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Judaism Synagogue Is Home To Displaced Sikhs In Oyster Bay


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
In Hebrew, the word is “tzedakah.”

It refers to acts of charity and philanthropy, an important part of Jewish spiritual life. The members of the Temple Beth Elohim’s tzedakah is a gift to the community, a way for the followers of another faith to practice their beliefs.

In a gift coincidentally timed to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Temple Beth Elohim has offered its social hall for use by the members of the Guru Gobind Singh Sikh Center, which has been shuttered for months by a slew of code violations.

The Sikh’s have accepted the invitation, and recently began worship services at the Old Bethpage synagogue last week. They will conduct their services on Sundays through November, and beyond if necessary.

"We saw it as a real chance for peace and understanding,” said Rabbi Michael Churgel, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Elohim. “We’re thrilled because it’s an opportunity for our communities to share and learn from each other.”

The Sikh Temple on Old Country Road in Plainview has been shut down for months by a variety of code violations brought by Town of Oyster Bay officials. The town was acting on the complaints of nearby residents. The gurdwara, or Sikh temple, draws hundreds of people to its services from all over Long Island. Some of their festivals go well into the night and involve music on traditional instruments.

The Sikhs, who have a long tradition of feeding vegetarian specialties to visitors and taking in travelers, ironically found themselves homeless.

Surinder Singh “Charlie” Chawla, chairman of the Guru Gobind Singh Sikh Center, approached Rabbi Churgel with his dilemma at a recent Plainview interfaith clergy meeting. The next evening, Churgel went to the temple’s Board of Trustees meeting, which unanimously agreed to offer the Sikh community the use of the synagogue's social hall.

"It is very gracious of them," Chawla said Tuesday. "They have welcomed us with open arms. This is a chance for our two communities to grow together."

The Sikhs will conduct services most Sunday afternoons from now through November and, “possibly beyond that time” while the Sikhs attempt to resolve their legal issues, Churgel said. Their case is in a Nassau County court. The town said the gurdwara was operating without a certificate of occupancy and had no public assembly permit, among other issues.

Chawla said his group is working with the town to resolve the issues.

In part, the synagogue wants to seek friendship and knowledge between the two religious communities, Churgel said. In addition to the regular Sunday services, Temple Beth Elohim will host "Diwali," the Sikh Festival of Lights on the night of Wednesday Oct. 26 and a second Sikh holy day on Thursday Nov. 10.

In a letter dated Sept. 27 to the congregation, Churgel and Temple President Daniel Naftol explained their reasoning for the offer:

“We view this as not only as an act of tzedakah, but we see this also as a wonderful opportunity to form a close relationship with our Sikh neighbors and to learn from one another,” the letter said.

The Sikh congregation is active in the Plainview community and has performed outreach programs at the library and elsewhere. Often misunderstood by Westerners, Sikhs are followers of the teachings of the 10 revealed gurus. The 10th, Gobind Singh established the Khalsa (the Pure Ones), the body of baptized Sikhs. The faith has 26 million followers worldwide, the vast majority in Punjab, India; Their holy scripture is entitled the Gurū Granth Sāhib Ji, a compilation of the writings of the gurus.

Maimonides, the 12th Century Jewish philosopher and scholar who authored the 14-volume Mishneh Torah, said the highest form of tzedakah is to provide a gift, loan, or partnership to someone that will allow the recipient to become self-sufficient, Churgel said.

That spirit of community is alive in both congregations:

“It’s a chance to break down those walls, the fear of the unknown,” Churgel said.