Only a few thousand Jews live in Utah, international center of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormons.
But, says a researcher in Salt Lake City, several thousand Jews are on the Mormon Church’s membership rolls — Jews who were posthumously baptized and converted into the Mormon faith.
Helen Radkey says the Mormons, who maintain the world’s most extensive genealogical records, continue to keep Jewish names, including those of Holocaust victims, on their rolls, and continue to add Jewish names seven years after they pledged to stop doing it.
“There is no way to ascertain how many Jewish names are on their lists,” says Radkey, a genealogy researcher who became interested in the topic while investigating Catholic-Mormon relations.
She says she has found some 22,000 Jewish names on the Mormons’ membership rolls since the church signed an agreement in 1995 with the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “There may be up to a million Jewish names on their files.”
The 1995 agreement specifies that the church will not posthumously convert Jews unless their names are submitted by a direct descendant.
According to Mormon doctrine, deceased people of any ethnic or religious background are eligible to accept the Mormon faith posthumously via proxy baptisms performed by living members of the church; this has brought 200 million people into the fold. The procedure has included saints (Joan of Arc) and sinners (Adolf Hitler), popes and Protestants, and such prominent Jews as Albert Einstein and David Ben-Gurion — and nearly 400,000 Jewish Holocaust victims, most notably Anne Frank and her family.
While many Jewish names remain on the Mormon rolls, the church has made a good-faith effort to abide by its agreement, says Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
“This thing cannot get resolved overnight,” says Breitbart, pointing to the scores of membership lists maintained by individual Mormon temples and the ability of members to independently submit names.
“I don’t think the agreement itself was 100 percent foolproof,” says Breitbart, an expert on Mormon compliance. “There will always be cases that slip through the cracks. It’s a question of where the cracks are. It’s like saying the government of the United States isn’t interested in solving poverty.”
Mormon conversions of dead Jews “is not a pressing concern, like the rising wave of anti-Semitism in France,” he says.
“It seems to me that the whole thing is meaningless,” says Rabbi Benny Zippel, spiritual leader of the Lubavitch movement’s Chabad House in Salt Lake City. Posthumous conversions, he says, have no religious validity.
Radkey, who is from a “Mormon-Catholic” background and works as a guide at a Holocaust museum at the University of Utah, says she is not satisfied with Mormon explanations.
“It’s up to the Mormons to change their system. The church must come up with a mechanism that inappropriate names are not placed in their files,” he says. “They should come up with a sensible way of monitoring it.”