If all you see is a hijab, a turban and a beard, you’re missing the doctor, the businessman and the rabbi underneath.
When Uzma Syed, Bobby Singh, Patricia Mitchell, Matthew Payamps and Anchelle Perl get up in the morning, what they put on their bodies is in large part determined by their faith. What you may not notice is the creativity, emotion and pride weaved in.
These Long Islanders can face misconceptions and in some cases prejudice. But in a time of political divisiveness and harsh rhetoric, faith unites them all.
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Within faith there's fashion and freedom
A layer for faith. A layer for fashion. A layer for work. That's how Dr. Uzma Syed gets dressed most days.
She’s an infectious-disease specialist who runs her own practice, so her lab coat is first to meet the eye. Underneath, she blends trendy and cultural fashion in her attire, plucking inspiration from her favorite style icons and influencers on Instagram. She’s drawn to name brands — Chanel, Kate Spade, Hermès.
The third layer is a long-sleeved shirt and stretchy leggings, and her head is wrapped in a scarf. This part of Syed’s ensemble is dictated by her religious beliefs.
Syed said that in Islamic scripture, “The thought is to conceal your beauty a little bit so you can be a little bit modest in your day-to-day living.” Hence, the covering of her hair with the scarf and the covering of her bare arms and legs.
Syed is Muslim. She said growing up in Syosset, she was raised with her parents’ Indian culture and religion blended into the day-to-day rituals of the Western world. The family used to attend the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury.
She said none of the female members of her family wore a hijab, the traditional head covering that some Muslim women wear to conceal their hair.
In August 2001, when she was 21 and right before she started medical school at the University of New England in Maine, Syed says she felt a need to get more in touch with her spirituality. She didn’t tell her now-husband, Faisal Zakaria, but she decided to start wearing the hijab.
“It was a very personal decision for me,” Syed said. When she put it on, they both said he almost didn’t recognize her.
Syed says she faced an “initial struggle” with wearing the hijab, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when her friends and family told her “to just take off the scarf.” She said they wondered why she would risk “putting a target” on herself.
“It was so emotional in the U.S. and in New York, and everybody was on edge,” she said. “But I have to tell you, the nicest people — my neighbors, everybody that was around me in Maine — would just come to me on a daily basis. ‘Do I need anything? Is anybody bothering me?’ They were always there for me.”
‘The second they see a woman in hijab, they already start formulating some thoughts in the back of their head.’ -Uzma Syed
Now 39 and back on Long Island, Syed is confident in her multifaceted identity. She says there isn’t just one thing that defines all of her.
“We all know that appearance means a lot because people will say don’t judge a book by its cover, but unfortunately the first thing that people see is the first idea they get in their mind,” she said.
“The second they see a woman in hijab, they already start formulating some thoughts in the back of their head.”
Syed said she confronted some of those misconceptions while campaigning for the Syosset school board earlier this year. But she saw the campaign as “another opportunity to educate [the community], for them to see that not every Muslim-American person is bad and you can’t judge everybody by one person.”
Syed also ran because her daughter, Noora, 14, started her first year of high school this fall, and her son, Aydin, 5, just began kindergarten.
She missed getting elected by five votes and says she is considering another run. Until then, most of her time is consumed by her practice, with offices in Syosset and Bay Shore. Since she’s not a surgeon and isn’t required to wear scrubs, she can express herself through fashion, trying different colors, textures and patterns underneath her lab coat.
Syed decided to start an Instagram account in 2014, dedicated to her daily wardrobe along with food and travel. At first, Syed set the account to private. But as she posted photos of her outfits, she realized how much she was connecting with her followers — currently at more than 600.
“People think you’re a doctor and you just go back and forth to work and that’s all your life is really, medicine and work,” she said. “Then you throw in the Muslim woman and the hijab and then there’s another layer that comes in and people assume that you’re this conservative, quiet, shy person who’s not into fashion or anything like that.
“So there were so many barriers that were being broken as people were seeing [my photos], and so many stereotypes that were being broken.”
‘I will, a lot of times, build my outfit around the scarf because it is a statement piece.’ -Uzma Syed
Her scarves are organized by color on two shelves in her bedroom. She has “at least 100” of them, she says — some cotton, some silk, some blends. Syed says hijab is an “extension of [her] clothing.”
“I have a huge closet full of clothing and hijabs because [of] how fashion-driven I am,” she said. “I will, a lot of times, build my outfit around the scarf because it is a statement piece.”
She added that misconceptions people have about hijabs are because they don’t know the meaning behind them.
