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Sikhs celebrate an anniversary of 'healing'

While recalling 2012 tragedy, temple members find positive changes

The message on the back of the shirt worn by Jatinder Cheema (center) of Milwaukee recalls a tragedy loss, but Sikh Temple members also show signs of healing.

The message on the back of the shirt worn by Jatinder Cheema (center) of Milwaukee recalls a tragedy loss, but Sikh Temple members also show signs of healing. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Aug. 5, 2014

Oak Creek — In practice, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin may seem to operate as it always has on Sunday mornings. Men and women's heads are covered, shoes are removed, the Guru Grath holy book is read in its entirety, and a free community meal is shared in the kitchen.

But in attitude and emotion, the temple is continuing to heal since the shooting that killed six of its temple members, and injured others, on Aug. 5, 2012.

"Time is a great healer," said Jagjit Singh Kaleka, brother of Satwant Singh Kaleka, the former temple president who was killed that day. "Emotionally we get stronger every day."

An air of change

In the midst of healing, the temple — and its members — have evolved.

"The temple has changed a lot," said Kanwardeep Singh Kaleka, a Sunday school volunteer who grew up in the temple.

Satpal Kaleka, wife of the former temple president, Satwant Singh Kaleka, now serves as the temple's vice president.

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"This is the first time we've had female leadership in the temple," said Amardeep Kaleka, the youngest son of Satwant and Satpal. "She's been doing a great job helping guide the temple in the best direction. Maybe one day she'll run for president here."

Temple membership has also seen a spike. On a busy day, up to 400 people may attend a prayer service with others from non-Indian or Sikh households coming in and observing prayer.

Also since the shooting, the temple has rediscovered the importance of working with kids. A youth mentorship program now exists to help develop confidence among the younger generation of temple members.

Tied to traditions, too

There is also an increased desire to see Sikhism appropriately taught and understood.

The Sikhs are interested in building a $2 million tribute museum and education facility on the temple grounds. The facility would not only memorialize the six deceased victims, but also teach Sikhism and how it relates to other faiths, such as Islam and Hinduism.

Pardeep Kaleka said the museum would be separate from the temple for those who want to go and learn about the Sikh religion without the apprehension of entering a foreign worship space.

The museum and education facility would be financed with fundraising and is still in the infant stages as a development idea.

Family's lasting legacy

The Kaleka family founded the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in 2005.

Satwant Singh Kaleka had been serving as president of a temple in Bay View before he decided to rally support to open a larger Gurdwara in Oak Creek. The city was attractive to Kaleka because of its racial diversity.

Amardeep said his father founded the temple with "a lot of humility and not much money."

"There's community and public work, internal work. I think my father was the role model for that," he said.

The Kaleka family moved to the north side of Milwaukee from India in 1982 as tension mounted in its native land over the "Khalistan" separatist movement.

Despite economic challenges, Amardeep and Pardeep attended Marquette University. Amardeep became a teacher. Pardeep worked as a police officer.

Entering political realm

The family is also stepping beyond the bounds of church.

Amardeep Kaleka is currently running as a Democrat for Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District against Republican Paul Ryan. His brother, Pardeep Kaleka, is also committed to public service as executive director of Serve 2 Unite, an educational program in 10 Milwaukee Public Schools committed to teaching peace.

When asked if he and his brother ever expected to be social activists, Amardeep said: "I think my father would have said it was written on our hands already. My brother and I continuously channeled the service we learned at undergrad and put it to use in Milwaukee. I think my dad knew something like that was going to be in our future. It's a funny way of how your dad can impact you even when he's gone."

If elected, Amardeep Kaleka would be the second Congressman of Punjabi decent. The first was Dalip Singh Saund of the 29th District of California, from 1957 to 1963.

"I think this would change the way we think of politics in this area. It would behoove us to move away from party lines that are divided by race," he said.

Lessons for the future

While Pardeep Kaleka continues to serve the youth in public schools, his own children are learning new lessons.

Kaleka, his wife and kids all watched "Waking In Oak Creek" together on Monday. The PBS documentary followed the events of the temple shooting and aired on Milwaukee Public Television.

Kaleka said his son and daughter were only 4 and 6 years old when their grandfather was killed two years ago. He said he knew the day affected them because his son, who is now 6, cried while watching "Waking In Oak Creek."

"But by the end of the documentary, my son said 'Dad, it's a happy ending,'" said Kaleka. "Something had gotten into him that good had come out of it. That's what we talk about two, three or four years later. People's perspective will change. The more we shed light and look at all the good—that's how we remember."

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