Mormon’s Jewish Outreach Aims To Rebuild Bridges

By Jennifer Siegel

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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By day, Mark Paredes works for the American Jewish Congress, doing outreach to the Latino community of Los Angeles. But by night, Paredes, who happens to be a practicing Mormon, volunteers to build relationships with the Los Angeles Jewish community on behalf of his church.

At the seat of one of America’s largest communities of both Jews and Mormons, Paredes, 39, is working to build bridges between two communities that have longstanding ties but also a history of distrust. For years, Jewish leaders have called upon Mormon leaders to halt controversial posthumous baptisms of Jews by church members. Despite years of progress, the issue flared up again last December, when leaders of the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center discovered that the name of Wiesenthal, Holocaust survivor and famed Nazi hunter, appeared on the church’s baptism roll a year after his death in 2005.

The son of a white mother and black father, Paredes is working to counter negative feelings in the Jewish community through outreach that stresses Mormons’ historic support for Israel, and by sharing the information gleaned by their extensive genealogical research.

Paredes was a master of ceremonies at a May 8 reception held at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles by the Mormon Church, known officially as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The purpose of the event, sponsored by the church’s Southern California Public Affairs Council, was ostensibly to celebrate the end of the semester at the newly reopened Jerusalem outpost of the Mormon Brigham Young University.

Unofficially, the event was an excuse for Paredes and other Mormon leaders to mingle with their Jewish counterparts.

“We try to get out into the [Jewish] community, be a member of the community,” Paredes said in an interview with the Forward. “There’s no other church that’s had as long a history of supporting Jews as we have.”

Raised in Michigan by his American mother and Chilean stepfather, Paredes converted to Mormonism at age 11 along with his parents, and has steadily pursued a longstanding interest in Judaism and Israel. After serving as an American diplomat in Mexico, Paredes requested and received a posting to Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s, then worked as a press attaché at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. He was hired by the AJCongress in February.

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the Los Angeles-based interfaith director of the American Jewish Committee, calls Paredes a “wonderful breath of fresh air” who is building on a history of Jewish-Mormon interfaith work in the West. Greenebaum was part of a Jewish delegation that visited Salt Lake City several years ago.

Paredes’s tenure as the only Mormon volunteer with an official position as a liaison to the Jewish community began fortuitously in the summer of 2005.

Paredes “served on the church’s regional public affairs council, and when they saw my background and they saw that I had sort of a flair for public affairs and they saw my interest in working with the Jewish community… they said, ‘You know, it might be good idea to start a Jewish relations committee,’” he recalled.

According to Mormon theology, the dead can be baptized into the faith after their passing. The Jewish furor over the practice of posthumous baptism began in earnest in the mid-1990s, when it came to light that the names of 380,000 dead Jews — including victims of the Holocaust — appeared in church baptismal records. In 1995, the church agreed to remove the names of all Holocaust victims and survivors from its archives and to halt the baptism of all Jews who are not directly related to church members. But as new Jewish names have continued to surface in church records over the years, the ritual has forced Jewish and Mormon leaders into a series of charged negotiations over how best to stop the practice, and resulted in a public relations problem for the church.

Posthumous baptisms, Paredes insists, are “sort of water under the bridge,” no longer a defining issue in Mormon-Jewish relations. He prefers to talk about Mormons’ longstanding support for Israel and about the trove of useful genealogical information that has flowed to the Jewish community as a result of Mormon genealogical research. “Really, there’s nobody, including any Jewish organization you can name, that’s doing more to help Jews do their genealogy than we are,” Paredes said, noting that the Los Angeles Jewish Genealogical Society meets in the Mormon’s genealogical library. (In New York, Mormon leaders agressively publicized the permanent loan of geneaological records to the Center for Jewish History in February.)

When leaders at the Wiesenthal Center went public in December with their objections to the posthumous baptism of the famed Nazi-hunter, Paredes sprung to the church’s defense, proactively e-mailing the Forward about the incident.

Today, Paredes insists, “there are no hard feelings” between him and Wiesenthal Center head Rabbi Marvin Hier, and the pair are “99%” on the same page.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, was somewhat less sunny about the state of Mormon-Jewish relations.

“Mark is a wonderful person who is dedicated to supporting Israel and close relations with the Jewish community,” Cooper wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “However, as Mark himself knows from direct discussions with us, the Wiesenthal Center is deeply dissappointed that the Church has not done nearly enough to … stop the posthumous baptism of Jews.”

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