Mark Paredes is author of the blog Jews and Mormons for the The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, a 150,000-circulation weekly newspaper.
A Mormon, Paredes was previously the executive director of the western region of the Zionist Organization of America, the national director of Latino outreach for the American Jewish Congress, the press attache for the consulate general of Israel, and a U.S. diplomat in Israel and Mexico.
The Michigan native, who will be delivering "pro-Jewish speeches" in three languages in five European countries in September, spoke about Mormon-Jewish relations, Mormon theology and Mormon art.
Most people would be surprised to hear there is a beat of Mormon-Jewish issues, let alone enough fodder to be writing on the topic for the Jewish Journal. Why do you think your chosen field has received so little attention to date?
There are several reasons. First of all, until the last decade, few if any Jewish organizations hired Mormons, and few Mormons thought to look for employment in the Jewish community. Thankfully, that dynamic has changed. In Los Angeles alone, Mormons have worked or are working at the Jewish Federation, the Consulate General of Israel, ARMDI (Israeli Red Cross), ORT, a major Reform synagogue and an ultra-Orthodox school. In addition, a Mormon currently serves as the chief of staff for the Israeli ambassador in Australia. These pioneers, and others around the world, are furthering interfaith understanding in remarkable ways.
In the past, most Mormons who worked to promote closer relations with Jews were Jewish converts to the Church. For obvious reasons, the efforts of these converts to reach out to the Jewish community were almost always rebuffed. While a few former Jews are still actively promoting LDS-Jewish rapprochement, they are not currently used by the Church in its official outreach efforts. We do not seek to proselytize through these official programs, and calling Jewish converts as our ambassadors to the Jewish community would send the wrong message.
Finally, there is a growing realization in Jewish communities worldwide that they need allies, especially non-Jewish ones. Jewish leaders who might have hesitated to accept support from Christian churches 15 or 20 years ago are now showing up at Evangelical rallies and seeking to win over pastors at Protestant General Assemblies. It's a different world now for Jewish interfaith outreach, and I firmly believe that there is a place for Mormons in it.
As someone who has spent a lot of time in both Mormon and Jewish communities, how would you compare and contrast the ways Jews respond to Mormons and to Mormonism, and the ways Mormons respond to Jews and Judaism?
I've found that when Jews hear the word "Mormon," they usually think of one of two things: our missionaries or our genealogy work. It's impossible to overstate Jews' sensitivity to anything that smacks of conversion attempts, and Mormons who attempt to build bridges of friendship to the Jewish community have to spend much time at the outset building trust and reassuring Jewish contacts of their pure intentions. On the other hand, Jewish reaction to our genealogy program is usually very positive, since there is no church or other non-Jewish organization that has done nearly as much to help Jews find their ancestors as the LDS Church.
Recent years have witnessed a marked increase in the number of Jews interested in genealogy, and our church has over 4,000 family history centers available around the world to help Jewish patrons access the vast genealogical records stored by the Church. In this city we enjoy an excellent working relationship with the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles, and are proud to have consulted with the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance on its remarkable genealogy exhibit, "Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves," which happens to feature Mormon athlete Steve Young. Our regional Family History Center is open to the public and offers free courses on Jewish genealogy (it is scheduled to reopen in the fall).
As for Mormonism and Mormon theology, most Jews are not terribly interested in the details of Christian belief systems because they are often presented to them in a boring and/or insulting way. By way of contrast, hundreds of Jews showed up at a synagogue and LDS stake center earlier this year in St. Louis to hear a rabbi and me conduct a theological dialogue. If a presentation on LDS beliefs is Judeo-centric and non-proselytizing in nature, Jews respond positively. Mormon-centric presentations are of less interest to them.
Mormons, on the other hand, have always responded very positively to both Jews and Judaism. In fact, the first two Jewish governors elected in the U.S. were in Idaho (1914) and Utah (1916), the two states with the highest percentage of Mormons. Salt Lake City had a Jewish mayor 42 years before New York City, and the LDS Church was the first major church to purchase Israel bonds. When you consider that Mormons believe themselves to be modern-day members of the House of Israel who have prophets, temples, and the priesthood of God, it's not hard to see why they identify so strongly with Jews and their faith.
Is there a such thing as Mormon-Jewish art? If so, what are some of your favorite works in that genre?
Other than the Hanukkah song written by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, I'm unaware of any Mormon creative works directed at the Jewish community. However, it sounds like a great idea.
The Second Commandment and the notion of idolatry is something that has troubled many Jewish artists throughout the centuries. How have Mormon artists, who recognize the modern prophecy of Joseph Smith (who was alive when the daguerreotype was invented), responded to the project representing God and prophets?
LDS artists have long depicted God, Jesus Christ (we are non-Trinitarians, so for us they are separate beings), and prophets both ancient and modern in Church-sponsored artistic works. Since we do not use images in our worship (e.g., icons), and we do not worship prophets, there is no concern that these depictions of deity will lead to idolatrous worship.
