By Barbara Fenig
Shahd Baeij, a fresh-faced mother of four with a talent for creating beautiful feasts, is eager to introduce participants at the Tucson JCC and supporters of the city’s International Rescue Committee (IRC), to Syrian culture. She wants to tell them about the circumstances of the modern-day refugee.
And the 26-year-old Syrian refugee seems like the perfect vehicle for getting out the message, doing so through a series of cooking classes featuring Syrian cuisine. Held in the Tucson J’s state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen, they represent a partnership between the Tucson J and the IRC.
The course provides a taste of Syria through such dishes, such as yalangi (Syrian grape leaves)—where Baeli teaches each participant how to properly roll the grape leaves; ful medames, a delicious fava bean dish; and kawage, a vegetable casserole; others such as fattoush salad, baba ganoush, and several variations of hummus.
Before the class, Baeij studied the chart of hechsher icons that prove rabbinical certification on kosher foods, and has made it a practice to recognize the symbols while shopping at the Middle Eastern markets in Tucson. The morning of the first cooking class, she presents the groceries that she has sourced, with the help of Piri Lanes, the employment specialist at Tucson’s IRC chapter: stout bottles of tahini and magenta pomegranate syrup, cans of chickpeas and stacks of pita bread—all bearing certification.
Baeij has said that she desires the Tucson community to understand “how nice our [Syrian] spirit is and how we are welcoming to others”—JCC values spoken in Arabic, a wonderful demonstration of the Tucson J’s mission. In her own words: “I am a woman who never knows the impossible. I live by that expression. I live by my strong feeling of being a woman and breaking down the impossible is very important to me.” Baeij embodies these values as she teaches—she is warm with her students and efficiently shares her recipes and techniques with them while beaming with pride about her culture.
The Tucson J strives to create community-based on Jewish values by providing the highest quality programs and services in a safe and secure environment for people of all ages. Tucson, Arizona is the home to 900 refugees from around the world and is an “immigrant-welcoming city.” The JCC’s collaboration with the IRC enables the Tucson J to showcase the talents of the newly Tucsonan and to imbue the refugee-taught cooking series with Jewish values, chiefly tikkun olam, repairing the world; hachnasat orchim, welcoming new friends; and ada yehidi nivrah, respecting difference.
This collaboration fits neatly into the early history of JCCs assisting Jews, newly arrived on these shores, as they found their way in their new country. The JCCA Movement was established 100 years ago to serve the needs of young Jewish men serving in World War I. At the end of the war, the coalition of YM-YWHAs, Jewish Community Centers, and camps held, and turned its attention from serving those new Americans to helping ease their way on the road to becoming an American, much as the Tucson J is doing today with people like Baeij.
Baeij continues to teach at the Tucson J, offering a four-week course on her native cuisine, which is the ultimate goal of this collaboration: to enable the instructors to rebuild their lives in the United States, to regain self-reliance, and to provide them with employment opportunities in Tucson. Currently, the IRC and the Tucson J are continuing this partnership, also hosting a Somali cuisine cooking class led by Samiro Elmi, a Somali refugee who moved to Tucson in March of this year.
At the end of Baeij’s classes, before the students sit down to enjoy their Syrian feast together, she shows participants how to adorn each dish with a special decorative element—pomegranate seeds and parsley leaves for the hummus, a radish cut into a rose for the yalangi—and shares that her children will not eat a meal if it’s not properly ornamented. A chorus of surprised laughter rings around the room from a mother and her son in a Camp J T-shirt; a retired businessman who spent the last year learning to cook in Italy and recently moved to Tucson; two sets of mothers and adult daughters who were visiting The J for the first time; and a group of young millennials Instragramming their own attempts at adornment—all enamored with Baeij’s g’milut chasadim, acts of loving kindness.
Barbara Fenig is the director of arts and culture at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.