DECEMBER 20, 2002 | current issue | back issues | subscribe |

Bedevilling the Saints in Defense of the Dead

Lapsed Mormon Helen Radkey Wants Former Church To Stop Baptizing Deceased Jews


Helen Radkey, an Australian-born genealogical researcher, minister in the independent Universal Life Church and tarot card reader, has been a Catholic and a Mormon — but what she really wants to be is a Jew.

"If I was going to be part of an organized religion, it would be Judaism, but the rabbis here don't want me," she said in an interview with the Forward from her home in Salt Lake City.

This may be an overstatement, but the 60-year-old Radkey has acquired something of a reputation for being a thorn in the side of religious institutions. She is perhaps best known for prodding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — known less formally as the Mormon Church or LDS — to stop church members from using the Mormons' extensive genealogical records to baptize posthumously thousands of Jews, including Holocaust survivors.

Last Tuesday, church officials met with Ernest Michel, chairman of the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, and representatives of other Jewish groups to discuss problems that may have arisen from the practice. The church and the organization signed an agreement in 1995 in which the church said it would remove the names of almost 400,000 Jews from its International Genealogical Index and agreed that church members may only baptize their own deceased Jewish ancestors, or a deceased Jew whose family gave written consent. Before the agreement, any church member could anonymously submit someone else's name for a proxy baptism, which Mormons believe gives the dead the opportunity to join the church in the afterlife.

But, according to Radkey, who researches the database regularly, the church has not properly monitored the names offered for baptisms and, consequently, Jewish names are still in the index and more are added every day.

At last week's meeting, Mormon officials promised that they would remove all Jewish names, including Holocaust victims, from their database, and Michel called the meeting productive. But Radkey, a lapsed Mormon, was incensed.

"Learning about Jewish names is a specialized skill, which took me years to develop, and it is not always possible to know by a name if the person was Jewish," Radkey wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. "Most Mormons who handle the processing, including deletions, of Jewish names from the Mormons' database would not know a Jewish name from the back end of a hoe."

In an e-mail sent to Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Radkey lashed out at Michel, saying he did not understand the complexities of the Mormon database system and was too invested in the 1995 agreement to challenge the church hierarchy when it is being less than candid.

Michel defended himself in an interview with the Forward. "I have an established relationship with the church," he said. "They are not antisemites, and they want to work with us. I'm not coming in like a bull in a china shop. I'll let Helen Radkey speak for herself."

To seasoned observers, hearing this Catholic-cum-Mormon-cum-wannabe-Jew telling an esteemed Holocaust survivor and organizational leader how to represent a Jewish cause might seem like some sort of interfaith "Twilight Zone." But Radkey is no stranger to fighting for other people's causes.

In fact, her first fight with the Mormons — seven years after she converted to Mormonism from Catholicism — was over its denunciation of four of her fellow Mormons for behavior that Radkey says was off-beat, but not immoral. The disagreement led to her excommunication from the church.

Over the years, influenced by her negative experiences, Radkey became convinced that the church had become dictatorial. In 1993, she began to research Catholic-Mormon relations. In 1999, she turned her attention to researching the names of Jews in the Mormon database. She did research at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and served as a docent at the Nazi Olympics Berlin 1936 Exhibition, a traveling exhibit of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

A"bull in a china shop" she may be, but she has also been a prime mover behind the outcry over posthumous Jewish baptisms, at a time when the priority list of the Jewish community has been focused on the violence in Israel and
on rising antisemitism throughout the world.

"This is a woman who has taken a cause and has made it an extremely important part of her life," Breitbart said. "She's a darn good part of the reason why anything has gotten done on this issue and, in this particular area, she's second to none."

Radkey has scoured the Mormon database and, by searching for regions heavily populated with Jews before the Holocaust, found 19,000 deceased persons who had been baptized since 1993. In September of this year, she offered to sell her research to the Mormons, in the hopes of making ends meet while doing the work she believes in. She offered her decade's worth of work for $30,000 and a rate for her continued research of $18 an hour. The church has not expressed interest in the offer.

In the meantime, she keeps herself afloat by working at a local bookstore, where she reads tarot cards and performs past-life therapy. She has made some peace with her Catholic roots: Her two sons, now grown, were both educated in Jesuit schools. But she said she could never consider going back to the Catholic Church, because she has acquired a fierce loyalty to another group.

"I can't be a part of any church that did what the [Catholic] Church did to the Jews," she said.

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