So what exactly were Hoffman and her group trying to do that prompted the wrath of the police? Unfortunately, the report seemed more interested in promoting a political agenda than it did in clarifying a sensational news story.

Rabbi Yitzchak Sapochkinsky
via e-mail

More on Mormonism

Is this the sixth thing Jews should know about Mormons (“Five Things About Mormonism,” Oct. 26)? Article of Faith 10: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.”

How about that the Book of Mormon is the word of God?  (Seventh thing?)

Mitch Paradise 
Los Angeles

Not All Churches Are the Same

David Suissa is correct in pointing out the outrage of certain Christian denominations’ views and the censure of Israel (“Christians Picking on Israel,” Oct. 19). Despite the moral repugnance and sheer idiocy of their views, Suissa neglects to cite the common link between these various anti-Israel Christian denominations: It is the churches on the far political left that share these biased views on Israel, from liberation theology in Latin America to the black liberation church’s anti-Semitic views as exemplified by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church, reaching back to Jimmy Carter’s Southern Baptist leftist church. Recently, the anti-Semitic views of the far left have begun to permeate the once-centrist American Presbyterian church.

Politically conservative American Protestant churches wholeheartedly support Israel. Yet the majority of American Jews fear the Christian right. Really?

Richard Friedman
Los Angeles

Prager and Politics

Dennis Prager attempts to make the case that Gov. Romney and the Republicans would be better for Israel than President Obama and the Democrats (“The Election and Israel,” Oct. 19). But in his article, Mr. Prager makes the following outrageous assertion: “The attitude of a party or candidate toward Israel tells you more than perhaps any other issue about that party or candidate. Treatment of and attitudes toward the Jews and Israel is an almost perfect indicator of a party’s, a country’s or a candidate’s values.” In other words, Mr. Prager believes that the Republicans’ love and support for Israel is the clearest indicator of their pure and superior moral character. 

If Mr. Prager believed that the Democrats were the better party for Israel, would he still make the same ridiculous, self-serving assertion? 

Michael Asher
Valley Village

Mr. Prager is wrong about which presidential candidate will be the strongest supporter of Israel. As I write this letter on Oct. 19, there are 3,000 U.S. troops in Israel conducting war games with Israeli troops. They are demonstrating their overwhelming power to Iran. The Israel defense minister said President Obama is the best friend of Israel of all the U.S. presidents, and without President Obama, Israel would not have been able to build the defense structure costing $300 million to defend itself against the deadly rockets Hezbollah had been firing into Israel from Lebanon.

President Obama has proven he has the character to do what is right and will stand by Israel no matter what happens.  

Leon M. Salter
Los Angeles



An article about “Orchestra of Exiles,” a film about the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (“Rescuing Jewish Musicians,” Oct. 26), gave an incorrect name for its support organization. The correct name is American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Mormon missionaries meet modern Judaism

“Do Jewish people still practice sacrifices?”

This was among the questions asked recently by a group of Mormon missionaries, 50 students who came to Palos Verdes’ Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to hear a lecture by Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Congregation Ner Tamid, located right next door to the church.

Jeret was one of three rabbis to address the Mormon missionary groups in an attempt to build further understanding between the two religious groups.

Jeret explained that no, Jews no longer practice sacrificial rites. He also answered questions, including, “Which tribe are the Jews descended from?” “Who was the last Jewish prophet?” and “Are Jews planning on building [a] third temple?”

These questions, which followed a 45-minute lecture by Jeret explaining the essentials of Judaism, showed the missionaries’ familiarity with the Jews of the Torah — the Old Testament — but they also revealed their lack of knowledge about modern Jews and Jewish practices.

“What they know of Judaism is very biblical,” Jeret said in an interview following the Q-and-A session. “They know what Judaism was 2,500 years ago.”

“In such a culturally and religiously diverse city, I felt a need for missionaries to develop a great appreciation of and sensitivity to other faiths,” said Mark Paredes, former director of Jewish Relations for the Mormon Church of Southern California. Because Parades had already built ties to the Jewish community, he started the training with Judaism. He invited Jeret, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and Rabbi David Woznica of Stephen S. Wise Temple to speak to different groups of young missionaries at their “Zone” (regional) conference. (The men, the majority, were ages 19 to 21, and the females aged 21 to 23 — the preferred ages for the two-year voluntary missionary service that some 60 percent of Mormons undertake.)

