February 5, 2020
From left: Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Chair Albert Praw; Sharon Nazarian and her mother and evening honoree, Soraya Nazarian; L.A. Federation General Campaign Chair Orna Wolens; and L.A. Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson. Photo by Howard Pasamanick Photography

Two weeks ago, I attended an event alongside 800 fellow Jews, many of whom I knew personally to be either staunch Democrats or Republicans. 

After hearing various remarks and speeches, I was shocked: Not one person spoke a word of politics on stage all night. It was the best evening I’d spent since I had dinner with an inspiring Holocaust survivor who happened to love Persian food.  

I was at a gala hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles which presented its 2019 Jewish Community Lifetime Achievement Award to legendary philanthropists Younes and Soraya Nazarian.

Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Persian Jews, including many young professionals, came together to break bread, shmooze and, for many, meet for the first time to honor the manufacturing and tech entrepreneur and his wife. Yes, there were some non-Persians in the room for whom it would have taken a few tries to say mazal tov in Persian (Mobarak) but there were also hundreds who greeted the family matriarch in perfect Persian. 

In the past few years, American Jews have seemed more divided than ever, and the absence of unity has been as public as it’s been palpable. But that night, left-leaning Jews were seated next to Jews who had attended fundraisers for President Donald Trump; unaffiliated Jews talked about legacy and philanthropy with Orthodox Jews; elderly, Ashkenazi women passionately pulled young Persian men aside and lectured them about the imperative of starting a family; and Persian women in their 20s shook hands with Persians in their 80s.

Los Angeles is home to hundreds of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, and often, their events and galas, however meaningful, draw Jews from the same political and ideological circles.

I’ve rarely observed this about a local Jewish event I’ve attended since 2016, but that evening, the diversity and unity in the room was unmistakably visible.

I should have known that if anyone could bring together Jews, it would be the Nazarians and the Jewish Federation. Both are deeply invested in the Jewish community.

That’s when I got it: Jews are part of an inescapable family, in all that family means, including love, disappointment, conflict, healing and home. 

Speaking on behalf of her family, daughter Sharon Nazarian took a deep breath, scanned the crowd, and said, “Wow, there is a lot of love in this room. It’s a night of celebrating together; of two rich and diverse communities. This is a night that brings together all of our families.”

She recounted some of her parents’ contributions — ranging from building four libraries in Israel, including one at Sapir College in Sderot, to establishing Israel Studies at UCLA — that have distinguished them as prominent philanthropists. She then thanked everyone, from students in Israel to administrators at Cal State Northridge, where the Nazarians established the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts, for being “part of the Nazarian family.” She concluded by gesturing to everyone in the room and saying, “You are part of our family.”

That’s when I got it: Jews are part of an inescapable family, in all that family means, including love, disappointment, conflict, healing and home. Which is why even the world’s most unaffiliated Jew may find herself on a beach in Bali and chat with a fellow Jew who’s excited to have found another Member of the Tribe so far from home.

When real estate developer Sam Nazarian, Sharon’s brother, told attendees, “Tonight has to be about the things we agree on, not the 1 to 2% we don’t agree on,” the room burst into thunderous applause.

I think we’ve all had it with the division and destruction that politics has waged on our friendships and families over the past few years. We’ve forgotten that heads of state, whether in the U.S., Israel or elsewhere come and go, but perfectly imperfect family is forever.

It may take years before we unlearn the normalization of Jewish infighting, but at least for one wonderful night, we ate, talked and celebrated as one family.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker. 

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