PASADENA — Armenian students and their mentorship partners were sitting around a fire in the middle of a parking lot Sunday at St. George’s Armenian Church, contemplating the gravity of the millennia-old tradition they were about to undertake.
The group of more than 70 listened quietly as a pile of burning wood crackled under the evening sky, while Ara Arzumanian, executive director of the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s Generation Next Mentorship Program, explained why the pairs of mentors and mentees, most of whom were from Glendale, were preparing to take turns jumping over the flames.
Armenians have participated in the unifying ritual of jumping over a fire with someone else — a husband, wife, friend or relative — for thousands of years, as a confirmation of their mutual respect, Arzumanian explained. The event usually takes place about 40 days after the start of the new year.
As the group was preparing for the ritual, he urged attendees to be mindful of their heritage — that the fire was representative of the same flames each person’s ancestors had jumped over, perhaps as far back as 6,000 years ago, he said.
“Respect the fire,” he told the group.
Then the jumping began, with teenagers grasping their mentors’ hands, charging toward the flames and leaping to the other side.
After landing, many went to stand in line for another jump.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Anna Dermenchyan, 26, a North Hollywood resident and mentor for the program. “It’s exercise.”
Glendale resident Koryun Petrosyan, 17, was relieved to have completed the task.
“Everyone was in a circle watching and stuff,” said Koryun, a junior at Clark Magnet High School. “I guess the fire meant something. Jumping over it got me to be happy for some reason.”
Some were surprised by the heat of the flames, and others giggled as they landed, but most reflected on the meaning of the tradition.
“It shows respect for our heritage and all of our past,” said Glendale resident Karlen Galstian, 13, an eighth-grader at Roosevelt Middle School.
The activity was part of the Generation Next program, which aims to help students from middle school through high school by pairing them up with mentors who are professionals or college students, said Armine Hovasapian, a case manager for the program.
Arzumanian spends time at middle schools in Glendale and in other cities, searching for students who might benefit from extra encouragement or direction from a successful mentor, one to whom each child can easily relate because they have common cultural experiences as minorities, Hovasapian said.
“The most powerful thing they gain out of [the program] is their relationship with their mentor,” she said. “They have a role model.”
The group does other bonding activities, like rock climbing, and took a trip to USC last month, where it participated in a scavenger hunt and heard from successful professionals and graduate students about their careers and how they got to their current positions, Hovasapian said.
But while the group is meant to encourage students to succeed, it aims to accomplish that goal by giving students personal support, she said.
Dermenchyan’s mentee, Glendale resident Anaeis Zaghean, 14, was a recent immigrant to the United States when she joined the program less than two years ago and felt lost at the time, Anaeis said.
“First I didn’t know anything, anywhere to go; it was so hard,” she said. “I didn’t know any English.”
Things have changed for the better since Dermenchyan became Anaeis’ mentor, she said.
“Now she’s an A student,” Dermenchyan said. “She’s doing really well.”
ZAIN SHAUK covers education. He may be reached at (818) 637-3238 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.