On April 7, the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island welcomed Pardeep Singh Kaleka and Arno Michaelis for an evening of conversation around a crucial question: Why do we hate?
Over 50 participants from across Rhode Island gathered at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center in Providence to hear Kaleka and Michaelis, who are uniquely prepared to address this question.
As a child, Kaleka, his parents and brother emigrated from Punjab, India, and made a home in Milwaukee, the same city in Wisconsin where Michaelis grew up.
In 2012, the two were brought together by a tragedy. On April 5, 2012, Wade Michael Page, an avowed white supremacist and a member of Hammerskin Nation, shot and killed seven people at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.
Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was the president and a founding member of the temple and was among Page’s victims.
At the time, Michaelis was two years out of the same hate group that Page belonged to – he had left extremism behind and had co-founded Life After Hate, an organization dedicated to helping people leave the violent far-right, connect with humanity, and lead compassionate lives. However, as he put it, the mass shooting at the temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was almost a second experience of the same rock-bottom feeling that had compelled him to leave extremism behind.
“[The shooting] really brought my dedication up to the next level, and drove home the crucial nature of the work,” Michaelis said.
To call Kaleka and Michaelis an unlikely pair is an understatement, but only at the most superficial level. When they first met, at a Thai restaurant in the fall of 2012, they quickly pushed past initial impressions and reservations to get to the heart of what they both cared about: transforming the legacy of hate that extremism had created in their community and beyond.
Ten years later, they both approach the insidiousness of hate with unflinching authenticity, and rely on each other in every aspect of their work. Kaleka and Michaelis now work with Parents For Peace, encouraging outward-facing acts of service and community-building for youths struggling with their attraction to hate. They call this initiative Serve 2 Unite.
“Serve 2 Unite was born … days after the shooting happened,” Kaleka said. “It called on all of us to ask ourselves: What is going to define what just happened here? Is it going to be hate? Is it going to be the attacker? Or is it going to be the community who rises up and addresses that?
“Serve 2 Unite was formed with that intention: to make sure that we, the loving community, were going to define the response.”
After some time educating the community about Sikhism and engaging the youth in the temple, Kaleka took time to reflect, and realized the route the organization needed to take: “We saw what was missing was really the need for us to commit ourselves to service.”
Michaelis agreed, and immediately became involved.
“Serve 2 Unite is the perfect answer to violent extremist narratives, both in a prevention sense and in an intervention sense,” Michaelis said. “Working with all these people and talking to ‘formers’ from every violent extremist background you can imagine, it becomes really apparent that there are basic human needs that violent extremist ideologies prey upon.
“People who don’t have healthy answers are really vulnerable to being swept up in violent extremist ideologies that provide very seductive, exciting, but extremely toxic answers to those needs.”
That’s where service work comes in.
“When young people, or people of any age, get together, and they roll up their sleeves, and they do physical work to improve their community, it answers those same needs in a very healthy way. If you can introduce people to service and teach them the self-value that you gain from serving other people, that helps them move forward.”
To hear more from Michaelis and Kaleka, tune in to their “Breakout Sessions” interview at jewishrhody.org/podcasts/.
Their book, “The Gift of Our Wounds” (St. Martin’s Press, 2018), can be purchased online and in stores. For more information on their work, go to giftofourwounds.com.
EMMA NEWBERY (email@example.com) produces podcasts for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. She also writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.