The 50th anniversary celebration for Congregation Kol Ami on Sunday was also a celebration of community and connection as Rabbi Samuel Spector thanked government leaders and the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for their support of the small Jewish community in Salt Lake City.
Kol Ami is a unique Jewish congregation; it began when two different congregations joined forces — Congregation B'nai Israel, a congregation of reformed Jews, and Congregation Montefiore, which was a group of conservative Jews. The congregation, with about 350 families, is about one-fourth of Utah's Jewish population.
"Fifty years ago, our community decided to do something incredibly bold, something that hadn't been done, really anywhere in the country. And that was bring two different movements of Judaism together, to create one community — Kol Ami — which means all our people," Rabbi Spector said.
He said something like that would only happen in Utah, where people look out for each other and love each other despite differences. Rabbi Spector said friends, family and the community coming together has inspired people around the world.
Rabbi Spector said when he learned he would be moving from a predominately Jewish community in Los Angeles to Utah, where a very small portion of people are Jewish, he called a friend who was a rabbi to ask him what it was like to be a minority group. Initially, the other rabbi said it was hard dealing with antisemitism, but then when he heard Rabbi Spector was going to Utah, the rabbi said, "Oh, Latter-day Saints love you guys."
His experience has confirmed that, Rabbi Spector said, along with the experience of Jewish people since they arrived in Utah 150 years ago. He said members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to Utah to escape persecution, which is similar to the background of many Jews.
"When we first came out here, we saw Latter-day Saints as our brothers and sisters, people who we shared a common narrative with, and so much in common," Rabbi Spector said.
He said Brigham Young gave them land for their first synagogue and put a stop to a boycott of Jewish businesses when one was organized. Rabbi Spector said the friendship between the two churches has been a gift to their community.
This support of the Jewish community from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was apparent at the celebration, as multiple leaders from the church attended, and Rabbi Spector said the church sponsored multiple tables.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong, of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said it was "a special honor and pleasure" to be there, and congratulated the congregation on their anniversary.
He said the church has had a friendship with Jewish congregations in Utah for far longer than 50 years, and said Joseph Smith expressed the hope that Jerusalem would be redeemed and the children of Judah would begin to return to the land given to Abraham.
"Your dedication to Jewish education, ritual and service to others is an inspiration to all. As your Latter-day Saint neighbors, we appreciate your eagerness to link arms in lifting family, friends and neighbors with knowledge and mutual respect our communities enjoy," Elder Gong said.
He said the church hopes the relationship between the two churches will continue to grow.
Rabbi Spector said it has been "incredibly touching" to see leadership from major political parties reaching out to see how they can help the Jewish community, despite the religion being a very small minority. He said politicians have proven time and time again that they will support the Jewish community.
Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall each spoke at the celebration.
Mendenhall said although the Jewish population is fewer than 2% of the state of Utah, it has a far greater positive impact on the community
Henderson said, "We care about our communities. We care not only about what unites us as Utahns but the things that make us different and unique. We believe that harmony is being different together, and that's what this congregation represents."
She said the relationship between government and faith communities is important to the state's history, and she looks forward to the next 50 years of the congregation. Henderson read a proclamation recognizing May 2023 as the 50th anniversary of the Kol Ami congregation.