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Jewish Journal

Sharing the Joy

Eretz Cultural Center in the Valley reaches out to its youngest.

by Charlotte Hildebrand

June 1, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Among the 300 to 400 Iranian Jews, Russians and Israelis who attend Shabbat services every week at the Eretz Cultural Center in Reseda, the congregation's young adults are conspicuously missing. After a lifetime in the United States, Farsi - the Persian language of their parents and grandparents, which is spoken during services - is too hard for them to understand. These young people respect their elders for their sacrifices and their struggles, but the draw of their own American culture is too great, so they hold back, waiting for something better to come along.

That something came along last January when Shahla Farivar, a black-eyed Iranian beauty, became executive director of the Eretz Cultural Center, a bastion of Iranian Jewish culture and religion founded in 1979, after the Islamic revolution. Her job is to bridge the gap between old and new.

"The goal of the Center is to have unity," Farivar says in her warm Iranian accent. "The main point is to get the Iranian young people, who were born and raised here, integrated back into the Jewish community."Farivar, educated in the U.S. and a first-year instructor at the University of Iran in Sheraz during the same year the Ayatollah Khomeini took control, had been living in Germany since 1979. But in September 1999, she moved to Los Angeles with her son Adrian. Farviar was familiar with the center and its activities through Dariush Cadry, her brother-in-law and executive board member, whose family was one of the original founders. She had even visited before. But when she arrived at the center for Shabbat morning services and saw the new Eretz Alliance School across the parking lot, she burst into tears. "I was shocked to see how beautiful it was," she says.

She returned soon after to donate a small Torah to the school and was invited to sit down with board members Ruben Dokhanian, Manijey and Habib Pournazarian, and others to hear some of their concerns. The biggest problem the center was experiencing, the elders told her, was that the young people were slipping away. Who would fill up the empty seats after the older generation was gone? They needed someone who could coordinate the programming, from the center to the school, with a vision of the big picture. Would she be able to help?

Farivar was not sure she could be of service but she remembered her own son's complaint that, although he liked the center, he couldn't understand the service. At the next meeting, she presented a platform calling for a Young Professional Congregation for young parents and professionals, accompanied by a new prayer book and an English-speaking rabbi. Her program was immediately accepted.

In January 2000, the Young Profession Congregation held its first service in the small sanctuary, with 30 young people in attendance; since then, with the help of Rabbi Mervin B. Tomsky, rabbi emeritus of Burbank Temple Emanu El, the number of young congregants has inched up to 40 and 50 - for special occasions, into the hundreds.

But for Farivar, it is not so much the numbers as it is the idea of unity."For the young people, there is a split between Iranian and American cultures, and we want to try [through the Young Professional Congregation] to get them as close together as possible. We encourage other cultures here as well - Russians, Israelis, Americans - so when the young people come to synagogue, they will feel at home."

Across the hot pavement of the center's parking lot is the Eretz Alliance School, a modern, one-story building, architecturally neither American nor Iranian, but an intriguing mixture of the two. As you enter into the large open center hall, the noise level of little people, sitting in a large circle clapping their hands, rises to the ceiling. There are about 60 children here today, age 2 1/2 to 6, gathered for Friday morning Shabbat celebration. Their glee is hard to contain; they sing songs, recite the blessings and pass Farivar's donated Torah around the room. A tiny Shabbat bride and groom sit on their chair-thrones at the head of the room, looking dazed from all the attention.

After the service, the children jump up and run back to their individual classrooms, which feed off the main hall. The teachers and their aids - Israelis, Americans and Iranians - and the ethnically mixed student body, already seem to embody the idea of unity. As it is, that is one of the Alliance School's main goals, too.

In Iranian Jewish culture, explains Susan Makkabi, an Iranian Jew and the school's coordinator, the family is the most important concern. So at Eretz Alliance School, the teachers, the aides, the administration and the children are all treated as one big family. "The children look to their teachers and learn from us," Makkabi says.

The preschool program is developmental rather than academic, emphasizing self-esteem and creativity. The day school, K-1, emphasizes strong academics. In each classroom, children's drawings fill the room, colorful posters and cutouts line the walls, with pint size kitchenettes and tool shops set up for play. Photographs of the children's celebrations are prominently displayed. One in particular stands out: a tiny rabbi and a play-wedding couple under a chuppah, a pretend wedding full of mirth and fantasy. The children in the picture look like they're having a blast.

"The most important thing that we can teach our children," says Makkabi, whose mentors include Dr. Joseph Hakima and Michael Rad, both on the executive board of the school, "is how to love ourselves. From this, everything else will grow."

Since its beginning seven years ago with only four students, the school has steadily expanded. Originally behind the center, the school planned its move to its present location after construction costs had been secured by donations from the membership and other benefactors of the center. Today, the school is supported by the center and by charging a reasonable tuition. The Alliance Israelite based in Paris also partially finances the school - the first Alliance school in America. Last year a kindergarten was added and a first grade this year. The longterm goal is to add a new grade each year through eighth grade.With a lower tuition than most preschools or day schools, the school fulfills a unique need for the community. "We're here to be available to those families who might not otherwise qualify or be able to afford some of the other Jewish day schools in the area, " says Batsheva Spector, director of the school.Spector, a smart American educator and administrator, points out that the school also fulfills the needs of families who want their children exposed to daily Jewish life, values and customs, holidays (both Jewish and American) and to the importance of family - and they do it with energy and enthusiasm. "We have a lot of fun," Spector says.

"We want to increase the children's awareness of themselves and others, whether it be Ashkenazi or Sephardic. We don't call ourselves Orthodox, Conservative or Reform - we're traditional. We're not stuck on one method or style. We're not really about one, we're about all." From the center to the school, Farivar goes on to explain the big picture: "We are trying to preserve the Sephardic culture, but we would like to put a little spice of Ashkenazi in too."

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