Fitting in, standing out
The country’s first Sikh attorney general talks about his work, his community, and his ideals
Is the United States a melting pot? A glorious mosaic? A nation of immigrants? A country that demands assimilation? A nation that revels in its differences? A place that demands, commands, respects, rejects, or reviles identity politics?
Or maybe it’s a country where all those things are true.
Many members of our community — the American Jewish community — are successful, come from generations of success, and look like everyone else. But a sizable segment of the community is recognizably Jewish: at one end of that scale the men wear kippot; toward the right women do not wear pants and cover their heads; and further still the men have big bushy beards and the women cover most parts of their bodies through all seasons of the year.
Success, in other words, has come both to Jews who look noticeably Jewish and those who do not.
So this is a long introduction to someone from another group, who looks noticeably unlike most Americans and who has made his own way in this country, in the immigrant tradition, relying on brains, hard work, openness, a self-established network of friends, and some luck, and now has one of the most important jobs in the state of New Jersey.
Meet Gurbir Grewal, New Jersey’s attorney general. He is the first Sikh in the country to become a state attorney general.
His main office is in Trenton, but recently he met with the Jewish Standard at his office in Newark.
Mr. Grewal’s parents moved to Jersey City from the Indian state of Punjab in 1971, he said, and Gurbir was born in 1973. His mother has a master’s degree in political science and his father is an electrical engineer. They moved here, as most immigrants do, in search of economic opportunity. (Although Mr. Grewal speaks eloquently about his own experiences, he does not offer much information about his family. He is a public person but they are not, he says, and he chooses to respect their privacy.)
“They faced a lot of discrimination in those early years,” Mr. Grewal said. “There were hardly any Sikhs in the country then. It must have taken a huge leap of faith for them to cross the ocean to come here. We had no relatives here then.” There already was a small Sikh community in Jersey City; his parents went there because “it probably was the only place they knew about.” The community soon grew, though. “I grew up around people who looked like me.” (Most Sikhs can trace their families back to the Punjab; they are Indian, but they are neither Hindu nor Muslim. Sikh men are identifiable by their turbans and beards.)
Soon, the family moved to Bergen County — first Washington Township and then Westwood, where Gurbir went to elementary school, and then to Essex County, where he went to high school. Next came college; Mr. Grewal decided to try something different, so he went to Bates College, in rural Maine. “I thought I needed a small liberal arts college,” he said. “I wanted to be a writer. But then I took one international relations course, and I was hooked.”
He soon ran through all of Bates’s international relations curriculum, so it made sense to transfer, and by that time he realized that the deep country wasn’t for him, so he finished college at Georgetown, working through its foreign service curriculum. He wanted to be a diplomat, but timing was against him. “I graduated in ’95, and there was a hiring freeze in the State Department then,” he said. “They were not offering the foreign service exam,” the first step to a diplomatic career.
What to do next?
“Then law school seemed like an option,” Mr. Grewal said. “I had a lot of friends going to law school.” And it seemed appealing also “because I was a big ‘Law and Order’ fan.” So he applied and ended up enrolling in law school at William and Mary, the lovely Jeffersonian campus in Williamsburg, Virginia.
“I got hooked on law,” he said.
Like many fledgling lawyers, Mr. Grewal was torn between the desire to do public service and the often equally compelling desire to make enough money to live comfortably. (To be clear, it is not as if it is not possible to live comfortably on a civil servant’s salary, and equally it is possible to do socially compelling work in a big law firm. It’s just harder.) During law school, he spent one summer in the Essex County public defender’s office, and another at a then big, now gone D.C. law firm, Howrey & Simon. He worked on litigation in both places; he knew that no matter which side of the public/private divide he went to, it would be as a litigator.
From his law school graduation in 1999 to 2004, Mr. Grewal worked at Howrey & Simon. He got married during that time; his wife is a physician, and she went to Columbia for her fellowship in 2004. That meant that “I knew we had to move, and it seemed as good a time as any for my passion for criminal justice” to come to the fore.
There was something else, beyond an intellectual love for litigation and an emotional pull toward social justice, propelling Mr. Grewal toward public service.
He had a message to share. A message he embodies. A message about hope and diversity and difference and shared values.
A message that he knew he had to share throughout most of his life, but that came into painfully sharp relief on the days following September 11, 2001.
“On September 11, I worked at the law firm in Washington,” he said. “It was a normal Tuesday. A beautiful morning. A perfect fall day. When I drove in, I started hearing about what was happening.
