Getting to know the Sikhs next door

Getting to know the Sikhs next door

On Friday, Aug. 3, I was finishing up a project I had meant to complete for a few months now. I had been asked by the Sikh Coalition to evaluate a film, The Sikh Next Door, and the curriculum of the same name they recently designed for students in grades six-12. The Sikh Coalition is the national organization for Sikhs to address issues of discrimination and to educate others about Sikhism. By that Sunday, I was processing the senseless tragedy in Oak Creek, Wis., that left six Sikh worshipers dead and others injured.

Working with the Sikh Coalition over the past five years, I have learned that Sikhs value equality, freedom, study, social justice, and monotheism. The parallels between Sikhs and progressive Judaism’s beliefs are remarkable. This makes the vicious murders at the gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Wisconsin — in a house of worship and study dedicated to welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry, no less — seem even more vicious and deplorable.

My hope is that out of these senseless violent acts, we as a nation reach out to the Sikh community and learn more about who they are, what they believe, and the teachings that guide their lives.

I met presenters from the Sikh Coalition five years ago while representing my school district on a statewide commission dedicated to education about genocide and prejudice reduction. The Sikh Coalition had developed a presentation about Sikhism in response to hate crimes directed at American Sikhs in the aftermath of 9/11. The presenters outlined the core beliefs of Sikhism, their culture, and obvious practices, such as men not cutting their hair and the rituals and meaning behind wearing a turban. The presentation ended with the presenter opening up a briefcase filled with every color of turban imaginable and tying turbans around many of our heads.

The value of this presentation was that it simultaneously explored what Sikhism is and encouraged program participants to consider what else they could do in regard to preventing hate crimes and teaching others about Sikhism. After what happened Aug. 5, I see that we need to do far more.

Building partnerships

Since seeing that initial presentation, I have invited the Sikh Coalition to my school, Highland Park Middle School, to present their workshop as part of a day-long program we call “Diversity Day,” which focuses on learning about discrimination and how to build strong communities that are inclusive and safe. My students tend to rank the Sikh Coalition as one of their favorite presentations of the day due to how amazed they are to learn about Sikhism’s focus on social justice and equality. (I learned last year that in order to be a Sikh Coalition presenter, there is a rigorous application process to ensure that the presentation is always of the highest quality.)

In reflecting on the aftermath of the Wisconsin shooting, I know that the Sikh Coalition will renew its efforts to continue to educate as many as possible to prevent future tragedies — and how wonderful it would be if we, the progressive Jewish community, were to reach out to the Sikh community and build partnerships with them. We have so much in common already in terms of our shared interest in study, social justice, and equality; we both experienced brutal discrimination and work ceaselessly to prevent future injustices.

It would be incredible for religious schools and youth groups to screen The Sikh Next Door and to arrange gurdwara and synagogue visits and joint social action projects. In a world where religion is often defined by who can be the most extreme in their practices and views, we as progressive Jews have incredible natural allies in the Sikh community.

The Sikh community has borne the heavy load of reaching out nationally and sharing its stories. I think they would welcome the assistance, support, and friendship of their Reform brothers and sisters. There really is very little difference between tzitzit and a turban — they both remind us to be righteous, and we could all use some righteousness in the wake of the Wisconsin tragedy.

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