After being honored for his friendship, character and integrity by the J. Reuben Clark Law Society on June 9, former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams said the need to build bridges between those with differences has never been more important.
“Your efforts to build bridges will take you to surprising places that you never envisioned,” he said during an address in the Conference Center Little Theater in downtown Salt Lake City. “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.”
Abrams was honored by the law society with the Thomas L. Kane Award, in recognition of his efforts to build bridges between the Jewish community and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“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.
Abrams — a Democrat known as a champion of civil and consumer rights and environmental causes — acknowledged that his friendship with senior Church leaders is unlikely.
“If someone had told me when I was beginning my career as a progressive Jewish lawyer and Democrat from the Bronx that I would someday address a gathering like this in Utah, I might have signaled my incredulity by asking in true New York fashion if they also had a bridge in Brooklyn that they wanted to sell,” he said. “I would never have imagined that my life’s path would lead me to be here on an occasion like this.
“But it is about the work of building — not selling — bridges, that I wish to speak to you tonight.”
A dear friend
Elder Cook introduced Abrams, his dear friend.
“Before Bob Abrams receives this award and delivers his message, I am pleased to share the background, character and integrity that culminated in his extraordinary assistance to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Elder Cook said.
Elder Cook said no description of Robert Abrams would be complete without acknowledging his wife, Diane Schulder Abrams, a successful lawyer and teacher who later had a career in real estate and is deeply spiritual and a devoted mother.
Elder Cook detailed the many ways Abrams — who was elected to the first of four terms as New York attorney general in 1978 — has been a friend to the Church.
He spoke of an event held in Jerusalem in October 2016 in honor of the 175th anniversary of Elder Orson Hyde’s prayer, when Abrams traveled to Jerusalem with Elder Cook and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as part of a delegation of Latter-day Saint and Jewish dignitaries from the United States.
They met with major political leaders, including the prime minister of Israel, and laid a wreath at the Israeli Holocaust Memorial.
Elder Cook called the strong relationships that have been developed, primarily because of Abrams, “both profound and seminal. This powerful connection between Latter-day Saints and the tribe of Judah has great doctrinal significance.”
Increased understanding, friendship
During his remarks, Abrams also reflected on the rewarding experiences that have led to increased understanding and friendship between the Jewish and Latter-day Saint communities. This included bringing two delegations of Jewish leaders to meet with Church leadership and visit facilities in Salt Lake City.
Abrams was also instrumental in working to resolve an issue that created tension between Jews and Latter-day Saints, when survivors of the Holocaust learned that some of their ancestors had been submitted by Latter-day Saints for posthumous proxy baptism. “After many months of intense candid conversation, we were able to create a joint statement and establish a set of practices that dealt with the core concerns raised,” he said. “The public release of that statement and implementation of those practices put an end to the circumstances that caused the grievance and anxiety.”
As these concerns were resolved, the path opened for more joint activity and dialogue, Abrams said.
The Abramses shared a Friday night Shabbat dinner at their home with Elder Cook and his wife, Sister Mary Cook. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik provided a tour of Yeshiva University for Church leaders and invited Church leaders to visit his synagogue, Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. At Robert Abrams’ request, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik invited Latter-day Saint leaders to appear on his New York City radio show. And when Yeshiva University announced that it was inaugurating a new president, Rabbi Ari Berman, Abrams asked if he would be willing to meet the long-standing president of Brigham Young University. Abrams also helped the Church receive an invitation to join the Commission of Religious Leaders of New York City, the leading interfaith body of religious groups in New York.
On the 175th anniversary of Orson Hyde’s dedication of the Holy Land for the return of the Jewish people, Elder Cook, Elder Holland and Abrams visited the BYU Jerusalem Center and held a special program and ceremony celebrating that significant act. The joint delegation also visited the mayor of Jerusalem and the prime minister of Israel, laid a wreath at the eternal flame in Yad Vashem — the Israeli Holocaust memorial — and held a special ceremony at the Orson Hyde Memorial Park on the Mount of Olives.
“The more I interacted with individuals and groups within the Church, the more I discovered that they shared strong areas of common ground with the Jewish community,” Abrams said. “Each has a fundamental focus on family, each places a very high value on education, each has a strong commitment to charitable giving, each demonstrates humanitarian concern and response when there are international catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes around the globe, each has a history of disproportionate success due to ability, hard work and determination, and each has been subjected to fierce persecution and prejudice.”
