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LA’s Largest, Female-Led Nonprofit Is Jewish—and Is Doing Amazing Things for Israel

Maman, which means “mother” in Persian, became a registered nonprofit in 2022 and has over one thousand volunteers in the United States and Israel.
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December 7, 2023
Maman Nonprofit volunteers Sara Raoof Jacobs and Maya Sinai helped load Floyd Mayweather’s private jet with supplies for Israel on October 13. Photo courtesy of Menachem Kashanian

In my two decades of being involved with Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, I’ve seldom seen anything like it: No bureaucracy or red tape; until last week, not a single dollar for overhead (because there was previously no paid staff); and a near-instantaneous impact as a result of people simply getting things done. And did I mention it describes itself as the largest, all-female-led, nonprofit organization in Los Angeles?

I’m referring to Maman Nonprofit, founded by Sara Raoof Jacobs, an Iranian American Jewish woman who, with her family, escaped post-revolutionary Iran as an infant and resettled in Los Angeles. Maman, which means “mother” in Persian, became a registered nonprofit in 2022 and has over one thousand volunteers in the United States and Israel. But chances are you may have not heard of it. That’s because Maman does so much behind the scenes. 

Since Oct. 7, the organization has performed miraculous feats, especially for Israelis, whether soldiers or massacre survivors and displaced people — from sending over $700,000 in humanitarian aid funds and over two tons of supplies to Israel within two weeks after the massacre (it was all flown to Israel on boxing legend Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s private jet), to organizing the empty stroller installations in California and New York, including at UCLA and Cornell, which drew attention to the children who have been brutally kidnapped by Hamas.

Maman also worked with Nachman Rosenberg, a well-known expert on philanthropy in Israel who informed the organization about both civilian and soldiers’ immediate needs, including medical equipment. Maman leaders researched how to pack everything so it could bypass shipping headaches. “During the first major shipment, our supplies never sat in a warehouse,” Sara told me. “We were meticulous in how we packed, palletized and shipped things.” 

Yes, a group of mostly young, Iranian American Jewish women was able to organize shipments of medical equipment, such as tourniquets, as well as specifically-requested supplies for the IDF, within less than a week. And sending them on a boxing giant’s private jet was the icing on the cake, though, according to Sara, “It was all G-d.”

What is the secret to Maman’s imitable success in simply getting things done? It’s simple: Sara and other volunteers crowd-source from a pool of thousands of people who want to help in any way they can, and it’s all free. On various private WhatsApp groups, volunteers ask for everything, from finding someone who can immediately offer a ride for a senior citizen in L.A., to anyone who can offer specific supplies, such as cribs and toys, to an Israeli family who survived Oct. 7 and is temporarily displaced in L.A. 

The last time I checked one of Maman’s WhatsApp groups, Jewish Angelenos were volunteering to serve as unofficial tour guides for traumatized teens visiting L.A. from Israel, offering infant car seats to temporarily resettled Israeli families and sending hundreds of supplies to soldiers. A volunteer in Israel shared a video in which a dozen IDF soldiers emerged from a tank sporting protective camouflage gear. As they left the tank, all of them stood together, smiled and shouted, “Thank you, Maman!”

On Friday afternoons, volunteers coordinate driving Shabbat meals to Jewish families in need. As for Hanukkah, which begins this week, Maman volunteers are set to buy hundreds of gifts for local children, including children battling illness, as well as displaced Israeli children and teen survivors of October 7 who are in L.A. without their parents. Maman is also hosting a Hanukkah barbeque for Israeli survivors.

The organization is like the fairy (Jewish) grandmother most people wish they had. Only, there’s no magic. Sometimes, it seems like Maman Nonprofit is the answer for anyone who is moved to ask, “What can I do to help?”

“We think of ourselves as mothering the community,” Sara said, acknowledging that the name is a nod to her beloved late mother, Mahvash, a longtime nurse who passed away from cancer in 2004, when Sara was 23. “We step in as a mother would, whether with foster kids, special needs kids, and now, refugee families from Israel. When I think of the word, ‘Maman,’ it means having someone in your corner; someone who looks one step ahead, to see something you may not even know you need. We’re behind the scenes, making sure things happen.”

Before Oct. 7, Maman volunteers were particularly busy offering help to families dealing with illness. “It takes a toll on everyone,” said Sara. “We’re like a concierge service for the family and try to provide whatever they need.” In one instance, a local mother battling cancer was unable to drive her child to the eye doctor, so a Maman volunteer stepped up as a chauffeur. The organization has thrown bat mitzvah ceremonies for sick children, with everything donated. Maman also helps families with children battling illness address housing issues, moving expenses, finding a new home, and it has hosted countless swabs for children, including in Canada. 

To help two local children, Maman hosted swab events that drew over 5,000 people and resulted in over 40 bone marrow matches. “Forty lives were saved,” Sara said. “Forty people had a second chance at life.” The organization has also hosted platelet drives, especially for kids at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA).

Since Oct. 7, Maman has launched Maman 4 Israel, a new initiative. Melody Pirian, who is based in L.A., has been coordinating sending gear and life-saving equipment to IDF soldiers. And volunteers are working around the clock to secure immigration attorneys for displaced Israelis, working with landlords who may offer immediate housing, or identifying therapists who can work pro-bono with Israeli survivors, whether in the U.S. or Israel. 

Working in partnership with the Israeli nonprofit, AMEN: The Land Where Women Heal, Maman is providing trauma therapy to survivors of Kibbutz Be’eri who are currently living at various Dead Sea hotels. “We also make sure the therapists are being supported and have their own therapy, so they don’t burn out,” said Sara.

Maman’s ability to help nearly everyone would not be possible without the amazing kindness of the Jewish community. 

Maman’s ability to help nearly everyone would not be possible without the amazing kindness of the Jewish community. The organization has an advisory board, a board of directors, and a separate board for Israel. “I can’t imagine a larger female-led nonprofit, led entirely by volunteers, and I’m hearing from Israelis that the impact we’re making is much larger than we realized,” Sara said. “We’re setting a precedent.” 

On WhatsApp, various Maman-affiliated groups range from Maman Teen Survivors to Maman Displaced Families to Healing the Kibbutz. In November, Maman hosted a gala for several hundred attendees that raised over $350,000 and was sponsored by local philanthropists Alex and Arezou Tofer. “Maman actually delivers on their goals and promises,” Alex told me. “[And] it is operated by strong independent women who want to help others in need.” 

Sepi Makabi, one of Maman’s newest board members, told me that she has found “a sisterhood that shared similar values and was invested in unity.” Like Sara and Alex, Sepi also understands that the lack of red tape is one of the organization’s most important assets. 

Sara, who majored in psychology and minored in social welfare at UCLA, and who also teaches kabbalah, is the first to know that at Maman, there’s barely time for recognition and plaques, and that kind actions are their own reward. “If you realize that someone else is in pain, there’s a message for you; you undergo a transformation that is needed in you,” she said. “And Maman is 100% a labor of love, a platform that just allows you to give.” 

Naturally, I asked Sara how she and others find the time and bandwidth to volunteer so many hours to help people whom they will most likely never meet. “If I have the capacity and the blessings,” she responded, “why wouldn’t I pay it forward?” 

For more information, visit mamannonprofit.com


 

Tabby Refael is an award-winning writer, speaker and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on X/Twitter and Instagram @TabbyRefael 

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