Jewish and Hindu communities break bread and barriers

PHOTO: A Jewish-Hindu dialogue series revealed that the swastika is a a sacred symbol used for thousands of years by the Dharmic traditions of the East, namely Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. The Nazis referred to a similar symbol as “hakenkreuz.” Hakenkreuz, or hooked cross, is not related to the Hindu/Buddhist/Jain symbol of the swastika. (See full explanation of how the misconception arose below dialogue story).

Chance encounters can be the gateway to some of the most meaningful conversations. So it was with a recent series of Jewish/Hindu intercommunity dialogues led by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Bob Horenstein, Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s Director of Community Relations, hadn’t met anyone from the Hindu community since college until he was approached about a year ago after he made a presentation.
“There was an individual listening who’s a member of the Hindu community,” Horenstein says. “He reached out to me after he heard my presentation and wanted to figure out how we might be able to start a relationship between our two communities.”
The process started as a series of lunches with Horenstein and Associate JCRC Director Rachel Nelson, along with Horenstein’s contact and another member of the local branch of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, a worldwide Hindu volunteer organization. Through those conversations, Horenstein and Nelson spearheaded the JCRC’s participation in a food drive during the Hindu festival of Diwali, a project that contributed 10,000 pounds of food to families in need. Then the framework for the recent dialogue series came together.
“Since we’re veterans of doing dialogues over the years, we thought that would be a good way for a group of about 20 to get together and start to know one another,” Horenstein says. “I’m guessing most people in the Jewish community don’t understand the Hindu religion and vice versa. What we found was that was very much true.”
The dialogues took place on Monday nights in February, alternating between Congregation Neveh Shalom and a Hindu temple in Southwest Portland. Each meeting was held over dinner.
“I got to experience really good Indian food, which I had never had,” Nelson says. “One of the greatest things about these dialogue groups is that we know that meeting over a meal brings in a different nature of things, and it’s a chance to experience a culture from a different sort of view.”
A particularly memorable experience was the group’s tour of the Hindu temple. While Judaism and Hinduism are theologically quite different, both faiths’ ceremonial use of light and fire provided a sense of commonality, as did the depth of meaning in what was displayed. Even the design of the Hindu sacred space felt familiar in a way.
“What really spoke to me was it felt very similar to what the Tabernacle may have looked like, that we don’t necessarily have a visual of, because we don’t display gods in the same way in our Jewish sacred spaces,” Nelson says. “It felt like you were looking at a Tabernacle space when you were looking at their temple space. There was something that felt very connective to it. It was visually very beautiful.”
Horenstein drew a connection between the 13 attributes of God described in the Torah and the polytheistic Hindu deities.
“They have multiple gods that seem to represent different attributes, and we sort of connected with it in that way,” Horenstein says. “When you walk into their sacred space, you see a lot of representations of these gods. It’s beautiful.”
A symbol Nelson and Horenstein didn’t see was the swastika, a traditional symbol of well-being that is common in India. That name is identified now with the symbol of the Nazi Party, but the reality is more complicated. (See story below.)
“It was never called the swastika in World War II … it was always referred to as a hakenkreuz, which is a hooked cross,” says Nelson, adding that having swastika termed a hate symbol has brought pain to the Hindu community.
Horenstein says that Hindus don’t display swastikas anywhere in the United States “because of their sensitivity toward the Jewish community.”
“Imagine if the Nazis had taken the Star of David and somehow corrupted it – what would we think about that?” asks Horenstein. “It’s unfortunate. I feel bad for them for that. They should be able to claim ownership of that.”
The dialogues revealed further commonalities: a sense of connection to homeland and a history of persecution and genocide through the ages.
“They have suffered enormous genocides,” Horenstein says. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, even somewhat recently, where millions of Hindus have been murdered over the centuries. There’s sort of this feeling that we’ve both suffered, we’ve both been ‘othered.’”
Jews and Hindus have a common history of oppression, which continues today.
“The Hindu community didn’t realize that we feel constant fear of attack and oppression in a way they didn’t expect, because many of us are white-presenting,” Nelson says.
“One of the participants said, ‘I don’t understand how you can feel vulnerable.’ She couldn’t get beyond the color of my skin. But she said she wants to learn why,” Horenstein says. “That’s a conversation I look forward to having.”
It’s a conversation that’s already moving forward – the dialogue group is reconvening to discuss next steps and future goals. Horenstein is already coordinating with Hindu dialogue participants to advocate for legislation to expand ethnic studies education in Oregon.
“I hope that folks in the broader Jewish community know that we continually do that,” Nelson explains. “We know as a minority community that we need allies and friends, and we need to be allies and friends in the broader community.”
Monthly meetings resume in May with a discussion of the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.
Rockne Roll is the incoming editor of the Jewish Review (see story).


