Woe to Persian Jews

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One of the moments I consider a tipping point in my religious journey (still journeying, by the way) was when I was in college in NYC at 19 years old discussing my values and vision for the future with a friend. When I mentioned I didn’t want a television in my house because of the flood of negative messages and influence I’d prefer to filter, not to mention the potential for wasting time, my friend did a double take. Apparently it was the final straw! “You don’t want a TV in your house? Don’t you think the way you run your life now doesn’t really jive with how you see your life in the future?”

Huh. Good point, I thought.

After a long time investigating, discussing, and contemplating my religious choices, my behavior took considerable time to match up with my mind. That conversation goes down, in my personal history, as a game-changing one.

Game-changing revelations like the one I had at 19, that occur after a seemingly inconsequential experience, usually is the result of a long brewing build-up.

Recently, I had a very short interaction with a Jewish outreach professional that has shifted my perspective significantly. Without discussing the actual interaction, I’d like to address a flawed,  yet widespread, philosophy.

In Jewish outreach, a topic I have dealt with extensively in this blog, there is an objective. To bring Jews closer to Judaism. Different people define that closeness differently and different organization create milestones, strategies, and more specific objectives around that BUT the overall goal is always to bring Jews closer to Judaism. You might phrase it differently but, in my opinion, that would be semantics.

If you disagree, please do contact me because I’d be curious to hear a different perspective.

So, let’s say you want to dedicate your lifelong career to bringing Jews closer to Judaism. How would you do it? You would try to use your resources (time, money, energy) most effectively to foster the best success. This is the way any business is run and anyone with a goal, personal or professional, would be wise to take this course.

Trouble is, there is a danger… In Jewish outreach, we work with people. ***Please see bottom of post

I write this post with caution. I have deleted hours of work in the past to avoid hurting others, undermining good values, or any writing that might garner writer’s remorse. I read reprehensible blog posts where bloggers bash efforts at Jewish unity and continuity in the name of principles when it’s clear there’s a personal agenda. I have no such agenda. On the contrary, I very much support Jewish outreach efforts and endeavor to use my time sharing a positive Jewish message and being an example of a kind, compassionate, proud, upright Jewish woman.

That said, there is a danger when working in Jewish outreach and running the outreach organization like a business. Outreach organizations tend to focus on Jewish people who are most likely to embrace and be open to Judaism. Some Jewish demographics get less attention than others based on this. For example, in recent years, campuses have gained more traction in Jewish outreach because someone young and unencumbered by a spouse and children is more open to embracing new ideas and learning new practices. But what if some Jewish groups are purposely left out to their own detriment?

The example I’d like to raise is young Persian Jews.

Persian Jews, isolated and discriminated against for being Jews in Iran, are generally a more insulated community when immigrating to America. As a community, they tended to be more traditional than their assimilated Ashkenazi (and some Sephardi communities depending on origin) counterparts.

My Persian friends in high school always had huge extended family Shabbat dinners, where no one was strictly observant, but everyone was strongly traditional.

I can personally relate to this culture having been born to South African/Rhodesian parents where a traditional (as opposed to orthodox, conservative, reform, etc) Jewish approach was mainstream and accepted. I still remember attending my late cousin’s shiva in Israel and being asked by an elderly South African man (with no malicious intent) if my father had become as “fanatic” as I was. I still crack a smile at the memory!

Back to Persian Jews though!

Young Persian-American Jews are generally discouraged from becoming “too orthodox” in appearance, practice, etc while they are still expected to marry Jewish and maintain their traditions. Many such young people, who have desired a more Torah-observant lifestyle, are swayed by familial pressure to not entertain such notions. As such, most mainstream outreach organizations and professionals do not  expend the same resources on Persian Jews as they would on others.

But that’s okay because, those young Persian-American Jews have their respective families and communities to keep their religiosity in check. Right?

Remember Tevya’s tradition song in Fiddler on the Roof? From a Jewish continuity perspective, our hopes for Tevye’s progeny are practically dashed when his youngest daughter, Chava, marries out to a Russian Orthodox Christian, Fyedka.

Tradition, un-anchored by a solid Jewish education and context, feels meaningless particularly for a second or third generation of traditional Jews. SO, young Persian Jews, in my estimation are in the particularly difficult predicament of feeling very Americanized and connected to non-Jewish people, activities, and general lifestyle with minimal effort to guide them towards their heritage.

To be fair, there are some Persian-only groups that do focus on the Persian young Jewish community but some of their membership feel there shouldn’t be a need for such exclusive organizations if the mainstream ones would include them as well.

Having been through my share of Jewish outreach positions and having discussed this often with others in the field, I strongly believe outreach organizations should afford Jews positive Jewish experiences to encourage stronger practice but with ZERO expectation for any increase in observance level. To expect that would be arrogant, unfair, and create a very negative/competitive/unhealthy work environment! Most Torah-observant outreach organizations (I have not done a formal survey) are funded by people who want tangible results, measurable external success, and outcome-focused efforts. Much is lost by such practices, including (G-d forbid) the next Persian-American generation.

Jewish outreach (kiruv) shouldn’t have any specific goal other than to expose Jews to Judaism.

Now if only I could find people who share my views to fund such efforts.

 

*** After reading this blog post, my husband made a crucial point: There are many, many dangers in treating Jewish outreach organizations like businesses. The underlying one may be: “My strength and might are in my hands” Kochi v’Otzem b’yadi. This attitude is antithetical to Torah Judaism which insists that any fruits of our labor are God-given. If we assume anything successful is coming from ourselves, we are being arrogant. Working with the intention of ‘I am trying to connect Jewish people to Judaism’ should be the focus. The supremely bottom-line focus on numbers, numbers, numbers ironically counters the very values we are trying to spread and yet this attitude often reigns supreme. My husband, after reading this footnote, wishes I would elaborate further and says it’s an article unto itself. One day I’ll convince him to write it.

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