Lions in Zion

Sikh leaders from India meet with Jews, Christians and Muslims to forge new paths to faith.

sikh ufront 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
sikh ufront 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
The keeper of the Golden Temple in Amritsar looked out the window of the airplane and felt overwhelmed with emotion. "You could feel the spirituality," Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh Ji explains, recalling the approach to Israel. The land that is holy to the three Abrahamic faiths is not holy to Sikhs, except that "holiness is the legitimate heir for all humanity," Singh Ji says. One of the world leaders of the Sikh faith, now living in England, Singh has never been to the Holy Land before and was anxiously anticipating touch-down. "I felt like kissing the ground," he remembers, raising his eyebrows, his light green eyes flashing against his brown skin. Curious security officials at Ben-Gurion Airport didn't know what to make of Singh and his 16 Punjabi Sikh disciples, including three women, from the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha community in Birmingham, England. Religious leaders in robes and headdresses and faithful pilgrims regularly make their way through customs in this part of the world. But this group was distinct, with their long beards, high white turbans and tunics, and with each male traveler sharing a last name - Singh - a symbol of the initiation to their faith. Singh means "lion" or "lion-hearted" in Punjabi. It was the first-ever Sikh delegation to Israel and the first of many encounters with people here who know little or nothing of the Sikh people and their faith. The Sikhs were unfazed. Part of the logic for the journey was to raise consciousness about the world's fifth-largest religion. But more than that, it was a pilgrimage, to learn - one religion from the other - to pray together, and have a dialogue about the role of spiritual communities in healing ethnic and national rifts. Sufi sheikhs, Druze sheikhs, a Muslim mufti, a Muslim mayor, Christian Arabs, Catholic nuns and priests, an Ethiopian Orthodox priest, Bahai leaders and Jewish Orthodox rabbis, community members and children comprised the line-up of hosts, organized by the Jerusalem Peacemakers organization and the Elijah Interfaith Institute. THE SPIRIT of the trip recalls the 1990 journey made by a delegation of Jewish rabbis to India, following a request from the Dalai Lama for interfaith dialogue. At the time, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader called the survival and proliferation of the Jewish people "the Jewish secret," and wanted to unearth clues for continuity he could pass on to his own people. Jewish religious leaders were anxious to comply, explore and share traditions and history, and to consider from their own perspective the attraction of the eastern religion to Jewish youth. The Sikh leader has similar aspirations. "We are a relatively new faith, only 500 years old," he kept repeating. "We are here to learn." Born into a North Indian Sikh family living in and moving around East Africa, Singh has met religious peoples all over Africa and India. Since becoming leader of the largest Sikh community outside India and traveling worldwide for interfaith missions, he has, like the Dalai Lama, become fascinated by the Jewish people's curious ability to thrive through periods of persecution, Diaspora and assimilation. At one of the first stops, in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, on a hill overlooking the wadi, the local rabbi joined the Sikhs as they prayed their sunset service, chanting from their holy scriptures in gold tomes, while playing the tabla and harmonium - ancient Indian instruments. Just before the sun disappeared, Rabbi Menahem Froman stood up amidst the crowd without missing a beat and davened the minha service aloud, keeping time to the Punjabi melody. Later, the Sikhs were the talk of the local yeshiva students, after they came to observe Jewish study methods. "There was a bit of an uproar in the beit midrash - suddenly 20 Sikhs came in while they were studying. [The students] were blown away," says Mordechai Zeller, a student at the Tekoa Yeshiva. "It opened them up to things they don't usually see - to see people of a different faith who believe in one God, who they [assumed were] idol worshipers. [The students] have ideas about Indian and eastern religions - that these people wouldn't usually believe in God." The Sikh leader said the concept of students learning in pairs, the young with the elderly, was especially eye-opening. "This is exactly what we want to import," he said. AT MOSHAV Modi'in, the Sikhs also felt a connection to the Carlebach tradition of reviving music and melody as part of prayer. Interfaith connections have not always been easy for them. Following hate crimes and increased prejudice against Sikhs in the western world after September 11, 2001, and most recently a sentencing of five New York men for harassing and beating Sikhs, the group said they felt wholeheartedly embraced by Israelis and Palestinians. "[In England and elsewhere] People on the street sometimes say, 'Hey, bin Laden.' They think we have something to do with him, because they think our turbans look similar," says Sewa Singh Mandla, the group's chairman. "Or they think we are [religious fanatics]. Here, nobody made these associations. They had no idea who we were. After they did, everybody actually treated us like royalty." In Safed, two community members pulled dusty books off their shelves after seeing the Sikhs, excited that they resembled the ancient Jewish high priests, according to artistic renditions of the Second Temple services. "They were dressed like cohanim, all in white, like on Shabbat," says Kabbala teacher and artist Avraham Loewenthal, using the expression "blown away" to describe his reaction. "Thing after thing [that the Sikhs explained about their