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NOVEMBER 26, 2010
For The Local Persian Jewish Community, New, Young Voices Emerge – 30 Years After By Amelia Xann Exclusive to The Courier When 1,200 people filled the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, it marked another transformative moment in local Iranian-American Amelia Xann Jewish life. The attendees had turned out for the 2nd biennial Civic Action Conference organized by 30 Years After, a nonprofit spearheaded by the next generation of Iranian-American Jewish leaders now in their 20s and 30s. The crowd had come to hear an impressive roster of speakers including former CIA Director James Woolsey; Gen. Wesley Clark, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and various local politicians on important current issues, ranging from politics to Israel and Iran. Even surpassing the conference agenda, though, is the story of how 30 Years After came into existence with its mission to drive Persian-Jewish community civic and political engagement in American life. The story leading up to this event dates back to 2007 when Sam Yebri, Raymond Zolhekian, Debbie Farnoush and the other young cofounders of 30 Years After sought a $10,000 grant to support a conference to mobilize the Persian-Jewish community. It would coincide with the milestone occasion: the three
30 YEARS AFTER–Lorin M. Fife, chairman of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, addresses 1,200 on hand for the 30 Years After Civic Action Conference at Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. decades having passed since their parents and grandparents sought a new future in the United States for themselves and their children—along with tens of thousands of other Persian Jews–following the 1978 Iranian Revolution. The social innovators at 30 Years After reached out to the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which encouraged the nascent startup to think big and imagine its future on a larger scale. In 2008, the foundation awarded the group $200,000 in seed funding under its Cutting Edge Grants Initiative. In just two years, 30 Years After has held dozens of lectures, workshops, conferences and
programs, culminating in last month’s 2nd biennial Civic Action Conference. The group has attracted several thousand Persian Jews and engaged them in American civic and political affairs, commitment to Israel, social justice, and political action through educational events, student mentoring and voter registration. Last month’s conference participants ranged from college-aged students to their parents and grandparents. Animated conversation in Farsi, English, Hebrew, Spanish and Yiddish buzzed through the rooms where breakout sessions were held. One could witness transformation in the making.
“When our parents and grandparents came to Los Angeles after the revolution, they re-created the community we had back in Iran,” said Yebri, a Century City lawyer. “Indeed, the local Persian Jewish community has grown in past years and is currently estimated at 35,000-40,000. But my generation grew up seeing the amazing diversity around us here. “We saw diversity on our college and graduate school campuses in both the Jewish community and the community at large. We recognized the Persian-Jewish sector was not represented nor were we an active voice at the table. We decided to do something about it.” Yebri explained how he learned from various local leaders, such as the rabbis and the leadership of his family’s Sinai Temple, who often spoke about the virtues and importance of being an active and involved community member.
Mayor Jimmy Delshad Another source of inspiration to him is Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, who has been quoted as saying: “After leaving Iran, Persian Jews lived in the U.S. for decades as if their suitcases were still packed and the keys to their homes in Iran still in their pockets.” Yebri and his peers recognized they could help the community trade in those proverbial keys for a new set which could unlock doors into an even brighter future. Grantmaking serves as such a catalyst by setting into motion new activities, new ways of thinking and by nurturing new voices. While the tightknit community is known for its contributions to culture, business and real estate, it has not generally been characterized by its civic engagement and involvement at large. The leaders of 30 Years After had an idea that was so much more than a milestone conference. Theirs was a
dream to address issues from politics to social justice in order to educate and mobilize both the younger and more senior generations within the Persian Jewish community. Capitalizing on youthful energy and determination, fueled with the desire to make a difference in the community, and inspired by the stories of their parents and grandparents, those behind 30 Years After embarked on a grassroots movement with the potential to serve as a bridge spanning generations and communities, connecting us all. While the group is helping Persian Jews expand the depth and breadth of their civic engagement, another local initiative is working to keep that community healthy and thriving by addressing important medical issues. The Center for Jewish Genetics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is conducting outreach, education, and providing genetic testing to ultimately save lives within the Persian-Jewish community. When the late philanthropists, George and Harry Gittelson and Stella F. Joseph, established endowment funds at the Jewish Community Foundation, they earmarked them for work supporting health and medical research. After their passing, the foundation fulfilled their wishes by providing seed funding to establish this new center and its pilot program to screen Persian Jews for any genetic disorders prevalent within their population. The genetic testing determines who is a carrier of the genes associated with Pseudicholinesterase deficiency; Congenital Hypoaldostero-
nism; Polyglandular deficiency; and Hereditary Inclusion Body Myopathy. The pilot program has been led by Dr. David Rimoin, with consultation by Dr. Michael Kaback. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the two pioneered the TaySachs genetic screening for the Ashkenazi Jewish population, ultimately saving many lives by identifying carriers of Tay-Sachs disease. Along with screening, education and counseling, the Persian Genetic Disease Intervention Program at CedarsSinai is also raising awareness and addressing issues that will help break the silence about these genetic medical conditions and remove the stigma long associated with them. Providing knowledge and access through programs such as 30 Years After and the Cedars’ endeavor will enable members of the Persian Jewish community to make more informed choices. Programs such as these, seeded and sustained in part by the Jewish Community Foundation, serve to inspire new behaviors and perspectives and even save lives. The result is an empowered Iranian Jewish community with a stronger voice, greater connectivity, and exciting new potential for deep civic engagement with the community at large that can strengthen and benefit an ever-evolving Los Angeles.
Amelia Xann is vice president of the Family Foundation Center and Grant Programs at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, a leading charitable-asset manager and provider of planned-giving solutions