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Sikhs Engage in Interfaith Dialogue

By Colleen McKown, Indian Beat Reporter–“Do you have any ceremony like the bar mitzvah for a boy when he starts wearing his turban?” asked an audience member named Marty.

“That’s a great question,” Savraj Singh replied.  “Officially, there is not a religious ceremony, but culturally there is one.”

During an interfaith presentation on a recent Wednesday, Singh, a young, maroon-turbaned computer scientist and Princeton graduate, explained the basic tenants of Sikhism and took questions from listeners. He was speaking to a group of about 30 Jewish seniors at a community center in Washington Township, N.J.

Harry Lerman said his group of seniors was welcomed with open arms while visiting a Sikh temple, or gurdwara, earlier in the year. “We were treated like gods,” said Lerman.

Lerman was eager to return the favor and host a presentation about Sikhism at the Jewish community center.

Singh moved energetically around the room as he pointed to his slides and answered group members’ questions during the hour and a half long presentation.

Since 9/11, Sikhs have experienced an increase in hate crimes because people mistakenly associate their turbans and long beards with terrorism. Sikh activists like Singh want to make it clear that their religion is one of peace and equality.  Singh and other volunteers give presentations on Sikhism at schools and at interfaith events across the country. Interest in hosting interfaith dialogues has increased after six people were shot and killed at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last August.

Harkishan Singh Jassal, former president of the Glen Rock, N.J. temple, said the temple held an interfaith community service that drew around 400 people after the Wisconsin shootings.

“After that, many people got interested, inviting us to events like this. People have started coming to temple that just want to know about Sikhism,” Jassal said.

Singh drew connections between his community and the Jewish community during the presentation.

“I think Sikhs in this country have a special connection with the Jewish community,” he said to the group.  “In many ways, we look to the Jewish community as another minority group in America that has done a lot of things right in this country.”

Singh gave statistics that seemed to surprise some listeners.  In listing the world’s major religions, Singh revealed that Sikhism comes out as the fifth largest. Sikhism, with its 23 million adherents, is just above Judaism, which has 15 million followers.

Singh addressed the surprise, saying, “Many people say, how have people not heard of Sikhs when it’s such a popular religion?” Well, it turns out 20 million are in India and only 3 million are outside of it.”

Sikhism is a young religion, Singh explained. He asked the crowd to guess how long Judaism has been around.

“5,000 years,” several responded.

“Well, we are an order of magnitude younger,” said Singh.

Sikhism is just over 500 years old.  The religion was founded in what is now northern India, and it was founded on the premise of equality in a society then entrenched in the caste system.  Sikhs believe in one God, and they wear turbans, uncut hair, and other articles of faith such as a small bracelet (kara) and sword (kirpan) to keep them ever-present of their commitment to the faith.

Sikhs do not proselytize, which Singh said posed a problem for the community after 9/11. Sikhs did not have any set methods for explaining their religion to outsiders, so many misunderstood their identity.  The Sikh Coalition was born out of this incentive. The nonprofit organization trains volunteers like Singh to give presentations about their faith to combat ignorance post-9/11.

Singh began giving presentations in part because he had personally experienced the power of educating people about Sikhism.  When in school, he used to get in fights with other students because he looked different.  His parents told him to present with another Sikh student and educate his peers about his identity.

Singh said, “Immediately after I went from being this weird kid on the sidelines with this weird religion to being like, oh, Savraj is cool. Sikhism is cool!”  Basic awareness, Singh said, goes a long way in making people comfortable with each other.

Singh told listeners that Sikhism is its own religion, completely separate from any other.

“Often we’re confused with Islam, and sometimes we also get conflated as a blend of Hinduism and Islam,” he said.  “We love and appreciate everyone and their faiths, but we are a distinct faith.”

“So I take it you have nothing to do with the Koran,” a woman named Miriam asked.

“Miriam is exactly right,” Singh responded.  “Sikhism has nothing to do with the Koran.  We actually have our own unique scripture.”

Some questions drew a laugh from the audience. In response to a question about whether young people date, Singh responded, “I would say they absolutely do. Their parents would say, no, they don’t.”

Singh said because Sikhs are a minority community, there is pressure to date within the community so the Sikh religion lives on.

Lerman said he enjoyed the presentation, adding that it disproved a rumor about Sikhs that he had been convinced was true.

“They’re always saying the Sikhs have the daggers in their turban, and I was almost expecting him to say that,” he said. “And I was pleased it wasn’t true.”

Lerman’s wife, Millie, said she thought the presentation was valuable.  “America is a nation of minorities, so it’s important to know your neighbors,” she said.

Lerman said that while he feels the majority of Americans are tolerant and respectful, the small number of hate mongers pose a serious problem.

“Recently there were intended destructions of synagogues, fire bombing of synagogues,” Lerman said.  “We know that the Sikh community suffered a terrible attack in Wisconsin, so we, America has a way to go.”



One Response to “Sikhs Engage in Interfaith Dialogue”

  1. Grammie says:

    Colleen did a credible job reporting this important story.


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