The Business of Identity

Queens College Hillel program offers career, cultural connections for Mizrahi students

By Shana Medel

[Third of a four-part series on the most unusual clubs at Hillel]

Jacob Bonheur was stunned. The 22-year-old had just discovered he was Mizrahi, a term used to describe Jews of Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asian descent. He’d never even heard of the word.

The son of Iranian parents, Bonheur was raised with a strong Persian Jewish identity, bolstered by years of speaking Farsi in the household and celebrating holidays with traditional Persian cuisine.

Yet, he was unaware that his Persian Jewish ancestry made him Mizrahi until he became involved with Mizrahi LEAD, a semester-long leadership program for Mizrahi Jewish students at Queens College Hillel.

“I lived my whole life thinking there were Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews – that’s it,” said Bonheur, a Queens College senior majoring in psychology. “I always thought I was Sephardic. I had no idea what a Mizrahi Jew was or that I was one.”

Mizrahi LEAD, an acronym for Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Development, enables Jewish students of Mizrahi background to develop their career prospects and explore their heritage. Participants meet weekly to engage in learning sessions, often delving into ancient Jewish texts that relate to leadership or touring companies such as LinkedIn.

Roughly 15 undergraduates, who identify with varying levels of Jewish observance, are admitted to the program after completing an online application and in-person interview. Many of their families hail from countries such as Uzbekistan, Yemen and Iran.

Launched in spring 2018, Mizrahi LEAD was founded by Manashe Khaimov, director of community engagement and development at QC Hillel. The intimate setting fosters in-depth conversations, long-lasting friendships and personal growth, said Khaimov, an Uzbekistan-born Jew with a background in community organization and social work.

“Our program helps to diversify the pipeline of Jewish leaders on campus,” Khaimov said. “Ashkenazi Jews are the most populous ethnic group in North America, and that’s heavily reflected in Jewish communities on college campuses. However, that doesn’t represent the makeup of students on our campus.”

QC Hillel serves a vibrant Jewish population, home to one of the largest Mizrahi communities in the nation.

From chats over cups of coffee, Khaimov learned that his Mizrahi students deeply valued professional advancement as well as their Jewish and Mizrahi identities. However, with many of them commuting over an hour to Queens College, their on-campus time was limited, narrowing their opportunities to become involved in student life.

The solution: Khaimov created Mizrahi LEAD to blend the varied interests of his students.

Jacob Chadi, a Persian Jewish student who hopes to become a clinical psychologist, said he gathered insight about his leadership style from the program. A session analyzing the characteristics of biblical patriarchs and matriarchs taught Chadi that his leadership instincts most resembled those of Jacob, who he said was “a man of truth and honesty” in his business endeavors.

The 19-year-old junior said his participation led him to become QC Hillel president this school year.

“These classes taught me what kind of leader I was and what kind of leader I wanted to become,” Chadi said. “I don’t think I would’ve run for a Hillel club position if I wasn’t a part of Mizrahi LEAD.”

The course also features successful entrepreneurs as guest speakers, many of whom are Mizrahi Jewish immigrants, to share their career stories with Mizrahi LEAD. Students highlight the speaker sessions as their favorite aspect of the program, he added.

“At the end of the day, most of the students are entrepreneurial-minded, and eager to own their own company,” Khaimov said. “That spirit is very prevalent in the Mizrahi community.”

Destiny Inocent, a senior economics major with Yemenite roots, can see herself becoming like some of those business leaders, such as Nastel Technologies founder David Mavashev, a native Tajikistani who relocated to New York at age 28, intent to “make it in the land of opportunity.”

“When I begin to doubt myself and my career goals, I think about these speakers,” said Inocent, 22. “Sometimes I forget they were once my age – unsure of themselves and the future. Their stories push me to keep going and remember, ‘If they can make it, so can I.’”

Daniel Akilov, a child of political refugees from Tajikistan, said successful Mizrahi entrepreneurs like Mavashev rebut a stereotype he believes exists about Mizrahi Jews only working menial jobs.

“When we meet Jewish people of Mizrahi background who created apps or started businesses, we’re inspired to think big about our own futures,” he said. “We shouldn’t let this stereotype hold us back. We can be whoever we want to be.”

The 20-year-old Queens College junior became involved with Mizrahi LEAD last year. He said the program enhanced his ability to communicate effectively, an essential skill for an aspiring lawyer.

Akilov played a role in the first-ever fundraising campaign spearheaded by Mizrahi LEAD students, which raised $2,359 from 61 donors, surpassing their original goal by almost $400.

His experience with the campaign project helped him secure an internship at the Queens College Government Relations and External Affairs Office of the President, where he focuses on fundraising. The political science major credits Mizrahi LEAD with sparking his interest in campus opportunities.

“If I wasn’t a part of this program, I don’t know if I’d be in the same place right now,” Akilov said. “I probably would’ve just kept to myself and focused on my grades.”

For Akilov and many of his peers, Mizrahi LEAD has catalyzed their leadership on and off campus.

Jacob Bonheur, a soon-to-be graduate, said he’s learning the ins and outs of real estate, preparing to eventually take over his father’s property management company.

“When you’re an entrepreneur, there isn’t a straightforward path to success,” he said. “Mizrahi LEAD prepared me to become an entrepreneur in the real world.”

This program is partially supported by Genesis Philanthropy Group, Hillel International, UJA-Federation of New York, Mavashev Fund and Sephardic Heritage Alliance Inc.

Shana Medel is a communications associate at Hillel International.