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Parliament of World Religions – 14-18 August 2023

[It was a special privilege to have attended the Parliament of World Religions from 14-18 August 2023. Here’s a brief article about one of the engagements enjoyed.]
ISKCON Leaders Brought Valuable Perspectives to 2023 Parliament of the World Religions Conference
By Thomas Haribol, ISKCON News Managing Editor   |  Aug 22, 2023

Sikh member Ajit Ahuja, with his wife and friend visiting the ISKCON booth with Anuttama Dasa, Subal Dasa and his wife Krsnarcana Dasi from ISKCON Chicago.

Last week, the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PoWR) gathered thousands of people of faith, spirituality, and ethical convictions to Chicago, USA, for their 2023 convention. This year’s theme was “A Call to Conscience: Defending Freedom & Human Rights.” The historic gathering welcomed participants from around the world to the emblematic city where the first Parliament was held 130 years ago. 

It is one of the world’s largest inter-faith gatherings, with 6,500 participating this year, and was held at the massive McCormick Place Conference Center August 14-18th. The festivities were inaugurated by an energetic and colorful Parade of Faith on August 13th.

ISKCON leaders actively participated in the multi-day gathering, which included plenary presentations from “luminaries,” interactive programs, and spiritual performances, all focused on the themes of peace, justice, and sustainability within interfaith movements worldwide. “Overall, the conference promoted a deeper sense of the importance of religion and spirituality across all human communities, heightened awareness of the need for better understanding between religious and spiritual communities, and increased cooperation in facing the problems that humankind is faced with today,” said Anuttama Dasa, Global Minister of Communications for ISKCON. 

ISKCON Chicago, the Bhaktivedanta Institute, and the Govardhan EcoVillage each had engaging booths at the event, welcoming hundreds of participants. The ISKCON Chicago booth included plentiful spiritual literature, an altar, and a large beautiful copy of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita As It Is.

In addition to their booth, the Govardhan EcoVillage team, led by its Director, Gauranga Das, conducted two seminars on their community’s significant environmental and spiritual work.

Navina Krishna Das and Gauranga Das at PoWR.

Madana-Gopala Dasa, North American Co-Director of ISKCON Communications, shared on the importance of chanting the Holy Names of God and led a collective round of japa for about 30 participants. “We also had two kirtan and dance sessions during this service. It was about a 1.5-hour program,” said Madana-Gopala. Anuttama Dasa and Rukmini Devi Dasi then facilitated a lively Q&A session. Additionally, there were readings shared from the Bhagavat Purana.

Herbalist Ashley Elenbaas and Rukmini Walker, foundress of led an interactive workshop called “Opening the Inner Heart Space, Linking Nature’s Voice, Divinity, and Human Intuition.” Among the many participants were a female rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a female minister from Unity Church.

Anuttama, Madana-Gopala, and Gopala Hari Dasa (Dr. Gopal Gupta) co-led a presentation on the Hindu response to the global climate crisis. Anuttama, who is also a member of Religions for Peace USA, and the Elijah Interfaith Institute, also participated in several side events promoting understanding and cooperation between religious leaders. “One session of interest explored the challenges faced by minorities in many South Asian countries,” noted Anuttama, “The need was highlighted for all of those groups and the majority to be more conscious of the collective trauma of South Asian history, especially from colonization, and how that has impacted and heightened tensions between the different religious and ethnic groups in that region.” 

This year also included a Film Festival which held a special screening of “The Stolen River,” the award-winning documentary by director Dr. Kristina Danka (Krishna Lila Devi Dasi) from Karuna Productions which tells the journey of six young people from Braj discovering the causes of the Yamuna’s pollution and their efforts to save the sacred river. 

In the audience, there were several clean water advocates of global recognition, including Grove Harris, the UN representative of the Interfaith Collaboration for a Sustainable Future, who publicly expressed her great appreciation for the film in the next day’s “Sacred Water in a Climate Changed Era” symposium. 

