About one month ago, over twenty Iranian-American Jews gathered together for Shabbat dinner.
I'll admit that there's nothing extraordinary about this statement. Iranian Jews in America are richly traditional and families enjoy Shabbat dinner together almost every Friday.
This group, however, was different.
They were not family members, they chose to be together for dinner, and they were all students and young professionals. No mothers were there to cook, no fathers were there to recite the blessings over wine and bread. There was no need for the TV to be on, and guests weren't moved to looked thru their phones out of boredom or force of habit.
And there was one non-Iranian Jew in attendance.
The twenty or so guests were stellar participants of The Maher Fellowship, the first-of-its-kind young leadership training program for Iranian-American Jews in Los Angeles, founded by 30 YEARS AFTER, a unique civic action organization--unique because it too was founded and is run by a group of passionate young Persian Jews.
These fantastic individuals were selected for the fellowship because they represented the best and brightest of our community, and over the past six months, were trained in everything from history to public speaking to Israel advocacy. They had all become colleagues and close friends.
Towards the end of the fellowship, we decided to bring everyone together for a different kind of session--a Shabbat dinner that aimed to show young Persian Jewish leaders a different side of Shabbat--a Shabbat that they could OWN--because much like the fellowship itself, the dinner was designed FOR young Persian Jews, BY young Persian Jews.
The lone non-Iranian, or more accurately, the honorary Iranian, was a gracious and engaging guest by the name of Adam Pollack, the Western Regional Director of NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.
NEXT's concept is simple, but powerful. If you are a Birthright alumnus (or former staffer), they will help you host a Shabbat meal (dinner or lunch). They send you a Shabbox that includes a Kiddush cup, a challah cover, candles, Shabbat blessings, and much more. You can host one meal each month, and they will help cover the costs of food.
Why should Persian Jews in America care about a service that actually helps you host a Shabbat meal?
Because Persian Jews are some of this country's consummate and constant Shabbat hosts.
On any given Friday night, you can usually find a young Iranian-American Jew in Los Angeles seated around a family Shabbat dinner table, connecting with the two most important staples of our culture--loved ones and food.
In many cases, the rich aroma of delicacies (as well as a not-so-gentle motherly reminder) brings young Persian Jews to Shabbat dinner, where we find that that everything--from the guests to the food--has somehow magically appeared before us at the table.
Were we involved in the planning? Probably not.
Do we know the stories behind the recipes that may reveal something we never knew about a grandmother or a far-away city or a safely-guarded tradition? Not very likely.
Can we see the extraordinary thread of 2,700 years of Iranian-Jewish history in the words, prayers, and tastes that are before us? Not always.
The Shabbat meal of NEXT was made for Persian Jews in America.
Or if I may reiterate, it was made for young Persian Jews, not their mothers.
What if once a month, WE hosted a Shabbat dinner or lunch at our parents' homes and invited our own friends--whether Iranian or not-Iranian, to join us around the table?
What if once a month, we asked our mothers to tell us something that we didn't know about the way that they cook their Shabbat delicacies--Who taught them? What is that spice? What does this dish remind them of?
And what if once a month, we made a conscious decision to invite a few friends--a few new voices to add to the chorus of brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, grandparents, and others? And what if these friends were not Persian, but would love the chance to partake in a Persian Shabbat meal?
At this particular dinner back in May, the guests were also the hosts, in that they owned the dinner experience. With no parents or elders in sight, something amazing happened: THEY dominated the conversation, with discussions ranging from the biggest strengths and weaknesses of the Persian Jewish community to a beautifully articulate, if not heated, debate about fate, spirituality, and even the meaning of life. As far as we knew, the Lakers lost, law school was grueling, and traffic was bad--those topics lasted all but five minutes, because surrounded by only one another--these young guests had bigger things to discuss.
After dinner, we all sat around and Adam facilitated an eye-opening discussion. Young, intelligent, successful Iranian-American Jews were asked why Shabbat itself was even important, about what made Shabbat Shabbat for them, about their relationship with Shabbat and how it was different from their parents' relationship with this day of the week. It was a beautiful thing.
I'm not a fan of the "there's no reason why" rationale to arguing my case, but in this case, there really is no reason why thousands of young Persian Jews in America that have been on Birthright do NOT host a few Shabbat meals themselves throughout the year--either at their parents' home, their home, or even out somewhere.
You feel a little giddy when you find that free Shabbox package in your mailbox, and remove the casing from the silver wine cup and realize that it, along with the Shabbat you're about to host, is yours.
It's not just about religion, and it's not even about food, hard as that is for me to admit.
It's about connection and ownership.
Did you visit Israel with Birthright? Then you can host a meal and NEXT will help you.
Are you eligible for Birthright but still haven't taken advantage of this amazing gift? Then register, enjoy the trip, and come back and host your friends at home.
Embrace a Shabbat meal as a way of connecting with the people that make up your life.
Own a Shabbat meal as a way of connecting with yourself.
I challenge you to host just two Shabbat meals this year, registered easily with NEXT. You don't even have to cook anything, as long as somebody eats something.
Tell NEXT that it will be held at your parents' house.
Tell your parents that you want to invite your non-Persian friends.
And tell yourself that you should have started doing this a long time ago.
Something happens when the meal is long over and you miss the experience already. You realize that you would have hosted those awesome people for an Shabbat awesome meal even if you had never been reimbursed for it.
And then you begin thinking about what comes next.
Tabby Davoodi is the Executive Director of 30 YEARS AFTER, a non-profit 501(c)(3) civic action organization that promotes the participation and leadership of Iranian-American Jews in American civic, political, and Jewish life. Applications for the 2015 class of The Maher Fellowship will be open in November 2014. For more information, please visit www.30yearsafter.org