Following this, Rabbi Sid Schwarz and Vaishnava Hindu priest Anuttama Das each spoke for fifteen minutes, giving an overview of their traditions.
Rabbi Sid, as he is known to his congregation, spoke about the historical importance of the State of Israel, and about how Judaism responded to the loss of their Temple under Roman persecution, leading to the Jewish diaspora all over the world.
The Rabbi, whose daughter Jenny is currently working with the American Jewish World Service in Ahmedabad, India, also talked about the importance of community and social activism for Jewish people. He explained how they are inspired by their faith to endeavor in making the world a better place.
Next, Anuttama started off his talk by saying that interfaith is all about discovering our similarities. In an effort to break the ice with an audience who may not have been expecting to see a non-Indian represent Hinduism, he drew a humorous parallel between his own spiritual journey and that of the synagogue.
Rabbi Sid had mentioned in his talk that in its earlier years, his community had worshipped in the basement of a Presbyterian Christian church, then a Lutheran church, before they were able to get their own synagogue.
200 members of the Jewish and Hindu communities gathered for the event
Referencing this story, Anuttama jokingly said that he had followed a similar path: as a youth, he had also worshipped with the Presbyterians, then visited the Lutherans, before going on to become a Vaishnava Hindu. This drew much laughter.
Anuttama then went on to explain the historical roots of the word “Hindu”—how the ancient Persians were unable to pronounce the name of the river Sindhu, and thus called the people living on the other side of it “Hindus.” He also explained how Hinduism is really a whole umbrella of faiths based on the Vedas, and includes different schools of thought.
“I first outlined the similarities—how they’re all based on the Vedic teachings; they all accept the concept of atma, the soul’s eternity; they all accept the concept of Brahman—that there’s a spiritual absolute from which everything comes; and they all believe in karma and reincarnation,” he says.
“I then explained the differences—that different traditions emphasize different aspects of the Vedas, and have their own lineages of teachers,” he continues. “I said that perhaps the most significant difference is between the two prominent schools of thought: the dvaita, or personalist school, and the advaita, or monist, impersonalist school."
As a Vaishnava priest, Anuttama concluded, he believed that the ultimate reality is a personal God, who has many names.
“We refer to him primarily as Krishna, which means the all-attractive one,” he said. “ And we believe the ultimate goal is to serve God and reawaken our love for Him.”
Images of the Cosmos such as this Butterfly Nebula were projected during readings from the Hebrew Bible and Bhagavad-gita (Courtesy of NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team)
In the question and answer session that ensued, Rabbi Sid asked, “Doesn’t the concept of karma lead us to becoming less compassionate to those who may be less fortunate than us?”
Anuttama responded by explaining that more important than karma is Dharma. This means to act in a spiritually-motived fashion based on the principles of selfless service, compassion, truthfulness, and understanding oneself to be a servant of God—thus being intimately connected to all other beings.
The two also discussed historical parallels between Judaism and Hinduism, two of the oldest religious traditions.
In its earliest years, Rabbi Sid explained, Judaism was focused on temple worship and the concept of sacrifice. Later, in the Rabbinic period, after the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., it moved to a more community based, congregational worship style.
Anuttama responded that Vedic scriptures also describe previous eras of sacrifice and temple worship. But that in the current era, the recommended path is coming together as a community to congregationally glorify God’s names.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Sid found another interesting historical parallel in Anuttama’s story about the people on the other side of the Sindhu river being called Hindus. Ivri, the word for Hebrew used in the Bible, he explained, means “the other side of the river.”
Other commonalities were brought up during the question and answer session by Jay Kansara of the Hindu American Foundation, and several other representatives of prominent Hindu organizations in attendance.
President of the Hindu American Seva Communities Anju Bhargava, for instance, found commonality between her work and the importance the Jewish community places upon social activism. She spoke about the increase in Seva, or social service, occurring within the broader Hindu community in North America today.
Rounding out the evening was a performance by an interfaith youth band, "Hinju," that performed a fusion of Jewish and Indian music. Afterwards participants were welcome to enjoy further conversation and informal discussions among themselves along with snacks catered by the ISKCON temple and other volunteers.
“All in all, it was a very positive and uplifting experience,” says Anuttama. “I think it helped establish very congenial relationships between our two communities, as well as our two specific houses of worship.”
The event is likely to lead to more Jewish-Hindu interfaith events, as well as specific collaborations between the Adat Shalom synagogue and ISKCON Potomac.
“Just as we’ve had a formal Christian-Vaishnava dialogue for fifteen years, and a Muslim-Vaishnava dialogue for four years in Washington D.C., we hope that this will be a springboard for a formal Jewish-Vaishnava dialogue too,” Anuttama says.