Posted by Karmel Melamed
The Iranian Jewish community living in Long Island, New York is primarly concentrated in the area known as Great Neck and is roughly 15,000 strong today. The community in Great Neck is by far wealthy, educated and quite observant of Jewish religious practices. With all of their success, Iranian Jews in New York have kept a fairly low profile over the past three decades as opposed to the largest concentration of Iranian Jews in the U.S. living in Los Angeles. While Iranian Jews living in L.A. have ventured into new areas including local politics and the entertainment field, it’s not often I see or hear of Iranian Jews in New York partaking in similar activities. So it was quite a surprise for me to read about Hooshang Nematzadeh, executive vice president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York, publicly speaking at a political event sponsored by the Great Neck Democratic Club and the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Nematzadeh, who is featured as the man on the far left in the above photo, kept his remarks neutral with regards to Iran according to a recent article published by the Great Neck Record newspaper. Nematzadeh, like most Iranian Jewish leaders in the U.S. have typically refrained from publicly criticizing Iran’s regime for fear that their comments may be used by the Iranian government as an excuse to harass the near 20,000 Jews still living in Iran. His comments with regards to the situation in Iran were in line with this policy;
“Said Mr. Nematzadeh, “The United States is the greatest democracy.” And he went on to tell how surveys in Iran show that the majority of Iranians align themselves with the United States, and not with the government in control in Iran today. “After 9/11 the people in Iran were in solidarity with the United States,” he said. Speaking of the regime in control of Iran today, Mr. Nematzadeh stated that “This regime is not representative of the people.”
For the most part Nematzadeh and other Iranian Jewish leaders in New York follow the lead of their brethren in Los Angeles when it comes to political matters. Often times both Iranian Jewish community consult one another and collaborate on supporting many of the same issues—especially when it comes to Israel. Interestingly enough Iranian Jewry in the U.S. have outreached to politicians on both sides of the aisle and often supported Democratic candidates by following the same trends as their American Jewish brethren. While an Iranian Jew is currently Mayor of Beverly Hills and head of the L.A. Department of Water and Power, it still remains to be seen if any Iranian Jewish New Yorkers will serve in their local or state governments.
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January 31, 2008 | 9:39 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
I am always intrigued to read or hear what perspectives other Jewish groups have when it comes to Iranian Jews. An article this week by Jewish anthropologist and author Karen L. Pliskin in the Forward newspaper particularly caught my attention as she shares her memories of Iranian Jews in 1979 when the late Shah of Iran fled that country. Between 1978 and 1979, Pliskin was a doctoral student studying in Iran and interacting with the Jews living in the city of Shiraz. Pliskin shares the deep sorrow many Iranian Jews felt when hearing of the Shah’s departure as he and his father Reza Shah had created an atmosphere of religious tolerance and greater freedoms for Jews living in Iran. One of Pliskin’s Jewish friends, Mrs. Hakeem, was weeping upon hearing of the Shah’s exile from Iran;
“The Shah left she said, stammering. She wiped her eyes with a moist handkerchief. I was listening to the 2:00 p.m. news. They announced that the Shah departed with the Empress Farah. He piloted a 727 by himself. Mrs. Hakeem sat down and wept as if she were mourning the death of a close relative. Our lives in Iran after 2,600 years of being here as Jews are finished. She stood up, found another handkerchief and dabbed her eyes.”
At the same time Pliskin also reflects on the false sense of security some Iranian Jews felt when the new fundamentalist Islamic leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini too power in Iran;
Sami, the engineer the only Jew that afternoon to call the Shah a dictator whispered to me his optimism about the future: “An article in today’s paper quoted Khomeini. He said that when the Islamic state is formed, Iran will sever ties with Israel, but the Jews of Iran will have more freedom under Islam than they have ever had before.”
Sadly what Iranian Jews were told about the supposed “new freedoms” they would receive under the new radical Islamic regime in Iran were all lies. The new regime’s clerical leaders promptly executed Habib Elgahnian, one of the leaders of Jewish community in Iran for supposedly being a spy for Israel and a sympathizer with the Shah’s government. Elghanian’s execution prompted the first massive wave of Jews to flee Iran and leave behind millions of dollars in assets. Next Iran’s new Islamic government stripped Jews and other religious minorities of all equal rights that had shared with Iranian Muslims during the Pahlavi dynasty. In essence Jews in Iran at that time by in large lived in constant fear that their lives and livelihoods could be taken away instantly under the new radical Islamic government that could do whatever it pleased.
