How a friendship helped repair the relationship between Latter-day Saints and the Jewish community

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How a friendship helped repair the relationship between Latter-day Saints and the Jewish community

Apostles honor Robert Abrams with the Thomas L. Kane Award for his friendship in helping heal pain caused by past improper proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims

By  Tad Walch and Trent Toone Jun 9, 2022, 8:46pm MST

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Robert Abrams stands with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, left, and Elder Quentin L. Cook, both of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after Abrams accepted the Thomas L. Kane Award at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022.

When the long, friendly history between two global religions threatened to fracture in 2009 because some Latter-day Saints improperly performed proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims, the repairer of the breach was the product of a simple friendship.

“There was a moment of tension at the onset of this relationship,” said Robert Abrams, 83, who was honored by two Latter-day Saint apostles on Wednesday and received the prestigious Thomas L. Kane Award from the J. Reuben Clark Law Society.

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Abrams, a Bronx-born Jewish attorney and former New York Attorney General, was hired about 20 years ago by Latter-day Saint lawyers to help a client with an environmental issue in New York.

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A few years later, Abrams said in an interview, “I was alerted to something that really was a divider and a separator between our two communities, because survivors of the Holocaust and the Jewish community were upset that names of those who perished in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis were being submitted during the proxy baptism process by the LDS Church.”

But the simple friendship begun by Abrams and the Latter-day Saint lawyers already led to expanded relationships that would overcome what initially appeared to be an irreparable rupture.

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“Like Thomas Kane, Robert Abrams’ contribution to a church and faith of which he is not a member is truly inspiring,” said Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “He intervened in our behalf to enhance a relationship with Ernie Michel, the chairman of the Holocaust Survivors Association, and establish a relationship with Elie Wiesel, historic Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

“The good will that was created made it possible to formally issue a joint statement that established policies and practices to deal with core concerns that are respectful of Holocaust victims and consistent with our doctrine.”

Elder Cook, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve and others presented Abrams with the award in a ceremony at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City.

Abrams and his wife Diane also met for an hour Wednesday with the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He called it an incredible honor “that we will never forget for all of our days,” he said.

Kane and the award are deeply significant for Latter-day Saints, said Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the church.

Kane generously and tirelessly worked as a friend of the church, helping convince one U.S. president to form the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican War. Past church presidents have credited Kane for, among other accomplishments, saving the Latter-day Saint settlement of Utah in the 1850s, when U.S. President James Buchanan sent an army west and Brigham Young began to act on a plan to abandon the Salt Lake Valley.

“It’s remarkable,” Abrams said. “I would never have dreamt that a young Jewish liberal lawyer would one day be in this situation and be the recipient of such a wonderful award.”

Robert Abrams accepts the Thomas L. Kane Award from from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on June 9, 2022.

Robert Abrams accepts the Thomas L. Kane Award from Elder Quentin L. Cook, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022. At left is Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Abrams’ wife Diane. At right is Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of The New York Board of Rabbis.

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Robert Abrams, former New York attorney general, talks to reporters at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City.

Robert Abrams, former New York attorney general, answers interview questions at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022. The J. Reuben Clark Law Society is honoring Abrams with the Thomas L. Kane Award.

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Former New York attorney general Robert Abrams, shares a story at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City.

Robert Abrams, former New York attorney general, second from left, shares a story with his wife Diane Abrams, left, Erlynn E. Lansing, director of Church Hosting, and Chris Lansing, director of Church Hosting, in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022. The J. Reuben Clark Law Society is honoring Abrams with the Thomas L. Kane Award.

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Robert Abrams and Elder Quentin L. Cook greet Rabbi Benny Zippel after Abrams accepted the Thomas L. Kane Award.

Robert Abrams and Elder Quentin L. Cook, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, greet Rabbi Benny Zippel after Abrams accepted the Thomas L. Kane Award at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022.

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Former New York attorney general Robert Abrams talks with Elder Paul V. Johnson and Elder Lance B. Wickman on June 9, 2022.

Bob Abrams, former New York attorney general, Elder Paul V. Johnson, general authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Elder Lance B. Wickman, emeritus general authority and current general counsel for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, chat at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022. The J. Reuben Clark Law Society is honoring Abrams with the Thomas L. Kane Award.

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Robert Abrams accepts the Thomas L. Kane Award from from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on June 9, 2022.
Robert Abrams, former New York attorney general, talks to reporters at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City.
Former New York attorney general Robert Abrams, shares a story at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City.
Robert Abrams and Elder Quentin L. Cook greet Rabbi Benny Zippel after Abrams accepted the Thomas L. Kane Award.
Former New York attorney general Robert Abrams talks with Elder Paul V. Johnson and Elder Lance B. Wickman on June 9, 2022.

He encouraged the members of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society to each be a Kane-like figure “who engages with understanding and who befriends those in circles beyond your own.

“Your efforts to build bridges will take you to surprising places that you never envisioned,” he added. “You will encounter unique experiences, newfound friendships and the knowledge that you have done your part to help create the unity necessary to maintain a strong and vibrant nation. Let this be the message and legacy of this event.”

The initial friendship expanded when Abrams led a delegation of significant Jewish leaders to Utah in 2009 and Elder Holland and Elder Cook led them on a special tour during the Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple open house that included the area where proxy baptisms are performed.

Latter-day Saint leaders teach that proxy baptisms for deceased family members is a loving offer that those family members can decide to accept or not. Leaders instruct members not to perform proxy ordinances for celebrities or for famous or historical people to whom they are not related.

Later in 2009, the American Gathering of Holocaust S

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