The goal of these efforts has been to bring the Jewish and Latter-day Saint communities closer together so there can be greater understanding and trust, he said. “The work continues and I look forward to the future.”
Abrams said he hopes that recounting these events might serve as a practical illustration of how different communities can strengthen understanding and friendship.
“Your law society is composed of members who hold dear two empowering principles — faith and the rule of law — which are cornerstones of our nation.”
Unfortunately, Abrams continued, there are forces and currents that jeopardize democracy by degrading both the rule of law and the right of people to openly exercise their faith.
“Among these threats is a troubling increase in the divisiveness, incivility and polarization in our society,” Abrams said. “Examples abound of those who are unwilling to associate with, or even listen to, those who have differences of opinion on political, social, religious and other issues. Increasingly, many people view those with whom they disagree as ‘enemies,’ and attempt to discredit, vilify and silence them, rather than seeking to listen and understand. Too many display a willingness to trample over the rights of others in order to achieve their objectives.”
Abrams said all of this indicates that “an alarming number of our fellow citizens seem to have forgotten that, whatever our differences, our unity as a people, is central to our identity, success and strength as a nation.”
The increasing incivility and division seen today is not inconsequential, he said. Quoting his Jewish colleague and friend, former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Abrams said, “The basic rhythms of the national legislative process — the norms that prompted Republicans and Democrats to work together in the service of the greater good — are gone. Our democracy is proving unable to meet the challenges of the moment. We face real trouble ahead.”
Unfortunately, he added, “the increasing acrimony and tribalism of which we speak” is not limited to national politics but is seeping into all aspects of society.
“In the face of these challenges, there is a critical need for bridge-builders, for women and men who will not allow differences of opinion — as real and important as they may be — to prevent them from understanding, respecting and working with others to better the world,” Abrams said.
Quoting President Russell M. Nelson, Abrams championed a need for people to “strive to build bridges of cooperation rather than walls of segregation.” He also quoted President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, who said “as a practical basis for coexistence, we should accept the reality that we are fellow citizens who need each other.”
Abrams said lawyers of faith — like those in the J. Reuben Clark Law Society — “have unique abilities, opportunities and obligations to put into practice these principles, to build bridges of understanding with those who are different from you. Your legal education taught you to make decisions based on facts and logic, not inflamed passions. You are experienced in respectfully advocating for a cause without becoming disagreeable and in solving problems and achieving compromises. … The world needs your influence now more than ever.”
Anyone who engages with understanding and who befriends those in circles beyond his or her own can be a “Thomas Kane-like figure,” he said.
Thomas L. Kane
Speaking of the award presented to Abrams, Elder Lance B. Wickman, an emeritus general authority and general counsel of the Church, offered a brief sketch of Thomas L. Kane, calling him “a great friend of the Latter-day Saints.”
“A small man of perpetually ill health, Thomas Kane was mighty of soul,” he said.
Col. Kane first encountered the Church in Philadelphia in early 1846 when, out of curiosity, he attended a public meeting and met Elder Jesse Little, en route to Washington to solicit assistance from the U.S. government. Kane thought he could help and offered to accompany Elder Little and to arrange a meeting with the president. In that meeting the Mormon Battalion was born.
Kane wanted to command the battalion; but by the time he reached Winter Quarters, it had already marched. “So, he spent the summer of 1846 with the Saints, developing a profound respect for them and forging a strong friendship with Brigham Young. When he fell gravely ill, his new friends nursed him back to health.”
In the years that followed, Kane waged a one-man public relations campaign on behalf of the Church, Elder Wickman said.
Then, in 1857, U.S. President James Buchanan, influenced by enemies of the Church and notorious reports of plural marriage among the Saints, dispatched Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston with an army to “put down the Mormon rebellion” in Utah and to install a new territorial governor in place of Brigham Young. Kane traveled to Utah, met with Brigham Young and the new governor, Alfred Cumming.
“By the time Johnston’s army reached Salt Lake City in the spring, Cumming was already installed as governor. With nothing left to fight over, Johnston led his army to an encampment west of the city where it remained until the Civil War broke out in 1861. Not a shot was fired. Almost single-handedly, Colonel Thomas Kane had defused the ‘Utah War.’”