While I applaud Pliskin’s efforts to shed light on the difficulty Jews faced when the Shah was deposed in Iran in 1979, as a Jew who was born in Iran I strongly disagree with her calls for the U.S. government to now engage in diplomatic relations with Iran’s radical Islamic government. Unfortunately Pliskin left Iran when the Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Iran and she did not witness the harassment and execution of Jews that occurred in Iran when he took power. Pliskin was not around to see Elghanian’s execution nor the execution of my distant cousin Ebrahim Berookhim, a 31-year-old innocent Jew who was executed by the Ayatollah’s regime just for being Jewish and hosting Israelis and Americans in his Tehran hotel! Pliskin has obviously not known of more than a dozen Jews who have been killed or executed by Iran’s current government since 1979 for various ridiculous reasons. Even though nearly 20,000 Jews still live in Iran and claim to live in “freedom”, they are considered second class citizens under Iran’s Islamic laws and are living with the constant risk of being killed at any moment under this irrational regime. I have no idea what bubble Pliskin lives in, but for the last 29 years nearly 60,000 Jews fled Iran for America, Israel and Europe because of the brutality of the current regime in Iran. No doubt the current Iranian regime is no friend to the Jews. If they’ve had such a long history of reigning terror on Jews, Christians and other religious minorities, what makes Pliskin think Iran’s current regime does not have plans to do the same with the U.S. and Europe?
Now what perplexes me is how on earth can any country let alone the U.S. can have diplomatic relations with an evil government in Iran which has not only destroyed the lives of thousands of Jews but plunged the entire Middle East into turmoil. No civilized nation on the face of this earth can negotiate nor reason with the radical Islamic clerics that run Iran because they see no future in co-existing with non-Islamic and non-Shiite Muslim people period! The current Iranian constitution is built around the principle of a global Islamic jihad where non-Muslims must convert to Islam or be destroyed. How can we in the West and U.S. even sit down with leaders of such an evil nation? How can the U.S. negotiate with a country that wants to “wipe out” Israel, another country from the face of the earth? Hitler and the Nazis were planning the same type of world domination by annihilation of many races and peoples. Iran’s current government is no different!
Now I am not advocating military action against Iran, but that regime must be economically and diplomatically isolated from the rest of the world. We in the international community need to put a greater economic squeeze on Iran, that is facing already turmoil in their domestic market already. This will lead that government to immediately collapse or stir civil unrest in the population to rise up against Iran’s clerics running the country. By engaging Iran’s current leaders we only embolden their positions in that nation and permit them to continue spreading their global terrorism to Iraq, Lebanon and in Gaza.
The departure of the late Shah was a terrible day of sadness for the majority of Jews living in Iran because he and his father had literally transformed their lives for the better. The Pahlavi dynasty had essentially removed all the previous social, economic and educational barriers that Jews and other religious minorities had encountered for centuries in Iran. Jews under the Pahlavi dynasty were finally able to pull themselves up and out of their ghettos to become one of the most prosperous and successful Jewish communities in the world. When the Shah was forced into exile, the rugs were literally yank out from underneath the Jews who had supported his reign and benefited from the atmosphere of religious tolerance he had created in Iran for them.
Interestingly enough a number of older Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles recently told me that a day of mourning and fasting was called by the late head rabbi Hacham Yedidia Shofet in Iran when the Shah left the country. Even though life in Iran was never perfect during the Pahlavi dynasty, in my own opinion Iranian Jews owe a great deal of gratitude to the Pahlavi monarchs for a lot of what Iranian Jews have today. This is because both Pahlavi kings probably did as much if not more to help Iranian Jewry than ancient Persia’s first monarch, Cyrus the Great had done for the Jews.
(left to right; Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi age 21 and his father Reza Shah Pahlavi. Both were very benevolent former monarches of Iran granting the Jews of Iran from 1925 to 1979 unprecedent freedom and social tolerances as well as the ability to educate themselves and prosper in Iran).
January 28, 2008 | 9:30 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
For nearly six decades the United Nations General Assembly has been notorious for passing ridiculously anti-Israel resolutions condemning supposed human rights violations by Israel. This is accomplished with the help of a large group of Arab and Islamic member countries such as Iran. Yet the U.N. rarely if ever condemns Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran for human rights violations. So when the U.N. General Assembly last November approved a resolution condemning Iran for it’s human rights violations and mistreatment of religious minorities including Jews, this international body finally acknowledged the brutality of Tehran’s regime.
