It was a proud moment for Sam Kermanian when his West Hollywood-based organization, the Iranian-American Jewish Federation (IAJF), welcomed Israel's President Moshe Katzav last week.
"To us, he's more than just a president of the State of Israel," said Kermanian, 46. "He is truly a modern-day hero and a shining example of the reawakening of the Iranian-Jewish community."
Some, including members of the Western Region of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, would say the same about Kermanian himself. The group will honor him with its Distinguished Service Award on Sunday, June 17.
After last year's imprisonment of 13 Iranian Jews in Shiraz on trumped-up charges of spying, Kermanian was crucial in raising international awareness about it and putting political pressure on the Iranian government for the prisoners' release. It was a matter so sensitive that Kermanian won't comment on details of his efforts.
"Sam has bettered the Iranian Jewish cause on many levels," said Solomon Rastegar, who has known Kermanian since their Tehran days. "He knows what buttons to push. He has had the biggest impact on the life of Iranian Jews internationally. He brings different Jewish organizations -- Iranian and non-Iranian -- together for the interest of Iranian Jews."
Dr. Iraj Tabibzadeh, chairman of IAJF's Foreign Relations Committee, said he is proud to work alongside Kermanian. "He has devoted his life to these activities. He's a very honest man, a family man."
Kermanian, his wife, Betty, and their children -- Celine, 10, Cody, 8, and Riley, 7 -- are members of Sinai Temple.
Just as Katzav (along with Israel's chief of staff and its air force leader) embodies the post-World War II emergence of Iranian Jews after centuries of persecution and cultural oppression, Kermanian is representative of the rising Persian Jewish population in Los Angeles, which contains the largest such population in the world (an estimated 35,000, roughly 10,000 more than believed to be living in Iran today).
An increasingly succesful sector in the community, Persian Jews are facing challenges familiar to previous generations of jewish immigramts; among them, dilution of traditional values and assimilation. "There is no question there is an influence of materialism," Kermanian said. "Some of the old values are still holding the community together, but, obviously, this is something that will not last forever. We know that within a generation or two, we will assimilate into a larger landscape. Our goal is to make sure that we assimilate into the American Jewish community rather than the secular American landscape."
Kermanian believes that American Jewish strategies to counter escalating rates of intermarriage and divorce, such as education and programs in Israel, are just beginning to penetrate the close-knit Persian community.
"We're not waiting for assimilation to happen before we try to correct [these lapses]," he said.
Raised in Iran, Kermanian earned his civil engineering degrees from Technion University in Haifa and Polytechnic University of New York before coming to Los Angeles in 1979 to start a real-estate company with his father, Moussa Kermanian, who died of a heart attack in 1980 at the age of 58. His death devastated Kermanian, who not only lost his father but his role model. (In pre-revolution Iran, Moussa Kermanian was a pillar in the Jewish community and among the first wave of Iranian Jews who were able to openly express Jewish ideals.)
After Jewish leader Habib Elghanian's execution in 1979, Moussa became politically active, organizing Iranian Jews to pressure Iran not to persecute its Jews. When Moussa died, Kermanian picked up where his father had left off. "If one day I can claim that I have filled his shoes, I would be very proud," Kermanian said.
While Kermanian is appreciative of the Men's Clubs' honor, he downplayed it: "I don't deserve it, because what I'm being awarded for took a lot more people than me to accomplish."
"We have a lot of unfinished business," he said. "However, we are fortunate to enjoy extremely close relationships with the larger Jewish community that we feel partner to."
Sam Kermanian will be honored by the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs Western Region at Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, where the keynote speaker will be Yuval Rotem, consul general of Israel. For more information, contact Myles Berman at (310) 273-9501.