April 2, 2020

Expanding Community Roles for Young Persian Jews

The sixth cohort of the Maher Fellowship at the Capitol in Washington D.C.Photo courtesy of Maher Fellowship

In November 2018, 250 mostly Iranian American Jews gathered at the  Iranian American Jewish Federation for a first-of-its-kind program: the Taboo Summit. Panels explored mental health awareness, body image, LGBTQ+ and dating — topics not usually addressed in the traditionally conservative Los Angeles Persian Jewish community. 

The project was an outgrowth of the fifth cohort of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish organization 30 Years After’s Maher Fellowship — a six-month leadership-in-training program developed by and for young-professional Iranian American Jews ages 21-35. 

Persian Jews, said Sam Yebri, co-founder of 30 Years After (30YA), are “to some extent tethered to the trauma of our families leaving Iran, and the Old World mentality and norms that grow out of that. … [We are] balancing what it means to be an American and maintaining Iranian traditions.” 

When many Persian Jews left Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and came to the United States, they started over. They learned English, became educated, became successful professionals, married and had children. The first-generation Americans — now in their 20s and 30s — became donors, volunteers and Jewish professionals. But many of them lacked an awareness of their own heritage. 

The Maher Fellowship is designed to fill this gap by training young Jewish Iranian American professionals to “take responsibility over the millennia-old narrative and heritage that they have, that was actively suppressed by the fact that they were immigrants and refugees in America,” said Tabby Davoodi, 30YA’s first executive director.

“We need to talk about these things to create our own exodus out of the trauma of the revolution and become this great community,” said Arya Donay, the Maher Fellowship’s current director.

Fellowship founder Jason Youdeem, who was raised in Orange County and went to UCLA, said that while growing up he was more invested in the Jewish part of his identity, including being involved in United Synagogue Youth, the AEPi fraternity and Hillel. When he started his professional life, he established the fellowship to get Persian Jews to participate in the greater Jewish/civic community by training the next generation to tell their story. The program was incubated through PresenTense, a Jewish social entrepreneurship incubator program. 

The intention, Youdeem said, was to “start from our grandparents in Iran, [through] our parents’ transition and to our generation, to start telling that story,” which many young Persian Jews have not heard before. “There’s pride in owning your own story.” 

“[Persian Jews are] to some extent tethered to the trauma of our families leaving Iran, and the Old World mentality and norms that grow out of that. … [We are] balancing what it means to be an American and maintaining Iranian traditions.” — Sam Yebri

Davoodi added, “A lot of Persian parents didn’t tell the story. A generation later, you have people who don’t know who they are and where they came from.”

“There are plenty of Jewish leaders fellowships, but Persian Jews tend to stay in our own bubble,” Donay said, noting that the Maher Fellowship aims to “get [Persian Jews] out of the bubble and learn how to better mingle and work with other Jews in the community.” 

In addition to the Taboo Summit, Maher fellows encounter and connect with experts, thought leaders, politicians and influencers in the Jewish, Iranian and greater American communities, and participate in a fully subsidized trip to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D,C. 

Davoodi added that fellows are expected to talk about their heritage and “confront things that aren’t being discussed. …This new generation is American born and raised but there’s no escaping growing up in a Persian household — the fierce traditionalism of it, the tension between East and West.” 

For the first three or four years, Youdeem led recruitment and co-facilitated the fellowship. Now, he describes his role  as “more advisory,” an intentional move to ensure that the program is “sustainable beyond me,” he said.

“If this was United States history, [the previous generation] would be Christopher Columbus,” said Oron Maher, the program’s initial benefactor, who continues to support the program. “They came here first and laid the groundwork. The message that they give today’s generation is what will carry their 3,500-year-old ancestry for generations to come.”

Maher supported the program based on his commitment to tithing, the tradition of giving a portion of one’s income to charity. He added that for him that also includes offering his time and energy.

“Giving 10% of yourself to something greater is part of living a balanced life in today’s world. … Tithing and giving and doing your part is the formula for success,” he said. 

Applications for the fellowship’s new cohort have closed, but Donay said his vision for the current group of participants is “to understand where they came from and their heritage, and use that and [their] skills to understand their own story better and create a lasting impact through work in the community after that.”

The core of the fellowship’s curriculum focuses on topics including why politics matter, why Israel and the Jewish community are important, and Jewish leadership development, but the dialogue changes year to year, Davoodi said. He predicted that with the increase in anti-Semitism worldwide and in particular the recent ransacking of the Nessah Synagogue, anti-Semitism will be a central topic in 2020. 

Yebri noted, “As an organization, we’ve done the big conferences with lots of speakers, and as impactful as they are, we’ve come to realize that training and inspiring the leaders to go out and do the work is far more valuable than having lots of people in a room [and] really where we can have the greatest Jewish value-add as an organization.” 

Another 30 Years After fellowship, focusing on public service, will launch in March, Yebri said.

To date, around 110 leaders have been trained, Maher said, adding that many now serve on nonprofit boards or as professionals in existing organizations, or have founded their own initiatives. 

“People graduating from our program are going to go on as young adults to help lead and shape the future of Persian Jewry,” he said. “To me, there’s no higher calling than cultivating Jewish leaders.”