A Symbol With Different Meanings - March 10, 2023

So much of the focus of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland is on the Jewish community itself. We ask how can we best meet the needs of people across the spectrum of Jewish life? However, we also devote time through our Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) to meeting and developing partnerships with other faith and ethnic groups in our community.


Four weeks ago, ten members of the Jewish community (from the Jewish Community Relations Council, Intergroup Outreach Committee, and Rabbi Eve Posen) joined together with ten members of the Hindu Swayasevak Sangh (HSS) USA organization. It was an important opportunity to begin to develop a closely connected relationship with the local Hindu community and to discuss common areas of interest. 


The participants from the Hindu community were all born in India and came to the United States at varying ages, most as college students and post-college. The majority work in the high-tech industry. Not all are active in the Hindu Temple with a variety of practice and observance levels, not dissimilar to the participants from the Jewish community and their involvement in Jewish life.


The group was focused on learning each other’s stories, seeing how and where our histories intersect living as minorities in a dominant culture, understanding our connections to Israel and India, and building community with each other.


The group was facilitated by Rachel Nelson, Federation's Associate Director of Community Relations, and Hiral Pandya of HSS. To add to the experience, the group rotated meetings between Congregation Neveh Shalom and the HECSA Hindu Temple in SW Portland. At each location the group was able to explore sacred spaces and hear different blessings.


One of those “a ha” moments was when the Jewish participants learned that the stories of the Torah and the symbols that may have meaning in Christianity and Islam were mostly unknown to those from the Hindu community. Hinduism is not an Abrahamic faith. On the other hand, when the Hindu community shared about their different gods, although not our monotheistic tradition, it had a familiar feel since they emulate the various attributes of the one god in Judaism.


A major topic of discussion was devoted to the swastika symbol. This symbol is one that causes many Jews to have a gut reaction of pain and anguish, but it is a highly revered symbol to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains across the world (learn more here). Sadly, the symbol was misappropriated by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, including taking the name. Throughout World War II, Hitler and others referred to the symbol as the hakenkreuz, or hooked cross. It was not until a pastor translated Mein Kampf in 1939 that the term "swastika" was used by the Germans, and later others. (A more detailed story will be included in future issue of the Jewish Review.)


The swastika is a symbol of peace throughout India. However, those in the group understand the sensitivities around the symbol in America and other places in Europe. Therefore, you will not see the symbol in public places outside of India.


Discussions and reactions to this symbol from both communities are what helped open the group to deep dialogue and understanding. The Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain communities would like to reclaim the swastika as a symbol of peace, and there was general agreement that the term hakenkreuz should be used when referring to the Nazi’s symbol of hate.


I am excited that the group has decided after the initial four sessions to keep meeting. We look forward to sharing more.


The news in Israel has been difficult to watch. Just to focus on one issue, the Netanyahu-led coalition is trying to dramatically change the role of the judiciary in the country. Tens of thousands of people are protesting on a nightly basis against these reforms, while there are also many in Israel who support the proposed changes. Those in the coalition want to speed up the legislative process while the opposition wants the process to not move forward in the Knesset. Isaac Herzog, President of Israel, has denounced the judicial overhaul legislation and called for it to be abandoned immediately and replaced by a framework for consensual reform. It is a very tricky situation and one where “experts” have differing views and opinions.


Thomas Friedman of The New York Times wrote earlier this week, “Israel is facing its biggest internal clash since its founding.” Israeli economist and demographer Dan Ben-David remarked, “This is our second war of independence, and all Jews have a stake in its outcome.”


Here is an excellent article from Michael Koplow, Chief Policy Officer at the Israel Policy Forum, detailing why things are where they are.


Please know that Jewish Federations of North America has expressed

its concerns about judicial review directly with the Netanyahu government. In addition, our JCRC has been in direct contact with both Marco Sermoneta, Consul-General for the State of Israel for the Pacific Northwest, and Matan Zamir, Deputy Consul-General, to make sure our voices are heard. We will see how this unfolds.


Speaking of Israel, I am very excited that in ten days, a group of 200 people from the Portland area will travel to Israel on the Jewish Federation’s community trip. Who knows what the political climate will be at that time, but we look forward to listening and learning about these issues directly from Israelis.


On a very different note, Chaim Topolwho starred as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, both on Broadway and in the movie, passed away yesterday. Of course my grandmother and parents loved him in that role. I, however, knew of him not as a peasant in Eastern Europe, but as a scientist.


My family was a very early subscriber to HBO. In 1980, with limited films, they would play the 1980 “classic” Flash Gordon seemingly every day. In fact, I knew every line by rote. Topol played Dr. Hans Zarkov in the movie. I fondly recall my grandmother seeing me watch the movie and noticing Topol in this role. She looked at me, rolled her eyes, and said, “He used to be a great actor.” I thought he still was.


Shabbat shalom.


Add Comment