Hoboken’s first Sikh mayor is on the front lines of fighting antisemitism

Growing up in a Sikh family, Ravi Singh Bhalla faced discrimination in his small town. Now he wants to make Hoboken a welcoming place for people of all faiths

When Ravi Bhalla moved to Hoboken, N.J., he was a recent law school graduate thinking he’d stay for a few years and save on rent by not living across the river in New York City. “I was a bachelor,” said Bhalla. “Hoboken checked all those boxes [for] a young, single person wanting to have access to Manhattan, but also being a Jersey boy like myself, wanting to stay in New Jersey.” 

Politics was not a consideration: “I found a nice space,” Bhalla recalled, “and, you know, at 25 years old, I didn’t know who the mayor was.” Now, more than two decades later, Bhalla is still in Hoboken — and running for his second term as the city’s mayor. 

Bhalla, a Democrat and the first Sikh to hold elected office in New Jersey, has made fighting discrimination a priority. “My first act as mayor, when I got sworn in on January 1, 2018, was to drive straight from my home to my office and sign an executive order declaring Hoboken a fair and welcoming community,” he told Jewish Insider in a recent Zoom call. Bhalla has cultivated close ties with the city’s Jewish community, including outreach in the aftermath of the 2018 mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and the more local shooting at a Jersey City kosher supermarket in 2019. 

“Such public statements and appearances at times of crisis are of course only one tiny part of the role of a mayor, but such gestures are deeply appreciated and help to set the tone for the city as a whole,” said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, the rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, who noted that he is grateful for Bhalla’s “very warm and understanding relationship with our Jewish community.”

Bhalla, who wears a turban, is easily identifiable as Sikh, making him a target for religious discrimination. “There were flyers a few days before I was elected that said, ‘Don’t let terrorists take over this town,’ trying to equate my appearance with terrorism,” Bhalla said. “I always teach my children to have pride in who they are, including their outward appearance. To equate our religious faith with that word was so offensive.”

Growing up in a majority white town, “I probably had the darkest complexion of anyone in my school,” Bhalla stated. “I was called the N-word on a regular basis, because these kids had never seen anyone who wasn’t just white.” 

Early in his career as an attorney, Bhalla, 47, won a very personal — and very public — victory for religious liberty: When visiting an incarcerated client, prison guards demanded that he remove his turban for a search, even though he had not set off the metal detector. He then brought a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons for violating his civil rights. Soon after, the Bureau changed its policy: Religious garments would not be included in guards’ routine searches of personal objects unless the person wearing them set off the metal detector. 

“To a Sikh, removing his turban in public is the same as a strip-search and as intrusive as asking a woman to remove her blouse,” Bhalla told The New York Times in 2003. The court ruling also clarified that yarmulkes and prayer shawls would not be subject to heightened security procedures. 

Bhalla admits that being proud of his Sikh identity was not always an obvious conclusion for him, after a childhood in which he often felt like an outsider. “That accumulation of experiences, it can only go two ways,” Bhalla explained. “People could be ashamed of who they are. They could want to really assimilate, be like everyone else. Or the other outcome is that it can build your character and make you realize the importance of your identity — and be a positive thing.”

The child of Indian immigrants, he grew up in Montville Township in New Jersey’s Morris County. They were the only Sikh family in the area, and Bhalla knew that made them different. But they never hid their identity.

Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla (Courtesy)

Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla (Courtesy)

When his father arrived in the U.S. for graduate studies at Penn State University, “the person he was with said, ‘Before you go on campus, we have to stop at the barber shop, so you can remove your beard and your turban and really assimilate with the other kids on campus,’” Bhalla noted. “That’s not the America he thought he was coming to. He thought he was coming to a country where articles of faith would be respected, not frowned upon, and that there was not a need to make a choice between your faith and your ability to achieve the American dream.” 

Growing up in a majority white town, “I probably had the darkest complexion of anyone in my school,” Bhalla stated. “I was called the N-word on a regular basis, because these kids had never seen anyone who wasn’t just white.” 

Bhalla’s parents taught him and his brother that they should not accept such treatment. His mother, he said, “gave me license, if anyone would touch my articles of faith, to physically defend myself.” One time at school he got in trouble for a “scuffle” with another kid who touched his hair, and when the teacher told Bhalla’s mother about the incident, she defended him. “My mother explained that, ‘I gave him full permission to defend himself, because it’s really to protect what we deem sacred in our faith community,’” Bhalla recalled.

“That really gave me a more heightened connection to not just the plight of my faith community, but really, to anyone who’s treated unjustly for any reason at all,” Bhalla said. “That’s informed some of my public service as well — sensitivity towards the diversity of our community.”

“When you look at the Second Temple, the Western Wall, that area has the convergence of three major world faiths that have historical significance. That one area for me was very interesting, especially not being from any of those three faiths,” Bhalla observed. “I really almost got to see how these major world faiths got to interact with each other, from an outsider’s perspective, from not being from any of those faiths.”

Attending college at the University of California, Berkeley was the first time Bhalla found a real Sikh community. “There were not many, but there were enough people for my faith community to form a student organization,” which advocated for Punjabi language classes to be taught at the university, said Bhalla. 

His studies continued to take him far from New Jersey, including a master’s program at the London School of Economics and law school at Tulane University, which had a law-focused study abroad program. “One of them was in Israel, that gave students the opportunity to study comparative American and Israeli law,” said Bhalla. He was also drawn to the country as a religious person — but one whose religion was not one of the three monotheistic faiths represented in Jerusalem. 

