Life as a Jewish Utahn

By: Madison Butcher

Sam Winkler and his wife Amy with their daughter Perry (Madison Butcher)

Sam Winkler could be described as a husband, father, police officer, neighbor and friend. But living as a minority in a predominantly Latter-day Saint community separates him from most: Sam Winkler is a Jew.

Winkler grew up in a Jewish family in Utah. His father, in particular, was very strict. For example, everything in the kitchen had to be kosher. The Winklers used specific dishes for different foods and some dishes could not be cleaned in the dishwasher. Winkler said his dad was more of a conservative Jew, while his mom leaned more towards a reformed Jew. All of his siblings still practice Judaism in some form as well.

Winkler described his childhood as fairly normal but with a few bumps in the road due to his religious beliefs.

“I wanted to be on the football team in high school, but the biggest of [Jewish] holidays were there so I couldn’t do the football team,” Winkler said.

Winkler said his parents always expected their kids to be educated in the religion, but then it was up to them on how they were going to live it. Judaism continues plays a role in Winkler’s life despite not being as active as some of his siblings. Winkler claims to be a reformed Jew, but he likes to pray in the conservative way, in Hebrew.

The freedom to individually choose beliefs and practices within the religion has always been a plus for Winkler.

There’s not one set way that you practice, you practice what you feel which is why there are all these different sects,” Winkler said.

As a Jew in the heart of Utah, Winkler has many opportunities to explain his beliefs to others. People are usually friendly and he has spoken with missionaries of other churches, but Winkler sometimes feels like an outsider.

Upon moving into his home, LDS neighbors reached out and asked for the Winklers’ contact information for a phone directory and offered to bring by a copy.

“Of course I come to find out that it wasn’t a phone directory,” Winkler said. “It was a ward directory. I never received a copy.”

Although Winkler is not LDS, he married a former Mormon, Amy Winkler. They have two young girls, Penny (3) and Kate (10). Sam and Amy agreed to have Penny formally converted to the Jewish religion. Because of their different religious backgrounds, Amy explained they celebrate Christian and Jewish holidays.

“It’s funny because when Kate was younger, she would say that she was Jewish and (celebrated) Christmas,” Amy Winkler said.

Day-to-day living for the family typically doesn’t include religious conflict. But unfortunately, Winkler has experienced feelings of anti-Semitism.

When Winkler was a young boy, he and his brother took a UTA bus to the Lagoon amusement park. A man looked at them and asked, “Are you two Jewish? I can tell by your noses.”

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Years later, as a police officer, he handled a bike accident where a girl hadn’t yielded to oncoming traffic and crashed her bike. Winkler explained to her that although it was her fault, she would just receive a warning.

While they spoke, Winkler noticed a Star of David on her necklace. The girl became upset and claimed he must be anti-Jewish, without knowing his religious background.

Winkler said he doesn’t react in these situations, especially at work.

“When I am at work, I don’t go into that. I am police. I am not Jewish. I am not man. I am not woman. I am not democratic. I am not republican. I am police,” Winkler said.

According to Winkler, anti-Semitism still exists in today’s world but doesn’t let it bother him.  He said he believes many Jews have become paranoid.

“People feel like they have a target on them,” Winkler said. “In law enforcement, you have a target on you just because you’re a cop. They don’t know if you’re a good cop, bad cop, or whatever. And a lot of Jewish people feel like they have a target on them.”

Even though Winkler doesn’t feel a direct threat, he wants to see a change in society. More than anything, he wants everyone to treat each other like actual people instead of a label.

“I don’t want to sit on a UTA bus and have some guy identify me as a Jew because of my nose. … What I hope is that we quit looking at what makes a person, and look at what they really are. Why do I have to be Jewish? Why do I have to be white? Why do I have to be identified as something? Why can’t society get past all that and just say ‘Hey, that Sam Winkler is a great guy!’”

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