This profile was last updated in 2017
The New England Sikh sangat (community) began meeting in 1968, after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 made it possible for Sikhs to emigrate from India to America. The community began by word-of-mouth among the small number of Sikhs living in New England. They worshiped in each other’s houses until the mid-to-late 1970s, when their expanding population made it necessary for them to rent worship space in facilities such as schools and churches. In order to raise funds to pay for the rent of these spaces, the sangat needed to choose a name and file for the non-profit status of a religious organization. Its name officially became the New England Sikh Study Circle, Inc., but the non-profit status was harder to attain. Those working in law and government were unaware of the Sikh tradition, so gaining official recognition as a religious organization was a complicated endeavor. With the assistance of a local Sikh lawyer, the New England Sikh Study Circle, Inc. eventually attained their non-profit status in 1979. In the late 1980s they began looking for a space of their own and in 1990, bought their current gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Milford. It became clear in 1999 that they needed a larger space in order to accommodate their attendees and they began to look for land to build a new gurdwara. In 2014, after many years of fundraising, they started construction on the new building in Westborough, and officially moved into the new gurdwara in 2017. The community hopes to continue expansion by building playgrounds and other facilities on the grounds of the gurdwara.
September 11, 2001 posed many problems for Sikhs throughout the nation. Because men wear turbans for religious purposes, some members of the public incorrectly assume Sikhs to be the terrorists they associate with Islamic extremism. Many Sikh communities felt the ramifications of this misinformation and prejudice, and the New England Sikh Study Circle was no exception. On September 12, a member of the gurdwara was on a train from Massachusetts to Virginia when it was stopped in Rhode Island and he was arrested. Upon hearing this, four members from the sangat drove down that day to talk to officials and help them understand the true identity of the arrested man. They also wrote many letters to government officials to make them aware of these misdirected offenses. The arrested man was released later that night, but clearing him of the criminal record took almost a year and a half, during which many local organizations advocated on his behalf. Many of these organizations, such as The Sikh Coalition and Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), were formed as a response to the prejudices Sikhs experienced after 9/11. They have been defending the legal rights of Sikhs and educating the public about Sikhism ever since.
Located among the lush foliage of Westborough, Massachusetts, the Westborough Gurdwara is a large and expansive building with a scenic neighboring pond. The facilities are impressive, and the parking lot is adequate for the growing community. On the ground floor, there is a room in which attendees can leave their shoes, coat rooms, a hand washing area, a Sunday school, and the langar hall. The langar hall is lined with beautiful rugs and the kitchen is expansive to allow for communal cooking and event preparation. The second floor houses the worship hall, a hand washing area, and spare rooms to be used for weddings and other such occasions.
Attendees are of South Asian descent, primarily Punjabi. The Punjab is a region which encompasses eastern Pakistan and northern India. All age groups are represented, and most speak Punjabi. Weekly Sunday Diwan is attended by 300-400 people, and large holiday events draw around 700-800 Sikhs from across New England. Approximately 120 children are enrolled in Sunday school, and the number of families that attend services and events is constantly changing. The center draws attendees from a large radius, often hosting attendees regularly from New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and occasionally from Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine.
Activities and Schedule
Services are held every Friday from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm and every Sunday from 9:00 am to 1:30 pm. Sunday Diwan (worship) includes music provided by the children’s Kirtan group, followed by Raagi jathas, a musical group that performs sacred hymns during the service. English translations of these hymns are projected during the Sunday Diwan. The worship is followed by langar, a free community meal. Each week a group of families sign up to provide langar, and there is a core group of volunteers who help every Sunday. Sunday School classes run during the school year on Sundays from 10:30 am to 1pm in a variety of subjects: Punjabi (language), Sikh history, and traditional Sikh music. There are generally 4 different classes, each three periods long, with 15-20 students in each class. All children in the community are encouraged to enroll. There are three main holiday events: Baisakhi (Khalsa Creation Day), Guru Nanak’s Avtar Purab (birthday) and Guru Gobind Singh’s Avtar Purab. The Westborough gurdwara plans its celebrations for these holidays with the Guru Ram Das Ashram and Gurdwara, and also draw Sikhs from other sangats. The birthdays of the first and last bodily gurus, Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, are celebrated in November and January, respectively. The Vaisakhi Festival celebrates the “The Creation of Khalsa.” The khalsa (initiation) was created by the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, while Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak. Although it is traditionally celebrated on April 13th, the New England Sikh Study Circle chooses to celebrate it in May, when April showers will not prohibit the Jaloose (parade) from occurring. The distance is about 8 miles long and the Jaloose travels from one gurdwara to the other, swapping starting locations each year. The event brings many Sikhs together to celebrate their heritage, and government officials also attend, recognizing the importance of the holiday.
The New England Sikh Study Circle, Inc. is actively involved in informing its community about its religious identity. It holds educational programs at local schools to educate the children about Sikh identity and what Sikhs believe in. It also holds weekly seminars with law enforcers such as the police and airport security officials. It informs these officials of the initiation agreements of Sikhism, such as having unshorn hair which creates the need to wear a dastar (turban), and carrying a kirpan, a dagger of symbolic religious significance. It also explains proper ways for the officers to accommodate these religious observances while abiding by security guidelines.
The community often participates in interfaith events that are hosted by different organizations in the greater Boston area. Each year, representatives attend the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) annual Passover seder, and young community members are invited to the seder to perform traditional Sikh music. The gurdwara also has a strong relationship with the Old South Church, and often sends speakers to different places of worship by invitation. Seva (community service) is an important tenet in the tradition of Sikhism, and therefore it makes sure to partner with different service organizations in the community. Additionally, it is involved with the Refugee Immigration Ministry.
The sangat has a management council called the Gurdwara Council, consisting of two separate committees with a total eleven members. Each member in the council has one vote. The first committee which makes up the Gurdwara Council is the Council of Trustees. It has six members operating on a rotating schedule, where trustees serve three year terms and every year two new members take the place of two departing trustees. This Committee’s main role is to look into and plan for the long term goals of the community. The other governing body is the Executive Committee, which presides over the daily affairs of New England Gurdwara Sahib. It has five members, each of whom can serve for a maximum of two years and must take a year off before pursuing another position. This committee consists of a president, secretary, joint secretary, treasurer and youth representative. Each member gets one vote in all matters and is elected by the Nomination Committee. This Nomination Committee consists of seven people who serve three year terms. The Nominating Committee members have a minimum residency (community and gurdwara participation) requirement of ten years. The bulk of the leadership positions are occupied by men; however, there are some women who do hold leadership positions, and that number is steadily increasing.