Clarifying misconceptions about swastika

The swastika is a sacred symbol that has been ubiquitously used for thousands of years by the Dharmic traditions of the East, namely Hindus, Buddhists and Jains all over the world and throughout history.
In Hinduism, the swastika is a highly revered symbol that represents auspiciousness and good luck. The word “swastika” is a Sanskrit term that is a combination of two words: “su” meaning “well” and “asti(ka)”
meaning “being.” Hence, swastika means “well-being” or “good existence.” In Hindu mythology, swastika is closely associated with Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of wisdom and good fortune. In fact, Ganesha is often depicted with a swastika on his palm and forehead, symbolizing his power and ability to bring good luck and prosperity to his devotees.
In Dharmic cultures, swastika is a symbol that is used in a wide range of contexts, from religious ceremonies to everyday objects. It’s often used in the decoration of temples, homes and other sacred spaces, and is considered to bring positive energy and good fortune to those who encounter it.
The swastika is also a common motif in Eastern art and architecture and can be found on everything from clothing to jewelry to pottery. It’s a symbol that has played an important role in the spiritual and cultural lives of countless Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Its use continues to be an important way to express their faith and connect with their cultural heritage and remains a deeply meaningful and positive symbol that represents auspiciousness and good fortune.
The swastika has also been used by other cultures throughout history, including Native Americans, ancient Greeks and Nordic peoples, where this symbol has positive connotations representing concepts such as life, the sun and good fortune.
This symbol unfortunately came to be associated with evil, hatred, genocide and violence in the 20th century after a symbol similar to the shape of swastika became popularly used by the Nazi party of Germany. Hitler and everyone in the Nazi party referred to this symbol not as swastika, but as “hakenkreuz.” Hakenkreuz, or hooked cross, is a Christian symbol with no relation whatsoever to the Hindu/Buddhist/Jain symbol of the swastika. The hakenkreuz symbol was also referred to as “gammadion” on other occasions in European history. Hitler was neither influenced nor ever associated with the Hindu culture or civilization.
This confusion between the hooked cross and the swastika can be traced to the wrong and misleading translation of the hakenkreuz to swastika in the German-to-English translation of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. Translated for the second time in 1939 by a Christian priest named James Vincent Murphy, hakenkreuz was wrongly translated to swastika, rather than “hooked cross.”
Hindus, Buddhists and Jains around the world hope global discourse moves to distinguish between the swastika and the hooked cross and expect that the Nazi symbol of hatred be referred to as the hooked cross and not swastika in future references to this symbol.
By understanding the true history of swastika and its role in the spiritual traditions of the Eastern world, we can work to reclaim the glory of swastika and recognize its true meaning and significance. That will also help to promote tolerance, understanding and appreciation for cultural diversity by recognizing the different representations of symbols in different cultures around the world.
In 2008, a Hindu-Jewish collaboration between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabhamade made the following joint declaration as part of their summit:
“Swastika is an ancient and greatly auspicious symbol of the Hindu tradition. It is inscribed on Hindu temples, ritual altars, entrances and even account books. A distorted version of this sacred symbol was misappropriated by the Third Reich in Germany, and abused as an emblem under which heinous crimes were perpetuated against humanity, particularly the Jewish people. The participants recognize that this symbol is, and has been, sacred to the Hindus for millennia, long before its misappropriation.”
“The Silence of Swastika: The Biggest Betrayal” is a well-researched documentary that gives a comprehensive history and overview of how this sacred symbol swastika was hijacked by the mainstream discourse and how the symbol hakenkreuz came to be known as swastika. See the film at
Dr. Siddharth Rai is a semiconductor professional working in the Greater Portland area. Along with semiconductors, he also has a lot of interest in cross-cultural and cross-civilizational studies. He participated in the local Hindu-Jewish dialogues in February (see above). He also loves to sing, play tennis and hike to enjoy the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.



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