Utah Jewish leaders ask others to not be bystanders of Antisemitism, racism in community

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Courtesy of the United Jewish Federation of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – In a state that is traditionally considered to be hallmarked by a strong religious presence, members of one of the oldest world religions find themselves as a tiny percentage of the Utah population.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the Jewish community in Utah consists of just under 6,000 residents, about 0.2% of the entire state’s population.

So what’s life like as a Jewish person in Utah? It depends, says United Jewish Federation of Utah Executive Director Alex Shapiro.

Growing up near the Salt Lake Country Club, Shapiro has fond memories of being surrounded by friends who were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On Christmas, he’d visit and celebrate with their families. On Hanukkah, they’d come to his house and celebrate with his family, who had been living in Utah for several generations, stretching back to the early 1900s. Although he didn’t worship with his friends, he was a key member of the ward basketball team along with them.

“If I didn’t have Mormon friends, then who were going to be my friends, right?” he explains to ABC4.com.

If you recognize the last name, Shapiro, in Utah, here’s another hint: suitcases. For years, their family has owned and operated Shapiro Luggage & Gifts, one of the most respected and renowned small businesses in the state.

That’s the story of many Jews in Utah, they’re business owners and community leaders and they have been for years. Utah’s fourth Governor, Simon Bamberger – another last name that probably sounds familiar – who was elected by a landslide in 1917, was and remains to date the only Jewish person ever voted into that office.

Despite all the contributions that Jewish people in Utah have made to the state, as a mass email sent by technology entrepreneur Dave Bateman earlier this week shows, they still endure hatred and antisemitism, even from folks who are well-educated and in positions of power. It hurts and it’s greatly troubling to Jewish leaders in the state.

“It’s not a comfortable feeling to imagine that a well-recognized donor to the Republican Party in Utah could be so misinformed and so bizarre in his claims and accusations,” Jay Jacobson, who serves as the Chair of the Antisemitism Task Force for the United Jewish Federation, says. “I think the feeling is that when that’s a prominent individual espousing those things, that it comes from the seats of power and that’s extremely disturbing.”

A local leader against every kind of racism and hatred, Jacobson notes he was encouraged and appreciative of the swift response against Bateman’s email from corporate and government leaders in the community. Still, he adds that the discomfort never really goes away. Antisemitic feelings have permeated the globe for far too long, and the lies that build the hate aren’t nipped in the bud soon enough, he says.

“This person had been prominent for years in high tech circles in the state, he spoke as keynote speaker at events attended by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. His opinions didn’t just develop yesterday,” says Jacobson. “And the question you do have to ask yourself, and the feeling that we’re left with is where were the people around him?”

Part of the problem, especially here in Utah where the Jewish population is so small comparatively, is that not much is known by outsiders about the faith. The education on Judaism and the history of the Jewish people aren’t particularly well developed, according to Ron Zamir, who works alongside Shapiro and Jacobson as the VP of Community Relations for the Federation.

While the organization has its own initiative, No Place for Hate, Zamir notes that there is no formal, approved curriculum on the Holocaust in Utah schools.

“There are ways that we can educate ourselves,” he says. “We can educate all faiths to be more respectful to be more understanding, and not to be bystanders.”

While Shapiro looks back on his childhood in Utah with a smile, especially while mentioning his days playing ward basketball, he notes that the feeling can vary. One of his twin sons mentioned to him on Wednesday that he sometimes feels like the “token Jew” among his peers. Despite that feeling, for the most part, Shapiro’s children who are spread out and living in Boston and Denver say they want to come back to Utah at some point. But again, that isn’t a consensus among all Jewish people in Utah.

“They have fond memories of this place, but there are other young people who couldn’t wait to start a life someplace else,” Shapiro says. “So my answer shouldn’t be generalized. There’s no one answer to that question.”

When harmful and hateful words like the mass email from earlier this week are spoken or shared, it makes life in Utah far less appealing. However, Zamir feels that with more education and empathy, Antiemitism – and hatred and bigotry at large – in the area can be greatly reduced.

“Just imagine this letter had been about other minorities in this country, I mean, how many of us would stand still to anybody in our midst talking about somebody of color in a derogatory way?” Zamir asks rhetorically. “There is a pathway to inoculate the population of Utah against Antisemitism. I think we can be proactive and we can do things to become a better society.”

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