A Burning Memory of Utah

Out of the Ashes, a Community Rose in the Town of Ogden

HONEY BEE, State Insect of Utah
Kurt Hoffman
HONEY BEE, State Insect of Utah

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published August 24, 2014, issue of September 05, 2014.

In Ogden, Utah, where I grew up, the streets are named after United States presidents. They run in chronological order from the city center up to the Wasatch Mountain Range, ending with Buchanan. The only exceptions are Lincoln and Grant, which curiously precede Washington — a tribute to the war that began and ended before Utah became a state.

Grant Avenue is exceptional for another reason: It is the address of Congregation Brith Sholem, the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the state of Utah. The synagogue — a red brick building with a white column entryway — was built in 1921, when Jews were so numerous downtown that Ogden’s iconic 25th Street was known as “Little Jerusalem” (at least according to a synagogue commemorative video).

On December 30, 1989, when I was 5 years old, the synagogue was the target of an arson attack. Several small fires were set at the bimah, the front entry and in the basement. Books, prayer shawls and two American flags were burned. The Torah scroll was removed from the ark and placed on the floor of the pulpit. An Israeli flag was left untouched.

My parents first learned about the fire from a call through the synagogue’s phone tree. They had moved from North Carolina five years earlier, joining Brith Sholem with a handful of other Jewish families who had relocated to Ogden in the 1980s for jobs at the university, the aerospace engineering firm and the local hospital. The synagogue had a wood-paneled interior and steel casement factory-style windows. It had not employed a rabbi since 1935, so services were led by members of the congregation, often descendants of the founding members. There was an unspoken bias against women on the bimah, a relic from the days when the synagogue had gender segregated seating. Even so, for young parents like mine, Brith Sholem was a sanctum in Mormon Utah.

After the fire, the congregants went to the synagogue to survey the damage. “It was cataclysmic,” said Cindy Tachman, who had recently moved to Ogden with her husband, a doctor. She had one daughter, and another on the way. Tachman wondered if the fire was caused by untended Hanukkah candles lit the night before. But a police investigation soon revealed that it was set intentionally. Quoted in the Ogden Standard-Examiner, one detective described the incident as “possibly being one of a person who was looking to steal, broke in and when not finding anything, got angry, took out his BIC lighter and started fires on his way out.”

Some congregants, like my father, speculated that the fire was ignited by members of a white supremacist group, the Idaho Aryan Nations, which had recently scrapped its plans to set up a regional base in northern Utah. But without signs of overt anti-Semitism — no graffiti, no marks on the Torah —Brith Sholem’s leadership quickly formed a consensus: The burning of Ogden’s only synagogue was not motivated by religious hatred. “Jewish Leader Doesn’t Believe Fire Anti-Semitic,” read a headline in the Standard.

“As far as reading more into it, I couldn’t,” said Tachman. “Because if I did I would have had to move. I would have thought my children were not safe. I didn’t feel that then, but maybe I was in denial.”

The synagogue quickly formed a committee to deal with the restoration, estimating that it would cost between $63,000 and $93,000 — a lot more than the $5,000 in damages reported by one fire chief in the Standard.

Several months into the restoration, Reed Smoot, a now-deceased Mormon leader and the grandson of the Utah Senator with the same name, reached out to Brith Sholem. “The implication was that [the Mormons] might be able to make a donation,” said my father, Sam Zeveloff. At first, my father said, Brith Sholem’s leadership rejected the proposal, believing that insurance would cover the cost of the repairs. But at Tachman’s urging, he called back Smoot, who said he would see what he could do.

Before the fire, relations between Jews and Mormons in Ogden had been cordial but not close. On the one hand, some Brith Sholem congregants, like Bob Brodstein, an eye doctor, owned businesses with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (“I didn’t know beans about LDS and I wasn’t concerned about it,” he said when I asked him about his Mormon business partner.) And in 1982, Mormon university students repaired the synagogue’s roof in a charity project.

And yet Jews, like every other religious minority in Utah, were considered “gentiles” by their Mormon neighbors, albeit ones with a shared biblical past. (Mormons believe they are descended from a lost tribe of Israel.) For some Jews, the arson attack — and the fact that the police department never found the perpetrator — exacerbated the pervasive feeling of otherness.

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