“People often ask me, ‘Are you wearing a particular color because of a certain mood?’ When I was pregnant with my daughter, people asked me if I’m wearing pink or blue because I’m having a boy or a girl.
“You just get the funniest questions. And the simple answer is it really just has to do with your taste and your fashion sense, and I always have it matching my clothes. So that’s all it is.”
Syed says that even though she and Noora haven’t had the conversation yet, her daughter’s choice of whether to wear the hijab will be hers alone.
“It’s going to be a personal decision for her,” she said. “If she feels like that’s something she’s comfortable with, it’ll be her decision. When she’s ready.”
Jeans. Shirt. Turban.
As a teenager, two things happened to Bobby Singh that shaped the course of his life.
In eighth grade, his uncle put him in charge of a women’s footwear store in Hempstead, saying, “This is your store, you’re going to run it.” So in between classes and homework, Singh said he was in charge of hiring and training staff and changing the storefront display on a regular basis.
He said getting into business so early was “a blessing.”
“I’ve worked hard ever since, and I’ve kept the same routine.”
Then, when Singh was 14, his father helped him tie his turban for the first time. It’s part of a traditional Sikh ceremony for adolescent boys, called “dastar bandi.” The uniform look of the turban reinforces the Sikh belief that everyone is equal.
“Usually your uncle, your father, your brother, one of them will tie it for you,” he said. “And your ears hurt, I’ll tell you that. Your ears are very sensitive; they’re very soft, so when you’re putting fabric against it for the whole day, they tend to sore up.”
Singh said his ears stopped hurting after about a year. “They kind of get used to it,” he said, laughing.
Now, at 43, Singh is an executive, fluent in four languages and father of three daughters he described as “princesses.”
Business runs in his blood; Singh said his parents used to run a retail manufacturing company in New Delhi. When he was 11, they emigrated from India to the United States and all worked together for a couple of years at the Roosevelt Raceway Flea Market before it closed in 1995. He calls this his training period for what was to come.
Singh is the CEO of NY Tent Sale, based in Melville. The warehouse store specializes in athletic wear and sneakers, carrying brands such as Nike and Timberland. Singh says he usually works until midnight or later, except for nights he’s playing volleyball.
He’s also a board member at the Plainview Gurudwara, or Sikh temple, which he’s attended since he was 11. He volunteers there, cleaning the parking lot and washing dishes.
‘If you’re stranded anywhere, just look for a Sikh temple… You don’t have to pray, you don’t have to bow down, nothing.’ -Bobby Singh
There are two other Sikh temples on Long Island — in Glen Cove and Hicksville — that collectively serve more than 10,000 Sikhs, according to Mohinder Singh Taneja, a local Sikh leader.
“If you’re stranded anywhere, just look for a Sikh temple,” Singh said. “Just walk in and have a meal, end of story. There are no second questions. You don’t have to pray, you don’t have to bow down, nothing.”
“If you need money, if you’re stranded, ask for help and it will be given to you.”
Among the practices of Sikhism, Singh keeps five articles of faith with him at all times, sometimes referred to as the five Ks: kesh (uncut hair and beard), kangha (a small wooden comb to be used twice a day), kara (an iron bracelet), kachera (an undergarment) and kirpan (a small ceremonial knife).
Each item has particular significance. For instance, the kara serves as a reminder that “this is a hand of my Lord,” Singh said.
Singh provided an example: If someone is walking ahead of you and drops some money on the floor, “I’ll pick it up. The moment I pick it up, the first thing I see is my kara. The moment I see it, I remember this is not my hand, this is the hand of my prophet, my guru or my Lord. So I give it back. This keeps you honest.”
One of the most distinctive marks of a Sikh man is his turban. Singh says he keeps his wardrobe simple: “Jeans, shirt, turban.” And sneakers, of course.
Before heading into work every morning, he chooses one of his 50 turbans to wear. Usually out of the 20 or so colors available, he opts for a black one. Singh says people will ask him whether he sweats underneath the turban — he says he doesn’t, and calls it “airy.”
He’s also often asked if he’s Muslim. Although both Islam and Sikhism are monotheistic faiths, like Judaism and Christianity, there are many differences.
“The first visibility that you’re looking at is a piece of cloth on my head: a turban. You’re looking at a beard right away. And that gives you the immediate perception of who I’m going to be versus who I really am.”
‘[A Sikh man] will give his life before anything happens to you.’ -Bobby Singh
Putting preconceptions aside, Singh says that if you see a Sikh man walking on the street, “you can just start walking right behind him, because by second nature, he is going to protect you. Irrespective of who you are.”
