Jason Youdeem doesn’t sell himself very well, citing, you know, “a typical Persian story”: that of a first-generation American whose immigrant parents left Iran and had to work doubly hard in the United States not only to rebuild their own lives, but to give their children better ones.
Yet, within that community paradigm, Youdeem, 28, has made some unconventional choices. While many of his peers have become lawyers, doctors and real estate owners, Youdeem went to work for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where he is currently the only person of Iranian descent working in the Los Angeles office.
“If all we do is keep to ourselves, then how can we write the second chapter of our immigration story?” Youdeem said.
For the past several years, Youdeem has focused his efforts on developing communal resources to help young Iranian-American Jews integrate into the leadership structures of the organized Jewish community. It’s not enough, he says, to contribute financial resources; Youdeem wants to see more Persian Jews on more Jewish boards.
“I’ve benefited a great deal from the institutions and community I’m a part of and I want others to have that opportunity as well,” Youdeem said. “And not only to participate, but to lead.”
As one of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ 2013 PresenTense fellows, he incubated the idea for a leadership development organization that would educate and train the next generation of Iranian-American Jewish leaders. A year later, he shepherded the first cohort of young Persian-Jewish leaders through the Maher Fellowship, which he founded with the backing of real estate businessman Oron Maher under the auspices of 30 Years After (Maher was featured as a Jewish Journal mensch in 2014). Designed for Iranian-American Jews ages 21 to 35, the nine-month program focuses on Israel advocacy, community leadership and public speaking, and includes a subsidized trip to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.
“I feel a real sense of responsibility to provide for others what has been so meaningful for me.”
Now a community staple, the Maher Fellowship is about to initiate its fifth cohort of leaders and boasts an alumni network of 74 people. Youdeem said Maher graduates have gone on to join 30 boards in the Los Angeles Jewish community and six have become Jewish communal professionals.
“The forces of American assimilation are very strong and the Persian-Jewish community is not immune to that,” Youdeem said, explaining why every area of his involvement is focused on the Jewish future.
“It sounds cliché,” he said, “but I feel a real sense of responsibility to provide for others what has been so meaningful for me.”
In addition to his work at AIPAC, where he trains young fellows to fundraise for the organization, Youdeem serves on the board of 30 Years After and sits on Federation’s Young Adult Engagement & Leadership Development Committee, which oversees Federation’s work with young adults. He also recently was accepted into the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s ROI Community, which connects young Jewish leaders from around the globe.
The other obvious through-line in his work is Israel advocacy, a passion born out of history and necessity.
“I can’t visit Iran,” Youdeem said. “I can’t see where my parents or grandparents grew up; I cannot visit my community. I cannot walk into their homes or touch their doors; I can’t smell the smells or walk on the streets. That part of my heritage, for now, is lost. But there is still a large part of my heritage and identity that is tied to Israel. My community really adopted Israel as our homeland.”