This week I was pleased to cover Dara Abaei, an L.A. area Iranian Jewish activist and youth mentor as one of The Jewish Journal’s mensches. Abaei is one of maybe a handful of local Iranian Jews who is actually involved in hands-on efforts to help young people in the community and publicly address other pressing issues in the community. The Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles has many affluent individuals who often try to propel themselves into the limelight by donating large sums of money to Jewish charities. Sadly some of these individuals do nothing to resolve critical issues in the community but merely donate money, throw fundraising parties and pat each other on the back to gain notoriety. Many of the Iranian Jewish organizations in Southern California have by in large not addressed social issues of divorce, drug abuse, inter-religious marriage and poverty. Abaei’s efforts to openly discuss these problems and find solutions for them are remarkable!
During my interview with him, I found Abaei to be a humble man who is only seeking to heal the community. His positive attitude and desire to genuinely help folks—especially younger Iranian Jews, is heartfelt. He initially did not want to be recognized by the Journal for his work, but relented when we informed him of the great example he sets for other Iranian Jews. Abaei is one individual that makes me proud to call myself an Iranian Jew because he does not seek fame or praise for doing good deeds, but aids the community because he seeks to make substantial changes for everyone.
The following is my brief piece about Abaei’s work published this week in the L.A. Jewish Journal:
On a Sunday morning at 2 a.m. earlier this year, a local Iranian Jewish mother was on the phone crying hysterically after her son had been arrested for drug possession and locked up in the L.A. County jail downtown. She didn’t call her relatives, her rabbi, or a lawyer for help—she called Dara Abaei, an Iranian Jewish youth mentor and activist.
Helping this mother at an hour when most people are asleep is just one of the many volunteer activities Abaei performs to support young Iranian Jews and their families. For the last 18 years, Abaei, 39, has dedicated countless hours to tackling serious difficulties that are often considered taboo within the Iranian Jewish community.
Whether the crisis is homelessness, drug addiction, hunger, spousal abuse, gang activity or religious intermarriage, Abaei has worked—often virtually single-handedly—to help find solutions for individuals in need. Abaei responds to as many as 10 to 15 cases per week, and spends many hours per month on his cellphone for this work.
“In my opinion, he may be among just a handful of people who started this crusade to help those with real issues out of pure love of the community,” said Dariush Fakheri, founder of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. “Whoever knows him or has been touched by his presence has benefited from him.”
More than 15 years ago, Abaei formed the Jewish Unity Network (JUN), a nonprofit based in the Pico-Robertson area, to provide activities for the local 10,000 to 15,000 Iranian Jewish youth between the ages of 13 and 26. He handled his volunteer work while juggling a full-time job in construction consulting and trying to feed his family of five. Sensing a greater need for his assistance, members of the community two years ago increased funding for JUN in order to hire Abaei full time as the group’s executive director.
“Yes, I took a pay cut from my last job, but I thought it was necessary to help these kids, because I never had this kind of coaching support from the community when I was young,” Abaei said. “Even if one Jewish youth is helped, it’s like saving the world.”
“The truth is, 90 percent of his community work is done in private and in confidence, so much of it actually goes unnoticed,” said 24-year-old Eman Esmailzadeh, a Brentwood resident. “If it’s flying to Alaska to help convince a community member not to leave Judaism or visiting Jewish prisoners in jail—wherever help is needed, Dara is there.”
Abaei said JUN will continue to collaborate with various other Iranian and Ashkenazi Jewish groups and hopes to raise enough funds to purchase a facility where young Iranian Jews can gather for cultural and religious events.
“Our goal is to inject positive Judaism in our youth and offer them leadership skills,” Abaei said. “Then when they are older, in 20 or 30 years, they will more likely be involved in the Jewish community and issues concerning Israel.”
Those interested in getting involved in JUN should visit: http://lajun.com/