Jews Join Parliament of Religions to ‘rub Elbows’ and Form Coalitions

Jewish religious leaders were among the 125 groups who turned out for the historic eight-day Parliament of the World’s Religions that began here last weekend.

Hailed as the greatest gathering of religious and spiritual leaders in history by its organizers, the parliament — the first of its kind since 1893 — was meant to be a celebration of respect for religious differences and a hopeful step toward understanding and cooperation.

According to Rabbi A. James Rudin, a participant, the parliament was “significant for Jews because Judaism is one of the world’s great religions, and it is not just Christian-Jewish relations we’ve got to be concerned about.”

The Jewish presence here “is confirmation that we are a world religion and had best begin to think in those terms,” said Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

“The Jewish community helps itself by participating because permanent coalitions are being formed. These are alliances that Jews have to part of,” he added.

“We are now rubbing elbows with people whom we have never before been in the same room with, much less spoken with,” said Rabbi Herman Schaalman, a Chicago rabbi and one of 24 international presidents of the parliament.

“As we meet these people, we have certain things that we hope to accomplish,” he said.

“Basically, we are trying to see how religious leaders and religious systems can address the critical issues of our day, such as violence, poverty, homelessness, etc. We hope to become friendly and talk with one another, and that in doing so we might be able to alleviate some of the conflict in the world,” Schaalman said.

With this goal in mind, the religious leaders have come to Chicago from places such as Sri Lanka and Cambodia, India and Africa, the South Side of Chicago and America’s Southwest.

The Palmer House Hilton, where the event took place, was packed with a colorful assortment of robes, turbans, yarmulkas, scarves, beards, shaved heads and saffron robes.

ONLY TROUBLING ISSUE WAS FARRAKHAN

“If you ever really wanted to see religious pluralism in the flesh, this is the place,” said Rudin of AJCommittee.

According to Gene Anderson, director of the hotel’s food and beverage operation, “the biggest challenge is to meet the dietary concerns of all these different religions simultaneously.”

In total, approximately 6,000 people registered for the event, almost twice those expected.

There was no figure available for the number of Jews at the conference, but there were about 25 Jewish panelists and speakers.

These included Emil Fackenheim, a leading Israeli theologian; Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of CLAL — the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress; and Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The only objectionable issue faced by the Jewish contingent was the scheduled appearance of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. He was expected to give a major presentation titled “Faith: The African American Family,” on Thursday evening. Speakers at such sessions are selected by the various host committees, and organizers of the parliament said that Farrakhan was invited to speak by the African American committee.

Local Jewish organizations, many of which co-sponsored the parliament, intended to convey their dismay over the inappropriate inclusion of Farrakhan to parliament officials.

According to Sir Sigmund Sternberg, chairman of the executive committee of the International Council of Christians and Jews and the only Jewish participant from Europe, “seeing Arabs, Indians, Christians and Jews sitting and talking to one another is very good news.

“For instance, at the parliament I have already had the opportunity to meet with Francesco Gioia, the archbishop of pontifical consul for interreligious dialogue and the Vatican’s official representative to the 1993 parliament.

“We had a useful discussion on Jewish-Catholic relations. This conference gives us the opportunity to meet and talk with one another. Where else but in such a setting would this be possible?” Sternberg said.

OFFICIALS PLANNED PAPER ON ETHICS

The parliament, which has been in the works for five years, comes a century after, and was inspired by, a similar meeting that was held here as part of the Columbian Exposition of 1893. At that time, evolution was the thorniest issue on the agenda.

Topics of the hundreds of seminars and lectures at this year’s parliament included the international refugee problem, the population explosion, religion and politics, homosexuality, nature, science, human rights, violence, business and UFOs.

In addition, officials planned to meet in private to draft a document on global ethics. The parliament was scheduled to close Saturday with a public ceremony in Grant Park that was to include a concert featuring folk-rock musicians Kenny Loggins and Arlo Guthrie and a speech by the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.

Several Jewish organizations co-sponsored the parliament, including the local offices of the AJCongress, AJCommittee, the Anti-Defamation League and the local Jewish Community Relations Council.

According to Michael Kotzin, director of the JCRC, “When we agreed to become a co-sponsor, it was not without trepidation that interests of the Jewish community might be jeopardized through such an event.

“While most of our fears seem unfounded thus far, the recently announced inclusion of Minister Louis Farrakhan on the program is troubling,” he said.

In spite of Farrakhan’s scheduled address, Jewish leaders said that they have high hopes for the 1993 parliament.

“There will be structures developed locally, nationally and internationally to carry forward what was begun here,” Schaalman said.

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