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Finding and Building Community for Iranian Jews in Los Angeles

By Guest Blogger Donna Maher, Federation’s Assistant Director, Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation Iranian Community Outreach


Earlier this year, in partnership with the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, the Federation launched the Y&S Nazarian Iranian Young Leadership Initiative to engage more Persian Jewish young adults in the work of the Federation and the greater Jewish community. I am proud to be part of the thriving community of 50,000+ Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and to lead this important initiative. Part of my role involves meeting one on one with Persian Jewish young adults to truly understand the needs of community members, sharing about opportunities within the Jewish community that may fit those needs, and learning about what is of value to each individual. I also work closely with our young adult program teams to strategically ensure that our programs are filling the needs of this audience. In the near future, I will also facilitate programming to highlight and celebrate Iranian Jewry.

I wanted to share my own background, as it directly connects to my current role at the Federation.

I can recall the exact moment I realized the significance of Iranian culture in Los Angeles after moving here. I was casually browsing the fragrance counter at the Westside Pavilion mall, only to hear an overhead announcement for Estee Lauder — in Farsi.

Growing up in Orange County in a home where Farsi was the primary spoken language, our family stories about anti-Semitism in Iran and gratitude for Israel and America cemented my identity as an extremely proud Jewish woman. I longed to explore more of my Persian heritage, and moving to Los Angeles — with its abundance of resources — allowed me to do just that.

Upon moving to L.A., I fully immersed myself in the Persian Jewish community. I participated in the Maher Fellowship, a leadership training program for Jewish Iranian young adults offered by the organization 30 Years After. My experiences and encounters with contemporaries opened my eyes to the divide that often exists between Iranian Jews and the greater Jewish community. I saw how minor traditional and cultural differences have the power to create two worlds here in Los Angeles — one inhabited by Iranian Jews, and the other by the rest of Greater Los Angeles’ Jews. I felt the need to bridge these distinctions — maintaining each community’s uniqueness — to give everyone the space and freedom to share their backgrounds and experiences, ultimately learning from one another. Together, as one big inclusive Jewish community, we can create an incredible tapestry filled with beautiful culture, traditions, and values.

The Jewish Federation recognizes that Iranian Jewish heritage is flourishing and is actively investing in the Persian Jewish community. It strives to unite and welcome Iranian Jews by offering engagement opportunities within the Federation and beyond.

While this Initiative only launched six months ago, we have already started to see the effects. I have met with over 150 young adults and leaders of Jewish organizations and heard their distinct needs and interests. There is also overall increased attendance at Federation programs among Persian Jews. One specific program I enjoyed working on was L.A. Food Stories through the Federation’s Young Adult Los Angeles (YALA) program. The event featured young Jews of Persian, Russian, and Cuban descent who each shared a food recipe and a story connecting them to their culture.

The immense support we have received from Jewish organizations and community leaders across the community endorses the importance of this work. The Initiative is a proud recipient of a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. We are grateful to have received this grant because it reinforces the significance of the Initiative and its anticipated impact on the entire community.

One goal of the Initiative is to see more Persian Jews in leadership positions across Jewish non-profits and synagogues. Imagine the impact of having the richness of Persian culture represented in our Jewish spaces!

As a Jewish American-Iranian woman, I cherish the values I was raised with — one of which is that when we unite, we are stronger.

For more information and to learn more about the Federation’s Y&S Nazarian Iranian Young Leadership Initiative, contact me at DMaher@JewishLA.org.

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