Q&A;with Iranian Jewish ‘mensche’ Manijeh Youabian

During the course of the year I am approached by hundreds of Iranian American Jews living in Southern California and New York who recommend stories for me to cover about their community. Whether it’s a worthy charitable cause or a problem issue that the community is grappling with, there are certainly no shortages of stories nor shortages of people who claim to be the community’s “do-gooders”.

Sadly the majority of these self-proclaimed “do-gooders” are nothing more than affluent Iranian Jews who are seeking the limelight but are not actually doing anything real nor productive to resolve a particular problem in the community. For this reason alone, it makes me proud to have covered Mrs. Manijeh Youabian for The Jewish Journal’s list of Mensches this year as she is one of those rare jewels in our community who is actually doing plenty to help our community’s needy!

For the past 16 years Mrs. Youabian, from her own initiative, has helped hundreds of local Iranian Jewish families and new immigrants from Iran who have fallen on bad times. From my research and knowledge, she has never sought acclaim or the limelight from the community for what she’s done for the less fortunate from amongst our ranks. She has instead spoken on countless occasions at community events, social gatherings and religious services to donate to her organization and help those who are poor in L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community. What is remarkable to me is the fact that she has personally worked within so many aspects of this charitable endeavor successfully all these years, through pure word of mouth and local grassroots efforts. In my opinion, Mrs. Youabian not only serves as an excellent example for younger Iranian American Jews to follow, but she’s an ideal symbol of tezdakah in the local Iranian Jewish community that for years has often been obsessed with foolish materialism and “showing off their wealth”.

While my story this week in the Journal about Mrs. Youabian can be found here, the following is a portion of my interview with her that was not included in the newspaper’s article due to limited space:

So what kind of background checks to you do on the poverty stricken Iranian Jews you have helped?

I make visits them unexpectedly and actually go through their home – I even check their cupboards and refrigerator to see what they have to eat. Also I ask community members, some of their relatives and their co-workers about their financial situation. I also check with other (Iranian Jewish) organizations in the community to see if they have helped a particular family or individual already. I also work along side the folks from Nessah Synagogue and Torat Hayim (in Los Angeles) and we sometimes divide up the costs to help families in need. I also check to see if these people in need receive food stamps or receive any other type of government assistance. When we realize that they are totally in need, then we proceed to help them.

Can you share one particular instance where you helped someone in need that has remained with you?

One time I received a call from a young man who did not give his full name he said he was at the end of medical school but urgently needed funds to pay the tuition for his last term of medical school. I did a background check and we verified that he was indeed in medical school and needed financial assistance, so we released some funds to him. I never heard from this young man again until a few years later when he called me said “Mrs. Manijeh, I am so and so. You don’t remember me but your organization helped pay my medical school tuition and now I am a successful doctor. I am now not only able to return the funds you gave me but I will gladly see any patients that you send me free of charge”. This young man brought tears to my eyes because we helped him at one time and now he’s helping us.

You’ve indicated that you help these needy Iranian Jewish families confidentially. How do you maintain this anonymity and confidentiality in our tight-knit community?

Well 99% of the time, if we see these people in public whom we have helped, we do not approach nor talk to them unless they approach us. I know them by their first names only and their names are not said or known by others in our organization. There have been some rare instances where we have even helped pay some of the expenses relating to the engagement parties for young ladies whose families had no money. In these cases, no one knew that we had helped them and the couples later got married and started their lives together.

The economy has taken a turn for the worse recently. How has that impacted the people you help and the amount of help you give to poverty stricken people in our community?

With horrible economy, within the past three months more people have come to us for help because they have lost their jobs, or gone bankrupt, or they are sick and cannot afford to pay for medical care. One man recently asked us for money to pay for his eye surgery and we helped him – he subsequently left the country to go live in Israel. Obviously our budgets to help these poor Iranian Jewish families are limited by the donations we receive from community members. So if we have less money then we try to give to all the families that receive our help, but we give them few coupons for food or fewer items than we normally would be giving them.

So you’ve been named as a “Menshe” by the Jewish Journal, what special message do you have for others in L.A.’s Jewish community?

My message to the rest of the Jewish community is to be thankful for your health and ability to feed yourselves with dignity – please take the hand of the person who is truly in need so that he or she will not suffer shame in front of their child of not being able to provide food or shelter. We have to help these needy people become fisherman and not recipients of fish alone. God does not necessarily need us to pray to him for things, God needs us to help others. If folks out their want to help us, we will even accept any amount of donations they want to give and we will even accept their offers to pay for a needy family’s rent or other expenses directly. Please help us by calling 310-908-4442 and making your checks payable to the “International Judea Foundation” or I.J.F.”