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Jewish Journal

Hoop and Chuppah Dreams Mix at Iranian Center

by Karmel Melamed

March 5, 2009 | 3:26 am

Members of JEM's Blue team huddle for a prayer after their game. Photo by Karmel Melamed

Members of JEM's Blue team huddle for a prayer after their game. Photo by Karmel Melamed

Roughly 150 local Iranian Jews packed the Jewish Educational Movement (JEM) center in Beverly Hills last December to cheer on their sons, brothers and cousins, who were vying for the first JEM basketball league championship. Four out of six teams, all named for colors, made the playoffs: Blue, White, Red and Black. And the players — doctors, lawyers, engineers and businessmen — gave their fans heart-pounding performances on the court, sinking three-point shots with all the thrills of a Lakers game at Staples Center.

At the end of the night, the league’s undefeated White team beat Black 48-34.

But for some JEM league fans, the win was beside the point. Sitting on the sidelines with their own hoop dreams, some women were watching the players with hopes of a one-on-one game that would lead to a shot under the chuppah.

Founded last August by two Iranian Jews in their 20s — dermatologist Ramin Ram and mortgage broker Robert Cohen — excitement over JEM basketball has spread throughout the Iranian Jewish community, with players’ family members and friends following the games. Interest has grown so much that eight teams were scheduled for the second season, which started Feb. 23.

Ram and Cohen originally organized the league to have fun with their peers, get some exercise and also generate funds for the nonprofit JEM center, which was founded in 2001 and has been housed in the former Beverly Hills YMCA building since 2003. However, it wasn’t long before the pair and others took notice of more and more single women turning up at games.

The JEM league seems to have caught the attention of young Iranian Jewish women seeking Jewish professionals as potential spouses. And while most of the female fans won’t openly discuss the issue, others say the women have been eyeing players and young Iranian Jewish men in the stands.

“I personally attended the games solely to watch my brother,” said Sandra Shokri, a 22-year-old graduate student and JEM basketball fan. “As for the other ladies — hey, why not? I’m sure their parents are supportive of them watching Iranian Jewish guys.”

With the Iranian Jewish community increasingly wrestling with the issue of intermarriage among its youth, JEM’s leadership and local Iranian Jewish parents are happy with the events unfolding at the JEM basketball games.

In addition to being watched by young women, the players say they’re also fielding offers from scouts. Only these scouts aren’t affiliated with professional basketball teams.

“Forget about the NBA. It’s more likely that we’ll have grandmas come down here looking for husbands for their granddaughters,” said one player from Blue, who asked not to be identified.

Ram and Cohen acknowledge that furtive glances are coming from some young female fans, but the two say the league’s primary focus is about camaraderie, not a shidduch (arranged marriage).

“It’s been a fantastic opportunity to contribute to a great Jewish cause and meet new faces — I must have met 20 new friends from the community that I never knew before,” Ram said.

He said the inspiration for the league came to him after spending several weekday evenings studying Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) at JEM and then playing basketball with his friends afterward on the center’s court.

“Week after week I realized that no one was asking us to pay any fees or any dues to play here,” he said. “So it was second nature for me to envision six or eight teams that would play each other, and at the same time we could raise some money for this Jewish facility.”

His dream became a reality when more than 50 L.A.-area Iranian Jewish men, ranging in age from 19 to 32, responded to his mass e-mails calling for people to join one of the six teams — Blue, Green, Red, Purple, White and Black — and pay $360 in annual dues, which would be donated to the center.

Their games are all by the book, complete with paid professional referees and timekeepers. Each of the eight players on a team wears a regulation college basketball jersey with a large Star of David on the front and last name on the back.

Most of the players are already longtime fans of college and professional basketball, so tensions run high and so does the trash talk on the court. Yet participants said they enjoy the sense of community the league has created.

“Everyone that has heard about the league has wanted to join and play, because it allows us to have a sense of community within a Jewish setting, even though we all work full time and have our own lives,” said Eraj Basseri, a Blue team player and surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “It’s also been a great opportunity for many of us who don’t play competitively anymore to come out once a week and play the sport together.”

Other players said they were drawn to join the new league because they were able to reconnect with old friends they had lost touch with over the years.

“The highlight for me is the relationships — getting to see some people you haven’t seen in a long time and getting to play with some of your old friends again who you played with during your childhood,” said Michael Cohanzad, a 30-year-old attorney from Brentwood on the Blue team.

Rabbi Yossi Illulian, the center’s director, said the basketball league is the first stage in what he hopes will be a greater outreach to Jews — mostly Iranian — in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are single.

The rabbi is also hopeful that this season ends in a different kind of match.

“These basketball games are also a great opportunity for young Jews to meet and mingle,” Illulian said. “And sooner or later I know there will be marriages coming out of the free-throw shots and from fans coming out to watch the game.”

For more information about the JEM basketball league, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

Listen to Karmel Melamed’s podcast about the JEM basketball league on his blog at www.jewishjournal.com/audio/iajpodcast20090107.mp3.

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