On a typical Shabbat morning at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills, there is seldom a free seat in the spanking new 1,200-seat sanctuary. At Nessah, like other traditional Orthodox synagogues in Los Angeles, men and women sit separately, men lead the services and they don't use a microphone.
But don't expect Nessah to be too familiar. Although it follows a traditional Sephardic liturgy, at this shul -- now the largest solely Persian congregation in Los Angeles -- if you don't speak Farsi, you won't know what the rabbi is talking about.
The Beverly Hills building is a new home for Nessah, which moved to the neighborhood from Santa Monica last March. This High Holiday season, firmly settled in their multimillion-dollar, 60,000-square-foot building, synagogue leaders are trying to reach out to a new generation of Persians, ones who might not be as comfortable as their parents with all-Farsi services.
For the first time in 22 years, this Rosh Hashana Nessah will have Hebrew services with English explanations and an English sermon together with their traditional Farsi services. "We want to attract the younger crowd that does not speak Persian," says Mike Cantor, 31, Nessah's executive director. He said that both services sold out -- with 650 people attending the English service and 1,170 attending the Farsi service.
As in the larger Jewish community, the Persian community is facing the challenge of attracting the younger generation to religion and tradition.
"This is a transitional generation," says Rabbi David Shofet, Nessah's rabbi. "Kids who came here when they were 5 or 10 years old were educated in the education system here in this country, and they think like Americans, so you can't talk the same language that you did back home. The new generation understands Farsi, but they don't understand a high level of Persian, therefore, we have to talk in English to them," he explained. "The concepts are different, and while daily conversation in easy for them to understand, if you want to really talk to them, they are lost."
The English services are only one part of Cantor's plan to make use of the new, neo-classical white edifice on Rexford Drive to attract the young Persian community, to "provide them with the latest in what is cutting-edge Jewish and particularly Persian Jewish." Buoyed by a recent private fundraiser that raised $6.5 million in one night, Cantor has plans for weekly social and educational gatherings where different Persian speakers will address topical issues. He also wants to institute cultural exchange programs between the East and West Coast where yeshiva students can come and learn with Shofet. "I am very keen on harnessing the young crowd for the sake of continuity in this community," Cantor says.
It is a community that is one of the oldest in the world. "Jews have lived continuously in Iran from year 722 B.C.E., and today, there are 32,000 Jews left there," Shofet says. " In Los Angeles -- the largest community of Persian Jews outside of Iran -- the assumption is that there are about 40,000 Iranian Jews."
According to Shofet, for most Iranian Jews, immigration to America was a blessing. "Jews in Iran were second- or third-class citizens, and there were always quotas," he says. "At the time of the shah, it was the best time for us, but still you were a Jew. We were very limited, so immigration to the United States was a very positive point for us. Religiously, it was a blessing to come here -- the country of freedom."
Yet, the move away from the old country brought with it its own set of challenges. "The [Jews] came here and psychologically they wanted to free themselves from the political system and the pressure system of the Iranian culture and government, which indirectly impacts their religiosity," Shofet says. "We are worried about mixed marriages. In Iran, I don't think that was even one percent, because Jews were so looked down upon. In the United States, the rate is much higher."
Nevertheless, Cantor is confident that Nessah has what it takes to keep Persian Jews in the fold. "This is an incredibly cohesive congregation," Cantor says. "They are passionate about attending synagogue, and are a superbly strong community."