“When I got in, my colleagues and I came together and went up on the roof.” They could see the Pentagon burning; one of the planes hit it. “Everyone was grieving together in the attorneys’ lounge,” he said. “But it didn’t take long — it was almost immediate — for people to start staring at me. Maybe a day. I didn’t really have the opportunity to grieve.”
To be clear, people were staring at him because they assumed he was Muslim, and they assumed that if he were Muslim, then if he were not actively responsible for the hijacking and murders, at least he was somehow complicit in it. He must be in favor of it.
To continue being clear, Mr. Grewal is not Muslim. Overwhelmingly most Muslims were horrified by the attacks of September 11, but that was irrelevant to Mr. Grewal, who is no more Muslim than Jews are.
“What really drove it home to me was that I would walk out of my building at work, and a group of homeless guys who would hang out there would start yelling at me. Yelling things like ‘Here’s Bin Laden! We got Bin Laden!’
“They would trail me. It was embarrassing, and it also was frightening.” Remember, he said, that the first victim of mob violence killed because of an invented connection to September 11 was a Sikh; that was Balbir Singh Sodhi of Mesa, Arizona, killed on September 15. “You have to be a bit more careful about where you walk,” Mr. Grewal said. “About where you park. About where you buy groceries. I would pick the door of my building it was safest to walk out of.
“The whispers and comments prompted me to think about my own experience, and about the Sikh immigrant experience,” he said. “You are born here, but you maintain your own religious identity, and so you look different.
“You can check every box — playing Little League, playing soccer, doing every normal American thing — and then one day you wake up and everyone looks at you like you don’t belong.”
He thought even more about the effect his becoming a public-service lawyer could have on his community, Mr. Grewal continued.
“People of my background have come here and thrived economically and educationally and socially. We have done well professionally. When you are growing up, your community wants you to be a good doctor or lawyer or engineer. A professional. But no one says it is okay to be a good public servant — a cop, a fireman.” Or even a public service lawyer.
“So I thought, what better way is there to show people that I am as American as everyone else than to engage in public service? Looking the way I do? Believing the way I do?
“At that point in my life, I wasn’t going to go to the police academy or the fire academy, so I started looking at U.S. attorney’s offices. I thought I could be a federal prosecutor. I got a couple of offers, and I accepted a job in Brooklyn, at the U.S. attorney’s office for New York’s eastern district. And it was amazing.
“I got to get in front of grand jurors, looking as I do. I got to speak to federal agents from across the agencies. And not only was I giving back, I was being a sort of spokesperson for the entire community.
“I was showing that while we might look different, while we might have different beliefs, we are all in on the ideals of this country. We are changing minds, 12 jurors at a time, a few agents at a time.”
He also loved the intellectual and formal challenges of his job. “We worked on national security cases, terrorism cases, financial fraud cases,” he said. “We were bringing justice to the community. It was inspiring and rewarding work.”
When he worked in Brooklyn, Mr. Grewal and his wife lived in Hoboken, and then they moved to Glen Rock. They’re close to Glen Rock Gurudwara, the Sikh temple there, and they’re active in it. It was not a good commute, and Mr. Grewal took a short break, working at Howey’s New York office, “but it was just a temporary detour,” he said. “I didn’t find it rewarding.”
Mr. Grewal returned to public service; he took a job in the U.S Attorney’s office in Newark. He worked for Paul Fishman, “who is an amazing mentor,” he said. “Just incredible.
“I started at the bottom there, even though I had been a prosecutor for almost four years, and I worked my way up to heading the economic and computer crime units, and I handled all major white-collar federal crimes, from security fraud to computer fraud to Russian hacking. I headed a team of 24, 25 people.
“I was there from 2010 to 2016,” Mr. Grewal said. “It was a great ride.”
In 2013, then Governor Chris Christie, whom Mr. Grewal had not met and did not know, nominated him to be Bergen County prosecutor. Something happened, though; he never got a state Senate confirmation hearing. Mr. Christie nominated him again in 2016, he assumed the office as acting prosecutor, and then got the job formally later that year. “It was a wonderful, incredible job,” Mr. Grewal said. “It allowed me to continue to be in public service, and also to continue the public relations mission. It allowed me to continue to promote understanding, this time in the county where I live.
“I took advantage of it to be out in the community more than ever, to be at events and council meetings. I took advantage of every opportunity to be out and about, to talk not only about opiates — which is a very important issue — but also to help kids, to maybe make it easier for some kid who looks like me.
“I loved that job. I did it for two years, from January 2016 to January 2018, when I resigned to be state attorney general.”