A Sikh man “will give his life before anything happens to you,” he said. “And this is something that we practice, this is something that we teach our kids.”
“This is what I teach my [oldest] daughter every day, that no matter where you are, if you see your friends being oppressed, you have to just stand there like a shield.”
She didn't have a mid-life crisis, she had a mid-life calling
The Rev. Patricia Mitchell was in her early 40s when it happened.
She had a young daughter, Andrea, and was working part time at a therapeutic nursery school in Manhattan. She had worked for decades as a psychologist and parent educator in the mental health field.
“I realized that I was more and more involved in church and that it was taking over more and more of my life, and I liked it,” said Mitchell, now 68. “And then it became clear to me that I was being called to ordained ministry. So I shouldn’t say this, but I was annoyed.”
“I felt, well, if I’m called to be ordained, that means I have to disrupt my life and go to seminary. And how am I going to do that?”
Mitchell, who grew up in Grace Episcopal Church in Jamaica, Queens, said she “wrestled with that for a long time.” The only person she confided in about it was her priest. Eventually, she said, ”I stopped fighting it.” And off she went to Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.
During seminary, Mitchell said she worked in a predominantly white community — Greenwich, Connecticut — as part of her field placement. As an African-American woman, she called the experience “a revelation for a lot of people.”
“For a number of people in certain parts of the Episcopal church, it is a novelty just to see a black woman, much less what you do,” Mitchell said.
After she graduated and was ordained, Mitchell began work at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan. In several denominations, like Episcopalism, a clerical collar is a sign of ordained ministry. Even so, Mitchell said she would still sometimes get mistaken for a nun.
Those who didn’t know better would call her “Sister” and wouldn’t take her makeup and earrings into account, even though nuns typically don’t wear either.
“I guess they couldn’t figure out what else would a woman, maybe even a black woman, be doing with this thing on,” she said. “But most people sort of figure out what it is they’re looking at.”
‘I think there are people who take pride in the fact that there is a black female priest on the senior staff of the Bishop of Long Island.’ -The Rev. Canon Patricia Mitchell
Now, Mitchell is the canon for pastoral care at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City. She has been serving in the position for more than a year.
Mitchell said that when people find out that she’s on the bishop’s staff, “Then they’re really sort of taken aback. But it’s good for them to sort of have a little cognitive dissonance, like, ‘Oh, I have to think about this.’”
“Some people have never encountered a black female priest. So I think it’s important in terms of the position; I think there are people who take pride in the fact that there is a black female priest on the senior staff of the bishop of Long Island.”
A lot of Mitchell’s job as canon requires interpersonal skills — offering advice to clergy members, resolving conflicts between parishioners and simply lending a listening ear.
“When I read the position description, I felt it resonated with me. I had not expected anything like that to come along; I was ready for change. I realized that I really felt that that was where I was called to be.”
Being in ordained ministry for 16 years, her outfit is always “already decided for me in the morning.”
‘I wouldn’t say I’m fashion forward. So, fashion middle.’ -The Rev. Canon Patricia Mitchell
Mitchell wears clerical attire, which includes a black shirt and white collar — and on most days, she says she forgets that she’s even wearing a collar. On the weekends she dresses more casually in jeans and sweaters, but still “conservative, traditional, nothing flamboyant.”
Her favorite stores are Talbots and Chico’s. For clerical wear, she shops at CM Almy and Women Spirit, which cater to clergy and other church officials.
“I wouldn’t say I’m fashion forward. So, fashion middle,” she said with a laugh.
Mitchell says she’s still getting used to life on Long Island. She shares an apartment with a colleague in Mineola during the week, splitting her time with her home in Westchester County. Mitchell is still learning about Long Island and its Episcopal Diocese. “People have been very welcoming and really very lovely,” she said.
She still travels into Brooklyn and Manhattan whenever there’s a clergy member living there who needs her assistance. Mitchell does everything from visiting priests and deacons at hospitals to helping families plan funerals.
“Either going west, going east, depending upon where they were, and just checking up on them,” she said.
“Sometimes, and I know from my background in mental health, just being able to say, ‘I’m really struggling with so-and-so.’ They’re not necessarily even looking for a solution from you, and many times you don’t have the solution. But having some place where you can unburden yourself is very helpful.”
She added that the most rewarding part of her job is just being able to help others, particularly the church leaders. “Priests and deacons are people, too,” she said. “To whom do they go?”