Also known as U.N.G.A. A/c.3/62/L.43, the resolution received the support of 72 members of the 192-member General Assembly, with 50 voting against it and 55 abstaining. The Canadian-led resolution, which was co-sponsored by most Western member states, expressed concern about violations of the rights of minorities, non-Shiite worshippers, and the restrictions on freedoms under Iran’s radical fundamentalist Islamic regime. The resolution was a part of a package of four resolutions on the human-rights violations in Burma, North Korea, and Belarus. More importantly, this resolution represented a stark contradiction to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, which in its first year of existence focused exclusively on violations committed by Israel.
While this resolution on human rights violations in Iran is not binding, it is an excellent symbolic move by the U.N. to hold the Islamic fundamentalist leaders in Iran accountable for their reign of terror. Finally this international body has acknowledged through this resolution the discrimination and human rights violations Jews, Christians and people of the Bahai faith encounter every in Iran. While Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are given a few rights as minorities by Iran’s Islamic constitution, folks of the Bahai faith receive none. In fact if members of the regime find a person who is Bahai, he or she is immediately imprisoned, tortured and then executed. While other minorities may be punished if they “step out of line”, there is zero tolerance for Bahais who are promptly executed. This is because the regime in Iran sees the Bahai faith that requires proselytizing as a direct threat to the future viability of Islam. Likewise floggings, forced amputations as punishment, public executions by hanging, and executions by stoning advocated by Iran’s Islamic laws have also been condemned through this resolution. Surprisingly the international community finally chastised Iran’s regime for its execution of children under the age of 18 and carrying out other forms of cruel torture to the “enemies of the state”.
Now you may wonder why I am now writing about this U.N. resolution despite the fact that it was passed nearly three months ago. Well to be honest, it was not extensively covered by the mainstream media and a good size of the U.N. members amazingly opposed the resolution to hold Iran accountable for these crimes! Iran’s government officials at the U.N. and in the West have done a great job at killing all media exposure this story may have received by ranting and raving about their nuclear capabilities all these months. I only learned about this resolution when a reader of this blog email it to me last week. It shocks me how leaders in Europe and the West who are always concerned with “human rights” for the Palestinians and Africans turn a blind eye to even worse violations carried out at the hands of Iran’s current government! When the regime in Tehran realizes, much like the Nazis, that they can carry out these crimes against humanity without any repercussions then they will not stop.
Below are just a few very REAL photos I obtained from news websites operated by Iran’s state-run media outlets showing how Muslim citizens of Iran who are supposed “enemies” of the regime are punished and later executed. While these photos may be graphic for some individuals, they are evidence to the pure evil behind Iran’s government. More importantly, if this is how non-Jews are treated in Iran, it makes me wonder what horrible fate may befall Iran’s Jews if they don’t remain in line with the regime’s wishes!
Majid Kavousifar, a 28-year-old Iranian Muslim student opposed to the regime who was hung in public from a crane in Tehran on August 2, 2007 for alleged “crimes” against Iran’s regime. The executioner shouts “Allah Akbar” as the stool is yank from underneath his feet.
The Iranian government executed the above gay men in November 2005 in the province of Kermanshah in western Iran. The Muslim young man above on the left identified as Shahab Darvishi had been hanged in the city for corruption, assault and âlavatâ the Persian word for sodomy. The two teenagers shown here were executed after a religious court found them guilty of homosexuality on July 19, 2005 in the city of Mashhad. Under the Iranian penal code, girls as young as nine and boys as young as 15 can be hanged.
Unknown Iranian woman buried up to her chest and then stoned to death. Iran’s Penal Code prescribes execution by stoning and dictates that the stones are to be large enough to cause pain, but not so large as to kill the victim immediately. Article 102 of the Iranian Penal Code states that men should be buried up to their waist and women up to their chest for the purpose of execution by stoning. Women in Iran are often executed by stoning for the crime of adultery, drug use, or other crimes the regime deems worthy of such execution.
Unknown Iranian woman hung in public by a crane for alleged crimes against the regime.
January 21, 2008 | 11:25 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Tu B’Shevat has typically not been one of the most popular nor widely celebrated Jewish holidays for Iranian Jews in general and those living in Southern California. Yet this past Sunday, more than 200 local Iranian Jews gathered at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana to celebrate Tu B’Shevat for the first time in that organization’s history. Young and old alike enjoyed an array of food, Israeli music, interactive games and tree planting.
