In Search of the Rare Provo Liberal

By Jennifer Siegel

Published August 26, 2005, issue of August 26, 2005.
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Recently, the small city of Provo, Utah, acquired a big distinction: According to a study published this month, it is the most conservative city in America.

Based on the voting patterns of 237 major urban centers across the country, researchers at the left-leaning Bay Area Center for Voting Research determined that Provo had the highest proportion of voters who supported George Bush or other conservative candidates.

Though a voting pattern may not be absolute proof of a city’s fundamental character, Provo is clearly a different kind of place than the liberal, Jewish bastions of New York, Boston and Los Angeles: 88.5% of its 100,000 residents identify as white; its major employer is the Mormon-run Brigham Young University, and last fall, when liberal filmmaker Michael Moore was invited to speak at nearby Utah Valley State College, alumnae threatened to cancel their donations to the school.

In search of the newly identified rare species — the Provo liberal — the Forward went looking in an obvious place: the Jewish community. After calls to several rabbis and the Jewish community center in nearby Salt Lake City, our hunch was confirmed. Most of Provo’s Jews are left leaning. The hitch: There only seem to be about a dozen of them.

“The only Jewish life in Provo that I know of is my own,” said Jean Yael Allen, 57, who converted to Judaism from Mormonism after moving to New York City in the 1970s.

Although Utah as a whole is home to an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 Jews, about 80% live in Salt Lake City, with most of the remainder in nearby Ogden or Park City, the ski town that hosts the Sundance Film Festival. The state’s earliest Jews arrived during the 19th century as gold miners, fur traders or itinerant merchants, according to Eileen Hallet Stone, author of “A Homeland in the West: Utah Jews Remember,” and the few families who settled in outposts like Provo did so for economic reasons, e.g., owning a store. Today, only a handful of Jews live in Provo, or work there, mainly for Brigham Young University or at one of several technology firms.

Salt Lake City has been growing in diversity and Jewish life in recent years; Mormons now make up less than half the city’s population. The current mayor, Rocky Anderson, is a Democrat, and the city has several synagogues and a JCC that opened in 2001. Jews familiar with Provo said it remains a place where they are a tiny and, in some ways, isolated minority.

It’s “hardcore Mormon territory,” said Alvin Segelman, a retired scientist who moved in 1990 from Piscataway, N.J., to Orem, Provo’s next-door neighbor, to take a position with a manufacturer of herbal supplements. “I think I have about a dozen Books of Mormon here that were given to me when I came out. Most people that I met in the beginning had never met a Jewish person.” Segelman added that some members of the Mormon Church even tried to convert him and his wife. “After a couple of years when it became apparent to these people around here that we weren’t going to convert,” he said, “the relationships cooled very quickly.”

But along with this tension, Hallet Stone said, is a profound respect that Mormons traditionally have for the Jewish religion, and their sense of a sacred bond with the Jews. According to church theology, the Mormons are descended from a lost tribe of Israel.

“I grew up with the belief that… the Jews are our cousins,” agreed Allen, the woman who converted from Mormonism to Judaism. “I had a sister that joined the Episcopal Church and that was much harder for [my family].”

Allen, who converted as a college student at New York University, returned to Provo nearly three years ago to care for her ailing mother, but over the last few years, she said, she has had only a handful of informal encounters with other Jews in the area, such as the time she chatted in the coffee shop with a Jewish man who was married to a Mormon, or when she ran into a group of Israelis at the mall. She spends the Sabbath in Salt Lake City.

Nancy White, 61, who grew up in the only Jewish family in Provo during the post-war era, said she has fond memories of a bucolic childhood in small-town America. Her father, Philip Perlman, ran a scrap-metal business and was the first non-Mormon elected to Provo’s city council. She herself had “great friends” there and was elected president of a high school sorority.

Still, White said, people didn’t understand her religion, and seemed content with an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about Judaism. The day after she graduated from high school, her father moved the entire family to Salt Lake City so that she could meet a nice Jewish boy. She met him in synagogue. He was from Brooklyn.

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