'What you see is what I was born with'
At the Chabad of Mineola, Rabbi Anchelle Perl's long list of responsibilities include leading prayer services, tidying up the synagogue, organizing events and hosting an annual Chanukah Telethon. And this: He leads Narcan training sessions.
Perl, 64, believes a key part of his religious duties is to help those “who fall between the cracks.” He’s been visiting rehabilitation centers, hospitals and prisons for years, offering spiritual guidance to those struggling with drug addiction.
Perl, who has been leading his congregation since 1976, has felt close to this cause for a long time. Narcan, or naloxone, is a nasal spray that can be used to treat a known or suspected opioid overdose. He holds the trainings at the synagogue.
“It’s a very important thing to me — to help people who perhaps fall over the edge, and for us to be there to welcome them and to know they have someone they can turn to to make a difference,” he said.
“I’ve never lost faith in anyone, whoever they may be.”
Perl identifies as Hasidic, a subgroup of Orthodox Judaism that focuses on mysticism — in particular, achieving an authentic and direct relationship with God. Because of this characterization and its emphasis on personal happiness, Hasidism was considered revolutionary as a movement within Judaism during the 18th century.
Perl has lived in Mineola for more than 40 years. He and his wife, Bluma, raised eight children there. He grew up in a religious home in London. His father, a Holocaust survivor, always dressed “extremely modest” around the house. This would include formal, dark-colored clothing, and the tallit — or prayer shawl — on the Sabbath and holidays.
“A staple of Jewish life is modesty, so how we walk and how we interact with people speaks volumes of why we dress a certain way and how we present ourselves,” Perl said. “We’re all God’s children and therefore must live in a dignified, modest manner.”
‘I see it as kind of like a soldier. A soldier has to wear his uniform whether it’s hot, whether it’s cold.’ -Rabbi Anchelle Perl
Perl wears the same type of attire every day — “darker, more conservative-looking clothes” — including a suit and jacket and wide-brim hat over his yarmulke.
He sees the garments as “a reflection of humility.” He believes that as a person, “you have to be colorful. You have to be vivacious and caring in life about other people. It’s not about the clothes.”
As part of Orthodox Jewish observances, Perl is careful to never trim his facial hair: “What you see is what I was born with.”
“I see it as kind of like a soldier. A soldier has to wear his uniform whether it’s hot, whether it’s cold.”
He’s able to find common ground with people of different faiths through this self-expression. Between that and a shared belief in God, he’s able to easily relate to people of all religions.
“Each of us has a role, each of us has a mission, each of us were created by God, and if everybody looked like me or dressed like me, it would be a very boring world,” he said.
Perl says he’s “inspired” when he sees people of different affiliations and backgrounds coming together for a common cause. This feeling has been especially relevant to him lately.
Since the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, an anti-Semitic crime that claimed the lives of 11 people in October, Perl has been trying to bind members of his congregation even closer together, including making security improvements at the synagogue.
“In a time like this where there’s so much darkness, we must respond by increasing our light,” he said.
He’s carried this sentiment into the holiday season, encouraging his congregation to “think about the families in Pittsburgh who have lost family, or think about your own family you’ve lost — what gift were you planning to give if that person was with you?”
Since that loved one is no longer alive, Perl is asking his congregation to “now take that gift that you would give to a loved one and give it to some charity or someone next door, give that gift to someone else.”
Celebrating Hanukkah is difficult when faced with so much loss, Perl says. “We’ve learned to be silent. We even have a precedent in our Jewish history when Aaron the High Priest lost his sons and so he remained silent.”
But Perl thinks the best way to cope is by addressing that loss — reminiscing, sharing stories of the past and going forward with compassion. These were the themes he addressed in his first sermon after the Tree of Life tragedy.
“To respond by building, by moving forward, by really going to action and filling the void that was created on whatever level it may be — that’s how I approached it,” he said. “If one individual can create a havoc, then how much more so can an individual create positive energy?”
Sermons are perhaps the most important part of Perl’s job, and he sees them as an opportunity to connect with his community. For Perl, what makes a great sermon is “if a person walks away knowing that they can make a difference.” Sincerity is important, too — if the rabbi is into it, he says, the congregation will follow.
When he can, he tries to keep it light and upbeat — and he’s not above poking some fun at himself.
“One of the reasons why I have a long beard is in case my job doesn’t work out, I’m on standby for ‘Duck Dynasty.’”
Just have faith
Matthew Payamps is a nearly 6-foot cross-country champion runner and a singer in the advanced choir at St. Anthony's High School. But to get the full picture on who he is, just look at the little gold and silver pins on his blazer.
