December 18, 2018

Iranian, American, Jewish and beyond: A Maher Fellow of today

Some Maher Fellows from Cohort 3 pose for a picture outside the 30 Years After reception, at AIPAC Policy Conference

Two years ago in New York, I came across Viktor Frankls book The Will to Meaning. A rabbinical student at Yeshiva University highly recommended it. Early in the book Frankl argues against an expert in a given field, ex: biology, making exhaustive and exclusive claims about human beings. His main thrust is that we should not make generalizations, or categorical absolutes, with minimal or minimizing knowledge.” An idea that can emerge from his reading is viewing someone or something through different lenses. I tried to relate his reasoning to us, Iranian American Jews.

In a sense, this idea altered the way I view and relate to others and myself. We can use multiple frameworks and languages to speak to and from the world. Our complexities became apparent. We are not just Americans, or Iranians, or Jews. Being a Fellow and graduate of 30 YEARS AFTER’s Maher Fellowship propelled us, our cohort, to seriously examine our identities – something I had been looking to do for quite some time.

The Maher Fellowship is a six-month leadership training program for Iranian-American Jewish young professionals. It exposed us to a variety of Jewish leaders within the political, religious and civic landscape. I was excited ahead of every session, as Jewish communal life, both academically and professionally, is something I highly desire. It began with Birthright Israel and later cultivated during my years as an undergraduate at University of California, San Diego. It was further enhanced by a year of study in yeshiva in Jerusalem, to later completing a graduate degree in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University while also serving as the first Iranian rabbinic fellow at New York University. With this meaningful experience at hand, I was excited and highly curious to come back to Los Angeles. Though I was raised here, the San Fernando Valley to be exact, I was prepared to absorb and gradually understand the community with a fresh, yet experienced mind.  I was ready to apply my Jewish education while away, here.

One of the central benefits of the Maher Fellowship was meeting like-minded young professionals who were seeking a better understanding of themselves and how they can thereby better contribute to the larger community. Throughout the years, some have said that I am different. Just recently I was told by a Persian woman in Manhattan: “Are you sure you are a Persian from Los Angeles?” As to why these statements are made, including whether they are justified or not, merit a separate discussion. Nevertheless, a sense of skepticism accompanied me: How exactly would I fit in? However, the Fellowship reminded me of the underlying theme of some Jewish thinkers, and somewhat sacrosanct to spiritual orientations, of the potent quest for meaning and progress, as well as occasional surges of transcendence. Us Fellows explored just that. We were inquisitive, diverse, thoughtful and engaging. Despite demanding educational and professional schedules, we all made a conscious effort to maximize our commitment and progress as current, continuous and evolving Iranian-American Jewish leaders for our immediate community, and for the future of Jewish Los Angeles.

One transformative experience was our opportunity to attend AIPACs Policy Conference in March, as part of the greater 30 YEARS AFTER delegation – the only official young professional Iranian-American Jewish delegation there. For some, it was their first serious exposure to advocating for an Israel-America alliance, in conjunction with the larger Jewish communal landscape. Although it was not my first time at Policy Conference, it sure felt like it was: The excitement that accompanied and ensued from the meetings were palpable. Our willingness to engage and think critically demonstrated our collective interest and investment in politics, identity and Jewish people hood, despite our diversity.

Though all American Jews of Iranian descent, our Cohort’s diversity was astounding; socio-economically, professionally, religiously, politically and more. This welcome buffet of perspectives was the foundation of why the Maher Fellowship is unprecedented and vital for our generation. Even in the midst of robust discussions, we kept an open and thoughtful mind. Respect and Am Yisrael were central values as well. Ultimately, this is the bedrock of leadership. As the Fellowship continued, it was these pillars that were continuously echoed, whether by the political leaders, executives, entrepreneurs, rabbis, social workers or professors we engaged in constructive ways. Here I further realized the uniqueness of the Persian Jewish community.

Persian Jews have a rich history in Iran. The Persian King Cyrus, a.k.a. Kourosh, is referred to as the mashiach – the anointed one – in Jewish scripture. Even today, outside of Israel, the largest Jewish population in the Middle East resides in Iran. Yet, us Fellows, as part of all Iranian-Jews in the United States, have been looking to our future by building through the present without being oblivious to our past. We are a strong, ambitious, inquisitive, talented and capable lot. In the past, and at times even now, we channel that ambition in seeking advanced degrees, accumulating wealth and becoming an overall successful immigrant community. The time has come where children and grandchildren – our future – are seeking to build and to contribute to the broader community in more innovative ways: To take all of the blessings bestowed by the collective goodwill of previous generations, as well as our communal legacy, and to contribute as proud and involved citizens, and Jews. No doubt it is a gift to have 30 YEARS AFTER be a strong vision within that dream, and through its Maher Fellows who strive and make it reality.