Twenty years after the Khomeini revolution and the mass Jewish exodus that followed, L.A.’s Persian Jewish community is still holding on strong to a rich, colorful culture. And as the older, immigrant generation continues to dance to the beat of Iranian music, their children dream of endless possibilities for the fame, fun, and fortune synonymous with life on the West Coast.
But as they reach for the stars, these children, says Mrs. Shoshana Pe’er, are most at risk of losing any sense of Jewish identity to the enticements of Hollywood. The parents, she says, though well-meaning, are often ill-equipped to transmit Jewish tradition to their own children, having themselves grown up with little real Jewish background.
Pe’er isn’t just making observations. Instead, she and her husband Hertzel, Chabad representatives to L.A.’s Persian Jewish community for the last decade, are mapping out a more promising future for the Persian Jewish community. Much to their excitement, they’ll be moving the Chabad Persian Youth Center from a rented building to a newly renovated, one million dollar modern facility of its own.
Founded in 1993, by Chabad of California and the Pe’ers, the Center was created to address the need for spiritual guidance for the first substantial wave of Persian Jews to grow up in L.A. Since then, it has served locals as an open home where Rabbi Pe’er, himself an Iranian Jew, and Shoshana, actively involve Persian youth in a hands-on Jewish experience in an atmosphere that’s warm, fun, and conducive to spiritual growth.
Here boys and girls in their teens and twenties can drop by for a class on Jewish mysticism or a late night farbrengen. Sunday morning Tefillin brunches typically draw more than 25 people, with 100 turning up at the Shabbat minyan, on a regular basis. But more than anything else, says Mrs. Pe’er, the Persian Youth Center is a place for these people to socialize in a nurturing Jewish environment.
And with the new 5,000 sq ft building, which includes a synagogue, classrooms, offices, and a kosher kitchen, the Pe’ers are preparing to expand the center’s activities, with more weekly classes and evening lectures, and more diversified programming to appeal to a wider range of people.
Rami Gabbai, a member of L.A.’s Persian Jewish community, points to his own time spent at the Center during its pioneering years as the inspiration behind his Jewish involvement today. Now a staunch supporter of the Persian Youth Center, Gabbai attributes the Center’s wide appeal to Rabbi Pe’er, and the real sense of love and concern he exudes. “Anyone who meets Rabbi Pe’er can’t help but keep coming back,” says Gabbai, and that means exposure to traditional Judaism beyond anything most of these kids have ever had.
“The Persian Youth Center provides an opportunity for young people to discover and form a solid Jewish identity,” explains Rabbi Pe’er.
According to Gabbai, this is particularly important as these people are “trying to find their way home, and see what life is really all about, outside of MTV and rap.”
Without the Persian Youth Center, says Gabbai reflecting on its impact in his own Jewish life, “many of these kids would be lost to Judaism for good.”