On the field, the 17-year-old is poised — he runs with confidence and carefully placed steps.
On the stage, he says he doesn’t get jitters — singing comes naturally, whether he’s performing at school or in his car.
At St. Anthony’s, a Roman Catholic college preparatory school in South Huntington, you can find Payamps dressed head to toe in a clean-cut ensemble. The mandatory uniform for the junior and senior boys: a white collared shirt, gold tie, black sweater vest, blazer, pants and black lace-up shoes. The girls wear similar white button-ups and dark blazers, but with gray skirts and tights.
What sets the students of St. Anthony’s apart from one another are their lapels — they can express individual interests through pins on their blazers. The pins can be from campus clubs or groups that they’re in, or they can bring in other buttons and badges to wear, as long as they’re appropriate for school.
Payamps has four pins on his blazer. The first represents his involvement in the campus ministry. The decision to attend St. Anthony’s was a very personal one for Payamps. He lives in West Hempstead and went through elementary and middle school in that district with his older brother, Alex.
Alex went on to attend West Hempstead High School, but Payamps said that after eighth grade, he wanted to pursue a different path.
‘I wanted to strengthen my faith. As a kid I was Catholic… but I didn’t really know too much about it.’ -Matthew Payamps
“I wanted to strengthen my faith,” he said. “As a kid, I was Catholic, and I guess that’s what I’ve been around mostly, but I didn’t really know too much about it."
Payamps’ father is from the Dominican Republic and his mother is from Paraguay. Growing up, they said a lot of prayers together in Spanish, he says.
“I thought coming to a Catholic school, I’ll be able to learn about it and experience different things that I probably wouldn’t have been able to at a public school.”
The second pin, a small winged foot, was given to him in middle school for being on the track team. He says at first he only took up running to stay in shape for baseball and basketball season. But then he fell in love with the rush and wound up running track full time.
“I feel like with running, as much as you put into it is as much as you’re going to get out of it,” he said. “If you’re going to train hard, you’re going to get results and I think that’s a great way to look at your sport and life as well.”
Payamps’ work has paid off — he’s one of the top runners on Long Island and is ranked 24th in the state as of November, according to speed ratings on tullyrunners.com, which provides information and analysis about New York State runners. He also recently won the Catholic High School Athletic Association intersectional cross-country championship.
“I couldn’t imagine representing another school on my chest,” Payamps said.
Another pin on his blazer and a point of pride for Payamps is the National Honor Society. As a senior with a 99.29 percent weighted GPA, he remembers the first day of his freshman year with a knowing grin — going from public to private school, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“During the homeroom prayer, I had no idea what was going on,” he remembered. “I heard Brother Vincent [on the loudspeaker] who actually does the prayer every morning… and I had no idea what to do.”
Now, Payamps welcomes incoming freshmen as part of a club called Friar Faithful. “That’s a big part of our faith,” he said, “being open to new people.”
‘I definitely think [my spirituality is] growing on me as I go along.’ -Matthew Payamps
The final pin on his blazer signifies the Gregorian Schola — St. Anthony’s advanced choir, made up of 60 juniors and seniors.
“I think a lot of people think that I’m a runner and they know me for that and they think, ‘Oh Matt, he runs,’” he said.
“But I think if people knew what I like to listen to or that my favorite artist is Michael Jackson… I don’t know, I think that’s a fun fact about me and what I like to do.”
Payamps, a tenor, says his favorite place to sing is his car. The roughly 45-minute drive from West Hempstead to South Huntington provides plenty of performance time. “I can just yelp out whenever and as loud as I want, so it’s fun,” he said.
Looking back, the commute was worth it for Payamps. “I definitely think [my spirituality is] growing on me as I go along — I guess as I went along through St. Anthony’s,” he said.
His next uniform will have “Georgetown University” across his chest. Payamps is looking forward to running track and learning more about the Catholic faith while attending the Jesuit college in Washington, D.C., next fall.
‘As time goes along you get used to it and realize: I go to St. Anthony’s, this is what I have to wear, and be proud of that.’ -Matthew Payamps
But every day until then, whether he’s at school or around his community in West Hempstead, he feels good with the man in the mirror.
“I don’t feel too different having my uniform on around other people in West Hempstead,” he said. “As a freshman, I think that maybe it might feel a little uncomfortable, but I think just as time goes along you get used to it and realize: I go to St. Anthony’s, this is what I have to wear, and be proud of that.”
Story by Rachel Weiss. Photographs and video by Tulika Bose.
Produced by Anahita Pardiwalla and Heather Doyle.