Breaking bread in brotherhood

Breaking bread in brotherhood

For the 27th year, interfaith breakfast seeks to unite communities

From a distance, it’s easy to make fun of the idea of Brotherhood, with a capital B; it’s even easier to mock when political correctness expands the idea to Brotherhood and Sisterhood, and sets it down for brunch.

What we learn from ancient and modern history, however, the events of last year have confirmed: Brotherhood and sisterhood are not some pareve feelgood conceit, but a very real antidote to extant rather than expired poison.

Following a nearly three-decade tradition, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey is among the eight communities that will be represented at the annual Brotherhood/Sisterhood breakfast, set this year, as always, on Presidents Day weekend. This year, it will be on Monday, February 18, at 10 o’clock, at the Hasbrouck Heights Hilton.

Harkishan Singh Jassal

Hosting the breakfast, which is the most public function of the Interfaith Brotherhood/Sisterhood committee in Bergen County, but not the only one, is a rotating honor. This year, it goes to the Sikh community, headquartered locally at its gurdwara, or temple, in Glen Rock.

“We’ve been very supportive of all the faith-based communities in general,” and in turn feel supported by those communities, Joy Kurland, the director of the JFNNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said. The JCRC manages interfaith relationships for the federation. “But when the Jewish community experienced the rash of synagogue attacks, the Sikh community was there with us. They showed incredible support.”

She was talking about the series of four attacks on small shuls in the Hackensack area last January, which cumulated in a Molotov cocktail thrown into the bedroom of Rabbi Nosson Schuman of Congregation Beth El in Rutherford. No one was hurt, and eventually the hapless, carless failed felons were caught, although they have not yet been tried. It was a nasty interlude, and the Jewish community was grateful to its supporters.

Last August, the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., was attacked more viciously. Six Sikhs were murdered and four wounded by a man carrying a legally bought 9 mm semiautomatic pistol, a white supremacist who killed himself as the police shot him.

“We encouraged our people to go to the service at the gurdwara in Glen Rock,” Kurland said. “They were so moved by the hospitality, and the graciousness, and welcoming atmosphere that is part of the culture there.”

She went to the temple one evening and was captivated by the physical beauty she found there. “It was totally lit up in colors, with all of the symbols; it was an absolutely magnificent structure.”

She was also struck by the generosity. “They served dinner for us; they do that every single day,” Kurland said. “They serve to whomever comes to this temple. That could be 200 people. They served dinner for us. It was lovely. It’s banquet-type food, all vegetarian unique preparations,” she said. “It’s all part of their giving back.”

“Welcoming everyone is part of the Sikh ethos,” according to Harkishan Singh Jassal, who is spearheading his community’s presence in the breakfast, and in interfaith work in the county. An IT professional in his work life, Jassal is a past president and board chair of the Glen Rock temple and now sits on its board.

The brotherhood/sisterhood breakfast is a valuable community institution, he said. The commission itself “is a place to bring things up that are not only local, but also national and even international.” But the breakfasts are “a platform for the community to develop relationships. They can interact with people. They may have questions that they don’t ask when they see you outside, but when you are sitting at the same table they can ask.”

He also sees it as a way to include the next generation.

“We try to involve teenagers,” he said. “We set up separate tables for them, so they can mingle with each other. It’s an opportunity for them to meet,” and once they have met, to some extent they become demystified.

Like Kurland, Jassal sees last year’s violence as fertile ground for new relationships between Sikhs and Jews. After the attempted firebombing, “We attended services at synagogues; and after the incident in Wisconsin, we got a tremendous response from the Jewish community,” he said. A memorial service at the Glen Rock gurdwara drew 350 to 400 visitors, many of them Jews.

After any service at a Sikh temple there is food, good food, huge amounts of it, offered in vast quantities to everyone there, Kurland said. “We have a tradition of the community kitchen,” Jassal confirmed, and the Jews who visited it loved it.

They, too, were generous.

“Someone from the Jewish community offered us furniture, if we needed it,” to help serve the food, Jassal said. “And someone else offered to contribute to our kitchen, for rice and other foodstuffs. These are the kinds of things we can do once we know each other.”

The Sikh community in northern New Jersey is fairly new and still growing, Jassal said. For years, the Glen Rock temple, which draws people from Rockland, Orange, and Westchester counties, as well as from Bergen, was the only one in North Jersey, although now there is a small one taking root in Jersey City. Most of the local Sikh community, though, lives in Paramus and Fair Lawn, not in Glen Rock.

Jassal has lived his community’s history. He was born in India – like most Sikhs, he said, he is from Punjab, a province that is split between Indian and Pakistan. He immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, and then, a few years later, to the New York metropolitan area, first to Long Island and then to Bergen County.

Most Sikhs who are here now either came in the 1970s or 1980s, or are the first- or even second-generation descendants of those pioneers, Jassal said. There was a great deal of political turmoil in India around that time, including a Sikh separatist movement. That terrible period culminated in 1984, with the partial destruction of their most holy place, the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and riots that killed thousands of Sikhs.

“When our people moved here before the 1980s, they came for their studies and stayed for professional reasons,” Jassal said. “But when they moved later they had more menial jobs, as sales clerks or taxi drivers.” Sikh men are easy to spot – they wear turbans, with their never-cut hair piled up inside it. They have acclimated themselves to this country, and the community is growing. “When I came here in 1979, there were only a couple of temples in New York, and we had just one in New Jersey, in Bridgewater. But in 1971 our community bought this land.

“They started building only the front portion of the temple, which is very small,” Jassal said. “There were only 40 families.

“Now we can accommodate about 600 people. We need more. We are expanding the facility.”

They also have classrooms, which they use for their religious school. Children learn Punjabi, the language in which their holy scriptures are written, as well as Gurmukhi, the script in which the scriptures are inscribed.

And they have kitchens, where they make all the food that is offered after every service.

Although Sikhs in India generally do not feel particularly close to non-Sikhs, this, like so many other things, is different in the New World. Indian and Pakistani Hindus and Muslims often come to the Sikh temple, looking for the tastes and sounds of home.

And Jassal said, often “they celebrate their children’s birthdays and anniversaries there,” and often they support it financially, as well.

There is a lesson in that, Jassal said. “Even our holiest shrine, the Gold Temple, has four doors, one on each side. It is open to everybody, coming from every direction.”

Even at times when the outside forces battering at them were directed by Muslims, the Sikhs fought tyranny, not Islam, he said. “The foundation stone of our Golden Temple was laid down by a Muslim saint.”

Sikhs and Jews have much in common as minorities, he said. In fact, he added, “We are fifth largest organized religion in the world – and Jews are next.”

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