Suddenly, it seemed as if there might be a billion Jews on the planet.
How else to explain the comparatively large number of rabbis (many in high profile positions) at the first-ever gathering of 1,000 world religious leaders at the UN’s General Assembly hall this week.
In truth, Jews comprise two-tenths of 1 percent of the world population; there are 13.1 million Jews out of the 6 billion people on earth.
Nevertheless, the Jewish presence was front and center amid the colorful Indian turbans, Muslim caftans, purple Catholic skullcaps, Orthodox Christian hoods, tasseled hats, veils, and native feathered headgear sitting atop the heads of hundreds of delegates to the grandly titled Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders.
There seemed as many rabbis as Catholic leaders, who represent the world’s billion Catholics.
Gathering sheiks, swamis, bishops, and patriarchs from around the globe, summit officials expected the event to result in resolutions to fight poverty, stop war, and protect the environment, as well as the formation of a permanent council of religious leaders to advise the UN on preventing and settling disputes.
But the summit quickly became mired in its own controversy with the exclusion of one of the world’s best known holy men, Tibetan Buddhism’s Dalai Lama, because of political pressure from China.
In all, there were 22 Jewish delegates listed at the summit, most of who tried to steer clear of the Dalai Lama controversy.
More impressive was the prominence given Jewish leaders, particularly from Israel:
# Israel’s Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau helped open the summit with a prayer on Monday and wowed the audience Tuesday with a charming peace homily.
# World-renowned Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz also delivered an opening prayer and Tuesday called for rich and poor countries alike to cut 1 percent from their arms budgets and redirect it to world peace endeavors.
# Also providing opening prayers were England’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Russia’s Chief Rabbi Adolph Solomonovitch, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue and founder of the pro-tolerance Appeal of Conscience Foundation.
"It’s incredible that there were so many Jews bringing blessings last night, numerically not even one is justified," exclaimed Israel’s Rabbi David Rosen, president of the World Conference on Religion and Peace and a scheduled speaker at the closing session.
"And the even more amazing thing is they were all Orthodox," said Rabbi Rosen, shattering the myth that only non-Orthodox are leaders in interfaith efforts.
Rabbis were at a loss to explain the comparatively high number of Jewish participants. Some suggested the close relationship between the summit organizers and the powerful New York public relations firm of Ruder Finn, whose president David Finn and daughter Dena Merriam were on the summit’s executive council.
"It’s because we’re in New York," suggested Rabbi Ron Kronish, the lone Reform rabbi at the gathering and director of Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel.
Also participating during the four-day summit were historian Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, British tycoon and interfaith promoter Sir Sigmund Sternberg, Rabbi Samuel Rene Sirat, former Chief Rabbi of France, and Natan Barkan, chief rabbi of Latvia.
Despite their prominence, most rabbis expressed only mild enthusiasm for the summit. And they downplayed the exclusion of the Dalai Lama, considered a friend to the Jewish people, even as other religious leaders sharply criticized summit organizers for not allowing the Tibetan to fully participate.
"The reason I am comfortable being at this conference in spite of what occurred with the Dalai Lama is that he designated his personal representatives to come," explained Rabbi Schneier.
One exception was Brazilian Conservative Rabbi Nilton Bonder, who called the capitulation of summit organizers to Chinese political pressure "very bad, and really a shame."
Indeed, the Dalai Lama debacle hung like a gray cloud over the summit. Questions continued about why summit General Secretary Bawa Jain caved in to Chinese pressure to exclude the Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace prize, in order to hold meetings at the UN General Assembly rather than move some summit events to another location.
(The UN played host to some of the events, sponsored by a consortium of non-governmental interfaith groups.)
Jain at a Monday press conference said he had to deal with the political realities at the UN, where China, as a powerful Security Council member that sees the Dalai Lama as an enemy, held veto power.
Instead, the Chinese government sent a delegation made up individuals representing the faiths of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Taoism.
As to the summit itself, the rabbis, all veteran interfaith conference participants, generally had low expectations for its ability to organize religious leaders to help end religious wars, stop poverty, protect the environment, and promote education: the topics of several days of workshops.
"Sometimes such conferences try hard to be clever and they get publicity by don’t gain anything," said Rabbi Steinsaltz.
But he and others said some important interfaith connections are made in the hallways and chance meetings, rather than in the official proceedings.
Rabbi Rosen said the fact that the conference is in New York and co-sponsored by media mogul Ted Turner brings the world the message that religion can help break down barriers.
Yet UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his keynote speech, also warned of religion’s ability for destruction.
"Religion has often yoked to nationalism, stoking the flames of violent conflict and setting group against group," he stated. "Religious leaders have not always spoken out when their voices could have helped combat hatred and persecution."
Rabbi James Rudin, of the American Jewish Committee, said that he hoped the summit would not just become a spiritual show-and-tell show.
"My hope is that on two issues there is real cooperation, on the environment and bioethics: the universal allocation of medical resources," he said. Otherwise, "this will have been just another very nice meeting."