“Following the screening and the symposium, spiritual people from all over the world and various religions expressed their great concern for the Yamuna River,” said Director Krishna Lila, “They offered their help in spreading the word and creating awareness.” The Stolen River is available for streaming here.

“The last night was a celebration of sacred music in the plenary hall. Devotees from ISKCON Naperville led a kirtan with several hundred people in the audience,” Anuttama remarked, “Many of them danced and chanted with the devotees.”

While appreciating their differences, each community of faith at this year’s conference could also celebrate the common ground shared. According to Phyllis Curott, the Program Chair of the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions, “Every faith has, at its core, a summoning to ease the suffering of others and to contribute to a just, peaceful, and sustainable world…to stand together in defense of the dignity, freedom, and human rights of all.”

A special thanks to Anuttama Dasa, Gauranga Das, Rukmini Walker, Madana-Gopala Dasa, Subal Dasa,  Ashley Elenbaas, and Krishna Lila Devi Dasi for the use of photos.

ISKCON News | ISKCON Leaders Brought Valuable Perspectives to 2023 Parliament of the World Religions Conference | ISKCON News



Korah – Rebel without a Cause

To exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits that it discovers in itself – limits where minds meet, and in meeting, begin to exist. ALBERT CAMUS

There is a near unanimous view in the Talmud and among later Torah commentators that Korah’s intentions were disingenuous; his sole aim was a power grab. The motive of his 250 followers, replaced Reubenite first-borns or overlooked Levites, was not equal opportunity, but a resentment-fuelled attempt to undermine Moshe’s leadership.

Ramban asserts this story occurred when morale (and Moshe’s opinion polls) might have been at an all-time low. What future was there for 20-year-old-plus males, beyond wondering in the desert for 40 years until they died? Lack of opportunity often leads to social unrest.

Seforno suggested that Korah’s followers infiltrated among those awaiting an audience with Moshe, sowing seeds of dissent (like social media trolls), so that when the confrontation occurred, an already hostile crowd would instantly side with Korah.

Rashi famously quoting Midrash Tanhuma explained the challenges Korah put to Moshe: ‘Would a Talit dyed entirely in Tahelet (blue dye) require Tahelet strings? Would a House full of Holy Books require a Mezuzah? Since these objects fully embodied the mitzvah, was Halakha necessary? Korah was a disruptive law unto himself.

Pirkei Avot states that ‘An example of an argument not for the sake of Heaven was Korah and his Assembly’. Rabbi Akiva in TB Sanhedrin suggested Korah lost his share in the World to Come. Rabbi Eliezer countered, that Korah was eventually rehabilitated. Proof came when ‘the earth opened to swallow them’, his children were miraculously rescued, and several generations later, Korah’s most famous descendant was the Prophet Samuel.

Another prominent Talmudic tale is about an Arab guide taking wayfarers to a crevice in the desert where could be heard voices from below proclaiming, ‘Moshe’s Torah is true, and we are liars!’

The Midrash further embellishes the back story by casting Korah as a man with wealth beyond the imagination (donkey-loads full). Interestingly, this view resurfaces in the Quran, where ‘Qarun’ (Korah) is an example of a tyrant, epitomized by wealth-based arrogance.

And yet, despite his fabulous riches, Korah aspired to the Priesthood. Was it narcissism that drove him to a premature demise or was there something more? And, if we look for leadership role models from our Scriptures, is Moshe’s response an example we should emulate today?

Korah may be the first populist Jewish leader producing fake news, enlisting the Vox Populi to propel himself into power. But was Moshe’s response just a more lethal form of ‘cancel culture’?

When facing dissent, how do we get back to dialogue? In an ever more fractured world, how do we recover from polarization and extremism? It is easy to label someone we disagree with a rebel. It is harder to have a conversation with them.

But the Torah offers limited airtime to power-hungry demagogues. And, so, it seems, should we.

