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Prince of Persians

How an Ashkenazi Rabbi Is Fighting Assimilation Among Persian Jews by Spreading Jewish Joy
[additional-authors]
June 6, 2024

As he has done for the past 12 years, Rabbi Yitz Jacobs is currently preparing for an all-night Shavuot “Learn-a-Thon” at Morry’s Fireplace on Pico Boulevard that will feature seven speakers and, as usual, attract a large number of young Persian Jews, some of whom have never participated in all-night learning.

Last year, Jacobs led an 11 p.m. class titled, “Let’s Get Chai on Life,” which highlighted his well-known positive approach to Judaism and Jewish joy. Getting “chai“ on life has been Jacobs’s motto in his outreach efforts. And one can see it in full bloom when he officiates at weddings. 

Rabbi Yitz Jacobs

On more than one occasion, he has raced to a local hotel to officiate the wedding of two Iranian American Jews in their late 20s. It is often a relaxed Sunday afternoon, but Los Angeles traffic still proves maddening. Once, when a freeway was shut down, Jacobs arrived at 6 p.m. to a wedding that, as per the invitations, was set to begin at 5:30 p.m. To his relief, he scanned the hotel lobby and realized he was early. 

Hours later, when Jacobs had concluded officiating a moving (and deeply musical) chuppah ceremony between a young man and woman whom he had lovingly taught and mentored for years, dozens of Iranian Jews embraced him as they rushed to the chuppah platform in an overjoyed chorus of Middle Eastern ululation. 

It was a larger-than-life sound that once again reminded Jacobs that his ancestors may have hailed from Russia and Poland, but as far as many in the community were concerned, in many ways, Yitz Jacobs, the fair-skinned, Ashkenazi rabbi from New York, had become the Prince of Persians. 

“I think Persian Jews are the best young people in L.A.,” said Jacobs, who, before moving to Los Angeles in 2003, had never met a Persian Jew. Since then, he has taught and mentored thousands of students and young professionals in the Iranian American Jewish community. 

Tradition is Not Enough

Jacobs was raised in a Reform home in Long Island. After completing his studies at Cornell University with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Master’s in Public Administration, he was law school-bound, until he took advantage of a subsidized trip to Israel through Aish HaTorah. 

Jacobs decided to defer University of Virginia law school for one year to learn at the Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem, validated by the words of his law school dean, a non-Jew, who had enthusiastically informed him that those who had studied at yeshivas were his best students. 

Jacobs loved learning in a yeshiva and discovered that he was not as disconnected from Judaism as he had previously believed. “I started to understand I had a Jewish filter, and as I was looking through life, I was collecting the Jewish ideas and discarding non-Jewish ideas,” he told The Journal in a January 2023 profile. “I didn’t even know I was doing it.” Jacobs deferred law school for another two years before finally deciding to pursue a rabbinical career.

At yeshiva, he was thrilled to learn with Dr. Gerald Schroeder, who taught a class on reconciling Judaism and science. He also participated in Aish’s unique Discovery seminar, a hands-on learning program which shook him to the core and left him more confident than ever that the Torah possessed ultimate truth. 

In 2002, after six years in Israel, Jacobs became ordained as a rabbi through Aish and moved to Los Angeles. I first met him in 2005, when I was a recent college graduate and desperate to reexperience Jewish community after having been involved in Hillel and campus pro-Israel activity for four years. Nearly a decade later, in 2014, Jacobs married me and my husband in a thoroughly Persian-Jewish ceremony.

After initially meeting Jacobs, I began attending Shabbat morning services at Aish HaTorah on Pico Boulevard and was amazed to witness how easily I and many other young Iranian American Jews connected with him. 

Jacobs possessed an innate understanding of our challenges as young Jews from a traditional community who nevertheless often lacked formal Jewish education, and who struggled to respond to parents who were concerned that Jewish growth, including practices of keeping the laws of Shabbat and fully kosher, would damage precious familial ties. 

