Iranian Jewish group’s ‘Project Jacob’ to spur commercial research in Israel

For a little more than three decades, the Los Angeles-based International Judea Foundation (known as SIAMAK), among the oldest and most active of the local Iranian Jewish nonprofits, was known for looking out for the needs of the Iranian Jewish community here and abroad. Now, as the local Iranian Jewish community has matured and prospered in Southern California, SIAMAK has turned some of its focus to Israel, creating a program to nurture and develop innovative medical, high-tech and alternative energy research at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU).

Dubbed “Project Jacob” after the biblical patriarch, the program is the brainchild of Dariush Fakheri, SIAMAK’s president, a businessman and entrepreneur who lives in Encino. With an initial investment of $200,000 last February, SIAMAK funded three projects at BGU.

“What we are trying to do with this program is have a substantial impact on Israel’s economy by investing in the country’s ‘oil wells’ — which [is what] Shimon Peres calls Israel’s human resources,” Fakheri said. “We are trying to fix the dilemma of too many incredible innovations and discoveries getting stuck in a lab due to limited resources.”

It is also an investment in Israel’s future. The decision to create Project Jacob came in response to the constant flow of Israelis coming to the United States seeking money for poverty-stricken Jews in Israel. Fakheri said SIAMAK’s goal with the new program is to “teach Israelis how to fish, rather than to give them fish,” to support innovation to create new industries and jobs in Israel, allowing Israelis to become more self-sustaining.

Fakheri said the program’s committee includes three members from BGU and four board members from SIAMAK. The eventual goal is that once the patent for a funded product is sold or sales revenue from a product reaches a certain level, then the innovators supported by Project Jacob are required to repay the money they received. The reimbursed funds will be used to sustain the program and to offer new opportunities for the next generation of Israeli innovators at BGU.

“No one from our organization makes a penny working for this organization, and any costs associated with it are paid by us,” Fakheri said. “If I have to visit someone to encourage them to get involved with this program, I will pay for it out of my own pocket —  and there are no other administrative costs.”

Asher Aramnia, a SIAMAK board member, said another benefit to Israel’s government will come from the “substantial tax revenues the Israeli government could be receiving from the sale of products or patents for products developed.” He added that success within Israel avoids the exodus “of great minds leaving Israel due to limited funding for new innovations.” In addition, more Jews might move to Israel for the new jobs being created, and with BGU located in the Negev, it could encourage new industry and development there. “And most importantly,” Aramnia said, it aids “humanity with products that can improve or save their lives.”

BGU officials are excited about Project Jacob’s investment in the university and in the Negev region of Israel.

Project Jacob “is a new avenue through which any donor can support the commercialization of the most promising research at BGU in a targeted way,” said Doron Krakow, executive vice president of American Associates for Ben-Gurion University.

The SIAMAK-BGU relationship for Project Jacob first came about after Jacob Dayan, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, initially put Fakheri in touch with BGU’s president, Rivka Carmi. Dayan praised the new program and SIAMAK for its investment in Israel and the strong sense of Zionism that many Iranian Jews in Southern California possess.

“The Persian community is an extremely Zionist community to start with,” Dayan said. “The fact that they had to emigrate and escape oppression only 30 years ago makes their connection and understanding of Israel as a safe haven for the Jewish people stronger than people who grew up here without having to feel anti-Semitism and persecution.”

The creation of Project Jacob is revitalizing for SIAMAK, especially after the organization’s bitter separation from the Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana two years ago. The two Iranian Jewish groups had merged in 2004 in hopes of advancing Judaism in their community, but differences on how to move forward ultimately led to the organizations splitting.

SIAMAK, under the leadership of Fakheri, who is often considered a maverick within the Iranian Jewish community, had for years created solutions for controversial topics faced by some local Iranian Jews. These included problems with domestic violence, drug abuse, taboos on divorce, premarital sex, acculturation in America, poverty and even how to reach out to Jews still living in Iran.

Most notably, in 2000, SIAMAK and the now-defunct Council of Iranian-American Jews were at the forefront of bringing to the world’s attention the plight of 13 Iranian Jews living in the Iranian city of Shiraz who were arrested by Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime on false charges of treason and were in danger of being executed. All 13 were sentenced to prison and eventually released by the regime for good behavior.

SIAMAK also has had an international presence, donating $20,000 in 2003 to the struggling Jewish community in Argentina, sending medical aid to earthquake victims in India and Iran, and providing humanitarian support to Muslim refugees in war-torn Bosnia during the Balkan wars, nearly 15 years ago.

“One of our long-term goals as a Jewish organization has been tikkun olam, where we have outreached to help many non-Jews around the world,” Fakheri said. “Project Jacob will, hopefully, allow us to do that on a larger scale, since the products developed could help all of humanity by saving lives anywhere in world.”

SIAMAK board members said that while they have not yet had an official launch or fundraising event for Project Jacob in Los Angeles this year, they welcome help with their efforts next year.

“This project was not named after anyone’s family name, because it will allow anyone interested to join the project,” Fakheri said. “We could sponsor an inventor or a brain — one invention by itself could support the whole project, and I know there are many generous people out there who would immediately give funds and their time for this project.”

For more information about Dariush Fakheri and SIAMAK, please visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

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