Many people erroneously think Judaism is a religion with a really long tradition while Mormonism was just born in the 19th century. To what extent have Mormon artists considered themselves part of a longer religious artistic tradition?
Thank you for pointing out that Mormons believe that their religion is an eternal one, and that the first "Mormon" on earth was Adam, not Joseph Smith. We also believe that the modern version of the Church is the restored church that Jesus established on the earth 2,000 years ago. However, although Mormon artists may consider themselves to be Israelites and spiritual heirs to the early Christians, their works are generally considered to be a new artistic tradition. After all, artists were not painting Book of Mormon prophets or sculpting replicas of modern temples 2,000 years ago.
What are some of your favorite examples of Mormon art?
In terms of artistic expression, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and our beautiful temples have to top my list. If we're talking about paintings, I love to see LDS artists' depictions of the life of Jesus in the Holy Land.
A lot of what folks who are not Mormons are likely to hear about the church comes from ex-Mormons. What are some of the free online resources that you would recommend to readers interested in hearing an unbiased account of Mormonism?
In my opinion, www.mormon.org, an LDS-Church sponsored website, is the best way to learn what the church's official beliefs, statements, and practices are.
In addition, site visitors can chat with church representatives online. The church's official website, www.lds.org, is another resource, though it is not quite as user-friendly for non-members. The leading Mormon apologetics site, www.fairlds.org, has an "Ask the Apologist" feature that provides timely answers to questions submitted online. Readers desiring to learn more about the Mormon community can visit www.mormontimes.com, www.ldschurchnews.com, and www.meridianmagazine.com.
Although I am not an official church spokesman, I'd be happy to answer questions sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can you talk a little bit about your own background and how you became interested in Judaism and Mormonism?
My family joined the LDS Church in Michigan, and I was baptized when I was 11. I am the only member of my family that has remained active in the church. By coincidence, I am also the only sinner in my family.
I am often asked why I chose to spend eight years of my professional life working in the organized Jewish community. Truth be told, for me it was never a conscious choice; Jews have played a continuous role in my life from childhood, and I jumped at a chance to get paid to work for their benefit. My brother attended the preschool at Temple Israel in Bay City, Michigan -- the city's best -- upon the recommendation of my father's kind Jewish boss, Mark Jaffe. The equally kind rabbi of Temple Israel, Dov Edelstein, invited our Mormon congregation to tour the temple one evening. I will never forget the feeling I had while viewing Torah scrolls for the first time and hearing of the rabbi's journey from Auschwitz to mid-Michigan. I truly felt at home, and I left the temple with a deep impression that Judaism would impact my life in a profound way in the future. Over the next few years I checked out the Berlitz Hebrew book from the library a dozen times in vain attempts to decipher the exotic, backward script. It was not the last time that I would feel prompted to study the language.
I began college as a Russian major. During my semester abroad in Moscow, I volunteered as an interpreter for Time correspondent Nancy Traver. As luck would have it, she chose to file stories about Russian Jews, and we visited the city's main synagogue several times. I still have vivid memories of prayers offered for the welfare of the Soviet state, videos of Israel shown to eager would-be emigres, and a rushed phone conversation on deadline involving Nancy, me, Esther and Purim.
Moscow was my first encounter with racism and anti-Semitism, and I left Russia with profound respect and love for the oppressed Jews who had opened up their lives to me. What I could not understand at the time was why people who were not particularly religious, people who by and large did not have an abiding faith in God, would risk social ostracism and discrimination by gathering regularly in a synagogue simply to reaffirm their peoplehood.
While serving as a diplomat in Guadalajara, Mexico, I received two spiritual promptings one evening that would set my professional course for the next two decades. I felt that I needed to begin studying Hebrew immediately and hired a private Israeli tutor from the Colegio Israelita de Guadalajara, the local Jewish school. After six months of lessons, I received a cable from the State Department informing me that my next assignment would be [...] the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. I arrived in Israel after spending time in Washington studying Hebrew and taking a seminar taught by German Arabist Peter Bechtold (currently at Portland State), and my framework for viewing the Arab-Israeli conflict was established while working at an embassy run by peace advocate Amb. Martin Indyk in a country besieged by suicide bombers. I prayed every day for the ability to spiritually discern what was behind the carnage on display, especially after viewing both the immediate aftermath of a horrific bus bombing in central Tel Aviv and the panic on Kings of Israel Square after Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. By the end of my tour in Israel, my spiritual request had been granted.
My involvement with the Jewish community in Los Angeles began with a job referral from Keith Atkinson, the LDS Church's legendary director of public affairs in Los Angeles. During our first meeting in his office, Keith called Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem (currently the Israeli ambassador to Australia) and told him that he had found a press attache for him. Yuval and I met the following day, and he ended the interview after 10 minutes by informing me that if I could discuss camels in Mauritania with him in Hebrew, I could do the job. The rest, as they say, is history.
Follow Menachem Wecker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mwecker