It has been about a month since I embarked on the experience of a lifetime in Washington, DC with seventeen fellow twenty-somethings. Nearly three months into an intensive leadership program, the Maher Fellowship, our delegation spent five days in our nation’s capital to attend AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference.
What we didn’t know at the time was that we were traveling across the country to do more than just support Israel. We also sought a firsthand account of how we could advocate for ourselves and our families, as Iranian-American Jews. My fellow participants in the fourth iteration of the Maher Fellowship are almost exclusively first-generation Americans. Many of us face the struggle of balancing our heritage as Persians with our support for Israel as Jews; old country traditions with new land customs.
The triumvirate identity we carry as Iranian-American Jews is often contradictory and, at times, quite delicate. Since we first sought refuge in America following Iran’s Islamic Revolution, our community has faced suspicion from fellow Americans during the Iran Hostage Crisis, hostility from fellow Iranians who questioned our loyalties, and apprehension from fellow Jews who were perplexed by our lively family gatherings that often stretched into the wee hours of the morning.
So it came as no surprise that over the course of the past three months, our Cohort set out on a journey of identity, heritage, civic empowerment, and community advocacy. We found that the miraculous escape of our families from a brutal theocracy informed our gratitude for America’s representative democracy. We found that our diverse ethno-religious background provided us with the versatility to integrate into America’s social fabric. We found that our reverence for spirited debate, cultivated at the Shabbat dinner table, made us natural-born leaders who could make great contributions to America’s political process.
Week after week, the Maher Fellowship helped us realize the potential of our collective voice and the blessing that is our unique communal story. Our group drew strength from our ancient roots dating back to the Old Testament; a people who were violently shook out of place by political anomaly and religious madmen; a community that finally settled within the greatest experiment of self-governance in human history. With determination, we resolved to take ownership of our newfound voice, and to use it to make for a more vibrant, more engaged America.
Energized by the understanding of our community’s past, the fourth cohort of the Maher Fellowship thundered into DC carrying the mantle of our community’s future. From the White House to the Supreme Court and all the way to the Capitol, filled with boundless energy and an inquisitive spirit, my friends and I served as ambassadors for our people. We were applauded by rooms filled with hundreds of politicians and activists for sharing our nuanced perspectives. Strangers recognized us as members of 30 Years After and expressed their appreciation for our organization’s work. We hit Capitol Hill and enthusiastically petitioned members of our government.
At each turn, Cohort Four of the Maher Fellowship encountered everyday Americans who were uplifted by our sole fundamental desire: to cement our community’s place in this country and ensure that our voice will be heard and applied, for generations to come.
Michael Yadegaran is a civil litigator, living and practicing in Los Angeles. In addition to serving as a Maher Fellow, Michael is a founding board member of 30 Years After, and a Presidential Management Fellowship Finalist.