From Zion to Zion: America’s most beautiful ignite the Jewish spark

Just over 7,000 kilometers west of Jerusalem – the original Zion – lies the fabled Zion National Park, located in the southwestern United States, in the state of Utah.

From Zion to Zion (photo credit: Courtesy)
From Zion to Zion
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In late July, my wife and I boarded an El Al flight to Los Angeles for a whirlwind 10-day tour of three of America’s best-known national parks – Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park. The sights and scenes of all three parks were dramatic, but two months after our return, Zion holds a special place in our hearts – because of its familiar name, its majestic beauty, and our experiences with its Jewish residents and visitors.
Just over 7,000 kilometers west of Jerusalem – the original Zion – lies the fabled Zion National Park, located in the southwestern United States, in the state of Utah. Zion was founded by Mormon pioneers in the 1860s, who were so enamored of its dramatic peaks and valleys that they named it Zion, to commemorate Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. Its beauty, they felt, was sacred and even spiritual.
Isaac Behunin, the first permanent settler in the canyon, called his log cabin Zion, saying, “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion.”
Our two-day visit confirmed that one can appreciate God’s creation in this place. Zion National Park supports more than 800 different plant species spread out over more than 59,000 hectares (146,000 acres), and is dotted with stately, multihued cliffs, green vistas and gently flowing streams that inspire introspection and contemplation. Perhaps the meditative, almost spiritual atmosphere of the area was best epitomized by a T-shirt worn by a bearded hiker which bore the slogan “Try nature. It’s cheaper than therapy.”
Zion National Park’s Old Testament theme even extends to the name of some of its peaks. The Court of the Patriarchs is a trio of three sandstone cliffs – each of which reach a height of over 2,100 meters – named for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by Frederick Vining Fisher, a Methodist minister, in 1916.
Despite the references to Zion and the patriarchs, the Jewish population of Utah is minuscule, numbering approximately 5,600, just two-tenths of 1% of Utah’s total population of 2.4 million. The majority of Utah’s Jews live in Salt Lake City, almost 500 kilometers north of Zion.
The first Jews arrived in Utah in 1854, and Simon Bamberger, the first non-Mormon to be elected Utah’s governor, in 1916, was Jewish.
Just over a year ago, Chabad opened a center in St. George, Utah, about 60 kilometers from Zion National Park. Headed by Rabbi Mendy Cohen, 26, and his wife Chaya, 23, Chabad operates out of their home in St. George.
Cohen, a Montreal native, and his wife, who is the daughter of Rabbi Benny Zippel, codirector of Chabad of Salt Lake City, moved to the area a year ago.
“Zion National Park has 5.3 million visitors annually, and nearby Bryce Canyon National Park has three million tourists a year, so there are about eight million tourists coming through. A lot of them are Jewish,” he reports.
He adds that between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews are living in the St. George area, which was rated as the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the US in 2018.
We reached Hurricane, Utah, on Thursday morning, and after checking in at our motel, drove to Zion.
THE APPROACHES to the park were marked by vast areas of sagebrush, with rolling hills as far as the eye could see. We arrived in the park and boarded the free shuttle buses that take visitors throughout the 10-kilometer Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The sight of a group of tourists patiently waiting in an orderly line for a bus named Zion was a bit dissonant, until I remembered that we were in Utah, rather than the Zion we call home.
The park’s sights did not disappoint and were awe-inspiring. Though we avoided some of the riskier climbs, such as the 454-meter-high Angel’s Landing, we did spend several hours walking, swimming, climbing and snapping photos.
While we saw and heard tourists speaking French, German and Japanese, we encountered very few Jewish tourists, hearing little Hebrew with nary a skullcap in sight, until we stopped at a wading pool on the north fork of the Virgin River. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw tzitzit fringes blowing in the wind. I looked up and saw a group of 20 boys in their teens, most with tzitzit and scraggly beards, laughing, frolicking and jumping in the water.
While the sight of a group of young men wearing tzitzit would be common in Israel, it was quite unexpected in southwest Utah. As I greeted them, one of them approached me and asked if I would like to put on tefillin. Smiling, I told him that I had already done so earlier that day. The boys were from a Chabad camp that had been traveling throughout the West Coast.
We told them that we came from Beit Shemesh, and as we took a group photo, they chanted “We want Mashiah now!” I suspect that no one else really understood what they were saying, but one bystander did ask us if the boys were from Israel.
Our second day at Zion featured more of the same – stunning vistas, powder-blue skies, with white clouds peeking above the cliffs and hills.
We had decided to spend Shabbat at an Airbnb in St. George, near the local Chabad center. We arrived at our Airbnb on Friday afternoon and met our host, who showed us our lovely ground-floor quarters. Though not Jewish, he was familiar with Beit Shemesh, he said, since he had read about the town in his church Bible classes.
He was, however, unfamiliar with the strictures that prohibit the use of electricity on Shabbat. Despite my efforts, I was unable to deactivate the refrigerator light to keep it from turning on when I would open the refrigerator door. On a whim, I googled “deactivate refrigerator door light,” and a website appeared that provided detailed instructions on how to deactivate the refrigerator light by placing magnets near the hinges of the door where the magnet in the door meets the frame. I hastily sent a WhatsApp message to our host upstairs, asking him if by chance, he had a magnet. By this point, he didn’t question our unusual requests. He returned a few minutes later, and after a few attempts, we succeeded in solving the refrigerator issue.
DRESSED IN our Shabbat clothes, we drove to the home of Rabbi and Mrs. Cohen before Shabbat and assembled in the living room for Kabbalat Shabbat services.
Unlike some of our previous Chabad experiences in other countries, where as many as 100 people would gather for services, the services in Utah were far more intimate. Rabbi Cohen handed siddurim to my wife and me, and we sat in the living room. He began to announce the pages for the services, and then, realizing that there were just the two of us, stopped. We sang “L’cha Dodi,” and he briefly clapped his hand on my shoulder and led me in a spirited, though thankfully brief, dance. Rabbi Cohen, perhaps after not having seen many Modern Orthodox Jews after a year in Utah, seemed surprised at our proficiency in reading the prayers.
After Maariv, we sat down to a lovely dinner with the couple, at which they told us of their lives in Zion, and we described our experiences living in our version.
Rabbi Cohen says that relations with Mormons in the area are excellent. When they arrived in