Shabuoth/ Bemidbar 5782 – Being Counted & Making Life Count

Numbering of the Israelites (Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux – 1894)

The Book of Bemidbar opens on the 1st day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year following the Exodus. The early chapters contain four different censuses – of the Israelite nation. The first was by tribe and clan, the second by military position around the Mishkan, the third was the Levites and the fourth the First-born.

We read Bemidbar before Shavuoth – which, in addition to celebrating the wheat harvest and the bringing of first fruits to the Mishkan/ Temple, is a festival associated with God’s Revelation of the Torah at Sinai. Bemidbar in Hebrew means the ‘Wilderness’, the place where the Israelite national narrative played out until they arrived at the border of Cana’an. In English it is called the Book of Numbers.

There is a well-known Midrash explaining why the Torah was given in the Midbar and not in a more populated area. Because, in order to acquire Torah, we must first void our minds of worldly, mundane concerns similar to the emptiness of a desert. Another way of saying this is that to experience the Divine Presence, we must set aside our self-centred focus.

And yet, the material world summons us to count, to number and to quantify. How do we reconcile these competing instincts – an egoless approach in a material-driven world?

Bemidbar repeatedly cites the word ‘Toledotam‘ (‘their generations’) to describe both the passage of time and the handing onward of wisdom. Just as we’re commanded to see ourselves in each generation as having been ‘Redeemed from Slavery’, so too each generation must account for how we’ve ‘Received the Torah’.

As human beings, we attend to physical, material needs. But when we’re able to put our ideas and ideals above these basic creature comforts, we begin to transcend our innate selfishness. That is when we’re capable of uncovering the spiritual principles of Torah and incorporating them into our lives.

Each of us has a Mind housing our thoughts and a Heart preoccupied with emotions and time. It is within our grasp to direct our Minds and Hearts to understanding and improving the world around us. ‘It is not for you to complete the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.’ (Ethics of the Fathers 2:21)

Bemidbar/ Shavuoth is more than an opportunity to be counted, but for making our lives count!

Hope & Faith in the 3rd Year of the Pandemic

2021 was the Year of the Vaccine!

For a while, we all once again felt safer and nearly invincible. But as infections spiked and the Omicron variant proliferated, we were forced to admit to not really having regained control. Nor can we guess how soon it may be before life returns to some state of ‘predictability’.

לִישׁוּעָתְךָ, קִוִּיתִי יְהוָה.

‘For Your salvation I hope, O Lord’ (Gen 49:18). Jacob blessed his son Dan to ‘hope’ daily for our collective redemption. Hope is ‘to wait for something with expectation and anticipation’, but without certainty that it will occur. Hope is transitory and subjective; our hope these past 21 months waxed and waned with the evolving virus.

וְהֶאֱמִן, בַּיהוָה; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ, צְדָקָה.

‘And he [Abraham] had faith in the Lord, and God counted it to him for righteousness.’ (Gen 15:6) Faith (Emunah) stems from the Hebrew word Uman or craftsperson. It is a skill; honed through years of practise and experience. Abraham’s ten tests of faithfulness weren’t an inconvenience but a blessing – they were a Divine masterclass in developing inner strength, increasing his ‘faith’ confidence, and expanding his reservoir of resilience. The sages tell us ‘We’re never tested in ways that exceed our ability to overcome them’.

2021 was also a Year for Volunteering.

Beyond having ‘faith’ is the spiritual immunization that comes from volunteering. The Torah is replete with verses about looking after those in need – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and creating shelters for the homeless. For many, 2021 took us beyond our comfort zones to actively helping others. Whether delivering supplies to isolated neighbours, distributing meals in a food bank, assisting in a vaccine centre, or countless other roles, volunteering provided us an extra layer of spiritual strength and goodness.

