Continuing a “chain of involvement and friendship” that began more than a decade ago, former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams stood in the Church’s Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake City and examined a very special gift.
He read the names and dates on his grandparents’ marriage licenses and naturalization documents, census information about his parents while they were growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City and the manifests of ships that carried his family from Europe to the United States.
The prominent Jewish leader had never seen the information before.
“It was personally thrilling to me,” he said of accessing and viewing his personal family history.
Abrams was part of a delegation of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish leaders from New York and California who visited Salt Lake City March 13 and 14 — touring the Church’s vast welfare facilities and the newly renovated Jordan River Utah Temple, meeting with Latter-day Saint leaders and seeing firsthand the safeguards the Church has established to prevent the proxy baptism of Jewish Holocaust victims.
The group met with several of the Church’s General Authorities and officers.
“I think it is so important for communities to get to know each other better,” Abrams said. “In my view there is nothing more noble than to extend the hand of friendship — of one person to another, of one community to another, of one faith to another. We are living in a world filled with enormous division. I believe it is important to pursue the path of human understanding.”
The visit was one of many between Latter-day Saint and Jewish leaders held in Salt Lake City, New York City and Jerusalem during the past 10 years.
“It is a wonderful thing to have good and honorable people of all faiths who are brought together primarily because of faith and family and a desire to improve and bless people’s lives,” said Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who numbers Abrams and other Jewish leaders among his closest friends.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Presidency of the Seventy said many Church leaders have reached out to those of other faiths and found those relationships to be “mutually rewarding.”
Abrams said there is a “spirit of bonding” between the LDS and Jewish communities, in part because of numerous fundamental similarities. “Both have a very strong commitment to family. Both have a very strong commitment to education. Both have a very strong commitment to charity,” he said. “Both feel a strong sense of responsibility when calamities strike somewhere in the world.”
The Jewish and LDS communities are similar in size as far as numbers worldwide and share a similar strong work ethic, he added. And both have known and suffered from persecution.
“When you bring all these elements together that is a very strong bond. … There is an instant rapport that binds them together,” said Abrams.
Those similarities are also seen in the temple, where Jewish visitors see symbolism from the Old Testament.
“It is poignant for those of the Jewish faith to enter the temple,” said John Taylor, director of Interfaith Relations, Church Public Affairs Department. “They understand the concept of promises and covenants. They also understand the importance of leaving the world better than we found it.”
Elder Cook, Elder Dale G. Renlund, Sister Joy D. Jones, Elder Larry Y. Wilson and Bishop Dean M. Davies escorted the Jewish rabbi delegation when they visited the Jordan River Utah Temple open house. In addition to the Jordan River temple open house, Abrams has toured the Church’s Manhattan, Philadelphia and Oquirrh Mountain temples.
LDS temples are “an amazing oasis” from the outside world, Abrams said. “I had an incredibly peaceful feeling when I left. They are magnificent structures of fine craftsmanship that lend dignity to the prayerful contemplation that takes place in the buildings.”
However, the others in the delegation — representing the next generation of Jewish leadership — had never been inside an LDS temple before.
“Only good can come out of mutual understanding,” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who has also enjoyed personal relationships with Jewish leaders since the early 2000s.
In addition to delegations visiting Salt Lake City, Elder Cook and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland traveled with Jewish dignitaries — including Abrams, former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis Joseph Potasnik — to Jerusalem in 2016 to mark the 175th anniversary of Elder Orson Hyde dedicating the land as a gathering place for the Jewish people.
Elder Cook remarked that Bob Abrams is warm and gracious and very capable. “We are enriched in our lives when we associate with wonderful people of other faiths,” said Elder Cook. “Friendships that enrich us are very important.” An exceptionally rewarding memory for Elder Cook and his wife, Mary, was attending a Shabbat hosted by Abrams and his wife, Diane, in their home. Elder Von G. Keetch, who died earlier this year, and his wife, Bernice, and Taylor and his wife, Jan, also attended the Shabbat.
Mutual understanding was also fostered during the recent visit to Salt Lake City as the Jewish delegation participated in a family history discussion with Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch.org, and Elder Bradley D. Foster, General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Family History Department, who demonstrated how the Church is living up to its agreements regarding performing proxy baptisms only for the ancestors of deceased family members.
The delegation learned of the Church’s investment — including the work of four full-time employees — to accomplish these goals.
Evidence of that “complete comfort” is the trust Abrams showed the Church by giving them information to access his personal family history.
“I marvel at the Church’s program of offering free service to anyone — any person of any faith — to learn more about their family history,” Abrams said.
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