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A Burning Memory of Utah

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.

Months after his call with Smoot, my father arranged for Brith Sholem’s restoration committee to meet with Mormon leaders. On the appointed day, three white Lincoln Town Cars pulled up to the synagogue. Out came three 60- and 70-year-old men in Sunday finery, trailed by their wives. “They said, ‘We would like to show you what we have for you,’” recalled my father. One by one, the Mormon men opened the trunks of their cars and revealed shoeboxes full of coins, cash and checks, donated by church members all over northern Utah. (Tachman remembers this differently, saying it was one manila envelope full of checks.) The total sum was more than $50,000.

The funds from Mormon Church members became Brith Sholem’s nest egg, helping the congregation create a religious school. Meanwhile, the synagogue’s renovation was well underway. Wallpaper replaced wood paneling. Wooden chairs with plush, wine-colored cushions replaced metal seats. New books were purchased. A security system was set up. My mother, a graphic designer, was asked to create stained glass windows. Listening to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in the basement of our home, she drew up designs for every season of the year, as well as a window honoring the Torah. The synagogue couldn’t afford real stained glass, so the panes were made of clear glass with colored film overlay.

Brith Sholem’s actual Torah was badly damaged by the smoke. The congregation found a restoration expert, who showed the members how to clean the scroll bit by bit, using gummy art erasers to wipe out the soot. “We did the best we could to put it back into usable shape,” said Tachman. “It still smelled like smoke, though. You would open it up and get a little bit of a whiff.” My sisters and I chipped in too, scrubbing clean an antique Hanukkiah.

In fall of 1990, Brith Sholem reopened just in time for the High Holidays. The congregants, who had been meeting at a basement room at the local hospital, gathered at Tachman’s house on Ogden’s east side, and marched the Torah back home. Nine months after the fire, Brith Sholem was a new house of worship. But the change was more than cosmetic. The restoration process — led by newcomers — helped to modernize the congregation. In 1996, Brith Sholem joined the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and has since hosted visiting student rabbis every year. In 1998, a group of adult women — including my mother — stood at the Brith Sholem’s bimah and became bat mitzvah.

Nearly 25 years after the fire, I drove to Brith Sholem on a visit back to Ogden. It had been years since I had stepped foot in the synagogue, and I wanted to see if the Hanukkiah my sisters and I had polished was still sitting atop the piano on the bimah. It was June, and Brith Sholem was shielded from view by blooming trees. Across the street, children were playing at Marshall White Park, a grassy field named for a police detective who was killed in 1963 by a 17-year-old he had tried to stop from burgling a downtown home.

I met Pam Schneider, a former congregant, in the parking lot of the synagogue. Her husband, Jeff, was the treasurer for the restoration project, and they had both served terms as Brith Sholem’s president. Last year, they moved to California with their children. Pam was back in Utah visiting her mother.

She let us in and we sat in the back of the sanctuary. Boxelder bugs — the red and black insects that herald Utah’s summer — were crawling along the plush chairs. I asked Pam what the synagogue was like before the arson attack, when she and Jeff were a new couple. “We used to come on Friday nights,” she said. “That was like our date night.” The sanctuary was plain, she said, the services — more Conservative in style — attended by a core group of old timers. I found it hard to imagine. Post-fire Brith Sholem — with its colorful windows and youthful congregation — was the synagogue I grew up with.

Pam walked me over to a display case in the foyer. It had been there for as long as I could remember, but I had never really looked inside. There, in front of a panoramic photo of the congregation at the 75th anniversary, was a large, sooty electric Hanukkiah, the only remnant of the fire at Brith Sholem.

She pointed to it: “They left something charred in there.”

Naomi Zeveloff is the Forward’s Middle East correspondent.

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