religion], I said, 'Oh, we have that, we have that, we have that,' like he could have been a rabbi," says Loewenthal. "I felt a real spiritual kinship. "Even though they are very strong in their own faith, they were open in a real way to discussing other faiths without being threatened," he added. "I don't know how well we've manifested [that] in Judaism." At the Kotel, after being pulled into circles of Orthodox revelers singing and dancing in the rain during Kabbalat Shabbat services last Friday night, Singh pulled himself away to press his hands against the ancient wall and close his eyes in prayer. "Beyond feeling my own heart beat, I could feel another beat in my palms coming from the wall, as if it were alive," he says. Then the group made their way to a traditional Shabbat dinner at the home of Rabbi Dr. Elon Goshen-Gottstein, head of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. Singh has been involved with Elijah and the Jerusalem Peacemakers since meeting them at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona in 2004. The group stared in awe as the rabbi laid his hands on his children's heads for the parental blessing before the meal. Talk at conferences was different than witnessing spiritual life, Singh explained. "The beauty of Shabbat showed us what we need in our family life. How inspiring to see every Friday they meet with the family - that parents bless their children [with their hands]." Sikhs, who believe that blessings don't only come through words but through touch and sight, were making mental notes of what new traditions could help youth uphold their ancient ways. "It was not the first time to meet, but [the first time] to really see the Jewish people," says Singh. THE OTHER Holy Land religions also made a special effort to reach out to the Sikhs and find common ground. The Bahai Temple in Haifa, the Tabgha Benedictine Monastery on the Sea of Galilee and the Muslim community of Faradis in Wadi Ara all welcomed the Sikhs. At a monastery near Beit Shemesh, many of the Sikhs shed tears, moved by the silent prayers of the monastic nuns of Beit Jamal. In Bethlehem, the mayor, overwhelmed with plans for Christmas, took time to join the group, along with the directors of the non-profit groups the Holy Land Trust and the Wiam Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. Sheikh Muhammad al-Jamal, head of the Jerusalem Higher Sufi Council, who usually receives only Muslims, invited the group into his office opposite the Dome of the Rock, saying he could see they were "true believers in the One God." "For sure something positive can come of such gatherings; every person who is for peace and against violence has something to add," said Druze Sheikh Hussein Abu-Rukun, who invited some 60 Druze sheiks from around the Galilee to host the Sikh group for a vegetarian feast. "In the Middle East, serving a meal without meat does seems deficient," Abu-Rukun says, laughing. "But we respect the Indian traditions." Members of the Druze, Sufi, Muslim and Christian communities have previously joined interfaith efforts in Israel and abroad, hoping to forge common connections away from the political arena. The Sikhs, Abu-Rukun said, are excellent models for dialogue because "they are educated, they behave respectfully to everyone and they give pride." Beyond that, he says, maybe they have a special role here as people who are not part of the mess. WHEN FORMER Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron arrived to meet with Israel's first delegation of Sikhs, they all simultaneously stood in respect. In a dialogue about the role of religious leaders in bringing about peace, the two groups agreed that spiritual leaders must reach beyond their prayers and teaching to be role models. "My learned friend," said Bakshi-Doron, "so many ideals we share in common. The way to spread peace is to follow the divine example and give to everyone, without creating distinctions between peoples. It is the responsibility of every religious leader to seek to minimize pain, suffering and bloodshed in the world, as well as in their own communities. We are all part of the larger world and must put our heads together." When a Sikh asked the rabbi to be more specific, he suggested encouraging communities of faith to use the media and the Internet to inspire larger worldwide communities with examples of charitable deeds. He also suggested introducing international Jewish and Sikh communities to one another for their mutual benefit, and said he was open to exploring the idea of a joint prayer center in Jerusalem for all communities to pray side-by-side, each according to its own tradition. Bakshi-Doron was one of only a few Israeli chief rabbis to regularly explore religious solutions to Jerusalem's problems with Muslim clerics. "All religious leaders around the world must pay attention to this strengthening of a global family," he said. A haredi teacher who happened upon the exchange stopped Goshen-Gottstein. "He was astonished. He had never seen a religious dialogue between a Jew and a non-Jew before," the rabbi recalls. "He told me that it totally changed his life and he would now try to give his students a broader perspective on other religions and what it means to be religious." Outside, haredi children and teens with black robes and sidecurls stopped Jerusalem Peacemakers head Eliyahu McLean to ask about the Sikhs. Were they Muslims? What did they want? When one boy heard that the Sikhs wanted to pray for peace, he smiled. "More power to them," he said. Later that night, Bhai Sahib Mohinder looked out the window at the Jerusalem skyline and felt overwhelmed with emotion. It was the last night of his group's seven-day pilgrimage and a group of locals had gathered in McLean's Jerusalem apartment to share devotional song, prayer, dialogue and Indian food. "It's been soul stirring and I can't stop crying," the Sikh leader related. "When you feel that way, you know God is with you."