“They would do well to take Rabbi Wolpe’s advice to learn as much as they can from other faith traditions,” Paredes said.

The rabbis explained their goal was to create understanding, and they were wary of proselytizing.

Amy Klein has written about Mormon missionaires before. Check out this piece about a lunch meeting she had with some LDS missionaries

“I want to be clear,” Jeret told the students. “I’m not here to help you missionize. If you really want to build a bridge between the Mormon and the Jewish communities, understand who we are and how vital and important and precious the Jews are to the Jewish people,” he said. “Understand a little bit more of the beauty of our heritage.”

In describing two basic tenets of Judaism — that the messiah has not yet come and that a belief in more than one God is wrong — Jeret attempted to show that Jews and Mormons share the notion of monotheism but are distinct in their understanding of the Messiah.

There are also other differences, many subtler: “You can approach a Jew and ask them what they believe, and they say, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ and they’re still Jewish,” Jeret explained. “That sounds ridiculous to many Christians,” he acknowledged to nodding heads.

He also advised the group to learn about Jewish holidays and time schedules, such as Shabbat, so they will not offend Jewish people.

Jeret ended on a note of collaboration: “The Mormon faith is the fastest-growing faith in the world, and you have the opportunity to stand up and join with Jewish people for the state of Israel,” he concluded. “Every one of you can be part of it.”

After the session, Jeret said he believes his lecture will dissuade these Mormons from proselytizing to Jews.

“You can’t make a case why Jews should convert,” he said. “My message is that there’s nothing comparable about Mormon faith and Jewish faith.”

He called proselytizing of Jews “futile,” and noted that he believes his lecture provided nothing “they can take to use to a constructive end.”

But that was not necessarily the message the missionary students took away from the lecture.

“He focused on the Jewish people and how family oriented the Jewish population is,” said Sister (Bethany) Olsen, 23. “I didn’t realize how strong the Jewish family is.”

She also said she hadn’t realized how broad the spectrum of modern-day Judaism is. But the talk didn’t dissuade her from wanting to reach out to talk to Jews.

“We knock on doors all day, and people say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m Jewish’…. Jews have an easier excuse to close doors,” she said, noting their purpose isn’t to convert, but to understand more. “Sure, if they happen to be interested in converting, I wouldn’t be disappointed.”

Spencer Blackburn, president of the California Los Angeles Mission, said the “aggressive” missionaries need to learn about other faiths.

“We don’t know how to be sensitive,” he said. “People say, ‘I’m Jewish.’ What does that mean?”

Blackburn said people might simply ask questions, have a dialogue and then leave.

Many of the missionary students said their purpose is to spread the message of God and begin a dialogue about faith.

“I love taking the message,” said Elder (Matt) Stapelton, 21. “I wasn’t going into this to learn tactics of conversion into a Jewish home,” he said. “Sometimes I want them to tell me about their faith. People always think we’re going to convert them — I just want to understand where they are coming from.”

The Inner Sanctum

I had just finished up with a tour of the new Mormon Temple in Newport Beach when I came face to face with Kathleen. Forthright, with a shining smile, straight shiny hair and the physique of a beach volleyballer, she seemed to embody the ideal of young Mormon womanhood.

Kathleen grew up just blocks from where the temple now stands, and is looking forward to a life in its embrace. After spending three hours at the temple, I had a lot of questions, and Kathleen had answers.

The tour was part of a public open house that all temples hold just once. After a temple is officially consecrated, its inner sanctum is open only to Mormons in good standing. You need a bar-coded card, good for one year at a time, to get in after that.

But for a week before consecration, non-Mormons, called gentiles, are allowed to visit. Earlier this month, tens of thousands of people did. I joined in with a group from the American Jewish Committee, which has worked to enhance interfaith relations with the LDS Church.

The beautifully landscaped temple grounds were filled with tour groups; the parking lot seethed with cars and tour buses. The gleaming buildings, the immaculately laid out gardens and paths and the unfailingly cheerful tour guides in sensible dresses or suits and ties gave the day an efficient, theme-park feel. A dozen Jews at a synagogue Kiddush couldn’t maintain that kind of order.

