It was a gathering of two communities buffeted and persecuted by religious extremistsover several centuries. One had to migrate from country to country in search of a tolerant and peaceful sanctuary. The other suffered centuries of invasion, conversion, plunder and devastation in its own land.
About 100 Hindus and Jews gathered at the India House for the first Hindu-Jewish Solidarity Day on Sunday, Jan 9, a meeting marked by camaraderie and good cheer and a desire to learn about each other’s traditions and culture. And there was warm acknowldegement of the fact that Jewish people were able to practice their faith in India, without fear of persecution or rejection from the Hindus.
Bridge Houston and Hindus of Greater Houston brought together 50 Jewish Rabbis/leaders/activists and 50 Hindu leaders/monks/activists from influential synagogues/mandirs/organizations in Houston at this event which was by invitation only.
After an invocation in Sanskrit sung by Vyjayanthi Vivek, Ira Bleiweiss (Bridge Houston), who opened the proceedings, said he and Ravi Raghavan, coordinator on the Hindu side, had met a few times to discuss the modalities of a meeting. He said his daughter had visited India and came back with great appreciation for its hoary traditions and culture. He said Hindus and Jews face threats to their faiths from extremists, but ignoring threats to one’s faith won’t make the threats go away.
Rabbi Steven Morgan recited the Jewish invocation and he was followed by Swami Nikhilanand of Barsana Dham who said a prayer in Sanskrit.
The highlight of the afternoon was an excellent presentation of the history of the Jews in India by Ravi Raghavan. Jews had been trading with India since early times and when they began to face persecution from the early Christians and later from Muslims, they migrated, albeit in small numbers to India. Jews settled down along the Western coast of India, notably in Cochin, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and a very small minority in the northeastern part of India. They were given land by the Maharaja of Cochin, exempted from taxation, allowed to build synagogues, engage in business or agriculture.
In turn, the Jews assimilated with the local people, contributed to trade and commerce, built infrastructure works like the well known Sassoon Dock in Mumbai, Sassoon hospital in Pune, participated in arts and culture – poet Nissim Ezekiel, actors David Abraham and Sulochana, Nadira to name a few.
Rabbi Robert Haas, who has visited India, gave a brief description of Hanukkah, the most important festival of the Jews. Like Diwali, Hanukkah also is a festival of lights. “It is true that we are referred to as the chosen people; but we do not think we are the only chosen people. We believe that all human beings have equal footing before God; we all have our own path to enlightenment.,” he said.
Swami Nikhilanand said Sanatan Dharma or Hinduism is very inclusive. “Anyone can follow it, anyone can adopt it. It is a way to not just feel close to God but experience God,” he said. He explained the origins and meaning of Diwali.
Two cultural items were present by students of Nrityasri School of Dance — Dashavataram and Ako Shyam.
The Jewish group demonstrated a traditional group dance for which everyone in the audience was invited to join. Standing side by side and holding hands, the participants traveled in a circle to rollicking music.
Ravi Raghavan, coordinator seemed very satisfied with this first Hindu-Jew get-together. “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. After this event, 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,” he said.
A vote of thanks was proposed by Girish Naik of the Hindus of Greater Houston. It was decided to take this interaction to the next level with a possible joint celebration of Hannukah and Diwali later in the year. Earlier, a reception was held where the gathering mingled and feasted on Indian and Jewish delicacies. — Rajeev Gadgil