When leaders of the Hindu and Jewish communities came together this past weekend at the India House, it turned out to be more than just an afternoon of revelry in celebration of two world cultures. Rather, through the educational nature of the event with both communities taking the emotional journey back in time to revisit history. It was revealed to the astonishment of many in the audience, that both cultures are old friends who shared at close bond from over two thousand years ago when the first group of Jews migrated to India and made that country their home.
Hosted jointly by the Hindus of Greater Houston (HGH) and Bridge Houston (BH) the 1st Annual Hindu-Jewish Solidarity Day held on January 9 2011, with a limited guest list of only 100 vetted invitees brought together prolific leaders, rabbis, monks and activists from several influential synagogues, temples and organizations in this city. The blustery weather failed to deter gatherees in ochre robes, kippahs, sarees and in deference to Texas, cowboy boots, who met at the reception preceding the event and mingled convivially over samosas, delectable Jewish desserts and hot tea.
“When two communities get together in friendship, it is a good thing. I hope it sustains itself and hat we can continue to build on what we have in common," said Lee Wunsch, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.
The program began with invocations in Sanskrit and Hebrew by Swami Nikhilanand of Barsana Dham in Austin, and Rabbi Steven Morgen of the Congregation Beth Yeshurun: both prayers expressed similar sentiments of cultivating friendships and of kindness to others. Ira Bleiweiss, founder of B.H. lauded HGH’s Ravi Raghavan for being "the driving force” in facilitating the occasion.
“l’m so glad Ravi motivated me to do this. We have no interfaith connection with the Hindu community yet we have common histories and challenges that we face because of our faith. We’re also non- proselytizing,” said Bleiweiss. “For over 2000 years Jewish people have lived in lndia and have never been persecuted by the Hindus. This forum will give us a better understanding of Hinduism and hopefully will be the start of something bigger and better and set an example for the rest of the nation. He added that BH and HGH are planning a joint public event later in the year in celebration of Hannukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, and Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.
Jewish guests were privy to a brief program of Indian classical dances by artistes from the Nrityasri School of Dance. Thereafter, the Hindus were invited by their Jewish counterparts to join in sprightly interactive impromptu Jewish dances; all participated with gusto.
For more than 3000 years, Judaism has prevailed because of its strict adherence to laws or commandments that connect believers to god, said Rabbi Robert Haas.
Associate Clergy at the Congregation Emanu El. Articulate and with tinges of humor, the Rabbi opened a wider window into Judaism and its basic principles and correlated several to Hinduism. “We must be good human beings just because...and without expectation,” said Rabbi Haas. He told of the miracle of Hannukah, which is observed for eight days and nights and commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt, 2nd century BCE. “Like Diwali, Hannukah is celebrated with lights, the eternal light that signifies that god exists at all times,” added Rabbi Haas.
Speaking on Hinduism, Swami Nikhilanand told gatherees that the religion is “amazingly vast yet monotheistic”. "God is absolute, He is one Supreme Being, formless, yet can have a form. He is omnipresent,” said the swami. He elaborated on the significance of Diwali, which is the triumph of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.
In a well-researched presentation, Ravi Raghavan told of the migration of the Cochin Jews to India 2500 years ago where they found safe haven and assimilated into the local communities seamlessly. Quoting from Professor Nathan Katz’s book The Jewish Diaspora in Hindu India, Raghavan described a quiet community that built synagogues and lived and worked and worshipped peacefully amidst the majority Hindu populace. Later other groups of Jews settled in various other parts of India.
“Hindus and Jews are natural allies, given our 2500 year old history of harmonious co-existence in Hindu-majority India. We share prolific proclivities, strategic concerns and common challenges in the current global scenario. Today, the feedback from both the Hindu and Jewish communities has been very positive. Hindus of Greater Houston and Bridge Houston will continue to work together to improve the synergy and goodwill between our communities,” said Raghavan, who worked with the HGH team Girish Naik, Dharminder Dargan, and Wjay Pallod to put together the event.
Girish Naik was optimistic about the future successes of similar programs. “We have never had a gathering like this before to form a bridge between our cultures. We have so much in common," said Naik. "This was a phenomenal afternoon,” enthused journalist Micheal Duke with the Jewish Herald Voice, an authoritative publication that was started by Duke‘s grandmother 103 years ago in this city.
"We have so much to celebrate together, particularly 2000 years of solidarity. Our children must be taught to keep this relationship alive for another 2000 years," added Duke.