New Jersey’s Push for Sikhism Education: A Step Towards Inclusivity

Sikhism Education in New Jersey
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Sikh Community in New Jersey Advocates for Enhanced Sikhism Education in Schools

In 2017, Ravi Bhalla made history by becoming the first Sikh mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey. Born in Passaic and raised in Montville Township, Morris County, Bhalla’s journey was marked by challenges. As a young Sikh boy, he faced bullying, which he combated by educating his peers about Sikhism. He fondly recalls conducting a ‘turban-tying’ class to help demystify the Sikh head covering, teaching his classmates about its significance and the respect it commands.

Fast forward to 2009, New Jersey became a trailblazer by being the first state to mandate the inclusion of Sikhism in school curriculums. However, despite this progressive step, advocates claim that the actual implementation in classrooms remains sparse. This is concerning, especially considering the state is home to an estimated 100,000 Sikh residents.

In light of this, a recent resolution, AR172, has been passed in the state Assembly. This resolution urges the New Jersey State Board of Education to integrate Sikhism into the existing social studies curriculum. Furthermore, it calls upon the state Commission on Asian American Heritage to collaborate with local school officials in curating relevant course materials. This unanimous decision, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, is now awaiting a vote in the state Senate.

The Sikh Youth Alliance, a prominent organization based in South Jersey, played a pivotal role in drafting this resolution. Their recent survey revealed a concerning lack of Sikhism education in New Jersey schools. Bhupindar Singh, the alliance’s outreach lead, expressed disappointment, stating that despite the 2009 mandate, no school district has actively taught Sikhism.

Sikhism, originating in the Punjab region of India in the early 16th century, is a faith that emphasizes monotheism, respect for all, and reverence for the Earth. Sikh men are easily recognizable by their turbans, uncut hair, and beards, while Sikh women traditionally wear a chunni or dupatta and also keep their hair uncut. Both men and women wear a metal bracelet, the kara, symbolizing their faith.

Globally, there are approximately 25 million Sikhs. In New Jersey, communities like Glen Rock and Carteret have significant Sikh populations. The state has seen notable Sikh figures like Bhalla, former attorney general Gurbir Grewal, and Amardeep Singh, co-founder of the Sikh Coalition, a leading Sikh civil rights organization.

However, the journey hasn’t been without challenges. Sikhs have faced discrimination and violence, especially post the 9/11 attacks. The 2012 tragedy where seven Sikhs were killed in a Wisconsin temple by a white supremacist and the 2018 incident where Grewal was derogatorily referred to as “turban man” on a radio show are stark reminders of the prejudices they face.

While the 2009 initiative by the New Jersey Board of Education was commendable, a recent survey by the Sikh Youth Alliance highlighted the gaps in its execution. The majority of Sikh students surveyed felt that their religion was overshadowed by other Asian histories.

However, there’s a silver lining. Recent engagements with local education boards have been promising, with commitments to include Sikhism in the curriculum. Mayor Bhalla, reflecting on the resolution, expressed hope, emphasizing its significance in fostering understanding and dispelling myths about Sikhism.

In a world that’s increasingly interconnected, understanding and respecting diverse cultures and religions is paramount. New Jersey’s efforts in this direction, though commendable, need more momentum. As Bhalla aptly puts it, it’s not just about symbolism; it’s about meaningful progress.