We are realising that the Almighty is always present, always loving, always providing the energy for existence, without which life would cease. It is worrying to lose control and it is wearisome not knowing when the virus will disappear. But fretting in excess is not a solution. Admittedly, some of us are still frightened of becoming infected, though statistics show that vaccinations are the best way to mitigate the danger.

As we enter the third calendar year in which the pandemic continues to impact our movement and impinge our ability to plan forward, let’s draw strength from our respective heritages, recognising that being tested is a blessing. The new future we’re creating requires not only hope and helping others, but genuine faith in God.

Rabbi Jeff Berger can be reached at

Being ‘At-One’ with Our Divine Soul: Yom Kippur 5782

Yom Kippur is the Jewish annual day of I’m Sorry.

The great medieval philosopher and codifier, Maimonides, informs that during Temple times the scapegoat of Yom Kippur had the power to affect forgiveness for the entire Israelite nation. The people had to make only the smallest amount of effort.

Because the day itself marked Moses’ descent from atop Mt Sinai with the 2nd set of tablets (proving that sometimes there are second chances in life), it was enshrined as a day of atonement for all generations (a day of being ‘at-one’ with God, ‘at-one’ with our fellow human beings and ‘at-one’ with ourselves)!

But, in the absence of our Temple ritual, today we have only prayers, our reflections and our heartfelt, soul’s desire to be close to God – which can move the Almighty on Yom Kippur from the seat of judgement to the realm of mercy.

In a recent Torah portion (Deut 30:11-14) we read that to experience God’s presence doesn’t require heroically climbing to the Heavens to bring back the key, nor does it necessitate crossing the oceans to discover a solution, but rather God’s presence is close to each of us, ‘in our hearts and on our lips’.

In other words, if we would only listen to the Divinity within us, we could intuitively understand our life’s work; what the late former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks referred to as, ‘where what we want to do meets what needs to be done.’

Listening to our internal soul takes effort.

Yom Kippur with its abstinence from food and drink and the repetitive chanting of the 13 Attributes of God, is intended to open for us the ‘gates’ of our inner being. Since we are all unique, we will each hear something different. If done properly, the inspiration we receive will move us in the direction of greater purity of purpose and character.

But this Yom Kippur I am conflicted – like Charles Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities – I sense a gap is greatly widening between old and new, between institutional and disenfranchised, between conventional and unconventional. In some parts of our community, an unwillingness to dialogue is growing, and the portion of young members finding ways to express their sense of purpose other than in synagogue is already sorely noted by most communal rabbis.

That’s why this year the theme of compassionate reconnecting is so vital. Beyond tolerance, we need to listen to each other better. The pandemic pushed us apart for reasons of self-preservation. But most of us quickly realised, that unselfishness is the only viable response.

So, on this Yom Kippur, if you’re going to synagogue or just sitting quietly in your home, spend a few moments counting the blessings of the past year. And then let’s ask ourselves, ‘what is the best thing I can do with my life in the weeks and months ahead?’ You might be surprised by what you ‘hear’ and how emancipating the experience can be.

May we all be blessed with a new year of good health … and with the courage to take one step further in our life’s spiritual journey!

Interfaith Summer Camp Breaks Down Barriers (15-20 Aug 2021)

A trailblazing interfaith summer camp that brings together children from different faiths to promote social cohesion returned this year after being recognised for its work.

Camp Unity, a five-day camp for primary school pupils, took place for children across the Borehamwood and Elstree area from 15 to 20 August after being recognised with a High Sheriff Award and a Hertsmere Borough Council award.

Children of 15 nationalities and a variety of religions attended – and were visited by the Chief Constable of Hertfordshire who brought along patrol cars in which children could take photos.

Camp Unity co-organiser, Rabbi Jeff Berger of Wembley Sephardi Synagogue, said the event had broken down barriers between children of different backgrounds and led to greater cooperation between faith leaders.

“Beforehand, these children would probably walk past each other on the street, and not have much engagement with each other, because they would be cloistered in their bubbles, so it was about building some social cohesion in our town,” he said.

