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Hebrew is not commonly spoken, let alone sung, in Latter-day Saint temples.

Last week, a Latter-day Saint leader and a group of Utah’s Jewish leaders suddenly found themselves singing Psalm 133 together, in Hebrew, in a sealing room at the end of a tour during the public open house of the Taylorsville Utah Temple.

They will never forget it, and not just because it was in Hebrew.

“Chills were rising on our skin and tears were forming in our eyes, and when we finished we all knew that we had just been a part of and witnessed something very special and very meaningful that really took our breath away,” said Alex Shapiro, executive director of the United Jewish Federation of Utah.

The spontaneity made it special, but it’s important to note that the moment didn’t appear ex nihilo. It was built on a shared love of scripture. And of temples. And covenants. But most of all, it doesn’t happen without friendship and trust.

Shapiro, whose children are rare fourth-generation Jewish Utahns, has been friends for about 15 years now with Rob Howell, senior manager of interfaith relations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They’ve attended multiple temple open houses in that time. They’re part of an interfaith group that meets for lunch about every six weeks.

Shapiro says every temple tour has been special. He described them as heartwarming, and noted that President Jeffrey R. Holland led one tour for his group during the Draper Utah Temple open house in 2009. But, he said, last week’s tour ended up differently than the rest.

Shapiro invites different groups of Jewish leaders with him each time. This time, he gathered up 18 for the tour, which was joined by Howell and some other Latter-day Saints who foster interfaith relations.

“When people walk in first,” Shapiro said, “I think they’re expecting to walk into a big, giant cathedral with a large, open space and pews, because people are used to visiting history of European cathedrals. Then they’re amazed to find a choreography of space and rooms and meaning that take place in a really organized way when one visits the temple or is married there.”

The tour lasted 2½ hours.

“We’re a talkative bunch,” Shapiro said. “We asked a lot of questions. That’s just how we’re trained. We go into a room and sit down and we talk.”

The leader of the tour was Elder Ahmad S. Corbitt, a General Authority Seventy. Before his ministry, he worked as a lawyer for and with Jewish attorneys and came to love them and respect their faith. Elder Corbitt also spent a decade in New York City as the head of the church’s Office of Public and International Affairs, where he was the point person for Jewish relations.

“I’ve attended Shabbat services and Bar Mitzvahs, Seders and Sukkots and brises and dinners with Jewish friends,” he said. He learned a lot of Hebrew and Yiddish along the way, including Psalm 133.

He enjoyed leading the temple tour because of the things Latter-day Saints and Jews have in common, he said, like temples themselves and covenants and being a covenant people.

The baptismal font in the temple is reminiscent of a mikvah, a Jewish sanctuary pool for ritual cleansing, he said. The 12 oxen who bear the pool in every single Latter-day Saint temple is taken from 1 Kings 7:23,25.

“Our Jewish friends recognize that immediately,” Elder Corbitt said. “It’s quite striking to them.”

The initiatory ceremony in Latter-day Saint temples comes from Exodus 40:12-16, where the people are instructed to wash, anoint and put on holy garments.

“The difference between ancient Judaism and the Restored Church is that that power and washing and anointing is received by both men and women equally, and it is administered by men and women,” Elder Corbitt said. “Our friends were fascinated to see that kind of priesthood power administered in the temple, both upon women and men and by women and men.”

In the endowment or instruction room, Elder Corbitt said it is a place where the temple ceremony essentially has Heavenly Father simulating the Plan of Salvation for his children and walking them through it, giving them increased light until, ultimately, they pass through the veil of the temple symbolizing death, and then into the celestial room, which is a representation of returning to his presence.

“He’s doing this divine role play for us,” Elder Corbitt said. “They really related when I said this is not unlike a Seder, where you act out what the children of Israel went through during the Passover, or Sukkot. Our Jewish friends have all sorts of rituals and holidays that remind them of their covenants, and that are essentially role plays or simulations of sacred moments and experiences, and we have the same.”

He also shared the sealing room, the site of marriages that bind Latter-day Saint families for eternity, and noted that he performed the sealing for his daughter and her husband two weeks ago. Some of the Jewish group was curious whether a sealing could be unsealed.

“They can get a ‘get,’” Elder Corbitt said, surprising the group with his knowledge of the Jewish term for an unsealing.

As the tour wound down and the group sat and talked about the goodness of being in the temple together, Elder Corbitt said the setting reminded him of Psalm 133:

  • “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
  • “It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments;
  • “As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.”

Psalm 133 is often sung by Jews when they gather for Sabbath services to break the ice, Shapiro said, or separate the cares of the rest of the week from the moment of worship.

When Elder Corbitt recited the Psalm in Hebrew, he startled the tour group.

“Yes,” one of the Jewish women on the tour said, “but can you sing it?”

He began to sing it.

The 18 Jewish leaders immediately joined in, and the chills rose and the tears flowed.

“It was an emotional, a spiritual and a unifying moment,” Elder Corbitt said. “Two covenant peoples singing together in the temple, the House of the Lord, as brothers and sisters. It was a tender moment.”

Shapiro said he appreciated Elder Corbitt’s ability to share and connect and draw parallels using Jewish traditions and culture and even Hebrew at appropriate times.

“The bigger picture is that I think it illustrates the bond and trust and the friendships we have amongst our communities,” Shapiro said. “It illustrates the willingness of both our communities to care for each other.”

Latter-day Saint temples and Jewish synagogues are both places the faithful go to separate themselves from the challenges they face and seek clarity and connect with God and their faith, he said.

Shapiro felt that while he sang with Elder Corbitt and the rest of his group because he felt unity and peace in what has been a turbulent time.

“Right now has been a very difficult time for the Jewish community in Salt Lake, in the United States and Israel and around the world,” he said. “It’s been a particularly difficult 6½ to seven months for us, so this couldn’t have been more special.”

“As we passed through the temple,” Elder Corbitt said, “the most important thing to the entire group was what happens in the temple more than the building itself.”

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Julie O’Leary, Lavine Shapiro, Dave O’Leary and Alex Shapiro pose for a photo at the Taylorsville Utah Temple.
Julie O’Leary, Lavine Shapiro, Dave O’Leary and Alex Shapiro pose for a photo outside the Taylorsville Utah Temple, which they toured together during the public open house on Monday, April 15, 2024. The O’Learys are Latter-day Saints with a calling to work with the interfaith community. Alex Shapiro is executive director of the United Jewish Federation of Utah. | Photo courtesy Jodie Sobel
A United Jewish Federation of Utah tour group poses outside the Taylorsville Utah Temple on Monday, April 15, 2024.
A United Jewish Federation of Utah tour group poses outside the Taylorsville Utah Temple on Monday, April 15, 2024. The group sang Psalm 133 in Hebrew with Latter-day Saint friends at the end of the tour. | Photo courtesy Jodie Sobel