In the interest of forming closer relations with New Jersey’s Mormon community, two leaders of the state region of American Jewish Committee joined church officials in a tour of their newly completed temple in downtown Philadelphia.
The visit was a rare opportunity for nonmembers to step inside a Mormon house of worship. Once the temple is officially consecrated on Sunday, Sept. 18, only members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the official name of the Mormon religion — will be permitted to enter.
To John Rosen, AJC’s NJ director, “one of the central pillars of AJC’s interreligious outreach is the belief that the well-being of the Jewish community is linked to other groups because we have common interests and can strengthen each other’s voices with lawmakers and others.”
In a July 27 phone interview on the day after NJ Jewish News joined Rosen and AJC senior associate Alyssa Kevelson in touring the temple, the director said he considers the Mormon community to be “very influential.” It has “an influence in this country that is disproportionate to their membership, much like the Jewish community. We want to inspire religious freedom and make sure religious minorities are protected, so we can advocate together. We also have a common interest in the welfare of Israel,” he said.
“That is an area of partnership. The Mormons are also looking to other religious groups to strengthen their own voice. As faith communities there is a lot we can advocate on together,” he said.
Walking side by side with Rosen during much of the tour was John Ure of New Providence, president of the church’s Scotch Plains Stake. A stake is a region that groups for governance a certain number of individual churches, in this case, nine Mormon houses of worship in Essex, Union, and Middlesex counties. “We are going to try to get together with organizations in the Jewish community, but right now our relations” are with people in the neighborhood who are Jewish, Ure told NJJN during the tour. “I think we have a lot in common with our values and what is important to us.”
Rosen said he and Ure “are interested in continuing our discussion and looking at what we might do together.” They are not, he said, “going to be engaging in any theological discussions.”
“We are very focused on doing advocacy work together,” said Rosen. “My next step is to bring some AJC leaders to meet with the leaders of Mormon communities in New Jersey and see what we may be doing together….”
“We certainly consider Jewish people our friends,” Corinne Dougherty, public affairs chair for the Philadelphia temple, told NJJN after the tour. “We believe in the Old Testament, and we recognize many of the same beliefs that our Jewish colleagues do.”
There are negative depictions of the Jews in the Book of Mormon, the church’s Holy Scripture, which are based on writings that date back to 2200 BCE. Some are found in the chapters of Nephi, a Mormon prophet.
Among them are:
• “…the Jews, among those who are the more wicked part of the world; and they shall crucify him — for thus it behooveth our God, and there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God.
• “…concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness and their doings were doings of abominations.”
• And “…the Jews at Jerusalem sought to kill Jesus.”
Commenting on those excerpts, Dougherty told NJJN they were written “at a particular time of unrighteousness and destruction that was happening at that time, so it is very different than any other time…the time when Christ was killed.”
Asked whether she considered Jews responsible for his crucifixion, Dougherty paused, then said, “I think it is important to recognize that Jesus Christ himself was Jewish, and we knew Christ would be crucified and would die and return to be with us again, so there were circumstances that had to take place for that to happen.”
Dougherty then cited a passage “in the Bible where Christ was not accepted by his own, and so because of those circumstances he was crucified. But we have great relations with our Jewish friends. We consider them as with the House of Israel and have great respect and admiration for them.”
“Mormons understand themselves as part of the Christian tradition that predates Christian post-Holocaust self-reflection, and it is not surprising that their sacred text includes some anti-Jewish tropes, particularly related to the death of Jesus,” wrote Rabbi Noam Marans, director of AJC’s Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, in a July 27 e-mail to NJJN.
“Our experience with Mormons indicates that they accentuate the philo-Semitic within their tradition and strive mightily and successfully to be in positive relations with the Jewish people,” Marans wrote.
“We know there are religious tenets that don’t look favorably on Jews,” said Rosen. “Have you read the Koran? Does it mean every Muslim hates Jews? No, it doesn’t. I think there may be some philosophical differences between us, but in building our relationship with Mormons, the focus is on what we can do together. We’re fine with that.”
Insisting that the two groups “are not going to be talking about theology,” Rosen said he plans to discuss with other AJC lay leaders in the near future possible meetings with NJ Mormons before holding any open meetings.