OA Executive Director, Roxana Norouzi, Reflects on what Jewish Heritage Month Means to Her

We are a couple of months late for Jewish American Heritage Month, but we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to highlight what Jewish Heritage means to OneAmerica’s new fearless Executive Director and powerful woman of color, Roxana Norouzi. 

When asked about her relationship to her Jewish heritage – both throughout her life and upbringing and within the current social global environment – she said “I have grappled with my Jewish identity my whole life.”

Roxana is a middle eastern or Mizrahi Jew. For centuries her ancestors have lived in the middle east, in countries known as present day Iran, Syria and Iraq. Her family has experienced both prosperity and persecution throughout their time in the Middle East. 

Roxana noted that a huge part of the reason her parents immigrated to the US is on account of her Jewish heritage. During the 1940s as WWII was ravaging Europe, Roxana’s father’s family was threatened when they were “found out” to be Jewish and had to move from a town in northwest Iran to the capital, Tehran, where they hid their Jewish identity. After the 1979 revolution, Iran was no longer safe for Jews along with other religious minorities and Roxana’s family moved to the U.S. where she was born. “The backdrop of my relationship to my Jewish identity is this -” said Norouzi, “that my family lived in fear of persecution and had to leave the only country we ever knew because of our religious identity.” 

She went on to discuss the complexity of her lived experience as a Jewish-Iranian woman in the United States, explaining that while being Jewish made her parents a minority in danger in Iran, here – where she was born into a very racialized society – she often did not feel welcomed by the American Jewish communities (which are majority white Europeans) as an Iranian woman. “For a long time the experience of not being accepted in the American Jewish community made me reject my Jewish identity,” she said. “The way I was treated as a person of color – in particular a middle eastern person – and the rejection I felt from the white Jewish community made me angry, which then contributed to my politicization around race.”

While it has been a journey to embrace her Jewish identity – an effort that required her to reclaim it for herself – Roxana feels that ultimately she has learned to celebrate it proudly, and that it critically informs her work in movements for liberation. “The more I’ve been able to own my Jewish identity for myself and what it has meant to me – as opposed to other people’s perceptions of Jewish identity, or my experience of rejection within certain Jewish communities – the more I’ve realized that a lot of my belief in freedom and liberation is rooted in my Jewish identity and the struggles of my family. It has also allowed me to examine my responsibility to now fight for collective liberation and freedom for others.” 

Roxana emphasized the importance of stepping into her new role as OneAmerica’s Executive Director proudly celebrating every part of her identity including her Jewish background. “So much of organizing is about our own personal liberation. It’s about being able to embrace every part of ourselves. For me, this means being able to celebrate how my Jewish heritage informs who I am. I am here, I am fierce, I am compassionate and empathetic because of the struggles, pain, love and joy that are a part of my history and the history of the people who made me.”

Image description: Roxana with her family celebrating Passover – a holiday in which they have both retained Iranian Jewish transitions for decades and also, over the years, transformed it to be about a reflection on justice, action and freedom for all oppressed communities, including using a social justice focused haggadah.

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