Service-driven Latter-day Saints in Pocatello help Jewish friends enjoy Hanukkah in beloved synagogue

It has been a faith-building season for sacred spaces in Pocatello, Idaho.

On Nov. 7, President M. Russell Ballard dedicated the Pocatello Idaho Temple, prompting celebration among legions of Latter-day Saints in southeastern Idaho.

A few weeks later, Pocatello’s small Jewish community gathered to observe Hanukkah for the first time in a couple of years in their beloved local synagogue, Temple Emanuel.

At first glance, the two gatherings might appear to have little in common beyond congregants from two different religions gathering in their respective places of worship. But in fact, both events enjoy a rich connection anchored in mutual respect, friendship and community.

Dale Spencer is the lay leader of Temple Emanuel. He has become friends with several of his local Latter-day Saint counterparts during their shared service on the Portneuf Valley Interfaith Fellowship.

Spencer has been a frequent guest presenter at Pocatello’s Latter-day Saint institute. And he participated in the March 16, 2019, groundbreaking ceremony of the Pocatello Idaho Temple. Photos captured Spencer overturning soil alongside Latter-day Saint pro football player Taysom Hill, general authorities and several fellow local faith leaders.

Temple Emanuel lay leader Dale Spencer, second from left, joins a collection of representatives from religious, civic and athletic communities to turn over ceremonial shovels of soil at the March 16, 2019, groundbreaking service of the Pocatello Idaho Temple. Participants include football star Taysom Hill, Idaho Gov. Brad Little, Elder Wilford W. Andersen, Elder S. Gifford Nielsen and Elder Brian K. Taylor.
Temple Emanuel lay leader Dale Spencer, second from left, joins a collection of representatives from religious, civic and athletic communities to turn over ceremonial shovels of soil at the March 16, 2019, groundbreaking service of the Pocatello Idaho Temple. Participants include football star Taysom Hill, Idaho Gov. Brad Little, Elder Wilford W. Andersen, Elder S. Gifford Nielsen and Elder Brian K. Taylor. Credit: Jason Swensen

“Being a part of the temple groundbreaking was an honor for me,” he told the Church News.

Later that year, Spencer mentioned to Larry Fisher, a Latter-day Saint friend on the interfaith fellowship, that some much-needed interior improvements were being completed at Temple Emanuel. But extensive, labor-intensive exterior landscaping was still required to restore the synagogue to working order. 

“Larry said to me, ‘What do you need?’” recalled Spencer. “I told him that we need to rip out the entire yard and that I needed people willing to help.”

Pick a date, Fisher told him — Latter-day Saint friends are happy to help.

On an appointed Saturday, an eager group of full-time missionaries arrived almost an hour before the synagogue service project was scheduled to start. Spencer invited the missionaries to take a tour of Temple Emmanuel. He showed them the synagogue’s Torah scrolls and answered a variety of questions about Judaism until the rest of the Latter-day Saint workers arrived.

“Soon I had about 40 people outside the synagogue,” he said. “It was wonderful. They came with their equipment and their trucks and got to work. … A spirit of enthusiasm and cooperation and helping one another was demonstrated that morning.”

Many of the Latter-day Saint volunteers at the Temple Emanuel were members of the Pocatello Idaho Alameda Stake. Stake President Doug Alley called the service project an “amazing” experience. Fellow Pocatello residents became trusted friends.

“Dale is our brother — and we try to help our brothers and sisters in normal and natural ways,” said President Alley. “The volunteer turnout that day was wonderful.”

Temple Emanuel leader Dale Spencer, far right, speaks with Latter-day Saint volunteers during a service project at the Pocatello, Idaho, synagogue in 2019.
Temple Emanuel leader Dale Spencer, far right, speaks with Latter-day Saint volunteers during a service project at the Pocatello, Idaho, synagogue in 2019. Credit: Photo courtesy of Larry Fisher

A few weeks later, another large group of Latter-day Saints arrived at Temple Emanuel to help lay fresh sod. It was a rainy day — but the skies cleared for a few hours until the job was complete.

“It was one of those days when the Lord smiled upon us,” said Spencer.

The interfaith cooperation, he added, demonstrated the power of seemingly disparate religious groups uniting. “It shows us that a community is worth building up. That’s important — perhaps even more important than our religious-approach differences. Most of us have the same goals; we just have different paths to get there.”

Spencer and President Alley agree that service offers opportunities for like-minded people to move past misunderstandings and divisions. Such efforts are duplicatable in any community.

The Torah, added Spencer, teaches “when there are strangers in your midst, you invite them into your celebration because you are also a stranger in Egypt.”