With a new Torah in their arms, about 100 local Iranian Jewish businessmen sang Hebrew songs and danced down a busy street in downtown Los Angeles's garment district June 13 to celebrate the official opening of a new synagogue, where many Iranians have their businesses.
As a DJ blasted Israeli music and kebab dinners were served, congregants packed the elegantly decorated 700-square-foot sanctuary, known as the "Downtown Synagogue," to give thanks and pray. The shul is situated inside a store, alongside fabric outlets, on Cecilia Street, between Eighth and Ninth streets.
"Baruch Hashem, we are very pleased with the new synagogue," said Avi Cohan, a local Iranian businessman who is one of the founders of the Downtown Synagogue. "It looks just amazing with the nice chairs, and it's perfect for many of us who wanted a place for prayer at the end of the work day."
Prior to the festivities, approximately 25 Iranian Jewish business owners gathered at a local textile warehouse, where they each pledged to donate between $260 and $1,500 for each of the last Hebrew letters Cohan was writing to complete the synagogue's Torah. The Torah was made in Israel for the congregation, and funds still needed to be raised to cover the cost.
Cohan had reason to boast about the new synagogue, whose initial dozen or so congregants first began to assemble in his downtown office to recite Mincha and Arvit prayers nearly 12 years ago. The congregants formed the initial Downtown Synagogue because they were often unable to beat the rush hour traffic to arrive at daily services at synagogues in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles.
"It's very convenient for me, because sometimes during the week, I'm in downtown and need a place to pray, so I go there because there is always a minyan, and it's close by," said businessman Dara Abaei, an Iranian community activist.
Cohan and other founders said they wanted to create a place of spirituality, as well as a social center, in the business district, which also has an Iranian shul in the jewelry district, between Broadway and Hill streets.
"Our main goal was to little by little get businessmen in our community to close their businesses on Shabbat and bring them closer to God," said Cohan. "Many are also, unfortunately, too busy during the day to make it to a synagogue to say the Kaddish on the anniversary of their parents' deaths, so our synagogue provides them with a place to do that."
Although the afternoon ceremony marked the official opening of the synagogue space, Cohan said congregants have unofficially been holding services at the Cecilia Street location for the last two years.
Contrary to most shuls, the Downtown Synagogue is open only on weekdays and closed on Saturdays and High Holidays. Between 50 to 60 people regularly attend. On Tuesdays, congregants also hear a devar Torah by Rabbi Yosef Shem Tov of the Torat Hayim Kohel in the Pico-Robertson area.
The move to create a formal space for the group began in 2003, when local Iranian businessmen Ezri Namvar and Solomon Rasetgar stepped forward to furnish the rent-free store situated inside a building they co-owned. Namvar and Rastegar recently sold the building housing the synagogue, but they said the current owner, who is not Jewish, has continued to permit the congregation to stay there without paying rent, Namvar said. The new owner was not available for comment.
Cohan said approximately $15,000 was raised through direct contributions. Unlike Ashkenazi Jews, who generally generate the revenue for synagogues through membership fees, Iranian Jews have traditionally raised such funds by auctioning off aliyot during services or asking individuals for direct donations.
Namvar said his family has always strived to keep Judaism alive in Los Angeles and worldwide by supporting Jewish groups, regardless of their specific denominations.
"Our passion is for Jewish education, and we try to help organizations that promote Jewish education, whether they are Orthodox, Reform or Conservative," Namvar said.
For more information on the Downtown Synagogue call (213) 215-6061.