“It helps them make friends from different backgrounds. It’s made us [faith leaders] aware of where we’re strong and where we’re lacking, and now we’re on really good terms.”

Alongside the police visit, camp-goers were taken to a ‘Splash’ session at the Venue Leisure Centre, to work on an allotment at Stapleton Road, and to the working farm and attractions at Aldenham Country Park.

New Year – New Opportunities: Rosh Hashanah 5782

Rosh Hashanah this year occurs in the same week children go back to school. Like all new beginnings, we’re filled with a bit of excitement and a tinge of trepidation. So, what does the Torah say about the start of another Jewish new year as we approach 5782?

It is unclear how many congregants will attend the High Holy Days. Many synagogues are opting for shorter services and a continuation of safety measures against Covid-19. Most communal leaders are taking a cautious yet encouraging approach.

In the three-day period leading to the Revelation at Sinai, God said: “If you listen to My voice and observe My covenant, you will be a treasure to Me from among all the nations.” (Ex. 19:5). 

Mehilta explains that “all new beginnings are difficult but keeping one mitzvah enables us to keep further mitzvot”. 

The same can be said about recovery from a pandemic. We’re confronted at the start of our new year by a plethora of challenges – climate change, increasing inequities and an as-yet-unrealised mental health crisis. 

All that is before addressing the growing refugee issue, including the most recent victims of the Afghan civil war.

My late mother’s advice to me, when I was a child overwhelmed by the world’s seemingly immense problems, was to start by taking a few deep breaths and focusing only on things within my control (if only she’d realised that she was at the forefront of a trend today called mindfulness).

There are certainly things to be afraid of. But there is far more to celebrate. Many of us are vaccinated. We’ve resumed holding weddings and bar/batmitzvahs. And we are attending communal events, such as the Maccabi GB Fun Run and the new Interfaith Fun Run. 

The most important lesson I take into 5782 is that self-preservation requires unselfishness. There are countless good causes to support. Choose one – and let it bring you into a better future. Collectively we can have a significant impact. 

Tizku LeShanim Rabot – May you have many good years ahead.

Parshat VaEthanan – Leadership Lessons in Hindsight (23 Jul 21)

Is the Book of Devarim just an early example of a great leader in the twilight of his career writing a professional memoir?

Instead of giving courage to the Hebrew nation poised to enter the Land of Canaan, Vaetchanan is filled with frustrations: Moshe pleading with God to accompany them and repeatedly warning the Israelites not to stray into idol worship.

His reflections occasionally differ widely from the stories told in Shemot or Bamidbar. A careful reader of Devarim will spot these and cry out for explanations.

One example is Moshe’s statement that he was denied entry to Canaan – not because he ‘struck the rock’ but because of his leadership failure during the Sin of the Spies. Another is changing the fourth of the Ten Commandments – from Remember (Zakhor) to Guard (Shamor).

But the fifth book of Torah is far more than a memoir. It presents a spiritual challenge to the generation that would inherit the land of Canaan. And to us, 3,300 years later, it offers insight into the relationship between God, Moshe and the Jewish people.

Moshe repeatedly referred to God’s promises made to our forefathers. He explained (in a passage read at Pesah Seder), that ‘fulfilling God’s Mitzvot will be considered righteousness’ (Deut 6:25).

This links back to God taking Abraham to look at the stars and promising ‘so too will be the abundance of your offspring’ (Gen 15:6) where Abraham’s belief in God’s promise was also considered ‘righteousness’. The Hebrew word for righteousness is Tsedakah – it implies doing something generously and without hope for ulterior gain.

Our relationship with the Almighty is mirrored in our actions. The Shema commands that we love God with ‘all our heart, all our soul and all our might’. When we put God in the forefront of our minds, it creates relationship and connection. Doing so engender God’s love for us – an invaluable lesson from Moshe’s 40 years of leadership experience.

