Keeping Tradition Alive


Jewish Community of Southern Utah

Maintains the Faith in St. George

By Joshua Kors


St. George, UT - To be a Jew in Oakland, N.J., means something different than being a Jew here. Rise Bausch knows. The St. George resident grew up in Oakland, where all through childhood she kept Friday night Sabbath and attended Saturday services. In a state known for its diverse swirl of cultures, Bausch's religious practices were nothing beyond ordinary.

Today, however, Bausch finds herself living outside that diversity, in Color Country, where the Latter-day Saints population hovers around 80 percent and the remaining 20 percent is largely Catholic and other Christian denominations. Here most Utahns - even the rabbis of Salt Lake's synagogues - are unaware a Jewish community exists at all. For many years it didn't: Bausch spent the high holy days alone, a one-man congregation.

"I used to sit on my back deck for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, by myself with my prayer book, doing my praying myself," Bausch said.

Not so anymore. In the years since Bausch's first porch-side service, St. George's Jewish population has seen a slow, steady increase.  Thanks to the dedicated leadership of Bausch and Reverend Mary L. Allen, that population now has an organization of its own, the Jewish Community of Southern Utah (JCSU), a collection of local families who meet for services in Allen's Grace Episcopal Church.


                          October 14, 2001


Gail Neville dips parsley in salt water during the Passover seder meal, an event sponsored by the Jewish Community of Southern Utah and Grace Episcopal Church.  (Russell Gearhart/The Spectrum)





Since 1996 Grace Episcopal has housed the organization's Passover seder service, which celebrates the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt. The church also holds Sabbath services for the JCSU the first Friday of every month. The event draws Jews from cities as far off as Fredonia, Ariz., a two-hour drive.

For an Episcopal church to devote such resources to a Jewish organization may surprise many Utahns. But Allen believes that fostering other faiths is one of her cardinal duties. She sees her church more as a community center, one designed to nurture diversity.

"If we had an Islamic community in St. George, I'd offer them space too," Allen said. "I truly believe that God has created us in great diversity and that we should be able to worship according to how our soul calls us. That's part of the strength of the Episcopal Church: We open our doors to all kinds of things." In addition to housing the JCSU, the Episcopal Church sponsored the Dalai Lama's visit to Salt Lake City in May.

But sponsoring St. George's only Jewish organization means more to Allen than simply an exercise in diversity. The reverend sees an affinity between the Episcopalian and Jewish faiths. Neither have a living prophet; both encourage the challenging of authority. Allen recalls the Passover story in which the boy who is pitied is the one too afraid to ask.

Like the Jews, Allen said, "we don't have all the answers. We have all the questions."

That sense of unity sprouted into an annual Passover meal and, subsequently, the official founding the JCSU in 1995, when Allen assumed the leadership of Grace Episcopal. Her predecessor, Reverend John Day, had been holding a joint Passover and Maundy Thursday celebration, which marked the Jewish holiday as well as Jesus' last supper. At Allen's urging, Grace Episcopal separated the two ceremonies. The church held the first distinct Passover seder in April 1996.

The celebration, said Bausch, drew Southern Utah's Jewish families "out of the woodwork," and the numbers have been only increasing since. Over 120 people participated in this year's Passover meal. A core group of 25 families keep the monthly Sabbath service going.

Having a place to pray and eat traditional foods like lox, tongue and chopped liver has been a blessing for Jews like Debbie Justice, the secretary-treasurer of the JCSU. But Justice notes that even with the home base of Grace Episcopal, the culture outside of its walls can still seem disquietingly unfamiliar.

In a town accustomed to proselytizing, Justice said she feels uncomfortable when pressed about her beliefs.

"I'm just really taken aback when I'm asked what my religion is," Justice said. "Growing up these were areas you didn't pry into. It was like saying, 'What did you put on your last tax return?' You didn't ask."

"I can feel a little bit awkward and out of the mix sometimes," she said. "So it's nice to get together with my Jewish friends."

Sometimes the cultural conflicts go beyond momentary discomfort.

After a recent death, Bausch and other members of the JCSU considered approaching the city council when a St. George cemetery refused to bury the body according to Jewish customs. Custom requires that the casket be lowered into the ground while family and friends throw dirt on the coffin and recite a prayer. The cemetery director argued that that would violate the town's burial laws.

"We got very angry. They would not put the casket in the ground and let us perform our tradition. They say they don't put (the coffin) in the ground until everybody leaves. The gravediggers do it," Bausch said. "And I said, 'Well, you should have looked up the Jewish tradition for funerals.' If you run a funeral parlor, you should know the traditions for funerals."

Bausch is quick to point out that many members of the community have been extremely supportive of her group, even those unfamiliar with Jewish customs. At Bausch's request, the bakery manager at Harmon's agreed to prepare challah for the Friday night services.

"He didn't know exactly what it was," Bausch recalled with a smile. "He said, 'Is that the braided egg bread?' I said, 'Yes. Yes it is.'"

Having a community of people that are familiar with such traditions - that's been the heart of Justice's joy in being part of the group. She said there is warm recognition in the breaking of the challah, the lighting of the candles and reciting of Hebrew prayer.

"There's a familiar feeling," Justice said. "I haven't gotten a clue what they're saying, but I can follow along and it sounds comforting. There's a comfort in what's familiar. It's just good to connect with kin."

Justice and Bausch both credit Rev. Allen and Grace Episcopal with making the JCSU possible, not just for giving the group a home but for lending it full use of the church kitchen.

Noted Justice: "At Grace, they avail themselves to everyone who cleans up after themselves."



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