Is there a significance to the different colors of Sikhs’ turbans? What if a Sikh decides not to wear a turban? Do Sikhs believe in life after death?
These and other questions were posed earlier this month during the first communal gathering of Sikhs and Jews in the New York area. The event was held at the Mid-Island Y JCC in Plainview, L.I., in conjunction with the Jewish Community Relations Council-Long Island and the Sikh Art and Film Foundation.
The evening went so well that there are plans to develop a “greater connection between our communities,” said Michael Miller, JCRC executive vice president.
He said the meeting grew out of a social event he and Ajay Banga, president of MasterCard Worldwide, attended last year Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s residence in Manhattan.
“After the dinner was over, we moved into another room for conversation and almost naturally we approached each other to find out more about who we are,” Miller said. “I said wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could try to achieve a greater understanding and a relationship between the Jewish and Sikh communities.”
When they later met, Banga brought along Tejinder Bindra, president of the Sikh Art & Film Foundation and co-founder of Jeetish Imports. Bindra, known as TJ to his friends, then met with David Newman, executive director of JCRC-LI.
Bindra said there are about 150,000 Sikhs in the tri-state area, with large concentrations in the Richmond Hill and Flushing sections of Queens, as well as in Hicksville, L.I.
About 250 people attended last week’s event, which began with a sampling of kosher Indian vegetarian food. It was followed by introductory remarks from Prabhu Dayal, India’s consul general in New York, who pointed out that the Sikh religion is only five centuries old and yet has the fifth-largest number of followers worldwide.
“Sikhism and Judaism are among the great monotheistic religions,” he said.
“The connections between Jews and Indians are legendary. That is why in November 2008 when Mumbai was attacked, Chabad House was also attacked. And we have worked together with the United States in an effort to stop terrorism. We are here to build bridges. I’m sure our two communities will work together to overcome whatever challenges face us.”
He then presented a book on India’s Jewish heritage to Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul general in New York.
“This is the beginning of a wonderful friendship,” Aharoni said.
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“The Sikh tradition is that they reach out to the needy on a daily basis,” Miller said. “We have soup kitchens and social service programs that provide similar care out of our Jewish heritage.”
After watching two movies that provided a glimpse about Judaism and Sikhism, artist Peter Pitzele spoke about Judaism and Inder Singh, a professor of anatomy at New York University Medical School, discussed Sikhism. Both noted that both observant Jewish and Sikh men cover their heads at all times.
“It’s a mark of respect to God,” Singh said. “This respect to God applies equally to men and women. Some women are now wearing turbans and not just scarves. It’s become a requirement of our religion through tradition and history for over 300 years.”
Pitzele said he used to wear a yarmulke at all times. Once when he encountered a particularly aggressive motorist, he realized he was wearing the yarmulke and became conscious of the fact that doing so “carries a responsibility.”
Singh pointed out that since 9/11 “people who wear turbans have mistakenly been identified as part of Osama bin Laden’s [terrorist group]. It’s a mistake and understandable to some extent.”
Asked if the different colors of turbans has some meaning, Singh replied: “Not at all. … One Sikh in California has 500 different- colored turbans.”
In response to another question about life after death, Singh said that the “essence of Sikhism is to live here and not look for our ancestors in the cockroaches running around the street. The emphasis is to live life well here.”
What if you discard the turban, Singh was asked. His answer: Just as Jews practice different forms of Judaism, Sikhs do too.
“I would say that anyone who says he is a Sikh is a Sikh, whether he wears a turban or not.”