I have known Dariush Fakheri, the president of the L.A.-based International Judea Foundation (SIAMAK) for the last 10 years. During that time I’ve come discover that he is by far is one of most out-spoken and dynamic leaders of Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community. SIAMAK under his leadership has without fear tackled some of the most controversial, taboo and downright difficult challenges our immigrant community living in L.A. has encountered. Whether it be drug abuse, pre-martial sex among youngsters or issues of divorce, SIAMAK’s board members and Fakheri have been unafraid to seek real solutions to these problems plaguing L.A.’s Iranian Jews. With the local Iranian Jewish community well established, SIAMAK, along with other community groups are increasingly turning their attention to aiding Israel in different ways.
Earlier this year, the organization along with Israel’s Ben Gurion University unofficially launched “Project Jacob”, a program to fund, nurture and develop innovative medical, high-tech and alternative energy research at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU). The longstanding objective of the program is to help spur economic growth in Israel and job creation in the country.
Earlier this week my piece in the Journal highlighted Fakheri’s efforts to develop “Project Jacob” and the following is portion of my interview with him…
Can you give us some background on your organization, SIAMAK?
We were one of the first organizations formed more than 30 years ago. During these 30 years we were involved with some many projects with new Iranian Jewish immigrants to the U.S. to help them with acculturation, resettlement, find housing and work. It was a huge job, but we were a bunch of young energetic people and we took on that challenge head on. Thankfully we were successful with these efforts. Every decade our priorities changed, once people were settled they had families who could help them. We then turned our attention to young people in our community to encourage them to stick to Judaism, or help them with their drug problems or violence occurring in their home. Every ten years we changed our goals as the community became more settled and we tried to adapt to helping the community in different ways. Later on once we were settled, more affluent and comfortable in our settings, we started to help Israeli causes more than before. We were also involved in raising funds for Muslim refugees in Bosnia, different food banks in Israels, Rambam hospital in Hafia after the Hezbollah war in 2006 and even supporting the late professor Amnon Netzer’s research in Judeo-Persian language at Hebrew University in Israel.
Your organization two years ago separated from another local Iranian Jewish group, what about that split helped to bring “Project Jacob” to life?
After the split from that other organization, we ended up with having close to a quarter of million dollars. So what happened was for a few months was that we tried to get over the hurt of all of the ideas we had had and to bury many of them that were very dear for us. After a few months I realized that we were not going to reignite our organization (SIAMAK) anymore because we were short handed locally. So our board got together with how we could best use this money. We had seen that for the last 30 years we had many people from Israel who came to us begging for money because they were living below the poverty line. To me it was insulting for Jews to go around the world and begging for money in the 21st century! So we thought, why don’t we teach them how to fish instead of giving them fishes? If we explore the “oil wells’ that we do have in Israel— the talent and brains of the Israeli people, then Israel will become more successful. This were we came up with the idea for Project Jacob.
So Project Jacob will be funding and helping to spur the creation of new innovations at Ben Gurion University and Israel. What are some of the benefits and unique aspects of this program from other programs?
This is a multifaceted program. A portion of that money the innovators of these inventions make, will come back to fund the next generation of people involved with the project. We did this because we saw that a lot of inventions created in Israel are being sold for hundreds of millions of dollars around the world but not really benefiting Israel. So we wanted to create a solution to this problem where such inventions would benefit for Israel. For example, with Project Jacob will end up making a lot of people millionaires because they will sell their invention and fulfill their dreams. Also the Israel government will benefit from the taxes generated by the sales of these inventions and those funds that could be used for any use that the government sees fit. This project will also help to prevent “brain drain” from Israel because scientists and innovators will stay in the country when they know the money from their inventions will to stay there. The overriding effect of inventions created in Israel is also good for Israel’s image because it shows that Jews and Israel are interested in “Tikkun Olam”. Likewise, if we have a vibrant economy, then this may encourage more aliyah to Israel. Lastly, if we can help Ben Gurion University, then we can help the Negev region prosper, release the traffic that is suffocating Tel Aviv and encourage development with more young people moving to the Negev.
What are the overhead costs for running Project Jacob?
No one from our organization makes a penny working for this organizations and any costs associated with it are paid by us. If I have to visit someone to encourage them to get involved with this program, I will pay for it out of my own pocket— and there are no administrative costs. This project was not named after anyone’s family name because it will allow anyone interested to join the project. If we could sponsor an inventor or a brain, then one invention by itself could support the whole project.
Can you explain how Project Jacob will advance the concept of “Tikkun Olam” or healing the world?
This project is a humanitarian effort in our eyes— for example, if we support the discovery of a vaccination it will not just help sick Jews, but aid all people around the world who are in need of it. Whatever we are doing, the beneficiaries are humanity. Anyone who wants to come to join this crusade we are involved with is more than welcomed. This is something that will help all humanity. After working 40 years on behalf of the community and not spending as much time with my family I said it’s enough— but you can’t stand still and see an opportunity like this that can benefit so many people in so many ways and do nothing.
What feedback have you received so far from those who have been introduced to Project Jacob in the U.S.?
Everyone I have spoken to is very excited about it. We’ve even had an offer by a U.S. company to buy one of the inventions that we have sponsored in this project. I am totally convinced that this project will cause an avalanche. If we have one successful project that is offered to the market and is picked up it will create more. We paid $200,000 in February 2010 to start the project and have made a commitment of $1 million. But I believe the contributions to this project will be much more once people see the potential and success of these inventions.