Baghdad might seem like an odd place for an American to discover his Jewishness, but, as Jean-Paul Le points out, “It’s where the Talmud was written.”
As for waiting until he was 26 to explore his religious roots, that was just fine, too.
“I grew up without any Judaism, and I was quite thankful for that,” he said. Growing up as“a Spanish-speaking Asian in Summit was complicated enough.”
Le, a 29-year-old consultant in health-care supply chain management, now based in New York City, was the keynote speaker at the annual MetroWest UJA Campaign fund-raiser at Crestmont Country Club in West Orange on June 15.
The event, chaired by Rita and Harvey Cohen, drew around 75 people. In place of the usual golf outing, it featured a dinner with seven courses, each paired with selected wines provided by club member Eric Perlmutter, the owner of Allied Beverages.
Le told the audience his father came from Vietnam at 20 in 1975 and his mother from Peru about the same time. They met while working at an insurance company. He was Buddhist, and she came from a Jewish family who had emigrated from Morocco, but neither placed much emphasis on religion for themselves or their three children.
His parents were willing to pay for his college education, he said, but he chose to cover the cost by joining the Army National Guard. That involved doing military service one weekend a month and two weeks a year while he completed his undergraduate degree and then his MBA at Rutgers University. He later served one year of active duty.
Posted to Baghdad in 2008, he didn’t see action, but it was still stressful. When a friend invited him to a Sabbath get-together, he found it a refreshing change.
“This guy was from Puerto Rico, and it turned out that his family was also Jewish, though he also hadn’t grown up in an observant home,” Le said. “He asked me what my mother’s maiden name was, and when I told him it’s Sara Cohen, he said, ‘Dude, you’re Jewish.’”
There were too few Jews for a minyan, but about four people would do the best they could. Their group included a woman who was one of the few remaining Jewish residents of the city.
“We called ourselves ‘B’nai Baghdad,’” Le said. He enjoyed discovering the ritual, history, and values “that my family had been involved with for generations.”
During that year, he also heard about Birthright Israel, which provides 10-day, all-expenses-paid trips to Israel for Jews ages 18 to 26. Just before turning 27, he applied.
“I just thought it would be a chance to see Israel and to see my two uncles who made aliya from Peru in the late 1990s,” he said. He was accepted, and went to Israel in June 2009, two weeks after his return from Iraq.
The trip, he said, “was absolutely amazing.”
At the Western Wall, a rabbi asked if anyone in their group had not had a bar mitzva ceremony. He spoke up, and — with the uncles he was seeing for the first time in a decade — he found himself welcomed into Jewish adulthood.
“I knew that I had found a home, or a second home, for the rest of my life,” Le said. Six months later, he was chosen to represent the 2009 Birthrighters on an alumni trip.
While settling into working life, Le has also been delving deeper into Judaism, taking a series of courses through the Jewish Enrichment Center in Manhattan. “I’ve been making up for not having gone to a Solomon Schechter school,” he said.
Playing to her audience’s interests, UJA Campaign chair Paula Saginaw likened the campaign’s support for Birthright to sharpening a crucial aspect of one’s golf game. “But our much larger goal,” she said, “is to help any Jew in need and to ensure Jewish continuity in MetroWest, and Israel, and around the world.”
The past few years, she said, have been “very tough,” but there is the hope this year that supporters will give enough to raise allocations to the 20 local and three overseas agencies supported by the campaign.
In addition to Crestmont, three other country clubs in MetroWest — Mountain Ridge, Green Brook, and Cedar Hill — hosted events in June to support the UJA Campaign of MetroWest NJ. Together, more than $150,000 was raised to benefit efforts to help Jews in need and build Jewish community.
The clubs’ events included golf tournaments, tennis matches, Israeli craft projects, barbecues, and presentations from United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ partner agencies and from Middle East experts.