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New York, NY (February 26, 2008): The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) was represented in a delegation of Hindu spiritual and lay leaders that visited Israel last week to attend the Second International Hindu-Jewish Summit organized by the World Council of Religious Leaders (WCORL) in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The goal of the Summit, according to Bawa Jain, Secretary General of WCORL, was to further develop and promote understanding and mutual respect between the leaders of The Chief Rabbinate of Israel and The Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, an apex unifying body of many of the most prominent Hindu religious leaders. This 2008 Summit was a continuation of the first Summit held in Dehli, India in February 2007.
"This historic coming together of the two oldest religions will further efforts towards religious diplomacy and alleviate many of the deep-rooted misunderstandings of the past 2000 years," said Bawa Jain, after the Summit. Jain invited Sheetal Shah, Director of Development for HAF, to travel to Israel as a Hindu representative to the Summit.
The Hindu delegation, which arrived in Jerusalem on February 17, consisted of several prominent Hindu leaders including Swami Avdheshanand Giri, Swami Paramatmananda Saraswati, Swami Chidanand Saraswati, and Swami Madhavpriyadas. Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the convener of the Dharma Acharya Sabha, was unable to attend the Summit due to health concerns.
"The Summit was an extraordinary opportunity for leaders of both religions to come together and uncover a number of similarities between Hinduism and Judaism,” said Sheetal Shah, upon her return to the HAF office in New York. "This Summit personified the spirit of true pluralism as we discovered and celebrated the theological, ritual and spiritual similarities that our religious traditions share. HAF was honored and humbled to join our dharmacharyas on this mission."
In addition to the planned discussions between the leaders of the Rabbinate and the Hindu delegation, which led to the formation of a new Declaration of understanding, the groups also met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Minister Isaac Herzog at the Knesset, and Deputy Minster of Foreign Affairs Majalli Whbee. During the delegation’s audience with President Peres, they discussed similarities between Jewish and Hindu beliefs, mutual hopes for lasting peace in the Middle East and the importance of a strong Israeli-Indian relationship.
"This Summit was remarkable first and foremost because of the level of the participation and not just the high level Hindu leaders," said Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the AJC's Department of Interreligious Affairs. "While the first Summit last year was obviously the breakthrough, the level and extent of Israeli Rabbinic leadership that participated in the meeting in Jerusalem was unparalleled."
At the Summit, Rabbi Rosen formally read the Declaration upon which the leaders of the Rabbinate and the Hindu delegation had agreed. The nine-point Declaration broadly (a) reaffirms the common Hindu and Jewish belief in One Supreme Being both in its formless and manifest aspects; (b) expresses their common world view of the sanctity of human life; (c) recognizes that all religions are sacred for their people and therefore, no one should denigrate or interfere in the religious practice of others; (d) recognizes that the Svastika is an ancient Hindu symbol and was misappropriated by the Third Reich; and (e) calls for serious reconsideration of the Aryan Migration Theory--a largely discredited, racist theory that posits that an invasion by nomadic, non-Indian tribes conceived the Vedic civilization.
“In particular, the agreement of the belief in One Supreme Being having various manifestations and the recognition of Svastika’s auspiciousness in the Hindu tradition were monumental steps in building an understanding between the two religions,” said Shah, adding that HAF will work hard to highlight the Declaration in various fora over the next year.
Despite snowy conditions in Jerusalem, the Hindu delegation visited and said their prayers at the Kotel, also known as the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites for Jews. The delegation also paid their respects to those who perished in the Holocaust during a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust victims.
As the delegation traveled to Haifa on the last day, they met with leaders of the Druze community and paid their respects at the Ba’hai Center. In Haifa, the Mayor, Mr. Yonah Yahav, the city’s Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, along with the city’s Christian and Muslim religious leaders greeted the delegation.
"Above all, this meeting provided the opportunity not only for friendships to develop between the religious leaders, but to shatter distorted stereotypes and misconceptions that all too often have contributed to keeping the Hindu and Jewish worlds apart," added Rabbi Rosen. "Most of us who were privileged to be part of this momentous gathering had the feeling that we were part of the beginning of a new historic era of understanding and cooperation between our two faith communities."