Katrin Yaghoubi wanted to find a synagogue with gemutlichkeit. That’s German for coziness. And it had to have eshtemah. That’s Farsi for community.And a rabbi whose services kept her interest. That’s English for not boring.
It took her almost eight years.An Iranian Jew born in Germany, Yaghoubi now lives in Manhattan but her shul is in Great Neck, home to her mother, one of her three siblings and thousands of other Iranian Jews.
Her synagogue is the Cherry Lane Minyan, on the campus of the North Shore Hebrew Academy. She was there for the High Holy Days and was back for Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
“I went to almost all the Conservative and Orthodox shuls in New York City” since 1992, says Yaghoubi, who came to the United States to attend Columbia University Business School. She worked seven years as a portfolio manager, and recently left her job to become a consultant, philanthropist and volunteer chair of the International Sephardic Educational Foundation’s newly formed Young Leadership Division.
“When I came here,” she says, sitting in her spartan East Side office, “it was very hard. I didn’t know where I belonged.”The internal dichotomy is reflected in her business card. “I have a deutsche first name and a Persian last name” — Yaghoubi is Farsi for Jacob.Her English is fluent, unaccented, the result of 13 years in a private, international, English-language school in Hamburg.Part of a small group of yuppie-age (she is 30), transplanted Jews with Iranian roots who grew up in that German port city where business-minded Iranian Jews started settling in the 1960s, she is a self-described “hybrid”: Sephardi genes, Ashkenazi upbringing.“My Sephardic heritage is becoming clearer to me as I’m getting older,” she says.
Her parents are from Mashadi families, descended from Marrano-like forced converts to Islam who lived outwardly as Muslims and secretly as observant Jews following a pogrom that took 32 Jewish lives in the northern Iranian holy city of Mashad in 1839.Over the decades, the clandestine Jews left Mashad, but they could not openly practice their faith until the Shah came to power in the mid-20th century. No known Jews live in the city today.An estimated 4,000 Mashadi Jews live now in greater New York, mostly in Great Neck.“I never felt different, as a Mashadi, until I moved to New York,” Yaghoubi says. “I was always a Jew. I never felt [identified as] a Mashadi until I came here.”
You don’t look Jewish, American Jews tell her. She is “irritated” by the comment.“What does ‘looking Jewish’ mean?” she asks.Yaghoubi says her search for a synagogue where she feels at home — she loosely translates gemutlichkeit as “comfort” — is a big part of the struggle. The congregations she tried were too big, too impersonal, too homogeneous.“I couldn’t find one I was happy with. The spirituality was missing for me,” she says.Last year she attended the Cherry Lane Minyan for Rosh HaShanah. It’s a 7-year-old, unaffiliated Modern Orthodox congregation with a year-and-a-half-old building and a mixed membership: half of the 80 to 100 worshipers who come each Shabbat are Ashkenazic, the other half Sephardic. All the latter are Iranians.“When I go there I feel like I’m in Hamburg,” Yaghoubi says. The Hamburg shul had the same combination of European and Iranian Jews.
In Hamburg, she says, the Iranian Jews, who ran their own youth group and hosted their own rotating Friday-night meals, were an Orthodox minority. “We were the ones who kept the synagogue alive,” she says.Cherry Lane has the spirit of the Hamburg shul, Yaghoubi adds.
Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, spiritual leader of the congregation, says it’s the only one in the area with such a 50-50 split. The minyan uses the ArtScroll RCA siddur, which is Ashkenazic, but Iranians who lead services or read from the Torah bring the Sephardic nusach. Food at shul simchas come from both cultures. At the front of the one-story brick building is a Holocaust memorial; in the ark is a Sephardic Torah, from Syria, made from leather.“It’s a synagogue that tries to accommodate all Jews,” Rabbi Tokayer says, who adds that on Simchat Torah, when certain aliyahs and readings are prestigious parts of the service, “we make sure that the honorees are from all the communities.”
This drive for tolerance led Yaghoubi to ISEF. She attended a conference of young European Jews in London last November and noticed a “significant presence” of Sephardim.Back at a Shabbat dinner in New York with old friends from Hamburg and new acquaintances from the U.S., she asked, “Why don’t we start an organization to bring together Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazic Jews?”
With the blessing of ISEF (the organization that supports underprivileged Israelis is 22 years old) and the help of her vice-chair friends (Suzy Kamail, Rachel Moheban and Dan Rosenblatt), the Young Leadership Division was born. Geared for those in their 20s and 30s, it has a dual purpose: Raising funds for Project 2000: Screens for Kids, a new program that brings computers and Internet access to Israeli schools, and providing a non-threatening setting where those from Ashkenazi and Sephardi backgrounds can learn about each other. Jewish continuity with humus and potato kugel.
“This is my shot at making a difference in the Jewish community,” Yaghoubi says.Through personal connections, she and her friends have culled a mailing list of some 3,000 names — professionals whose families come from Morocco, Iraq and Libya, Australia and South Africa and Canada, and a score more countries.The focus of the Young Leadership Division is cultural. It will issue a newsletter, hold occasional social and educational meetings, and a major annual fund-raiser. The first event, “East Meets West,” a kosher buffet-dance with Bedouin tents and Ashkenazi-Sephardi entertainment, will be held Saturday in Manhattan.But first she celebrated Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah with her family in Great Neck. All of them, including her father, who splits his time between Hamburg and Long Island, came together at the Cherry Lane Minyan.
“It’s a miracle for my family that there is a shul like this,” she says.Discouraged, she had stopped going to synagogue regularly for a while. After yom tov, she may return to Great Neck for every Shabbat.“The shul has neshama,” she says.That’s Hebrew for soul. “East Meets West,” the ISEF Young Leadership Division’s inaugural event, will be held at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16, at the Altman Building, 135 W. 18th St., Manhattan. For details, call (212) 479-6073.