How a friendship helped repair the relationship between Latter-day Saints and the Jewish community
Apostles honor Robert Abrams with the Thomas L. Kane Award for his friendship in helping heal pain caused by past improper proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims
When the long, friendly history between two global religions threatened to fracture in 2009 because some Latter-day Saints improperly performed proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims, the repairer of the breach was the product of a simple friendship.
“There was a moment of tension at the onset of this relationship,” said Robert Abrams, 83, who was honored by two Latter-day Saint apostles on Wednesday and received the prestigious Thomas L. Kane Award from the J. Reuben Clark Law Society.
Abrams, a Bronx-born Jewish attorney and former New York Attorney General, was hired about 20 years ago by Latter-day Saint lawyers to help a client with an environmental issue in New York.
A few years later, Abrams said in an interview, “I was alerted to something that really was a divider and a separator between our two communities, because survivors of the Holocaust and the Jewish community were upset that names of those who perished in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis were being submitted during the proxy baptism process by the LDS Church.”
But the simple friendship begun by Abrams and the Latter-day Saint lawyers already led to expanded relationships that would overcome what initially appeared to be an irreparable rupture.
“Like Thomas Kane, Robert Abrams’ contribution to a church and faith of which he is not a member is truly inspiring,” said Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “He intervened in our behalf to enhance a relationship with Ernie Michel, the chairman of the Holocaust Survivors Association, and establish a relationship with Elie Wiesel, historic Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
“The good will that was created made it possible to formally issue a joint statement that established policies and practices to deal with core concerns that are respectful of Holocaust victims and consistent with our doctrine.”
Elder Cook, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve and others presented Abrams with the award in a ceremony at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City.
Abrams and his wife Diane also met for an hour Wednesday with the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He called it an incredible honor “that we will never forget for all of our days,” he said.
Kane and the award are deeply significant for Latter-day Saints, said Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the church.
Kane generously and tirelessly worked as a friend of the church, helping convince one U.S. president to form the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican War. Past church presidents have credited Kane for, among other accomplishments, saving the Latter-day Saint settlement of Utah in the 1850s, when U.S. President James Buchanan sent an army west and Brigham Young began to act on a plan to abandon the Salt Lake Valley.
“It’s remarkable,” Abrams said. “I would never have dreamt that a young Jewish liberal lawyer would one day be in this situation and be the recipient of such a wonderful award.”
He encouraged the members of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society to each be a Kane-like figure “who engages with understanding and who befriends those in circles beyond your own.
“Your efforts to build bridges will take you to surprising places that you never envisioned,” he added. “You will encounter unique experiences, newfound friendships and the knowledge that you have done your part to help create the unity necessary to maintain a strong and vibrant nation. Let this be the message and legacy of this event.”
The initial friendship expanded when Abrams led a delegation of significant Jewish leaders to Utah in 2009 and Elder Holland and Elder Cook led them on a special tour during the Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple open house that included the area where proxy baptisms are performed.
Latter-day Saint leaders teach that proxy baptisms for deceased family members is a loving offer that those family members can decide to accept or not. Leaders instruct members not to perform proxy ordinances for celebrities or for famous or historical people to whom they are not related.
Later in 2009, the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants held a press conference criticizing Latter-day Saints for proxy baptisms on behalf of those who died in the Holocaust and that efforts to reach a compromise had failed.
Church leaders turned to their new friend Abrams for counsel.
Abrams brokered additional discussion between Latter-day Saint leaders and the American Gathering and in 2010, the two issued a joint statement that the church had agreed to stop the practice.
“To the church’s credit, they understood the anguish and the pain that was felt in the Jewish community,” Abrams said in an interview. “As a result of dialogue, faith and trust in each other, hearing each other out, a statement was created by us which we released publicly and steps were undertaken so that there was a carveout that that kind of practice wouldn’t happen going forward. That was a remarkable step taken by the leadership of the church, a sign of enormous sensitivity.”
Since then, the friendship has continued to expand. When Abrams learned that the 175th anniversary of Latter-day Saint apostle Orson Hyde’s visit to the Holy Land was approaching in 2016, he asked Elder Holland and Elder Cook to help create a joint delegation to Israel.
“There’s this tremendous capacity for the two communities to share things,” Abrams said. “When we were in Israel together. We met with the mayor of Jerusalem, we met with the prime minister, we went and laid a wreath at the eternal flame at the Yad Vashem, which is the (official) memorial for those who perished in the Holocaust.”
Abrams’ son-in-law, Rabbi Ian Pear, leads the congregation Shir Hadash in Jerusalem. The congregation now has a relationship with the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern studies. Students have attended Friday night services.
Another delegation of Jewish leaders visited Utah in 2018 and relationships have been built between the presidents of Yeshiva University and BYU and between other rabbis and Latter-day Saint leaders. Abrams also helped the church join the Commission of Religious Leaders of New York City.
In his acceptance speech, Abrams quoted President Russell M. Nelson about building bridges of understanding and President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, about “living peacefully with some persons whose values differ from our own.”
“We need bridge builders,” Abrams said in an interview. “We need people of understanding. you should respect me for who I am and I should respect you for who you are.”
Abrams acknowledged the differences between the two faiths but said he isn’t done finding common ground.
“Once we began to march on that path together, that path widened, and I think there’s even more for us to do,” he said.
He ticked off the shared values he has discovered between the two faiths, which are of similar sizes both in the United States and globally.
“Each has a fundamental focus on family, each places a very high value on education, each has a strong commitment to charitable giving, each demonstrates humanitarian concern and response when there are international catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes around the globe, each has a history of disproportionate success due to ability, hard work and determination and each has been subjected to fierce persecution and prejudice,” he said.
Elder Cook described Abrams’ life achievements as remarkable. The Justice Building for New York State in Albany was renamed the Robert Abrams Building for Law and Justice. He served as a New York state assemblyman and as president of the National Association of Attorneys General.
The law society provided those who attended Wednesday’s award ceremony with copies of Abrams’ new book, “The Luckiest Guy in the World.”
Elder Cook also recognized Abrams’ wife, Diane, a lawyer who went to school with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and who taught the first course on “Women and the Law” course in American law school history at the University of Pennsylvania.