Earlier this month close to a dozen L.A. area young Iranian Jewish couples gathering a retreat in Oxnard for a three-day program organized by the “Go Sephardic” organization. The retreat was designed to help them strengthen their relationships based on Jewish traditions and teachings. The retreat also featured a series of fun games, singing, great food, prayer, Tai- Chi exercises, wine tasting and informative lectures from the organization’s Rabbi Chaim Levy. This particular outing was organized by Jonathan and Afsoun Delshad, a local young Iranian Jewish couple who nearly two years ago decided to bring together their young married friends in the community for monthly gatherings to help them learn new skills in strengthening their marriages. I recently sat down with them to learn more about their recent “Go Sepahrdic” retreat and their efforts to help young couples like themselves in the Iranian Jewish community. The following is a portion of that conversation…
Can you please give us some insights into why you and your wife began this young couples' program with “Go Sephardic” in the local Iranian Jewish community?
Prior to getting married, my wife and I were very involved with community events. We would attend many events related to personal growth and fun singles events. Once we got married, we realized that we didn't feel comfortable going to the same events and we weren't finding any personal growth events focused on married couples. After speaking with the Rabbi Chaim Levy of “Go Sephardic”, we were encouraged to start something small and see what interest there was in the programs we were contemplating.
How long has the program been going on and how do you choice the topics for discussion or the experts to lecture on?
We have been having monthly lectures for just over two years now. We never choose the topics for discussion rather we find different lecturers each time and invite them to people's houses on a rotating basis. The person who hosts pays for all the sushi and drinks and the lecture is free to all who want to come. The lecturers-- usually rabbis from different places-- will choose their own topics related to marriage growth and fulfillment.
Your group has regularly monthly get lectures at people's homes and you recently had a young couples retreat in Oxnard. What was the motivation behind having the retreat?
This was our second annual retreat. After doing the monthly lectures, people realize how important it is to spend at least once a month focused on making their marriages better. The retreat provides a weekend to do the same while at the same time providing fun and a relaxed getaway for friends that we made during the monthly lectures. Also, Rabbi Levy and his wife wanted to increase their investment and involvement in the young couples lives and feel that this is the best opportunity for them to interact and engage the young couples on a personal level.
What feedback have you receive from young couples who have attended the retreat this year and in years past?
Luckily, each year we hear that it exceeds people’s expectations. We focused on having more "activities" and less lectures in the hopes of keeping the environment light and fun, but we are seeing that people are thirstier for the knowledge of the rabbis and the lectures. Most people who come on the retreat find it very rejuvenating and are more than happy to come back the following year. We have seen people come to epiphanies at these lectures when they realize how they are supposed to go about strengthening their relationships. It's a beautiful thing.
You have a group of both religious couples and some that are not as religious attending. What kind of atmosphere do you offer where couples whom are not as religious feel welcomed and feel at ease?
First, the monthly classes have nothing to do with religious observance. The focus is just on how to have a better marriage. We are all aware that the divorce rate in the religious communities is much less than non-religious and so we fell like it’s OK to tap into their knowledge and wisdom and apply it to our lives. Most of this can be done without the feeling of being unwelcome. Further, we make sure the food is always kosher so that those who are more religious don't feel excluded. On the retreat, we make sure to have religious services for the those who want, but they are always optional and they are there for everyone to feel comfortable attending.
You and your wife have a full plate with your own lives and also raising a newborn. How do you find the time and energy for organizing these events for young couples in our community?
It's very challenging and often times we wonder where we can find the time ourselves. Honestly it's a sacrifice, nothing ever comes for free. But we really believe in the program and we believe that we can affect peoples lives in a profound way when you start with peace in the home. The little we do to sacrifice our time away from work or home is nothing compared to what Rabbi Levy or other community leaders do and so we just see it as our duty to help. You make it work.
Divorce has become more common in our community in the U.S. in recent years where it was unthinkable in Iran for the Jewish community before to 1979. Is there a way to reverse this trend and how can Judaism help?
Like I mentioned, divorce is less common in the religious community, but one is not immune simply because they are religious. My personal belief is that there are some divorces that happen because the marriage was flawed from the beginning and built on a wrong foundation. But I think the vast majority of marriages fail because the couples stopped investing time into the marriage. Before becoming a doctor, lawyer, or even a business person you invest many years and time and money into these professions. Imagine what the world would look like if each married couple spent three months out of their lives after their marriage to invest time and energy into just the marriage. What we are providing is a forum where people can spend 12 days a year focused on their marriage-- it's not enough, but the hope is that the days they spend in the program will lead to more time spent investing in the marriage outside of the program confines.
What aspect of this program are personally fulfilling to you both in organizing this program? And how do you see the program changing in coming years?
We would have stopped doing this a long time ago if people weren't appreciative of the work we were doing. We have probably personally invested thousands of dollars into the classes and I can't even count the hours. When people tell us how much they are getting out of it, it makes it all worthwhile. My wife is drained at times and keeps getting frustrated by scheduling issues and other things that happen. At the end of a class she is more full of energy and excitement and is already onto planning the next one. As of now, we have been told that there is a replica of our group and events being made in New York. We haven't put much thought in the future other than the idea of maybe making gift certificates for the retreat that can be given as a wedding gift to newlywed couples. At some point we need to start to transition the leadership to the next group of young couples to carry the torch and maybe move on to another aspect of marriage and parenting.
The following is a brief video from the retreat with an attendee toasting Rabbi Chaim Levy...
Here are some photos captured from the retreat...
(Rabbi Chaim Levy singing with young Iranian Jewish couples on Oxnard beach)