Ishar Singh Bindra was 16 when his family decided that, in a few years, he would marry a girl in his village in India who was then just 12.

During their engagement they were not allowed to speak to each other, even when they crossed paths.

It was the beginning of a journey that led to Long Island and financial triumph - and an effort to promote interfaith understanding rooted in Bindra's own Sikh faith.

After 70 years of marriage, and 30 years after arriving in the U.S., the 89-year-old Bindra, along with some of his sons, has built a small import/export clothing empire - a business that started in a flea market in Commack after he was unable to land a job as an engineer.

He and his sons have done well enough to donate $1 million to Hofstra University to create a major international interfaith prize as well as one of the few endowed chairs in Sikh studies in the country.

Last night the $50,000 Guru Nanak Interfaith Prize, handed out every two years and named after the founder of Sikhism, was presented at Hofstra during a gala dinner.

The Bindras say their goal in all this is to give the world a better understanding of their sometimes maligned Sikh faith, the fifth largest religion in the world and characterized by the kind of turbans worn by men.

"We've done a very bad job communicating," said T.J. Bindra, one of Bindra's sons active in the business and philanthropy. "People do not know who we are. You see the turban and people become judgmental."

He added that the problem was particularly severe after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, even though none of the accused attackers were Sikhs.

The interfaith prize was awarded Monday night to Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Manhattan-based Appeal for Conscience Foundation, and Religions for Peace, a worldwide multireligious organization also based in Manhattan. The winner in 2008 was the 14th Dalai Lama, who received the award at the Waldorf Astoria from the Bindras and Hofstra officials.

Monday at the parents' home in Brookville, the family patriarch shook his head in amazement at the path his life has taken. He has a hard time hearing and his voice is raspy, yet he said he still reports to a small office in Jericho each day. The import/export business's main office is in Manhattan's Garment District.

T.J. Bindra said it was hard for his father to land a job when he came to America at the age of 59 even though he was a trained engineer, and so he and some of his sons opened booths in the flea market in Commack. They succeeded in part by renting out a large number of booths, laying down carpet, and installing changing rooms so people could try on clothes.

Today, their business has about 30 employees and does between $25 million and $50 million a year in sales. A decade ago, they decided to share some of their wealth with Hofstra by creating the Sardarni Kuljit Bindra Chair in Sikh Studies, named after Ishar Bindra's wife. Then came the interfaith peace prize.

The family says they want people to know that Sikhism teaches that all religions should be respected, and that theirs has some 23 million adherents worldwide, including as many as 35,000 on Long Island.

They hope to build bridges in a region where knowledge of Sikhism can be scant. "When you see someone who looks different, do not be judgmental. Find out more," T.J. Bindra said. "If people understand each other, it does make a difference."


A prize and curriculum rooted in faith

The Sardarni Kuljit Bindra Chair in Sikh Studies was established in 2000 with a donation from the Bindra family to promote the study of Sikh religion, culture and history. It pays for a faculty member to teach Sikh Studies, helps purchase library books on Sikhism, provides scholarships for students who study Sikh religion and culture, and sponsors conferences and lectures.

The Guru Nanak Interfaith Prize is a $50,000 award given biennially to an individual or organization that "has demonstrated leadership and courage in the promotion of religious tolerance and understanding," according to Hofstra University. Nominations are solicited worldwide, and a panel of judges composed of religious leaders and academics chooses the winner. The award is named for Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

- BART JONES

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