To the uninitiated or unprepared, Mormon theology is weird. Not bad weird, or wrong weird, just strange to those who are used to God’s revelation coming to a close with Deuteronomy. Founding prophet Joseph Smith began receiving his revelation in 1823 in the form of a book of gold pages, presented to him on a hill in upstate New York by the angel Moroni.

The book detailed a strange and fabulous story of the former inhabitants of North America. Having left Jerusalem 600 years before the birth of Jesus, two tribes of Israel, the Nephites and the Lammanites, battle for supremacy until Jesus comes to America to make peace between them.

He leaves, then the Lammanites eradicate the Nephites, whose leader was Moroni’s father, Mormon. The Book of Mormon imparts this bloody story as well as Mormon’s wisdom, though Smith and his followers continued to receive divine messages.

The revelations led to strict codes of conduct: no alcohol, no caffeine, no tobacco, clear lines of patriarchal authority, a solemn and powerful church hierarchy and tithing — about half of all Mormons tithe 10 percent of their pre-tax earnings to the church.

The Mormon Church abandoned polygamy in 1890, and entered mainstream American religious life with what author Jon Krakauer, in his excellent study, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” called, “stunning determination.” They were the Lord’s Elect, or Latter-Day Saints (LDS), with the mission of establishing the One True Church, and preparing the way for the Second Coming.

What’s fascinating to me about the LDS Church is not its fabulistic ur-text. These are narratives, like the Bible and Quran, that believers take on faith. What’s almost unbelievable is the church’s newness. Now, 150 years after its founding, the LDS Church has 13 million members worldwide. There are about the same number of Jews in the world. (True, millions of us were murdered, but we also had a 4,000-year head start.) Now, the race for hearts and minds really isn’t even close.

Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates the LDS Church will grow to 265 million members by 2080. At any moment, about 60,000 Mormon missionaries are spread around the globe, proselytizing on behalf of their faith. “No other American religious movement is so ambitious,” wrote professor Harold Bloom in “The American Religion.” “And no rival even remotely approaches the spiritual audacity that drives endlessly toward accomplishing a titanic design.”

To the extent organized Jewry is organized and has anything approaching a “design,” it is merely to stop what is seen as the inexorable attrition of Jewish souls. Meanwhile, some 300,000 people join the LDS Church each year, the largest growth rates being in Africa and South America.

Touring the sanctum santorum of Mormon belief, I tried to divine what accounts for this appeal.

The rooms are large, though not cathedral grand. They have reproduction French furniture and crystal chandeliers. Large clerestory windows pour light onto simple religious-themed paintings and murals.

Other than the baptismal room, which features a Jacuzzi-like pool supported on the backs of huge oxen statues, the other rooms are — just nice rooms, decorated more like the Century Plaza Hotel than Lourdes or the Crystal Cathedral or, for that matter, Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

In these rooms, Mormons engage in distinct, personalized rituals — baptizing themselves or deceased ancestors in the True Church or sealing themselves in eternal marriage. One room, the Ordinance Room, is painted with bright murals of California landscape. It could be a Hollywood screening room — and it is, in fact, where Mormons sit and watch a movie about the founding of Mormonism.

Since that recent beginning, the LDS Church has splintered into numerous sects, some of which, as author Krakauer documents, can be as unbendingly fundamentalist as the Taliban. But within the mainstream movement, orderliness abounds. The ideals of 19th century America — hierarchy, the patriarchal family, charity, temperance, personal revelation — are enshrined.

“Salvation,” one Mormon leader told our group, “is a family affair.”

After the tour, when I found myself face to face with Kathleen, I asked her what happened to the golden tablets, which Joseph Smith said he translated from their original “Reformed Egyptian.” She explained that they had been lost.

I also had another question on my mind. I explained to her that a large segment of Jewry believes that while our holy books reflect eternal truths, they are not necessarily literally true. I wondered: Did Latter-day Saints believe in the literal truth of the Book of Mormon?

Kathleen’s smile didn’t waver, and her voice was strong and sure.

“I understand metaphor,” she said, “and I understand history. My degree is in history. But we believe in the revelation of the prophet as it is written.”

Combine that powerful belief with a duty to proselytize, and it’s no wonder this new religion will soon fill a far larger portion of the world and the religious firmament than our own.