Two years after a rupture in Mormon-Jewish relations in America, leaders of the two groups believe they have achieved “a breakthrough” and finally solved an issue of major contention between them — the Mormon Church’s practice of proxy baptism of souls, including of Jewish Holocaust victims.

The new pact, which was announced in a statement Wednesday simultaneously through The Jewish Week and The Deseret News, the Mormon-owned Salt Lake City daily, stipulates that the Mormon Church will allow Jewish Holocaust victims to be the only category exempt from Church doctrine that calls for vicarious baptism for the dead, giving souls the choice to enter the Kingdom of God.

Since 1840, the Church practice has been to gather the names of every person who ever lived and offer their souls the choice of baptism.

As a result of the resolution, both sides predict major efforts of future cooperation.

The statement noted that “as a result of dialogue and extraordinary efforts of the Church, computer systems and policy initiatives have been put in place that resolve the issue, which is greatly appreciated by the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, the result of which will be felt throughout the world.”

“What the Church has done [to accommodate requests from Jewish leaders] is extraordinarily significant,” noted Bob Abrams, the former New York State Attorney General who spent the last 13 months negotiating a compromise with Mormon officials.

“Out of all humans who ever lived, the Church has carved out Jewish Holocaust victims as the only exception to a universal doctrine,” asserted Abrams, who called the decision “an enormous concession” based on the Church’s “desire to have a warm and strong relationship with the Jewish community.”

The statement said that “goodwill and friendship” have marked the relationship between the Mormon Church and the Jewish people, but acknowledged that “over the years, survivors of the Holocaust have pointed out to the Church that its practice of posthumous/proxy baptism has unintentionally caused pain due to the inclusion of names of those who perished in the Holocaust.

“It is gratifying,” the statement continued, “that the good faith efforts undertaken over the years to deal with an important issue of sensitivity to the Jewish Holocaust survivor community have eliminated a source of tension between our two groups, enhancing our ability to cooperate, including important programs of humanitarian aid across the world.”

Ernest Michel, a founder of the American Gathering group of survivors and one of the first to raise the issue of insensitivity over the inclusion of Holocaust victims’ names, had given up hope of reaching a resolution.

“We are hopeful now that they will keep their word,” he said this week of Mormon officials, “and that this will lead to a much better relationship.”

Survivors Had Given Up

That’s a far cry from Michel’s mood on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, in November 2008, when he and other leaders of the American Gathering group of survivors held a press conference here to announce that 13 years after an initial agreement was reached between Jewish and Mormon leaders on exempting Jewish Holocaust victims from the Church practice of posthumous baptism of souls, negotiations with the Church were over. Mormon leaders were accused of repeatedly violating their promise.

“We said they didn’t live up to their policy,” said Michel. He admits he essentially gave up on getting the Church to comply, despite repeated attempts to impress upon its leaders that the practice of including Jewish names for baptism — including his parents and grandmother, who were murdered by the Nazis — was deeply offensive to Jews.

For its part, the Church insisted that it was doing its best to expunge the names of Holocaust victims from its enormous database. It said it had removed hundreds of thousands of such names, while admitting that tens of thousands remained on file.

“We had believed all along that the changes and enhancements to our computer systems would allow us to control this,” explained Mike Otterson, managing director of public affairs for the Church. “We weren’t able to convince Mr. Michel of that, and it looked like we would have to agree to disagree.”

But when Abrams was invited by a close Mormon friend in June 2009 to put together a delegation of prominent New York Jewish leaders to come to Salt Lake City and see the good works of the Church, the positive visit led to revisiting the proxy baptism issue.

“We’ve always wanted to enhance our relationship with the Jewish community,” said Otterson, noting “a great sense of commonality” between the Jewish and Mormon religions, despite “significant theological differences.”

He said the invitation last year was made in conjunction with the opening of a new Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, a time for welcoming leaders of different faiths.

(While there are about 20,000 Mormon chapels worldwide, where weekly services are held, there are only 140 temples, reserved for the faith’s highest sacraments, including the baptisms for the dead.)

