One recent afternoon, two dozen teenagers stayed late at Hoover Middle School in Potomac, Md., for a presentation on Jewish culture. They tasted matzoh brittle, spun dreidels, colored Purim masks and watched a video of a rabbi blowing a ram’s horn.
Some clowned or texted, but one student named Hana Kaur kept a watchful eye on the room. She shushed the gigglers, passed out the masks and read from a large screen that explained Passover and Rosh Hashanah.
Kaur, 14, is a Sikh. The daughter of immigrants from India, she wears waist-length braids and a silver bracelet as signs of her ancient faith, which male Sikhs honor by wearing turbans. She is the driving force behind the school’s new Cultural Awareness Club, and her leadership sends a subtle message.
The club is part of a polite but purposeful mission by Sikh community leaders in suburban Maryland to create a positive image of a religious minority that has long been the object of misunderstanding and hostility in the United States. Concern flared after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when some Sikhs were mistaken for Muslims and harassed. It re-emerged on Aug. 5, 2012, when a white supremacist gunman attacked a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six people before fatally shooting himself.
“After the second tragedy, we realized there was still much ignorance about us and our beliefs. People associated our turbans with fundamentalists who believe in violence against America,” said Rajwant Singh, a dentist and official of a Sikh temple in Rockville. “In schools, Sikhism was not taught in religion classes.”
So members of the community sought out teachers and encouraged their own children to help educate others about who they are. “If young Sikhs are seen as leaders now, people wearing turbans when they run for office will be more accepted,” Singh said.
Sikhism is a monotheistic South Asian religion, founded in the 15th century, which combines spartan self-control with meditative spiritualism. More than 90 percent of Sikhs — about 22 million — still live in India, but several hundred thousand have immigrated to the United States since the 1960s. In the Washington suburbs, many have been drawn to jobs in research and technology, settled down to raise families and built communities around domed temples called gurdwaras.
Rather than trying to blend into American society, many Sikhs have made a point of standing out. Men wrap bright yellow or orange turbans around never-cut hair, even at the cost of ridicule and danger. National Sikh organizations have fought aggressive legal battles with various government agencies, including the TSA and the Pentagon, over the right to wear turbans and other religious symbols during airport screenings and while serving in the military.
Sikhs expect their children to be equally proud of the faith symbols they wear, including topknots for younger boys and turbans for older ones. After 9/11, when some Sikh students were taunted as Muslim terrorists by classmates, the community’s response was not to ease up on the rigorous dress code, but to push for national anti-bullying laws and promote their faith more vigorously as distinctive but nonthreatening.
“We follow a code, and wearing the uniform is part of our mandate. It is not something you can discard for inconvenience,” said Rubin Pal Singh, a board member of the Guru Gobind Singh gurdwara in Rockville. “This uniform is what makes us unique. If a child does not want to wear it, it can be difficult for the family and the community.”
But Singh and other Sikh leaders in the Maryland suburbs are pursuing a more nuanced strategy of outreach to area schools. They have met with teachers, produced videos and texts on Sikhism and invited school officials to temples for training sessions and worship ceremonies. One result is that many Montgomery County middle and high schools now include lessons on Sikhism in their religion courses. Another is a new cadre of experts and allies within the system.
David Owens, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Hoover, attended one of the training sessions at the Rockville gurdwara several weeks ago and said he learned a great deal.
“Now I am ready for any questions the students ask me,” he said, adding that the culture club “helps clear up misconceptions, helps overcome students’ uneasiness with other cultures and creates a more welcoming atmosphere so no one feels isolated.”
In some cases, students like Kaur are acting as ambassadors for their faith, partly through strong parental urging and partly from their own evolving commitment. In a recent interview, Kaur and a dozen other Sikh teenagers said school bullying was not a major problem for them, but several added that their parents had suffered from harassment as young immigrants and that they too still faced occasional insults or awkward moments.
Jagjot Battu, an 11th grader at Gaithersburg High School, said she feels comfortable being a Sikh in a diverse, multinational student body but is occasionally mistaken for a Muslim or a Hindu. Although she attributed the problem to misunderstanding rather than bias, she said feels a strong responsibility to set her schoolmates straight.
“Most of my friends know I am Sikh, but they don’t know what that means. It’s my job to teach them about it,” said Battu. “You can’t change people, but you can try to get the message out, to open their minds and build tolerance. The world is very interconnected now, and we need to understand each other.”
Kaur, tall and articulate, has emerged as a natural leader for young Sikhs in her area. At first, she said, she was motivated by the backlash against Sikhs after 9/11, when her younger brother was called names such as Osama. More recently, when the temple shooting in Wisconsin took place, she saw it as an opportunity to “shine a spotlight” on Sikhism at a moment of national attention and sympathy. First, she and her friends made a video for schools featuring interviews with young Sikhs. Then she persuaded officials at Hoover to let her start the culture club, which began meeting in January.
At the recent club meeting, there were scattered signs that the message was getting through. Most of the adolescents in the room had trouble remembering the finer points of Sikhism or mumbled something about long hair and bracelets. But the very normalcy of their interactions seemed telling.
While Kaur and a Jewish classmate stood next to a large screen, explaining dreidels and matzoh, three boys were joking and fooling around at a desk in the back. One was a Sikh named Amit, wearing a black cloth topknot on his head. The second was wearing a yarmulke. The third had red hair and freckles. Asked what he thought of Amit’s topknot, he glanced up and said, “It’s awesome!”