SOMERVILLE, Mass. It would be difficult to blame Jai Singh Khalsa's old classmates for having trouble recognizing their old friend at the Beachwood High School ten year reunion. But it wasn't likely the effects of age that stumped them, more likely it was the turban, long beard and a new foreign-sounding name that left them scratching their heads trying to remember the old Jewish kid they grew up with in the eastern suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.
Jai Singh Khalsa converted to Sikhism at age 20 after learning yoga.
"I heard a lot of 'Oh my God, oh my God,' when people recognized me," Khalsa, 53, said.
A convert to Sikhism in college, Khalsa, who now runs a Somerville architecture firm, made the dramatic lifestyle change after he became interested in yoga in high school. Today Khalsa is an active voice for Sikh advocacy and charitable efforts, balancing his religious work with the demanding schedule of his architectural firm, overseeing construction projects that have taken him to the depths of the Blue Line subway tunnel in Boston designing structures on Long Wharf to the pastoral confines of New Hampshire planning senior housing projects and in the process helped his firm establish itself as a pillar of Boston's architectural community.
Long before it became wildly popular in America, Khalsa learned Hatha and Kundalini styles of yoga and meditation taught by Sikhs in his community and converted to the religion when he was 20.
"For me, the experience of yoga and meditation were so interwoven with the religion that it was a natural decision," he said.
His parents were understanding of his conversion, he says, noting that his two brothers also strayed from their Jewish roots, with one converting to Buddhism and the other becoming a born-again Christian.
"It think their exact words were, "We're happy if you're happy," he said.
Sitting in the conference room of his architectural office today, Khalsa Design Inc., and surrounded by building renderings and blueprints, Khalsa looks every bit as distant from Beachwood as the 630 miles that separate the city from Somerville.
His firm now boasts 20 employees and usually juggles between 50 to 70 projects at a time. The firm has established a reputation for its work in the adaptive reuse of historic structures, converting many old mills, firehouses and churches into condominium and office space. Khalsa himself lives in an old Christian church in Newton, Mass. that his firm converted to condos.
He performed his undergraduate studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York before completing his graduate work at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, R.I. Today he has three children ranging in age from 10 to 24. His wife, Siri Ram Kaur, works as an executive at an international trading company and also publishes a Sikh magazine.
Khalsa remains actively involved in Sikh advocacy and charitable efforts. He works with the United Nations non-governmental organization 3HO, which promotes the teachings of Kundalini Yoga and also serves on the Sikh governing body, the Khalsa Council, while volunteering his services to Sikh Dharma of Massachusetts.
Eck Ong Kar Singh Khalsa of Millis, Mass. has known Jai Singh Khalsa since he was hired to direct a real estate development company Jai had created as a means of generating money to donate to Sikh charitable causes.
"Jai has a very sound basis for his architectural practice," he said. "He's very practical and designs buildings that can be designed at a very reasonable cost."
Khalsa is currently planning several high profile projects in the Greater Boston area. The company is also helping the town of Westwood, Mass. handle development proposals for Westwood Station, a huge new mixed-use retail, residential and office development planned around a commuter rail station. Other prominent projects include the Crystal Cove Marina, a six-building waterfront commercial and residential development in Winthrop, Mass. The company is also helping plan an Italian day care company's charge into the United States with a facility that will sit directly on the Rose Fitzgerald Greenway in downtown Boston.
Eck Khalsa says Jai brings the same tireless work ethic of his architectural practice to his charitable efforts in support of Sikhism.
"He's very involved," he says. "He's certainly a leader within the local community."
And Khalsa's dedication to Sikhism is apparent in the glowing terms of which he refers to the religion. "It's a complete form of life," Khalsa says, citing Sikhism's emphasis on healthy living. Sikhs are vegetarians, abstain from alcohol and tobacco, and generally practice two hours of yoga and meditation every morning. Sikhs are also encouraged to make charitable contributions and fight injustices.
But being a Sikh in the United States can come with its challenges. Sikhs have long struggled to promote greater awareness in their religion, battling discrimination related to their appearance. Khalsa admits the atmosphere was almost unbearable after the September 11 attacks.
"There were a few instances where people actually tried to run me off the road in my car," says Khalsa. "It got to the point where I'd have to have people at work walk me to my car every evening."
But Khalsa added: "All in all, it's been pretty good."