January 20, 2019

Shaping a greater Los Angeles through Passover traditions

I sat weary-eyed that early Tuesday morning in March, in the vast conference room of Gibson Dunn’s DTLA office, not yet fully grasping the magnitude of what we were planning. Jesse Gabriel, Federation Board member, and Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom led the 8 AM meeting, encouraging me and a few other Jewish Federation New Leaders Project alumni they had tapped to offer ideas for enhancing their fourth annual Civic Leadership Passover Seder. 

We ran through the ethnically diverse guest list, which included elected and appointed officials, and brainstormed thoughts on the Seder’s speaker series — each assigned to a distinct community leader who would share the Jewish history of the assigned portion and then relate to it through his/her personal communal role – highlighting the parallels between the themes of the Passover story and the challenges LA faces today.

I thought about the value of my identity – a 2nd generation Persian Iraqi Jewish American – and how it relates to the Los Angeles immigration narrative and issues concerning the greater Jewish community. Eager to add my communal element to the event, I suggested incorporating our Persian Jewish tradition of whipping one another with onion leeks during the Dayenu portion of the Seder.

Given that the liveliness of our Persian heritage has heavily influenced our Jewish traditions, we whip one another with leeks every time the word Dayenu, which means “enough,” is said, to remind ourselves of our ancestors’ pains during their enslavement in Egypt. It is a spirited tradition we relish in because it brings the family closer together.

The Federation fully endorsed the idea – beyond giving me a platform to speak, they purchased batches of large green onion stalks to accompany every Seder plate for the night. In the month leading up to the event, I began to fully grasp the tremendous implications this had for my community.

Persian Jews have had a long history of being alienated from political life, which trails back to the Jewish community not having a representative voice in the political system in Iran. We were a minority in Iran and are a minority within the American Jewish community. The Federation’s endorsement of our Passover tradition gave my community a larger platform for our voice and acknowledged our value in civic life, encouraging us to proudly share our views and traditions.

On April 12th our Civic Leadership Seder took form at the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights. It was a beautiful sharing of unique traditions, where each speaker related their stories to how we can build a greater Los Angeles together. The common thread of overcoming discrimination as minority groups, immigrants, and refugees trailed throughout the night. 

I witnessed first-hand an entire room of civic leaders, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, come closer together as they whole-heartedly took part in our spirited tradition and whipped one another with leeks while singing Dayenu. Later that evening, guests approached me with excitement to share that they will incorporate our lively tradition during their own Seders this year, and I felt proud that my community – a historical minority group – is becoming a larger part of the Los Angeles Jewish narrative and civic life.

And what did that night mean for the broader story of Los Angeles? By assembling our city’s representatives of various faiths, cultures, and traditions in an effort to understand the underpinnings of our distinct identities, our diverse communities connected and strengthened a foundation for lasting relationships that will push our city and communities forward.

Being a small part of the Civic Leadership Seder this year deepened my sense of appreciation for the value of our traditions – they help build structure for our society. And while history defines our past, reflection on the meanings of our traditions will shape who we are today and what we can become.

As this Passover season comes to a close, I hope we take more time to reflect and share our traditions and values with one another, both within and outside of our communities. These values are what support the backbone of Los Angeles. We are modern day Jews and Angelenos with immensely remarkable stories, and is our civic duty to find ways to reinforce our diverse traditions in building a thriving, all-inclusive, greater Los Angeles.

Jasmine Youssefzadeh is an alumni of the Federation’s New Leaders Project and Founder and CEO of Impact Rising, a cultural movement agency specializing in storytelling and engagement campaigns that unite business growth and social impact.