“Our delegation [of 10 leaders from New York] was amazed at how responsive our hosts were,” said Abrams. “We experienced a sense of the Church leaders’ love and exuberance for Jews.”

On seeing the baptism pool at the new temple and visiting the Family History Library, several Jewish leaders raised the longstanding issue of the inclusion of Holocaust victims for proxy baptism, which in turn led to negotiations, headed by Abrams, that went on for more than a year.

Michel credited Abrams’ volunteer efforts with achieving the breakthrough. “We survivors could never have done it,” he said.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jewish Week he played a role as well in achieving the compromise.

“I’ve been quietly involved,” he said, holding meetings in Salt Lake City with Church leaders over several days in April and offering advice. “Success has a lot of fathers,” he noted.

Foxman called this week’s statement “a historic gesture,” adding that for the Church to improve relations with the Jewish community, “it’s one thing to love us and another to understand our pain.”

Computers A Key Element

What distinguishes this latest resolution from previous ones over the last 15 years is a combination of persistent negotiating efforts, primarily by Abrams, and on the Mormon side a policy shift, public acknowledgment and more sophisticated computer technology.

Jewish leaders note that in past responses to complaints about Holocaust victims being included for proxy baptism, Mormon officials said that souls had the choice of declining the offer, and that despite their best efforts to delete victims’ names from the Church’s enormous database, errors inevitably occurred.

“The key ingredient now is a more advanced computer system that can better implement the policy of not having Holocaust names appear on the list,” according to Abrams, and deleting them if they are found.

Mormon officials noted a “shift of emphasis” for Church members in entering names for baptism by computer.

“It is the personal responsibility of Church members to submit temple work [proxy baptism] for their own families,” noted Mormon spokesman Otterson.

He explained that for the first time Mormons would have to show a direct family lineage to the names they choose to enter for proxy baptism. In addition, computer instructions will inform members of the exemption for Holocaust victims and ask if the entries are in compliance with Church policy.

“The whole emphasis has changed and that is a very significant development,” he said.

Describing today’s announcement as “a statement of acknowledgment” rather than “an agreement,” Otterson said Mormon leaders recognize the Holocaust as “a unique situation — no crime in history has been better documented — and we wanted to be sensitive from the very beginning.”

He added that “this removes an obstacle” to greater cooperation between the Mormon and Jewish communities, with both sides noting a new willingness to explore opportunities to work together, particularly in the area of humanitarian aid on an international level.

Jewish leaders consider the Mormon Church a strong supporter of Israel, and Abrams observed that “we need as many friends and allies as possible.”

The Israeli government cooperated in the establishment of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies on Mount Scopus. Before it opened in 1988, the campus was the subject of an international controversy, initiated by haredim concerned about the Church’s mission to proselytize. The matter was resolved when the Church pledged not to engage in missionary work among Jews in Israel.

The Mormon faith is believed to be the fastest growing religion in the world, and its numbers — about six million adherents in America and close to 13 million worldwide — appears to mirror those of world Jewry today.

In addition, both communities place an emphasis on family life, charitable giving, education and performing good deeds.

Rabbi Peter Rubinstein of Central Synagogue in Manhattan and a member of the New York delegation that visited Salt Lake City last year said he “came away amazed by the sense of volunteerism” he saw among Mormon young people. “Think of what we could do if we had that kind of commitment,” he said.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he is pleased that “the survivor community feels this issue has been addressed,” and added that it “removes an area of sensitivity and attention” in dealing with the Mormon community over Israel.

Jewish leaders initially sought to have the Church remove the names of all Jews from proxy baptism but gave up when they saw that would not happen.

Says survivor leader Michel, who served as professional head of UJA-Federation of New York from 1970 to 1989, “we are living in a very difficult and critical time, and as an American Jew, I felt we shouldn’t keep on fighting a church that principally is very friendly to the Jewish community and has created an important center in Israel.

“I am ready to live with reality,” he said. “We have enough.”

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org