September 16, 2019

A Whole New Olami

Photo from the Impact Accelerator program. Photo from Olami

Surrounded by a seemingly endless sea of people, I sang in unison with all those around me as we chanted the lyrics to the song being performed onstage. Radiant smiles were on everyone’s faces as we danced to the beat with our hands in the air. I had never met the majority of those in the crowd, yet I felt like we all belonged there, and I was both energized and content.

No, I wasn’t at Coachella. I was at Israeli singer Yaakov Shwekey’s concert in Toledo, Spain, which I attended along with 750 other Jews. I was fortunate enough to participate in Olami’s first Impact Accelerator program, through which I joined young Jewish leaders and educators from more than 20  countries in collaborating on how to make an impact in the Jewish world on a global platform. The leadership program culminated in the weeklong Impact Forum in Spain (May 27-June 2).

I walked the streets of Toledo and learned about how the city was once home to one of Europe’s largest and most vibrant Jewish communities. In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, declaring that all Jews living in Spain (300,000 according to historians) must either convert to Christianity or be expelled from the country. The repercussions of the Edict of Expulsion still can be felt; there are fewer than 50,000 Jews residing in Spain today because the decree was not formally revoked until just over 50 years ago. During Shwekey’s private concert, he announced that the 750 of us was the largest gathering of Jews in Toledo since the expulsion more than 500 years ago, which still resonates with my family’s experiences.

My grandparents were forced to flee their hometown of Tehran on donkeys after Ayatollah Khomeini took power and had several prominent Jews in the country executed. This signaled to Iranian Jews that their time as first-class citizens with relative religious liberties had ended.

Although the Jewish expulsion from Spain occurred centuries ago, it resonates with my family’s experiences.

Although they experienced occasional anti-Semitism, they had lived happily under the Shah’s (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) rule and had never dreamed of having to leave their beloved country. There were 100,000 Jews in Iran just before the revolution in 1979, whereas only about 15,000 Jews remain today.

At Olami’s Impact Forum in Spain, the large dining hall resembled what I imagine a United Nations meeting place would look like. The tables were assigned by country, and I was able to befriend participants from Brazil to Belarus. I had breakfast with Argentina, lunch with Russia, and dinner with South Africa.

One topic that often came up was the Jewish community, or lack thereof, in their hometowns. Yaacov Amar, an ambassador of Centre Shoresh from a suburb of Paris, told me, “In Paris, Jews cannot express their Judaism publicly without being insulted or even assaulted. On the metro, a young man with a kippah will definitely receive at least a negative remark. Despite all of this, we are just as proud to be Jewish. To live through all these difficulties makes us stronger and more united.”

These experiences and discussions with my peers were priceless. I was able to connect to people from around the world simply because we were Jewish. The sense of camaraderie and belonging united us all. It brought to light a renewed appreciation for my strong Jewish community in Los Angeles.

It’s fitting that the program is named Olami, which means “my world” in Hebrew. What other nation could have brought together 750 people from more than 20 countries with the same history, values and traditions? As my fellow Olami leaders and I sang together, we realized that cultural barriers did not affect us because we felt so connected. Judaism was our universal language.

Daniella Cohan is an associate at a real estate private equity firm in Los Angeles and is a 30 Years After Maher Fellow.