“One [Persian] parent whom I was very close to confided ‘a guilty secret,’” Jacobs said. “She said, ‘In some ways, my husband and I would prefer that our children marry a non-Jew than a religious Jew.’ When I asked ‘Why?’ she said, ‘Because at least they’ll drive wherever we want them to on Friday night, and they’ll eat whatever we put on their plate.’ I almost had a heart attack,” Jacobs said with the contagious laugh that many young Jews in L.A. have come to associate with warmth and candor.

Many Persian Jews practice a “tradition is enough” approach to Judaism, a now proven short-sighted approach by a 2,700-year-old ancient community that could have never imagined that it would be uprooted from a Shiite Muslim country where it had remained a persecuted minority, and replanted in the assimilationist universe of the West. 

“Nothing can overcome Jewish wisdom, but you must access it through Torah study,” said Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director of Aish L.A. “There is no substitute. You are the cake. The Torah is the recipe book. Don’t you want to know what you are made of and what your purpose is, from God Himself?”

A Focus on Outreach

At Aish Los Angeles, Jacobs has led programs that have touched the lives of thousands of young professionals. For various reasons, most of those participants have been Iranian American Jews. 

Perhaps it has helped that MyAish L.A. and its intimate space for young professionals, Morry’s Fireplace, are located in the heart of Pico-Robertson, close to areas such as Westwood and Beverly Hills. But it has been Jacobs’ warm, approachable personality, coupled with his contagious Jewish joy and rational approach to Jewish learning and growth, that has attracted thousands of young Jews over the past nearly 20 years. 

There is an inimitable sense of connection between MyAish young professionals that is forged as a result of shared challenges and shared future goals. Those goals are particularly focused on Jewish religious growth that is never forced, and always open to questions and push-back. 

Sometimes, the memories my cohort and I created through Aish and Jacobs lasted years, such as the unforgettable Big Bear Shabbaton in February 2010, when the catering van that was en route to deliver Shabbat meals to our cabins was delayed on the windy mountain and our only source of nourishment were our siddurim (Jewish prayer books) and a crate of Adan Y Eva tequila bottles. 

As my young, joyful male friends carried Jacobs on their shoulders and sang, “Rabbi J,” as we lovingly called him, laughed his trademark laugh and happily joined in one (or two) hearty “L’Chaims!” until the food finally arrived. Lifelong bonds were  solidified during such trips. 

One of the most important reasons why Jacobs initially resonated with so many young Persian Jews was that, at the time, many of them needed a Jewish spiritual leader who could better understood their experience within the American culture. 

Aish also offered young Persian Jews the warmth of home hospitality, whether at the Jacobs’ home (Rebbetzin Chavi Jacobs is also a fixture among the community) or at the Shabbat and Yom Tov tables of other kind families who often hosted young professionals. 

“Tuesdays at Morry’s”

Jacobs is the first to admit that the success of countless classes, one-on-one learning, Shabbatons, international trips, and much more would not have been possible without the dedication of MyAish Program Director Dalia Partouche, who began working with Aish as a UCLA sophomore in 2006, serving as the Aish Sephardic Campus Director. In 2009, after her graduation and seminary study in Israel, Jacobs hired Partouche as the Young Professionals Program Director for Aish. 

Over a decade ago, Jacobs and Partouche launched a new division of Aish (originally called Aish Kodesh) with like-minded young Jewish leaders. “Everything took off so effortlessly and beyond anyone’s expectations,” Partouche said. “Within a short time, 150 people a week started coming to hear Rabbi Jacobs at his ‘Tuesday at Morry’s’ class.” 

Partouche believes that since 2007, the programming has brought tens of thousands of Jews closer to Judaism through inspiring classes (including relationship classes), retreats, social gatherings, community events, trips to Israel, Europe and South America, couples’ programs, one-on-one mentoring and more. 

The fact that both Jacobs and Partouche were raised in nonreligious backgrounds enables them to relate on an even stronger level with those who express curiosity over religious growth. “We both understood the process that comes along with one’s growth in Jewish observance and the setbacks and challenges that can sometimes arise from one’s family and community,” Partouche said. 

