On a recent Sunday in a classroom at the Sikh temple in Pacoima, nine young students sat scattered across four pews, an incongruous reminder of a time the building was used by a church.
As the teacher, Pami Kaur, read aloud a series of words in Punjabi, the mainly 7- to 9-year-old students slowly repeated them, sounding each one out before writing it down. Some balanced notebooks on their laps as others knelt, using the pews as desks.
“Kireh, I said, kireh,” said Kaur, repeating a word that means “ant,” as she looked over one little girl’s notebook.
None of the words in the day’s lesson, which also included those meaning “thirsty,” “yellow” and “dirty,” had any connection to the Sikh faith or spirituality. But they are the beginning of introducing the children to the phonetics and inflections of Punjabi, the language of their holy script.
Over the next few years at the Sunday Punjabi school, the students will study Sikh history and philosophy, along with the language. They will also learn such fundamentals as why Sikhs don’t cut their hair (they believe it is a blessing from God and should be left uncut.)
It is an effort to raise a generation of American Sikhs who can read the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy script, and have a deeper understanding of their faith.
For the previous generation of American-born Sikhs, it wasn’t always easy to learn about Sikhism, the world’s fifth-largest religion, as many of their immigrant parents did not immediately recognize the need for formal religious education.
Sikhs began coming to the United States in large numbers in the mid-1980s because of persecution and discrimination in India, said Kuldeep Singh, founder of the World Sikh Council, America Region, which represents temples and institutions across the country. There are about 500,000 Sikhs in the United States, with about 150,000 in Southern California, according to the council.
They built houses of worship, known as gurdwaras, and held weekly services but had no religious schools for their children. Sikhs live by core principles that put more of an emphasis on spirituality in daily life than attending temple or reading scripture — being constantly meditative of God, giving to others and earning a living through honest means. That less-didactic approach made it hard to instill the religion in a Sikh generation growing up in the West, several of those interviewed said.
“Our parents would go to gurdwara and take us with them,” said Bhupinder Malik, a volunteer at the Pacoima Sikh school, run by the Khalsa Care Foundation. “They thought that was enough, just take your kids with you and teach him how to bow.”
Malik said many of her friends didn’t embrace their Sikh identities until they reached college and met other Sikhs their age. They began to realize the limitations of the Sikh religious education they had received.
Now there are nearly 150 gurdwaras across the country, with about 60 in Southern California. All have Punjabi schools and most of those have opened in the last 15 years. Even temples with as few as 12 children in the congregation have Sunday schools, said Jasmine Kaur, director of education for the Sikh Research Institute, which has established the curriculum for many of the schools.
“Communities across North America realized the need to hold on to their language and heritage,” she said. “The focus was definitely on language, learning script and vocabulary and maintaining culture and values.”
There was no need for the religious weekend schools in India when Kuldeep Singh was growing up because children learned about Sikhism and Punjabi from the gurdwaras and the community.
“But here our neighbors will not be able to teach because many times the Sikh family is living in a neighborhood where there is no other Sikh family,” Singh said.
Jasdeep Singh, who grew up in Southern California, said that language and religious exposure back home made his parent’s generation confident in its Sikh identity. “I don’t think they were that aware that their kids would need a much larger embrace of the community,” said the Yorba Linda resident.
When he was a child, he said, there were no Punjabi schools and his family attended the temple only once every few weeks because his parents often spent weekends working overtime.
But in college, he and many young Sikhs he knew struggled to reconcile their faith with their American identities. The community was shocked when it was suddenly faced with young Sikhs removing their turbans or cutting their hair, he said.
Now he hopes his two young sons — who regularly attend Sunday school — will not go through the same crisis of faith he did.
“Telling a kid, ‘Hey, you can’t cut your hair and you have to wear a turban’ without explaining why is like forcing someone to wear a Halloween costume year-round,” Jasdeep Singh said. “I think my generation is the one that’s actually seen the value of Punjabi schools.”