This Mormon Chapel Became a Synagogue for a Year
On October 13, 2017, Mormons joined a Jewish congregation in a Mormon meetinghouse for a Friday night Shabbat service, the final time the Shir HaMa’alot congregation would use the Mormons’ building. The title of the Shabbat service sermon was “Giving Thanks to our Mormon Friends,” delivered by Rabbi Richard Steinberg. More than 200 Jews and Mormons enjoyed the night of friendship and gratitude.
Mormon stake president (a stake is an organized group of congregations) Tait Eyre of the Irvine California Stake had heard that the Jewish congregation temporarily needed a place to meet while their synagogue was undergoing renovations. He offered the Mormon meetinghouse as an option. Rabbi Steinberg said the Mormons made the offer with love and kindness.
Congregation Shir HaMa’alot met at the building on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Mormons hold their Sabbath services on Sundays. Mormons refrained from proselytizing (they can be enthusiastic missionaries) to serve the higher purpose of shared respect. The Mormon missionaries even assisted with High Holy Day preparations.
Rabbi Steinberg wanted to give three things to the members of the Church. All the Mormons in attendance at the Shabbat service were asked to come up to the rostrum where the Rabbi pronounced a blessing upon them. He then presented a certificate to President Eyre, indicating SHM would dedicate a space in its new synagogue in honor of the Church as a reminder that the Church’s “graciousness, hospitality and kindness are a model for all religions.”
All the Mormons were invited to attend the grand opening of the new synagogue. The Rabbi expressed a hope that “the world around would see the friendship between these two communities as a model.”
Rabbi Steinberg said in his Shabbat sermon, “Many of you have experienced Mormon missionaries knocking at your door.” He pointed out the missionaries in attendance that had assisted with congregation’s High Holy Days. “Imagine,” he said, “what it’s like when a rabbi goes knocking on a door of the Mormon Church asking to move into their house for a whole year.”
Larry Gassin, a Mormon who converted from Judaism and coordinated the building sharing for the year said, “Both groups had the opportunity and blessing to witness and experience the goodness and sincerity of one another. Eyes were opened, hearts were softened and turned, and relationships of friendship and respect were kindled and nurtured. We all had the opportunity to learn, with appreciation and gratitude, that we have much more in common than many may have suspected and more around which we can unite.”
Not the First Time
This is not the first time a Mormon meetinghouse has become a synagogue for a Jewish congregation in need.
In February 2014 a Jewish congregation became homeless in Santa Ana, California. Temple Beth Sholom had served Jewish people in Orange County for more than 70 years. Then an electrical failure caused a fire that damaged the building so extensively it had to be taken down to the studs.
Rabbi Heidi Cohen didn’t want to combine with another Jewish congregation, and when she pictured borrowing space in a Christian chapel, she imagined a crucifix hanging in plain site. Mormons are Christians, but they don’t use the crucifix as a symbol (although it can appear in Mormon art), and they have no statuary or art in their chapels.
Tom Thorkelson has been the Mormon Church’s director of interfaith relations in Orange County for over 28 years, so when Rabbi Cohen called him, he jumped at the chance to help. “I was so sorry to hear about their synagogue,” he said, “but so happy we could be of assistance,” he said.
Thorkelson approached President Matt Goodman of the Orange California Stake with a proposal to share the LDS stake center on nearby Yorba Street just a mile from Temple Beth Sholom. Ironically, 50 years earlier, while the Yorba Linda Mormon meetinghouse was under construction, Mormons had worshiped in the Beth Sholom building.
In August 2015, with the synagogue renovated, Temple Beth Sholom held a dedication service. In a program called the Return and Renewal, Rabbi Cohen brought the Torah scrolls (which had been restored after being damaged by smoke) back to the ark in which they had originally been preserved. President Goodman delivered an address at the service, and several of the local Latter-day Saints were in attendance.
Later, the Sisterhood of Temple Beth Sholom made a monetary donation to the Relief Society sisterhood of the Mormon stake, which was used for humanitarian aid through LDS Philanthropies. The Jewish congregation also built an access ramp at the stake center to aid handicapped visitors.