“When you look at the Second Temple, the Western Wall, that area has the convergence of three major world faiths that have historical significance. That one area for me was very interesting, especially not being from any of those three faiths,” Bhalla observed. “I really almost got to see how these major world faiths got to interact with each other, from an outsider’s perspective, from not being from any of those faiths. That generated my interest in studying in Jerusalem.”

The experience left a strong impression on him. “Israel is just an amazing country, and the residents of Israel are extraordinarily resilient people,” Bhalla said. “It’s a tough environment in which the State of Israel operates, and that must, or at least as I observe it, that likely creates some form of strength and resilience.” 

He carried an interest in politics with him as Hoboken became his home and he started a family. When his law firm represented a city council member in a municipal matter, Bhalla began to realize that the issues that most affected him and his family were not big controversial topics being discussed at the national level, but more local-level policy issues like zoning, density and land use. 

“I realized that the decisions that impact you most are made by people at the ground level, that all politics is local,” Bhalla said. “I started to hone in not so much on trying to wrap my head around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, which I thought I could maybe solve. I was an utter failure in that ambition,” he joked. 

So Bhalla decided to run for a seat on the Hoboken City Council: “I realized that there was so much ineptitude and incompetence and patronage cronyism, and so much corruption, and that it was actually impacting my property taxes and my quality of life,” he explained. “By that time I was married, I had a young child, and thought that it was time to get off the sidelines and try and make a difference by running for elected office.”

He was elected to the council in 2009, a role he held until he won the 2017 mayoral race. 

Steven Fulop, the Democratic mayor of nearby Jersey City, told JI that he and Bhalla first connected when they ran for their respective city councils, each of them taking on entrenched interests in the region. “I ran an anti-establishment campaign, outside of the political machine in Hudson County particularly in Jersey City, and he was doing the same thing in Hoboken,” said Fulop. “I think Ravi does a terrific job, and he has a very diverse city over there and a lot of different interests. He’s a great ambassador for Hudson County and New Jersey.”

The issues Bhalla dealt with on the council were “very localized issues. We had a hospital that was in distress, and we had to create an economic turnaround,” he said, and “getting our finances in order was very important.” Now, he remarked, Hoboken is a popular place to live, particularly for people who want to be near Manhattan without the price tag — the same reason he first moved there. “At one point in time, nobody wanted to have anything to do with Hoboken. It was a very industrial, downtrodden city. With time, we have the opposite problem. Now, everyone wants to develop and grow Hoboken, but we’re only one square mile,” he pointed out. Keeping urban growth at manageable levels has been a goal, as well as making the city a place where people will want to settle and start families. 

Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla at an Earth Day event. (Courtesy)

Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla at an Earth Day event. (Courtesy)

Bhalla has also tried to be mindful of the city’s diverse communities, including the Jewish community. Last year, he signed onto a campaign run by the American Jewish Committee and the U.S. Conference of Mayors called Mayors United Against Antisemitism. 

“He was literally one of the first mayors in New Jersey to jump on board and he did it without hesitation,” said David Levy, regional director of AJC New Jersey. “It wasn’t even, ‘Can we talk about this, or what’s this all about?’ He read the statements and said ‘I’m on board. I’m there,’ and he signed up right away. And that was just really heartening.” The Anti-Defamation League reported that New Jersey saw a 73% increase in antisemitic incidents from 2018 to 2019. 

The campaign now has more than 620 mayors from 49 states and Washington, D.C. “Being that he’s from another religious minority, he understands the special needs of the minority populations in a diverse community like that,” said Levy. 

Bhalla has gotten to know the local Jewish community, meeting with members to celebrate holidays like Hanukkah and to confront challenges like antisemitism. His daughter attended a Jewish preschool in the city, and he has met with her classmates’ parents “that are just afraid about a replication of some sort of a massacre here in Hoboken,” he noted.  

“Antisemitism is something that takes all forms,” he explained, “from seemingly innocuous things like verbal exchanges or remarks off the cuff, so to speak, where people might be engaging in unconscious bias, to some of the more obviously egregious forms of antisemitism — whether it’s bias-based criminal mischief through swastikas at synagogues, to, unfortunately, gun violence against the Jewish community.”

After the December 2019 shooting targeting a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, Hoboken sent police officers to help assist as first responders. Bhalla also met with Jewish leaders in the wake of the attack. “The community in Hoboken was, understandably, very afraid. We had to have heightened security patrols” at area synagogues, he said. “We had a community meeting with the Jewish community, and both the police chief as well as myself addressed the congregation, just to let them know that we have your back.”

Following the shooting, Bhalla signed up to participate in an AJC trip to Israel that connected U.S. mayors with their Israeli counterparts. But the trip was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, which Bhalla says has been the biggest challenge of his time in office. “When we only had one case of COVID, in mid-March [of 2020], I was the first mayor in the country to shut down bars and restaurants,” Bhalla told JI. 

“I was highly advised against it by people who are not political, but who cared about me, who said that, ‘You’re doing something that is political suicide.’ And my response to that was that my job is to protect the public,” Bhalla noted. “If this actually can save one life, but end my political career, it’s worth it.”

Luckily for Bhalla, the rest of the country soon followed his lead. “I think Hoboken probably is the model we all need to move towards now,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said at the time. 

Bhalla is up for reelection in November, but he doesn’t currently have any challengers. He is touting his leadership during the pandemic as a model of his successful leadership.

“Whenever we have a blizzard, there’s always a playbook or a handbook — the snow emergency plan, for example,” Bhalla noted. “There’s no playbook for this pandemic.”

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