Photo courtesy of Shanel Melamed
Within the Jewish Bruin community, civic engagement is a matter that is not taken lightly. At Hillel at UCLA, for example, students are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in a number of programs such as the Campus Engagement Fellowship, the Social Justice Fellowship and the Israel Learning Fellowship. Although each of these fellowships addresses unique topics and concepts, they share a similar goal: to train the next generation of leaders that will both preserve and enrich their Jewish communities—wherever they may be. Likewise, the Jewish Awareness Movement and Chabad on campus offer quarterly seminars, during which they invite guest speakers or encourage Chavruta-style studying as a means of encouraging students to lead and see their surroundings through a Jewish lens.
Each academic quarter, a number of Iranian-Jewish students have taken advantage of these programs and have gained the tools to effectively participate in matters such as civic engagement, Israel advocacy and community service. While the impending nature of graduation may appear to bring an end to leadership-building opportunities for departing seniors, it may actually serve as a starting point from which Iranian-Jewish youths may learn to lead at a larger, regional level.
Since its inception in 2007, 30 Years After has been celebrated as the premier center for promoting the participation and leadership of Iranian Jews in civic, political and Jewish life. With programs as robust as the six-month-long Maher Fellowship and as innovative as the Legacy Project, 30 Years After has made its mark on Los Angeles’ contemporary history and has also played an instrumental role in inspiring civic activism among members of the Iranian-Jewish community.
This quarter, I had the opportunity to speak with members of the organization’s board of directors, including 30 Years After president, Sam Yebri. Born in Iran, Yebri immigrated to the United States with his family as a child. He obtained his undergraduate degree from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and he then obtained his law degree from the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. Yebri explained that the inspiration for 30 Years After came about shortly after the 2006 Lebanon War between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah.
After the war, a group of young Iranian-Jewish professionals—Yebri among them—came to the understanding that while the Jewish organizations at the time had been working to the best of their abilities to aid the overall community, “we [Iranian Jewry] could do much more in the Iranian Jewish community, both culturally and politically.”
With the thirty-year anniversary of their families’ migration from Iran to the United States approaching, the organization’s founders saw this time as the perfect opportunity to launch 30 Years After. One of the first steps in organizing the Iranian-Jewish community was the implementation of a civic conference in 2008, through which the founders were able to generate a “swelling of support” and boast a crowd of 1,200 attendees. Since then, Yebri says, 30 Years After has hosted over 100 events and has reached more than 10,000 individuals. Events range in subject from public policy to Iranian Jewish history to community service. Moreover, since its founding, 30 Years
After has also established a popular fellowship for young professionals.
The Maher Fellowship—pioneered by 30 Years After board member Jason Youdeem—has become a popular base for Iranian Jews between the ages of 21 and 35 to collaborate, hear from notable community influencers and mentors and to hone their leadership skills. Aside from providing regular seminars and brainstorming sessions, the Maher Fellowship also encourages fellows to apply what they have learned by performing hands-on civic service—whether that means serving the homeless or lobbying local members of Congress to support legislation. When asked about the long-term influence of the fellowship on participants, Yebri explained that the program has prompted many alumni to make tangible change in their society. The board of directors has noticed a “renewed interest [among fellowship alumni] in being involved politically and supporting candidates that represent our communities well. I [Yebri] am confident that we will see many Iranian Jews running for office [in the future].”
Alan Daneshrad, who participated in the Maher Fellowship’s third cohort, noted that the program gave him the opportunity to be “surrounded by like-minded individuals in the Persian Jewish community…who wanted to change the community for the better and [encourage community members] to be more actively involved.”
Furthermore, Daneshrad said that the meaningful relationships he developed during the program persisted long after his cohort’s conclusion. In fact, several months after the end of the fellowship, when an alumnus was in need of leaders to help him mentor foster children at the last minute, Daneshrad explained that five Maher fellows were up for the task. The inspiration he gained from this community of young professionals influenced him to later join the 30 Years After board of directors with the hope of cultivating future generations of Iranian Jewish leaders.
In addition to the Maher Fellowship, 30 Years After is now working on the Legacy Project, an archive dedicated to preserving the stories of Iranian Jews and shedding light on the community’s rich culture and traditions. The organization is currently accepting testimonials from members of the community and hopes that sufficient footage will be collected to make the Legacy Project a significant documentary series.
This year marks ten years since the organization’s founding, yet the board of 30 Years After is continuing to amplify its programming and increase its audience. In addition to expanding the Legacy Project, the board hopes to establish more fellowship opportunities, to continue working with other Jewish organizations in the area and to ultimately give the Iranian-Jewish community a greater voice in society.
Daneshrad has emphasized the importance of the Iranian-Jewish community having an active role and voice in the greater civic society. Without vocalizing its needs and concerns, Daneshrad believes, the Iranian Jewish community’s concerns may be ignored and even intensified.
As Jewish Bruins progress through their time on campus, it is important for them to be mindful of the potential they possess to make positive and tangible changes in their communities—both before and after they graduate. Although the path to accomplishing these goals may appear daunting, with collaboration and optimism—such as that embodied within the 30 Years After team—such feats can come within one’s reach and may ultimately affect a community for the better.