Rabbi Jeff Berger can be reached at


Tazria-Metsorah – More than Skin Deep (Apr 21)

According to NHS England, 95% of people aged 11 to 30 will experience acne caused by hormonal imbalances. Knowing the medical reason, however, doesn’t prevent the occurrence nor does it remove any feelings of self-consciousness.

By contrast, Tazria-Metsorah goes to great length to define the outbreak and purification process for those affected by Tsara’at. While these were non-contagious skin lesions on persons of any age, a Metsorah was deemed among the highest level of ritual impurity.

Treatment of a Metsorah was a spiritual matter brought to the Kohen. After a lesion was declared Tsara’at, the affected person tore their clothing (a ritual of mourning) and warned others to keep away. They left the camp to dwell alone for periods of seven-days, until the ailment was reassessed. (Interestingly, if a Kohen contracted Tsara’at, they too had to be examined by a fellow Kohen.)

After the Tsara’at cleared, the purification process involved two birds; one was slaughtered, and its blood was mixed in water. Before being set free, the second living bird, along with a piece of cedar wood, scarlet thread and hyssop, was dipped in the crimson-coloured water and sprinkled on the Metsorah. Later, a separate blood ritual was performed on the right earlobe, thumb and big toe of the person.

The laws of Metsorah are Hukim, whose reasons we cannot fathom. But in them we see references to Parah Adumah (the red heifer burned with cedar wood, scarlet thread and hyssop, whose ashes purified corpse tumah), and the Kohens’ Inauguration (a symbolic rebirth – affected by placing blood on their right earlobe, thumb and big toe).

Metaphorically, the Metsorah birds were linked to the 10th plague, when the Egyptian first born were killed while the Israelites, who used hyssop to paint their doorposts with blood, were freed. The connection is made because both are referred to as ‘Negah’ (plague).

We learned this past year that being forced to self-isolate involves significant vulnerability. Hopefully, it has made us more sensitive and attuned to looking after our friends, family and neighbours.

As humans we try to explain things, to give ourselves an illusion of control. One lesson from Metzorah is that often, what matters most is more than skin-deep … and sometimes it is well-beyond our comprehension.

Shabbat Shalom,


[For Wembley Sephardi Synagogue – 16 April 2021] (Also published in ALT-C Vol 348

Ki Tisa – Intimacy with the Divine

Ki Tisa is known for the disastrous incident of the Golden Calf, but less known for the second most important encounter in Jewish history. If the first was the Ten Commandments, the second was Moshe’s request to see God’s Divine Glory.

I shall make all my goodness pass in front of you and reveal the name of God before you. I shall show favour to whom I favour and mercy to whom I show mercy.’ (Ex 33:18-19) This is perhaps one of the more overlooked, perplexing sections in the Torah. Moshe already spoke with the Almighty face-to-face (33:11), what more was he asking of God?

Shemot Rabbah suggests he was seeking to understand the spiritual workings of the Heavens and the Earth. Maimonides (1138-1204) writes that he wanted to learn how the Almighty governed the Israelites. Rashbam (1085-1158) proposes that Moshe pleaded for God to continue caring for the people directly, not through an angel. Practical concerns one expects from a leader under immense pressure.

In response, Moshe who was favoured by God, was taught how to pray during times of trouble. Concealed in the cleft of a rock, he called out in God’s name and was shown the 13 Attributes of Mercy (34:6-7) which we still recite daily. And the Israelites were promised a new covenant (34:10).

While the Ten Commandments instituted Divine justice in the world, these verses promise then and future generations Divine forgiveness. Together, both are essential for us to exist in a relationship with the Creator and Sovereign of the Universe.

The Israelites, on the verge of destruction, were rescued by Moshe’s unfaltering dedication and intervention. His intimacy with the Divine averted a near irreconcilable spiritual crisis. Instead, he sought and received further assurances of God’s clemency and set into place a model for all times.

Rabbi Jeff Berger can be reached at