“Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA)” sponsored historic 14th annual ‘Hindu Mandir Executive Conference (HMEC)’ in New Jersey concluded with resounding success on Sept.22 at ‘Fairbridge Inn & Suites’ in East Hanover, N.J. This annual fair takes place in different regions of N. America, (includes Caribbean Islands), for the benefit of Hindu temples and religious organizations. The primary objective of this eminent gathering is to collectively enhance their relevance to the Hindu society-at-large and to the rising second generation. In this pioneering effort, VHPA’s role is limited to that of a facilitator or a catalytic-supporter. According to Vipul Patel, the Convener, the theme of this year’s HMEC was – “Sustaining Temples and Institutions by Building security and Strength through community Outreach and Seva programs”. This year, several dozen Temples and Organizations participated in 3-day affair that had 35 speakers and approx. 200 delegates.
The main coordinator of the entire conference was Bhakti Mehta-Modi who kept the tightly paced sessions adequately focused on their subjects from the beginning. The conference began on Friday, September 20 evening with Swami Pratyagbodhanandaji, along with other seers, blessing the event with Sanskrit shlokas and lighting the auspicious lamp. This first session was devoted to safety initiatives and emergency precautions in case of Medical crisis, Fire, Vandalism or an active shooter prowling on the premises. This was expertly handled by representatives of ‘Homeland Security’, Chief Officers of local firefighting unit and emergency management unit. Mark Curcio (Emergency Mgmt.) recommended that all places of worship should have a ‘crisis management team’, adequately installed surveillance gadgets, properly established rapport with local concerned authorities, and periodic safe evacuation drills under their supervision. Most of the temples it seemed lacked this preparedness. Sohini Sarcar’s (Hindu Student Council – ‘HSC’) weeks of interactions with these ‘security professionals’ was not only evident but also was overwhelmingly appreciated by them. Chaplain Shawn Lee’s (‘US Army Chaplaincy’) assertion on how difficult it is to recruit qualified Hindu Chaplains for Army’s spiritual wing came as a surprise to most of the people. This is something the Hindu diaspora needs to delve on in the interest of Hindu soldiers in US Army.
Saturday, September 21 morning session focused on prevention, protection and sustenance. It dealt with adopting a public-relation road map for the surrounding community by educating children about Hindu culture in temple-based classroom, bringing our festivals on public platform to remove any misgivings rather than just internalizing their importance and adopting ‘Seva’ projects. As part of community outreach by temples and institutions, Neha Srivastava suggested that they become catchment centers for society’s ills and address issues like loneliness, caregiving, poverty, domestic violence resulting out of marital discord etc. Given an opportunity of 2 hrs. /wk. time and space, she offered to establish such pilot programs in temples that are willing to give a try. To sustain the cultural values among the college youths, Nikunj Trivedi of ‘HSC’ gave insight into what they had accomplished in past 29 years. In spite of inadequate support system 150,000 students have been nurtured by them at 60+ college campuses.
“HMEC” is not only a vehicle for the executives of temples and religious organizations for their own networking, but also, to collectively overcome various hurdles faced by them by addressing commonality among them or by drafting reference charter-booklets. Abhaya Asthana, President of ‘VHPA’, along with his associate Sanjay Mehta (Gen Secretary, VHPA) expanded on this approach with Sant Gupta, Tejal Shah, Vinod Gupta explaining the subtext of it. It is remarkable to note that through HMEC initiative ‘Hindu Mandir Priest Conference (HMPC)’, ‘Hindu Women Network (HWN)’, ‘Hindu American Vanaprasthi Network (HAVAN) have been established. Moreover, this has resulted in publication of informative books like ‘Hindu Prayer Book’ and a book on ‘Antimsanskar’ (last rites). Abhayaji, also talked on Hindu’s biggest global event – “World Hindu Congress” – that took place last year in Chicago, USA where 3,000 delegates from 65 countries participated. Keeping up with the theme of the conference Swami Pratyagbodhananji, released a new book titled ‘Hindu Temple Security Guidelines’ that details the steps that need to be taken by the members of HMEC for the safety of their institutions and gatherings.
Saturday afternoon was devoted to ‘Media’ as a strategic tool of influence to connect with the larger audience and especially with our second generation. On the outset, Ajay Shah who is vigilant about anti-Hindu defamation attempts, expressed displeasure about the way Hindus are portrayed in the Media by well-financed hate-groups. He advised that more concerted efforts on the part of Hindus are necessary to counter this onslaught. Continuing on 2017 Media-workshop, Fred Stella emphasized that HMEC cadre needs to be Media-savvy (print, audio-visual, Social-media etc.) as the technology is here to stay. He disclosed that, as the raw data was being compiled, a handbook, as a guide, to interact with the Media in positive manner was on its way. Bhakti Mehta-Modi, Parth Parihar and Yogi Jayanathaji touched on modern modes of communications prevalent among younger generation. As an off-shoot of previous HMECs, quite a few ‘guidance books’ are being prepared. Among them, some relate to youth issues, namely, love-hate relation with their own identity, silent suffering when ostracized, freewill marriage, social stigmas atypical to Hindus in alien culture, depression etc. In late afternoon there was a special youth session to tackle their existential problems.
The highlight of Sunday, September 22 was the deliberations on wide-spread ‘religious conversions’ in Caribbean Islands and in India. Pt. Ram Harodwar revealed that lot of religious zealots, worldwide, are raising huge amounts of money to entice Hindus to change their religion. In Guyana, it was alleged that there is 25% drop in Hindu population since their arrival. The panel, consisting of Ram Sahadeo, Dwarka Persaud, Ram Harodwar and Fred Stella blamed the situation on governmental agencies, Hindu’s callous indifference and religious extremists preying on the disadvantaged. The possible solutions? Education, Financial aid, Reconversion, and Temples as help-centers for the people in need – and not just acting as the citadel of rituals. Everyone agrees that spirituality in all its forms is not the only contribution of Hindus to U.S. To encapsulate and celebrate all their contributions & achievements a unique symposium – ‘THREADS Conference 2019’ – is being hosted in Boston, MA on November 1-3 < https://www.threads2019.org >. Jai Bansal, who is one of the conveners of this gathering revealed that, “the purpose is to share the story of Hindu-Americans, appreciate what the America has done to embrace them and increasingly engage them to shape a collective future”.
For the benefit of participating institutions, Sanjay Mehta summarized the action items that the members had agreed on. The gathering resolved to (1) to create ‘Hindu Seva and outreach portal’, after database collection is complete (2) publish visitor’s guide for various Temples spread across the landscape (3) establish ‘HMEC Library’ to catalogue progressive ideas, suggestion and practical projects. Before the historic conference came to an end, Bhakti Mehta-Modi made a constructive suggestion that ~ it would serve everyone’s interests if the ‘Seniors’ give more time and thought to what the youths have to say in executing any task. She further elaborated that the definition of respect for seniors has different resonance to the youths born in USA and they also expect Seniors to take them seriously and not brush them aside. The gathering appreciated VHPA’s comprehensive efforts to bring various institutions together for collective brainstorming on issues that affect them most.