More than 100 years ago, the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a nonprofit educational organization his great-grandfather, Narcisse, helped establish with six other French Jews, provided schools throughout Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East for Sephardic Jews. The educational opportunities AIU made available to the thousands of Jews in Iran between 1898 and 1979 forever changed their lives.
The generosity Leven's ancestor extended to Iranian Jews came full circle when Leven visited Los Angeles this month, seeking financial support from Los Angeles Iranian Jews for his family's new nonprofit organization in Israel, the Sacta-Rashi Foundation.
"I find it important, as well as natural, for French Jews to have helped Iranian Jews a century and a half ago, as it would be for Iranian Jews to help Russian or Ethiopian Jews," Leven said in an interview. "Jews have always survived because of this solidarity."
Leven, the retired head of a brokerage firm, lives in Paris and now devotes himself full time to his foundation, which offers hands-on educational, health and social welfare programs to benefit Israelis, one-third of whom currently live below the poverty line.
"Due to a lack of educational opportunities, there are still many youngsters who are still not able to integrate and become productive Israeli citizens," Leven said. "It is only natural for those who benefited from the Alliance two or three generations ago to support the same organization, which is still fighting to save those who are at the bottom of the socioeducational ladder."
For their part, local Iranian Jews were enthusiastic about supporting Leven's organization, because of the special ties and nostalgia they felt toward the AIU for helping lift them out of their ghettos in Iran.
"If the Alliance schools had never existed, Iranian Jews would not have attained education and become so wealthy and well off as they are today," said Elias Eshaghian, a former AIU school graduate in Iran and current chairman of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation.
According to a 1996 book by Iranian Jewish AIU graduates living in the United States, the organization established both boys and girls schools in 11 different -- and often remote -- cities throughout Iran. Thousands of Jewish children attending AIU schools in Iran were given uniforms, food, inoculations and moral support.
"The schoolteachers of Alliance were not only teachers, but they were saviors, because they gave pride and dignity to Jews," said Dr. Nahid Pirnazar, professor of Judeo-Persian history at UCLA. "The school also protected them from any maltreatment they encountered from the Muslim population."
Eshaghian, now in his 70s, trained as a French language teacher at the AIU in Paris and returned to Iran, where he taught French, as well as serving as the school's director in Tehran and other cities.
"I literally went from store to store of the poor Jews in the city of Yazd and had to drag their kids to get an education at the Alliance schools -- many of those children today in the U.S. are among the most respected physicians, scientists, engineers and successful businessmen in our community," Eshaghian said.
Among the graduates of AIU schools in Iran is diabetologist Dr. Samuel Rahbar, who works as a research fellow in the department of hematology and bone marrow transplantation at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte. Now in his late 70s, Rahbar is credited with many scientific breakthroughs in treating diabetes.
"Who knows what my life would have been like if I had not attended the Alliance school," Rahbar said. "The school had a major impact on my life, since I learned French there that was very helpful to me when I entered medical school. And I later became the first Jewish professor at the medical school in Tehran University."
Eshaghian said that while a number of Iranian Jews in New York and Southern California have long forgotten the aid of AIU, others feel a great deal of gratitude to the organization and are therefore willing to support Leven's new foundation.
The Merage Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Southern California and Denver, headed by the Iranian Jewish Merage family, has donated to Leven's foundation and helped him forge new ties with the local Iranian Jewish community.
Elias Eshaghian, chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Elias Eshaghian