November 18, 2018

Ethan Youssefzadeh: Filling a gap in Jewish education

Although he graduated from YULA Boys High School five years ago, Ethan Youssefzadeh is a familiar face to current students on campus — and to teens at several other schools and synagogues on the Westside.

The 22-year-old volunteer has run popular discussion groups about Jewish theology and ritual for the past three years, trying to impart wisdom to any young Jew in his community who will listen.  And he is doing that while studying for the MCAT exams, preparing to apply to medical school.  

“I want to be a doctor just as much as I want to inspire people to be faithful to their religion,” he said. 

His “Joy of Being a Jew” (JOBAJ) program, a weekly hourlong discussion forum, is held at his alma mater, as well as Beverly Hills High School and Link Kollel and Shul in Pico-Robertson.  In all, more than 100 young Jews participate, informally discussing matters of faith. 

The class at YULA on Mondays started three years ago with about 15 students — all boys — and has more than doubled since, Youssefzadeh said. About a year ago, he began teaching the same class on Tuesdays at Beverly Hills High School, a much bigger school, and about 75 boys and girls attend, he reported. 

Meetings are held in classrooms during lunchtime. Youssefzadeh, a lifelong member of Ahavat Shalom near his home in Pico-Robertson, lectures on topics such as “Why we pray” or “Is there a God?” then opens the floor to questions. He also makes his case for why students should consider a gap year between high school and college to study at a yeshiva in Israel, like he did. 

The recent UCLA graduate feels that his program fills a hole in Jewish education. “It shouldn’t just be rabbis who are doing the teaching in the Jewish community,” he said. “I just think it should also be people like me.” 

In high school, Youssefzadeh was student council president and helped lead the cross-country team. He was someone people turned to for guidance — a leader. “That’s what people kept telling me,” he said. However, he was searching for guidance in Judaic studies, questioning aspects of his faith, the logic behind certain rituals, and found turning to rabbis difficult. 

After high school, like many of his YULA peers, he spent an unforgettable year at a yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City. “My whole perception of Judaism changed,” he said. “I came back inspired. I found myself.”  Youssefzadeh now prays daily and has found a “more meaningful life.” 

Yarmulke clipped atop his head, Youssefzadeh often breaks into a smile mid-sentence. Perhaps it’s no surprise his JOBAJ program is reaching significant numbers of high school students — he’s not far removed from being one of them. 

To entice participation, Youssefzadeh even supplies lunch for meetings — pizza, burgers, kosher Chinese. He estimates that he has spent about $3,000 of his own money saved up from summers as a Jewish camp counselor. 

“The big advantage I have is that I’m young and I can relate,” he said. “They open up. Some of them might be afraid to say to a teacher or a rabbi, ‘I don’t know if I believe in God.’ The kids feel very comfortable with me and they really appreciate the class.”  

Until this past summer, he balanced teaching and speaking engagements at local synagogues — largely a result of the success of JOBAJ — with the hectic schedule of a college student. Since graduating from UCLA, he has been spending more than 25 hours per week studying for the MCAT and will apply to medical schools soon.

If Youssefzadeh starts medical school, he knows he will have to back away from his religion classes for a while; he is hopeful one of the teens in his classes or a JOBAJ alum will take over. But he knows it won’t be the end. Once he finishes his medical residency, he knows he wants “to dedicate time to outreach and inspiring the Jewish future.”