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How Elder Quentin L. Cook, Robert Abrams model interfaith friendships for Jews and Latter-day Saints

Friendship includes positive action, sharing a Jewish Sabbath meal together and more

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Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Elder Quentin L. Cook and former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams enjoy a laugh in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Elder Quentin L. Cook, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, center, laughs with Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, left, and former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams in Brooklyn on Friday, March 4, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

This article was first published in the ChurchBeat newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Wednesday night.

Thomas L. Kane was curious when he first heard about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1800s. So he attended one of its conferences in the eastern United States.

Kane never joined the church. His Christian wife lamented his lack of faith. But Kane spent most of the rest of his days crisscrossing the United States and lobbying U.S. presidents on behalf of the Latter-day Saints.

Brigham Young once marveled at Kane’s commitment, saying “from some cause he feels very much interested in behalf of our people.”

Last week, I asked former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams, a faithful Jewish man from the Bronx, what causes him to be so interested on behalf of Latter-day Saints today.

“Well, first of all, I think there is much that the Jewish community has in common with the LDS community,” he said a few hours before he was presented with the J. Reuben Clark Law Society’s Thomas L. Kane Award by senior Latter-day Saint leaders.

“I was ticking off various values,” he continued. “You know, they believe, they have deep faith, they believe in God. They believe in education. They believe in family. They believe in helping other people. They believe in philanthropy. They’re a small community but growing. They’ve suffered persecution, discrimination and yet they’ve held their head high, and they have moved forward and they’ve grown. I widely respect the kind of contributions they bring to the total community and to the discussion and debate. While there may be a different perspective on a given issue or two, they’re very civil about it. We can talk to one another, we can love one another. These are the messages that come forth from the leadership of the LDS Church. And I think those are important messages.”

It wasn’t just talk. A second question elicited some of the similarities between Kane and Abrams.

I asked Abrams if he was aware that Kane was an abolitionist who worked on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, helping slaves escape the American South.

“He was a man of incredible positive actions and values,” Abrams said. “Obviously, the underground railroad has a history in New York, too. It’s such an honor for so many reasons to many reasons to get an award bearing his name and I’m just thrilled.”

Last week, I wrote about how Abrams helped broker a critical repair in Jewish-Latter-day Saint relations.

That isn’t the only time he has modeled “positive actions.”

For example, the Commission of Religious Leaders in New York historically excluded the Latter-day Saints.

“When I learned that I was really deeply hurt and moved by that, concerned about it,” Abrams said. “I talked to my friend, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, who represented the Jewish community at that council. I said, ‘It’s not right, Joe. It’s not right.’ And through his efforts, the LDS Church now has an appropriate seat at that table with every other religion.”

Rabbi Potasnik and other members of the commission will be at BYU this week to join the university’s Religious Freedom Annual Review summit.

“There are many, many, many things that we can do for each other, together with each other, helping each other and helping the cause of humanity,” Abrams said.

One of those, he noted, is sharing one another’s traditions. He talked about two examples.

One was about Abrams’ son-in-law, who is a modern Orthodox Rabbi in Jerusalem. Since Abrams and Elders Jeffrey R. Holland and Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles headed up a delegation to visit Israel, the rabbi has invited students from BYU’s Jerusalem Center to his congregation’s Friday night services.

The other was about Elder Cook.

“My wife and I have shared a Sabbath dinner with Elder Cook and (and his wife) Mary and Elder Von Keetch and his wife and John Taylor, the former head of interfaith activities for the church, and his wife, Jen,” Abrams said.

“It just shows the opportunity that life can bring you, because it’s been a blessing for me,” he added. “It’s been a blessing for my family. They hear me speak with passion about my relationships. ... This has become an important part of of our family.”

Abrams, Latter-day Saint leaders and leaders from the New York interfaith commission aren’t finished building bridges of understanding, Abrams said.

COVID-19 disrupted plans for Latter-day Saint leaders to visit other religious congregations in Manhattan, on Long Island and in Westchester County, New York.

“I want to get that back on track,” Abrams said. “There’s tremendous potential for all of us of different faiths, different religions.”

My recent stories

How a friendship helped repair the relationship between Latter-day Saints and the Jewish community (June 9)

Gunman at Hill Cumorah fires 22 shots, no one injured at Latter-day Saint visitors’ center (June 8)

About the church

How does the travel of the apostles look different after the pandemic? Read what they said here.

In case you missed it, police arrested a man in the shooting incident at the Hill Cumorah Visitors’ Center.

The church revised its rendering of the Yorba Linda California Temple a few days ahead of the groundbreaking ceremony, which takes place Saturday.

Two Latter-day Saint athletes won NCAA track championships over the past week. Courtney Wayment won the women’s steeplechase in record time and Ashton Riner won the women’s javelin title.

Here’s what a new study found about Latter-day Saint missionaries returning to college sports.

Returning Latter-day Saint missionaries should be screened for tuberculosis.

Did you know that show-stopping Tabernacle Choir organist Richard Elliott nearly quit his musical career before it began? I didn’t, either. Here’s the story.

The Utah tech mogul who is using his data chops to research and educate people online about his Latter-day Saint faith.

The church was listed by Glassdoor as one of the best 100 U.S. places to work.

The church selected nearly 150 new pieces of art by Latter-day Saint artists around the world for a free exhibition at the Church History Museum starting Thursday and continuing through April 3, 2023. The selections were made at the church’s 12th International Art Competition.

What I’m reading

I’m really busy reading all of the stories I can find about the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and subsequent reporting and hearings and convictions and more. As a reporter, I enjoy “All the President’s Men,” both the book and the movie.

Here’s an excellent piece on how the screenplay was shaped, with information about Robert Redford’s deep desire to make the movie (paywall).

Harvard’s Nieman Lab for journalism had a great story about how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s editor initially was given equal credit for The Washington Post’s work to find the truth only to be left out of the movie and, therefore, much of the history about it.

My wife and I watched with fascination a new four-part documentary produced by and starring John Dean, who was Richard Nixon’s general counsel and served a prison term. We thought the entire time about Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s experience as a clerk in Judge John Sirica’s courtroom, where the Watergate burglars and Dean were tried and convicted. Elder Christofferson spoke to me about that experience, which you can read here.

Behind the scenes

Robert Abrams accepts the Thomas L. Kane Award from from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on June 9, 2022.

Robert Abrams accepts the Thomas L. Kane Award from Elder Quentin L. Cook, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022. At left is Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Abrams’ wife Diane. At right is Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of The New York Board of Rabbis.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News