Kudos to Eretz-SIAMAK for making a serious effort to outreach to Iranian Jewish teens and grade schoolers. They along with the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills have been at the forefront of attempting to keep the younger generation active with Judaism. These types of gatherings that incorporate Judaism are for younger generation and must be passed onto them if we Iranian Jews seek to retain our Jewish identity while living in the U.S.
January 18, 2008 | 12:55 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
The above Persian language television commercial is to advertise the release of a new book about the lives and history of Iran’s Jews during the 20th century. I typically do not reflect much on material produced in Persian language about Iranian Jewry, because I like many younger Iranian Jews, am unable to read such books. I found it substantially ironic how the commercial advertising this Persian language book was placed on “Youtube.com” which typically appeals to those who are fluent in English and not Persian. The commercial features the book’s author Dr. Heshmatollah Kermanshahchi, the former treasurer for the central Jewish organization in Iran. He has also been a long standing community activist and leader in the local Iranian American Jewish Federation.
I have met Kermanshahchi on a number of occasions and have respect for him, but find that the release of his new historical book in Persian language to be a horrible choice. Typically history books are complied for the primary purpose of educating younger generations of people about past events and enlightening their minds. Yet when a substantial portion of young Iranian Jewry living in the U.S. are not fluent in the Persian language, books like the ones written by Kermanshahchi are useless! While one can argue that Kermanshahchi’s book was marketed toward older individuals including parents and grandparents—it’s long term legacy, like most other history books is to reveal insights about Iranian Jews for future generations. But when not many young people in the community can access the information contained in this very important text, what long term benefits does it offer? Unfortunately none.
Now I know many individuals in the local Iranian Jewish community may brush my critic of this book not being in English aside by stating that it can be translated down the line for younger generations. However, wouldn’t Kermanshahchi and other older Iranian Jewish community activists want to engage and educate those young people today? Wouldn’t publishing this book in English potentially capture the hearts and minds of younger Iranian Jews today who are unaware of their history and heritage? Kermanshahchi’s book should have been published in English today so it could be passed onto teens and young professionals who are still impressionable. By the time today’s young Iranian American Jews are in their 40’s and 50’s it may be too late to engage them in social issues when they were not given this education or community background at a younger age. In an era when Iranian Jews in the U.S., like other American Jews are leaving the faith in large numbers and inter-marrying with non-Jews, this community needs to make a more conserted efforts to educate it’s youth! When certain members of the Iranian Jewish community are still living with the same mentality they brought out from Iran, the younger generations suffer in certain ways.
How else will little Johnny or Sally know about the anti-Semitism their grandparents faced in the Jewish ghetto in Tehran? How else will young Iranian Jews discover the hardships their families endured by leaving behind their fortunes in Iran during the 1979 Islamic revolution? The only solution is to offer oral education and books in English which can be understood by the younger generation who will no doubt embrace their heritage when they learn about it. English fiction and non-fiction books written by Iranian Jewish authors Gina Nahai and Roya Hakakian about the experiences of Iranian Jews have captured the attention of younger Iranian Jews living in the U.S. The books written by these authors with regards to life in Iran for Jews have been quite popular across the board for young individuals and adults in the Iranian American Jewish community. Their books are proof that our youth are interested in learning about Iranian Jewry but need such information be easily accessible to them.
What’s really funny about this book is the fact that the Persian language commercial advertising it’s release was placed on the English language Youtube.com website! The last time I checked Youtube was by in large viewed by folks under the age of 35… and if young Iranian Jews can’t understand the commerical they are most likely not going to purchase the book either. So placing this video/commercial on the web is ultimately a fruitless marketing effort.
In closing, I do applaud Kermanshahchi and Bijan Khalili—the publisher of this new book on contemporary Iranian Jewish history, because they have at least recorded our community’s history in some format. Nevertheless, it would better suit Iranian Jewry if such books in the future were also published in English.
January 10, 2008 | 7:10 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community received its first Israeli shaliach (emissary) in November. Maccabi World Union’s Nave Chupkov will work out of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana for the next two years. Sponsored by Neria Yomtoubian Foundation and Eretz-SIAMAK, Chupkov’s mission is to help encourage Judaism and reinforce support for Israel among young Jews in the Iranian American community, as well as the wider Jewish community.
