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Montre Bhiwandiwala, right, teaches her students a Bollywood dance at the Peninsula Jewish Center in Foster City Wednesday, August 1, 2007. (Adithya Sambamurthy/ Mercury News)
When Rabbi Charles Familant agreed to marry a Los Gatos couple in June, he found out he would be sharing the job with a Hindu priest. And he'd be barefoot.

That's because the bride, from a Hindu family, and the groom, from a Jewish one, had chosen a ceremony blending elements from both of their cultures. Following Hindu custom, the couple circled a sacred fire, her Indian sari tied to his Jewish prayer shawl, as the rabbi and the pundit intoned their blessings, one in Hebrew and the other in Sanskrit.

The next month, Familant presided over another Jewish-Hindu wedding.

But the fusion of Hindu and Jewish ceremonial rites is only part of a broader marriage between two of the country's most affluent and high-powered minorities, thousands of miles from their homelands.

Much of that synergy is happening in the Bay Area, where Hindus and Jews have been coming together to network, talk politics, share dance steps and, yes, get married. Hindu and Jewish groups estimate there are about 300,000 Jews and upward of 200,000Hindus living in the Bay Area.

Community leaders acknowledge the two groups have a lot in common: a shared emphasis on family, faith and education; homelands that are young democracies with a history of foreign occupations; and, especially in the Bay Area, high visibility in the tech industry.

But by far, they said, the strongest force behind the friendship has been the growing ties between India and Israel — two countries with a history of hostile relations with their Muslim neighbors.


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"We know that only moderate leaders can restrain extremism and fanaticism," said Ismail Khaldi, a Bedouin Muslim who serves as Israel's deputy consul in San Francisco. "I think India is doing very, very well in that, and we can learn from each other, since that's the key to block radicalism."

Many local Muslim leaders said they don't feel threatened by the Jewish-Hindu alliance.

But it's not always about politics. Sometimes, it's just about dancing — as at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City, a satellite of the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. Since July, the Milpitas-based India Community Center has been organizing and teaching Bollywood dance classes at the Jewish center.

The two community centers have been close since brothers Anil and Gautam Godhwani first considered setting up the nondenominational India Community Center as a nexus for the region's growing Indian population.

"When we were doing the business plan, one of the first questions we asked was: Who has done this before?" Anil Godhwani said. "Of the two names that surfaced, the first was the YMCA and the second was the JCC."

The Godhwanis reached out to Nate Levine, then the executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, who guided them through the steps of founding a center of their own. Levine later served as a director of the Milpitas center, just as Anil Godhwani now sits on the board of the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

"The Indian community is maturing, and they're looking for role models and lessons to be learned from other communities that have already endeavored in those areas," Levine said. "What you're seeing is the coming of age of the Indian community."

This kind of mentoring relationship is a blueprint behind many stories of Hindu-Jewish cooperation.

Fremont physician Mihir Meghani was only thinking about setting up the Hindu-American Foundation in 2003 when he mentioned the idea to a Jewish colleague, who mentioned how similar Meghani's aims were to those of many Jewish groups.

The remark struck a chord. Ever since, Meghani and the Hindu foundation have had close ties with the Jewish community. In the Bay Area, the foundation has frequently worked with the San Francisco office of the American Jewish Committee to bring together Indian and Israeli diplomats and host public forums on the future of Indo-Israeli relations.

More importantly, however, the much younger Hindu American Foundation has looked to its partners in the Jewish community for advice on becoming an effective political voice. When it opened its Washington, D.C., office recently, one of the few Indian-American groups to do so, it turned to the Jewish group for help in finding the right place.

"They have given us guidance and support as how to organize and get our issues out," Meghani said.

The burgeoning friendship holds benefits for the more-established Jewish community as well. Although they are well-versed in interfaith interaction, Jewish leaders note much of that dialogue usually happens in the wake of a controversy.

But with Hindu Americans, that relationship was planted — and has been nurtured — without that conflict.

"With many other ethnic communities, you have to build trust. You enter discussion with them because there's a point of controversy," said Ernest H. Weiner, regional director of the American Jewish Community. "With the Indian community, we went in with no baggage attached."

Working together also presents a chance to wield greater political influence. Both communities, on their own, represent a small, if affluent, portion of America's population. According to census data from 2005, there are 2.3 million Indian Americans in the United States, while an American Jewish Committee survey last year found 6.4 million Jews in the United States. Together, they amount to 3 percent of the population. And so the two communities have started collaborating on common political aims, such as immigration reform and protecting church-state separation.

They've also been willing to rally to one another's side.

When protesters disrupted the first-ever Hindu prayer to open the Senate's daily session in July, Jews stood alongside Indians in decrying the incident. And when Bay Area Jews face off against protesters in San Francisco calling for people and businesses to dump their Israeli assets, they're not alone.

"When we stand out there counter-protesting, we found that members of the Hindu-American community always stand shoulder to shoulder with us," said Lisa Cohen, who has taken part in a number of rallies and protests.

That friendship, she added, is just going to get stronger.

"They have been there with us through thick and thin," she said, "and the more I'm around them, the more I find that we have so much in common."

Contact Niraj Sheth at nsheth@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5460.