It's an interesting mix of LDS and Jewish culture. I didn't know this organization even existed until I Googled it. —John Heath
SALT LAKE CITY — In an LDS Church gymnasium Thursday evening, a spirited string rendition of "Hava Nagila," a traditional Jewish song, filled the air. On tables laden with potluck-ready dishes, visitors found bagels, a braided challah loaf of bread and shredded potato pancakes called latkes.
This might not seem, at first, like your typical Mormon gathering, but to members of B'nai Shalom — Hebrew for "Children of Peace" — this was both fully Jewish and fully LDS.
"We really do not lose any of our Jewish heritage in the LDS Church," said Chelsea Woodruff, a high school Spanish teacher from Avondale, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb. "We absolutely love our Jewish heritage. We believe Jesus Christ was the Jewish fulfillment of scripture, and we honor him as the most Jewish person of all. He is our Messiah."
The group, organized in 1967, meets at the Salt Lake Stake Center twice a year before The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' general conference. Though not officially sanctioned by or affiliated with the church, the group is supportive of existing LDS programs.
At Thursday's event, approximately 150 people, many of whom identified as Jewish Mormons when asked for a showing of hands, gathered for food, music, fellowship and a devotional message.
Michael Gelman and his wife, Phyllis, both Jewish LDS members, came from Albuquerque, N.M., to share in the evening's fellowship. They have been members for five years. Phyllis Gelman said the constant stream of activity at the local LDS meetinghouse near their new home piqued their curiosity.
"Every time we drove by, the place was packed," she recalled. "We said to each other, 'What is going on in there?'"
Her husband said the church's message simply resonated with him.
"It was just a lot of things," Gelman said when asked how he came into the LDS Church. "The minute I came into this church, I felt at home."
High school students Isaac Gardner, 17, and Rachel Gardner, 15, of Perry, came with other family members, including their mother, Julie, who played viola in the musical trio. Coming to B'nai Shalom helps Rachel "better understand the relationship between Mormons and Jews," she said, "and how it all influences my family."
While not every person at the event was Jewish, LDS members affirmed their interest in and support for the Jewish people.
"It's an interesting mix of LDS and Jewish culture," said John Heath of Draper, who began attending in addition to his personal studies of Hebrew. "I didn't know this organization even existed until I Googled it."
Besides, he added, the B'nai Shalom meetings are "a great place to find green Jell-O and matzo ball soup."
Marlena Tonya Muchnick-Baker, an LDS Church member from Seattle who currently serves as the group's president, said, "We believe we are doing the Lord's work, and we believe it will go all over the world."
As members filed out of the social hall and into the stake center's chapel, mention was made of Harry Glick, who passed away in February. A co-founder of the B'nai Shalom group, Glick was commemorated with the reading of a kaddish, or Hebrew prayer for the departed.
Noted Isaiah scholar and BYU alumni Avraham Gileadi was the evening's guest speaker and promoted the need for Mormons, whom he called the "descendants of Ephraim" to reach out to their Jewish friends and neighbors.
"The Jews need us terribly," Gileadi, who joined the LDS Church in 1972 after finding a Book of Mormon at a kibbutz in Israel, told the gathering. "They should be made to know they have a friend in Ephraim's descendants."
Linking Isaiah to the Book of Mormon, Gileadi said the Hebrew prophet's "words construct the core fabric around which the Book of Mormon is woven. To feast on the words of Isaiah is to feast on the words of Christ."
Such sentiments found ready acceptance with Gileadi's hearers, such as Woodruff, who said Jewish members of the LDS Church "have not converted. This is the continuation of Judaism; we have continued on our journey."