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Bloggers trumpet bond between Mormons and Jews

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, once had a conversation with future LDS President Ezra Taft Benson.

“There are no people in the world who understand the Jews like the Mormons,” Ben-Gurion said.

“We need to know more about the Jews, and the Jews ought to know more about the Mormons,” Elder Benson responded.

Several years later, two Mormons are blogging to bring Mormons and Jews together.

Mark Paredes writes about Jews and Mormons in the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, where there are more than 600,000 Jews. Christa Woodall does the same for J., Northern California’s Jewish news weekly.

The two met recently at the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City, where Paredes spoke for an hour on the topic of “Mormons and Jews in the Latter Days: A Zion Relationship.”

“Latter-day Saints and Jews are two peoples with a unique message chosen to spread the word,” Paredes told more than 50 people in attendance.

Paredes, a Michigan native, was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 11. He served an LDS mission to Italy and later graduated from BYU. Paredes currently serves on the LDS Public Affairs committee for Southern California and as a stake high councilor.

His interest in Judaism came at a young age. Friends of his family were Jewish, including his father’s boss. Paredes' brother attended a Jewish nursery school. He had a Jewish pen pal, and he listened when Holocaust survivors came to his school.

After Paredes became a U.S. diplomat, he felt impressed to study Hebrew and was assigned to work as a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. He later became the press attaché to the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.

Over the years, Paredes has immersed himself in the Jewish religion and culture, developing in the process a greater love and appreciation for the Jewish people. Through those experiences, he has found a level of reciprocal acceptance that is accorded to few non-Jews.

“I've emceed the Los Angeles Israel Festival for three years, and the local Israeli community chose me to emcee the bilingual Yom Hazikaron ceremony [Israeli Memorial Day] a few years ago," Paredes said. "To gain that kind of credibility, not only do you need to show that you love them, but you also need to show a desire to get to know them. It takes a long time, and there are no shortcuts."

Woodall worked as an intern for the Michael Medved Show in Seattle, during college, before taking courses on Judaism at BYU. She has worked for the Orange County Register and currently lives in Draper, Utah.

Woodall was approached by after editors noticed the success Paredes was having at the Jewish Journal. A friend who worked with Woodall at the Register recommended her for the job. Having served in a LDS Church public affairs calling, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.

“What a great bridge-building opportunity,” Woodall said. “So often there are misunderstandings and misconceptions that come between different communities of faith, so it is important to open a dialogue. My goal is not to convert anybody but just to help provide a better understanding of the LDS church and clear up any misunderstandings.”

Despite living in Utah, Woodall hopes to more effectively reach her audience by meeting and networking with religious leaders in Northern California.

“It takes face time,” she said. “I will be going out there to meet some people and make some connections. It will pay off down the road.”

We can all be bridge builders, she added.

“I didn’t know that being friends with a reporter who happened to be Jewish would lead to this opportunity, but it has," Woodall said. "The Lord will place us all in positions where we can make a difference as long as we are open to doing the work."

During his remarks at the Jewish Community Center, Paredes offered five suggestions for how Mormons can develop friendships with Jews.

First, he said, don’t try to convert them. Second, show support for Israel by attending Israel-related events in the Jewish community, contacting elected officials where appropriate, and taking other actions to promote peace and increase understanding. Third, pray for the Jewish people. Fourth, start a conversation about mutual interests, including genealogical research. Fifth, join a Jewish organization or group that shares their interests.

“One thing we must do when analyzing our relationship with Jews is to distinguish our church from other Christian churches, many of which have a history of anti-Semitism,” Paredes said.

Highlights in Jewish-Mormon History

A “School of the Prophets” was founded in 1833 to provide secular and spiritual instruction to LDS Church leaders and members. Hebrew was a featured course of study and the instructor was Joshua Seixas, son of Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas, rabbi of Shearith Israel in New York.

In 1839 the Latter-day Saints founded the town of Nauvoo. Joseph Smith got the name from “naveh” (oasis) in Hebrew, and the town in its heyday rivaled Chicago in size.

On Oct. 24, 1841, LDS apostle Orson Hyde offered a prayer on the Mount of Olives dedicating the land of Israel for the gathering of the Jews. The Orson Hyde Memorial Garden was dedicated in 1979 on the Mount of Olives by church President Spencer W. Kimball and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who also awarded Pres. Kimball the medal of the city of Jerusalem. In addition, a park honoring Orson Hyde was dedicated in 2005 at Netanya Academic College in Israel, where a chair in Mormon Studies was established. Apostle George A. Smith rededicated the land of Israel for the gathering of the Jews in 1873. The land of Israel received at least 11 apostolic blessings before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Two apostles (including future LDS Church President David O. McKay) were in Jerusalem in 1921 when the Allenby proclamation was made. Mormon pioneers arrived in the Utah territory in 1847. The first Jews arrived in 1849. The first Jewish worship service was held in 1864 in Salt Lake City. Rosh Hashana was celebrated in Temple Square in 1865. Brigham Young donated his personal land for a Jewish cemetery in 1866. The High Holy Days were celebrated in the Seventies Hall in 1867.

In 1903, church President Joseph F. Smith spoke at the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for the state’s first Orthodox synagogue, which was largely paid for by the LDS Church. Heber J. Grant (church President from 1918-1945), a strong critic of anti-Semitism, was a Jewish National Fund booster. He pointed to the Balfour declaration as a divine portent and called for the Saints to look forward to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

BYU began sending students to study in Jerusalem in 1968. A permanent facility on Mt. Scopus was opened in 1987. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir toured Israel in 1993 and performed with the Jerusalem Symphony. Prominent LDS scholars serve with Prof. Emanuel Tov of Hebrew University on the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation (BYU was asked to digitize the scrolls). The church donated $50,000 to Magen David Adom (Israeli Red Cross) in Israel during the recent war in Lebanon. An additional $30,000 was sent in 2007.