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‘rebbe of Tibet’ Gets Welcome from Jewish Group in New York

October 22, 1991
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You might say that he’s the rebbe of Tibet.

Followers of the Dalai Lama, the saffron-and-maroon-robed, 56-year-old spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists, revere and adore him in a way very similar to the way Hasidim feel about their rebbe.

During a trip to New York this week and last, thousands of the Dalai Lama’s adherents filled the Paramount Theatre in New York’s Madison Square Garden to listen to him “farbreng”– expound upon the essential teachings of the faith.

And like the followers of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Buddhists travel from around the world to be near him, flocking to Dharmsala, the northern Indian city that serves as the Dalai Lama’s headquarters-in-exile, to receive his blessings.

Tibetans have been in exile from their homeland since 1959, when they fled occupation by the People’s Republic of China. Now they are dispersed across the continents.

About 130,000 live in India, according to Thubten Sanphel, a spokesperson for the Office of Tibet here. Many more live in Nepal and Bhutan, especially in the Himalayas, and others are in Western nations.

All told, the Dalai Lama has about 6 million Tibetan followers, Sanphel said.

He confers blessings on the people who come to him and on the food they bring, and he hands out “blessing strings.”

The Buddhists then consume the blessed food and wear the strings around their neck, as if to ingest the Dalai Lama’s enlightenment and to be guarded from illness by the strings made holy by his blessing.

It’s not too different from the way people keep the crisp dollar bills given out by the Lubavitcher rebbe for tzedakah and donate others to charity, or line up for hours to get a piece of the honey cake that the rebbe passes out at holiday time.

“If people eat what was blessed by the lama (superior one), they themselves become blessed,” explained Sanphel.


The Dalai Lama feels a real affinity with Jews, from whom he wants his people to learn “the secrets” of survival in exile.

“For more than 20 centuries the Jewish people in exile kept your tradition, your culture, in some cases under hostile circumstances,” the Dalai Lama said at a reception given in his honor by Jewish organizations on Oct. 17.

“We must study this experience. Sometimes I tell my Jewish friends, ‘You have a secret thing and it is that which we want to steal, because we, too, are facing extinction,'” he said.

“Wherever the Jewish community lived they not only preserved their identity,” he said, “but the more suffering they had, the more inner strength.”

The reception was organized by the American Jewish World Service, which raises and distributes funds for development and disaster relief projects in Jewish and non-Jewish communities worldwide.

The group has granted more than $48,000 to the Tibetan community in India to help it develop economic self-reliance and preserve its cultural heritage.

Elie Wiesel, addressing his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner and the hundreds of Jews attending the reception, said: “As Jews, we must be sensitive to other people’s ambitions and aspirations.”

Author and Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg, who attended the reception and had met with the Dalai Lama at a Tibetan retreat in Washington, N.J., in 1988, and in Dharmsala last year, observed that Tibetans and Jews share more than the experience of exile.

They share the challenge of “integrating modernity and not abandoning our particularist traditions and roots,” she said. “We share also a convergence of spiritual, religious, national and political concerns.”

And not least among the reasons for the collegial relationship between the Dalai Lama and Jews “is that he likes the Jewish people,” Greenberg said. “That’s no mean feat among religious and political leaders in our time.”

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