Unprecedented Challenges

Fifteen years ago, in his early years of officiating Persian Jewish weddings, Jacobs seldom had to rush to Saturday night ceremonies that began during Shabbat, and which he would not officiate until Shabbat had ended; he seldom had to ask the happy couple whether the food at the wedding would be certified kosher, because that was also a given. 

And he practically never had to ask a groom-to-be if his fiancée was Jewish, or had converted through an Orthodox conversion if she was not born Jewish. But there have been many communal changes in the last two decades, as Iranian American Jews have undergone a quiet assimilation into secular American society that most in the community have now been forced to acknowledge. 

Yet Jacobs, an Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbi with his thumb on the pulse of Los Angeles Persian Jewish life, recognized and more importantly, responded to the dangers of assimilation in a once-traditional community that has embraced him as its own. Now, he is working against the clock to remind Persian Jews why the Torah Judaism of their ancient community is deeply precious and worth maintaining.  

The sole person among his siblings to have married a Jew, Jacobs is worriedly connecting the dots between Persian Jews today and Ashkenazim in America who assimilated over a century ago. 

Sometimes, the challenges are endearing, such as the time Jacobs used the microphone at a wedding to announce that the couple wished to keep a mechitza (separation) during dancing between men and women. “I reluctantly announced it,” recalled Jacobs, “and five minutes into the dancing, an army of angry women came marching in and ripped down the mechitza. It was an angry mob. I ran.”

“Almost everyone [in the Persian Jewish community] is dealing with intermarriage. Everyone has a cousin, or a nephew, or a sibling with this challenge. The parents are caught in a hard place, because for so long, they devalued much about Judaism, and now, they’re making these demands that the child not intermarry, and the child sees it as hypocritical.”

Other challenges are far more serious. “Almost everyone [in the Persian Jewish community] is dealing with intermarriage,” he lamented. “Everyone has a cousin, or a nephew, or a sibling with this challenge. The parents are caught in a hard place, because for so long, they devalued much about Judaism, and now, they’re making these demands that the child not intermarry, and the child sees it as hypocritical.”

An Unknown Future

A 2021 study of Jews in L.A. by Brandeis University found that 19% of Persian Jews in L.A. have married outside their faith. It is still a smaller share than the whopping majority of American Jews who intermarry, but it nevertheless means that one-in-five Persian Jews in L.A. are married to non-Jews.

In past decades, that number would have seemed inconceivable. In fact, there was a time when intermarriage in the Persian Jewish community meant that the Jewish bride hailed from one Iranian city and the Jewish groom from another (having been born in Tehran, I often quip that I am in an intermarriage with a Shirazi). 

The Brandeis figures were self-reported by those who were surveyed, but “if we add those who converted in a way not recognized by the State of Israel,” Jacobs said, “the number is actually much higher.”

“There is no one, unified community response to assimilation in the Persian Jewish community.” 

Conversely, there has also been some growth toward Modern Orthodox Judaism among the community, thanks to more synagogues and outreach organizations, especially Chabad. “There a lot of amazing efforts, but they’re disparate,” said Jacobs. “There is no one, unified community response to assimilation in the Persian Jewish community.”

As mentioned, intermarriage in the Iranian American Jewish community is still far less than in the greater Jewish American community — a mostly Ashkenazi community with a 72% rate of intermarriage, according to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center (the data excluded Orthodox Jews). 

For his part, Jacobs has also faced nearly insurmountable challenges in securing funding from the community to educate and engage its own young generations. “The Ashkenazi donors were funding hundreds and hundreds of Persians because they were colorblind and to them, a Jew was a Jew,” he said. “But at some point, they said, ‘Hey, you’re a big presence in the Persian community. Are they supporting you financially?’ I said ‘no.’ They said, ‘We’re sure they would love to; we’ll coach you.’” 

“This created a tremendous disillusionment,” added Jacobs. “I would do parlor meetings, meet parents, meet billionaires whose kids I had taught and even gotten married, but ultimately, they did not want to give back. My [non-Persian] donors eventually said, ‘If the Persian community doesn’t even want to support your work, why should we?’ And they stopped funding my program.” 

