A symposium on the Dead Sea Scrolls took place recently within sight of a replica of the rustic log home where the Angel Moroni told the boy Joseph Smith about the ancient record from which the Book of Mormon was translated.
"I've never spoken to a group this large," said Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, chairman of New York University's Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, as he looked out over the crowd of 1,100 packed into the Palmyra New York Stake Center on March 2 .
The two-day symposium featuring two of the world's pre-eminent scroll scholars was the crowning event of a traveling display of the Dead Sea Scroll facsimiles at the Hill Cumorah Visitors Center.
No one expected so many people to show up. "We prayed there would be people in just the chapel area," said Holly Tuttle, co-director of the Cumorah Region Public Affairs Council. The Sunday evening event ended up looking more like a stake conference with chairs stretched far into the cultural hall.
The symposium was the first chance for the new public affairs council, a joint effort between the Rochester and Palmyra stakes, to build "bridges of communication, understanding and tolerance within our communities," said Boyd Tuttle, co-chairman of the council.
With the well-traveled scroll exhibit on display at the visitors center through the end of March, local leaders wondered how to turn widespread interest in the scrolls into something that could draw a large, local crowd.
Council members approached several scholars around the country about speaking at the symposium. They found willing participants in colleagues, Dr. Schiffman and Dr. Donald Parry of Brigham Young University, both of whom are renowned for their scroll work. Dr. Parry led a tour of the scrolls exhibit on Saturday; a fireside that evening presented an LDS perspective of the scrolls. Dr. Schiffman, in keeping with his Orthodox Jewish faith, led the tours Sunday.
More than 725 people attended the small lectures and tours Saturday and Sunday, giving the visitors center its highest weekend attendance all year. The scroll exhibit had already increased non-LDS visitors to the center from 20 in January 2007 to 598 this January.
"We had a number of comments from clergy and others about what a wonderful thing it was to bring the community together in something like that," said Elder Bryan Weston, director of the Hill Cumorah Visitors Center.
On Sunday evening Dr. Parry and Dr. Schiffman spoke for two hours on various aspects of the scrolls, the challenges of their translation and their significance to Jewish and Christian history.
"I'm not really up to speed on Hebrew and Aramaic, but otherwise I thought it was a very good evening," said the Rev. Jack Lee, a Roman Catholic priest and retired university professor who spent 25 summers doing archaeological research in Israel. Referring to the ecumenical nature of the evening the Rev. Lee quipped, "We were knee deep in Mormon bishops."
"I was very moved by the effort that was made to introduce people to one another," said Richard Rosenfield, cantor of the Temple Beth-El in Geneva, N.Y. "If I understood it right, there were prayers and things that were more Christian-oriented that were left out. I appreciated the great effort to be cognizant of other people's sensitivities."
Palmyra New York Stake President Jeffrey Clark reminded the audience that two "good men used their talents to bring greater knowledge of God's nature and relationship with His children to many." He also commented that the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls went to great lengths to hide the scrolls "to protect that which was most precious to them — the word of God — for future generations. The word of God should be that important to all of us, and we should make equal efforts to keep it protected within us."
Rabbi Shaya Kilimnick of the Rochester Congregation Beth Sholom said President Clark's comments helped him form a new understanding of the LDS people. "Now I can see why the Mormons felt more connected to (the scrolls). It's that experience of finding an ancient document," the Rabbi Kilimnick said.
Two rabbis offered readings in a Hebrew language not far removed from that of the scrolls' authors. The meeting closed with the Chanting of the Prophets, singing in an ancient rhythm the last portion of Isaiah 66.
"I think it was a beautiful way to express our commitment to our Creator and to create a comfort level where we could all come together," Rabbi Kilimnick said. "I imagine people left there with some unique and novel insights into the Dead Sea Scrolls."
Bob Gullo, a non-LDS historian who once studied for the Catholic priesthood, said the evening was a wonderful way for the Church to be known for more in the community than just the famed Hill Cumorah Pageant.
"When people don't know about LDS members, the tendency is to become negative," he said. "The more visible Mormons make themselves and their ceremonies is a big plus. It can only build respect for the Mormon people. The idea is to get along as God's children, and I think you're trying hard to do that."