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Our Friends The Mormons

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With large families, a deep love of Israel and the Jewish people,simultaneous dedication to our faith and engagement with the broader world, dietary restrictions and modest dress, and being misunderstood (even by their coreligionists), Orthodox Jews surprisingly have much in common with one of the fastest growing religions in the United States - the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS), colloquially known as the Mormons. I would like to share reflections on this week’s meetings,coordinated by the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center, with the church and its political leadership in Salt Lake City, Utah.

There are 14 million Mormons worldwide. There are 14 million Jews worldwide. 6 million members of each faith live in the U.S., 3 million of which are centered in one particular geographical area (the East Coast and Mountain states respectively).  We both believe that we are descended from the 12 tribes of Israel. Around the age of 13, Mormons receive a personalized Patriarchal Blessing which they consider their life’s mission statement.

Like us, Mormons send their children away after high school forone or two years to experience spiritual growth, are committed to giving 10% of their earnings to charity, and believe in abortion when the mother’s life is endangered, there was rape or incest, and other extenuating situations.Mormons call their homeland (Utah) Zion, consider their Temple holy ground, and only allow people who are pure in their eyes to enter it.Mormons were persecuted and killed, but are each quick to point out that the persecutions of the Jews are unparalleled.

Like us, the Mormons also have 13 Articles of Faith, though we of course do not subscribe to most of them. Number 10 states that “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel”.The truth is, as Jews, we are not even certain that making aliyah and relocating to Israel makes our list of 613 mitzvot!

Mormons are disproportionately represented in many walks of life, including just6 Mormon senators and 14 members of the House. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are all members of the LDS. The founders of JetBlue and Marriot Hotels, as well an increasing number of high level lawyers and bankers, are Mormon.

To be clear, there are certainly differences between the two religions. Amongst them are belief in the New Testament and their savior, public schooling (Mormons children study in public school and go across the street for an hour a day of religious instruction), no houses of study or scholars because their religion is not centered around study, has a short history, and does not require exacting decisions of law. The Mormons respect these differences.To address one of the misconceptions that many people have, bigamy has been strictly prohibited for over 140 years by the LDS and is only practiced by some splinter groups.

Though we both are dedicated to inspiring our co-religionists with our faith, Mormons do this in many countries even with non-Christians. They do separate their humanitarian and religious arms, so people understand that the aid to underprivileged people throughout the world does not come with any strings attached.

Most of us associate the Mormon church with two “parshiyot”- the construction of the Mormon Center facing the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1980’s and the posthumous baptism of Holocaust survivors in the 1990’s. The church uses its Mt. Scopus facility to inspire its own members with a love of Israel, and is committed to not proselytizing in Israel. The church also forbade these posthumous baptisms.

LDS is governed by a president (and his 2 counselors), 12 apostles, and two groups of 70 elders. We met with 2 of the apostles, and one of the elders. They provided and ate kosher food with us and offered to drive us to minyan at the Chabad of Utah. Neither they nor we brought up matters of theology. We spoke exclusively about issues of common causesuch as the increasing secularization of American society, legislation, and how to keep our youth in our respective folds.

We met with Utah’s senators- veteran Republican Orrin Hatch and Tea Party freshman Mike Lee, as well as Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell. Each of them deeply shares our concerns for guaranteeing religious liberties (e.g. not forcing religious institutions to provide benefits which are not in keeping with their beliefs), maximizing constitutionally-appropriate funding and tax breaks for religious institutions, and not pressuring Israel to make dangerous concessionsin the name of peace.

I learned that the Mormons have great respect for the Jews and the State of Israel and truly want to help us. We should work towards building bridges to the LDS in our local areas, as these people share some of our values, ideals, and concerns, and essentially are our allies.

Executive Director of Public Policy Nathan Diament and Director of State Political Affairs and Outreach Maury Litwack of the OU’s Advocacy Centermasterfully organized this important mission. Together with my fellow participants on the mission, Rabbis Lenny Matanky of Chicago, Illinois and Shalom Baum of Teaneck, New Jersey (President and First Vice President respectively) of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), and Pace Cooper of Memphis, Tennessee (a member of the OU Board of Directors), I am indebted to these extremely talented professionalsfor letting us help them build bridges with these important allies with whom we have so much in common.

Rabbi Perry Tirschwell is the new Executive Director of the National Council of Young Israel. After living in Boca Raton for the past 16 years where he served as the founding Head of School of the Weinbaum Yeshiva High School, Rabbi Tirschwell has returned to Bergen County. He was the first Frisch graduate to subsequently serve as a rebbe at the school. Rabbi Tirschwell is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yeshiva University, and RIETS, and holds a Master’s Degree in School Administration and Supervision from the College of New Rochelle. He is very happily married to Miriam, a speech therapist in the public schools, and they have five daughters, ages 14-24.

By: Rabbi Perry Tirschwell

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