This puzzled Jacobs. “All the other Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, even if they were completely nonreligious, became very concerned when they saw their children and grandchildren intermarrying, and poured in money to address the issue. The Ashkenazim created or funded Birthright, Federations, Hillels, Aish, Chabads. The Syrian Jewish community on the East Coast successfully funded Kiruv programs, trips and other resources to bring young members of its community together.” 

Jacobs added, “I keep waiting to see something like that within the L.A. Persian community. While there are many amazing people doing amazing things, so far it hasn’t happened on a larger, community-wide scale.”

“Rocking Fun”

Despite the challenges, there were still several generous donors in the Persian community, though they were often inconsistent. And Jacobs has been deeply moved by the Persian community’s vitality and passion, and in particular, its devotion to Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people. 

He recalled one particular visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum. It was his first trip with young Persian Jews and he asked them whether they perceived the Holocaust as “that terrible tragedy that happened to Ashkenazi Jews only, or to them as well?”

The young group responded, “It happened to us! We are one!” and then burst into singing “Am Israel Chai.” That’s when Jacobs “broke down crying,” he said. “I was so awed and inspired. I just loved them so much. It helped me understand how we’re all part of the same family, and part of the same experience.” 

Jacobs also understands the trials of dating among the Persian community, especially when parents and children value different priorities. Aish previously launched a dating program called Soul Search to help young local Jews meet their potential soul mates.

“There are so many [in the Persian community] who aren’t Orthodox, but also aren’t secular. Really, they’re in neither world, so they’re struggling. They’re trying to keep their options open, but they still have their values, so they can’t be with a very observant person, nor with a secular person.” 

“There are so many [in the Persian community] who aren’t Orthodox, but also aren’t secular,” Jacobs said. “Really, they’re in neither world, so they’re struggling. They’re trying to keep their options open, but they still have their values, so they can’t be with a very observant person, nor with a secular person.” 

Jacobs believes that Iranian American Jews on the East Coast “have become more coherent as a bastion of traditional values for themselves and their children,” while the Los Angeles community is “doing the opposite.”

Today, Jacobs and MyAish L.A. are offering a “rocking fun” Friday night Shabbat minyan on Pico for young men and women that is particularly aimed at Jews who “don’t feel like that have a place elsewhere,” he said.

Jacobs aims to “create Sephardic davening with Ashkenazi flavor. We think that’s the future of Jewish LA.” 

With the minyan, which is led by Rabbi Lior Ghalili, Jacobs is aiming to “create Sephardic davening with Ashkenazi flavor. We think that’s the future of Jewish L.A.” 

Jacobs’ Monday evening classes at Morry’s Fireplace draw nearly 100 attendees each week, and he recently concluded teaching a five-part series on masculine and feminine power. Jacobs also teaches popular classes on Kabbalah, and on Wednesday nights, he teaches in the Valley.

“This generation has the financial means to take control of the community’s destiny, or to let it go, the way the Ashkenazim went,” he said. For his part, Jacobs aims to show young Iranian American Jews that Judaism is the best answer to both worlds of being Persian and American, because it fuses individuality with family orientation.

“Persians are part of the first exile from the First Temple’s destruction; the oldest continuous community of Jews in the world. It’s amazing. You should be so proud. You have withstood so much, for more years than anyone else.”

And he has several messages for the community, with whom he feels a deep connection: “Persians are part of the first exile from the First Temple’s destruction; the oldest continuous community of Jews in the world,” he said. “It’s amazing. You should be so proud. You have withstood so much, for more years than anyone else.”

Jacobs, the eternal optimist and beloved teacher among young Iranian American Jews, nevertheless remains a concerned witness to the rapidity with which secularism and assimilation have altered this wonderful, ancient community. 

“I get phone calls all the time from Persian Jews who have friends, cousins, or children who are in relationships with non-Jews,” he said. “I try my best; I meet with them, but the real truth, which I never say, is that you should have invested in Jewish education and engagement sooner. You’re 25 years too late.”


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

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