During that time, Mr. Grewal got involved in the eruv struggle in Mahwah. Because he knew what it felt like to be profiled and pigeonholed because of his appearance, he was able to use his position and that knowledge to help resolve the situation. The town could not use racial profiling to keep charedi Jews from its public parks, he said, and he enforced that finding.
In January 2018, the new governor-elect, Phil Murphy, appointed Mr. Grewal to the position he holds now. “The opportunity was not anything I ever sought out,” Mr. Grewal said. “But we did a lot of work on the opiate crisis and police-community relations and the eruv, and I think we handled it all professionally. That got me on Murphy’s list, and he nominated me. On January 16, I was sworn in, and so was he.”
Many of President Donald J. Trump’s initiatives are very unpopular in the Northeast, and he’s particularly at odds with attorneys general in the states where he has done business and left a trail of angry creditors behind him. That includes New Jersey and New York. Attorneys general are best positioned to push against some federal regulations that conflict with their own states’ laws. But, Mr. Grewal said, “I think that a lot of folks just sort of look at newspaper headlines and think that we spend every waking hour suing the Trump administration.
“That is only about five to 10 percent of what we do. We are pushing a very busy and active agenda.”
On the other hand, “One reason that the governor and I really hit it off is that we agreed that the attorney general’s office is an important line of defense against what is coming out of Washington. And now more than ever, it is up to attorneys general to uphold the greater governmental accountability when they violate the rules, norms, and our sense of decency.
“When we first got here, almost daily we were racing to something, from working against the travel ban to attacks on women’s reproductive rights to attacks on the immigrants to the census question to the attacks on the LGBT community.”
But the office does much more than that, he said. “I believe that this is one of the most powerful attorney general offices in the country. I am not aware of any other one that has complete authority over criminal jurisdictions the way that we do. We have complete oversight over law enforcement. Through our department of criminal justice, we can bring our own cases. We also have broad civil authority, because we are the lawyers to the state. We represent every state agency. The colonel of the state police reports to the state’s attorney general. There’s gaming and athletics.
“We also house the division of consumer affairs, which oversees broad consumer protections, from games of chance to security. In total, we are 7,3000 folks and 13 divisions.”
He paused for a breath.
“I am appointed, not elected, and my term is co-terminus with the governor’s,” he said. “That is good. We don’t have to campaign. We don’t have to fund-raise. We are not indebted to anyone.
“When we go to national meetings, there are Democratic and Republican attorneys general associations, and we can’t get involved with either of them.”
This first year, Mr. Grewal said, his work largely has been reactive, but next year it will be more proactive. “We will push forward an affirmative agenda next year.
“We also have the division of civil rights; we now have the time to consider how we can use our authority to build something. To put forward rules so that the protections that are being stripped away federally can be built up here.
“We can be a model for the rest of the country.”
He plans to start an honors program that will bring in top law students; in return for a two-year commitment they will be exposed to high-level work and have a rare opportunity to learn and grow rather than to wait their turns.
Mr. Grewal thinks back to his childhood as he considers the future, his chance to affect young people, and his ability to effect change.
When he was a child, “It didn’t matter where you came from or what you looked like. We just knew each other, and we just were friends.”
When he moved to Essex County in high school, “no one knew me, and no one looked like me, and that was where the hate started to manifest. There was a lot of staring, and even some grabbing. Some physical attacks.
“But you develop a resilience, and you deepen it by finding other folks from your community.”
Mr. Grewal is one third of an extraordinary trio of childhood friends. He is the first Sikh to be a state attorney general. His friend Ravi Bhalla is the first Sikh to be mayor of a town in New Jersey. And their friend Amardeep Singh was the founder of the Sikh Coalition and now is a senior program officer for George Soros’s Open Society Foundation.
“We have a deep understanding of what it means to be marginalized,” Mr. Grewal said. “Of being on the receiving end of hateful comments and bigotry. That helps you understand what other people are going through.”
That’s why, despite the many far-reaching powers his office gives him, the one that perhaps speaks most deeply to him is the chance to give disaffected young people reason to hope.
“When I am going to talk to a ninth grade class in Glen Rock about heroin and opioids and I see a Sikh kid slouched in his chair, clearly not part of the cliques — I am there as much to help that kid as I am to talk about opioids,” he said.
And make no mistake about it — he also very much is there to talk about opioids. Those are not mutually exclusive things.
“I always have done that, and now I have a much bigger platform for it,” he said.
“I talked to someone, a Sikh, who told me that for the longest time he didn’t wear a turban. But when he saw my picture in the paper, he told me, he said ‘I will wear mine now.’”
There are many ways to effect change. There are many levers to pull. Mr. Grewal has access to them, and he is pulling them.