“My goals are to build a tradition for young people to attend our events on the Jewish holidays, develop leadership skills and also encourage young professionals to attend our trips that combine fun and education,” Chupkov said. For his part, Chupkov has had some success attracting many young Iranian Jews to his events during December and has trips to Big Bear and Israel planned for the coming months. “I am very excited about working in the Persian community, and the warmth I’ve received from them is incredible,” Chupkov said.
I had a chance to chat with Chupkov last weekend and found his optimism about helping to engage young Iranian Jews in Judaism and Zionism quite refreshing. Of course he has a tough road ahead of him because for the most part Iranian Jewish teens and young professionals in L.A. do not typically get involved with community activities unless there’s some sort of party involved. Sadly the parents of these young Iranian Jews are either too busy with their own businesses and social lives to encourage their children to be active in the community. Perhaps an outsider like Chupkov can more easily set a standard for local Iranian Jews to establish stronger youth programs that will encourage these youngsters not to leave the faith when they become adults. From my own observations as a journalist, I’ve come realize that Iranian Jews living in the U.S. in their late 20’s and older may have strong ties to Israel because of their family’s traumatic experiences with the 1979 Iranian revolution. Yet the younger generation of Iranian Jewish teens and grade school children do not seem to have the same powerful sense of Zionism. These teens have been born and raised in America—never fully appreciating the sense of belonging and hope Israel offered Jews fleeing Iran after the revolution. Therefore it seems as if Chupkov’s efforts in promoting pride for Israel is essential in order for future generations of Iranian American Jews to retain their bonds with the Jewish homeland. My hope that is that Chupkov’s excitement and planned Jewish events will catch on for all young people in the Iranian Jewish community.
On an interesting side note, the idea to even introduce a shaliach to the Iranian Jewish community was as a result of a chance interaction between young Iranian Jews from L.A. and Mexican Jews from San Diego! Last February, I was involved with this very interaction when the young professionals from the Mexican Jewish community shared a weekend of skiing and winter fun with Iranian Jews from L.A. in Big Bear. The getaway was incredible as both groups discovered they had so many things in common and it was then when representatives from the Eretz-SIAMAK organization met the regular shaliach who was supporting the Mexican Jewish youth with Jewish activities. This unique opportunity sparked the idea to have a similar shaliach help do the same for young Iranian Jews living in L.A.!
Eretz-SIAMAK will host a Tu B’Shevat brunch and tree-planting event on Jan. 20. For more information, call Chupkov at (818) 342-9303.
January 5, 2008 | 11:42 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Anyone who regularly attends the well known synagogues in Los Angeles for Saturday morning services nowadays will tell you that a substantial number of individuals attending are Iranian Jews. Whether it’s Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, Tiferet Israel Sephardic Temple in West Los Angeles, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, or Stephen S. Wise in Bel Air—Iranian Jews are showing up in droves to pray and participate in temple activities. It’s not only surprising that such larger numbers of Iranian Jews are regularly attending services than American Ashkenazi Jews, but Iranian Jews are opting to become members of Ashkenazi synagogues. Iranian Jews who are Mizrachi by tradition are active and have been involved with Ashkenazi Orthodox, Conservative and Reform temples since their arrival in Southern California nearly 30 years ago. Only within the last 10 to 15 years has the community really solidified and begun operating their own synagogues. As a result local Iranian Jews have turned to American temples for their worshipping and keeping their bonds to the Jewish community. It is a well known fact that a good number of Iranian Jews are highly educated and financially well off. Since they have such strong ties to Judaism and giving back to the Jewish community, Iranian Jews have been able to help keep Jewish life vital in the city.
The influence of Iranian Jews on local Ashkenazi synagogues has already be felt. For example Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad was the first Iranian president of Sinai Temple in 1999 and now Sinai has a sizable number of Iranian Jews on its board of directors and Men’s Club. A few months ago, I attended Saturday morning services at Tiferet Israel Sephardic Temple and was shocked to find 80-percent of those worshipping in the audience were Iranian Jews. Of course any rabbi or Jewish leader would be pleased upon learning that the Iranian Jewish community is active in temple life. Yet the current situation has left me wondering what the fate of many Los Angeles synagogues would be if Iranian Jews had never set up new lives in the city? Where have the American Ashkenazi and other Sephardic communities gone? Has Jewish assimilation with the larger population been that substnatial to reduced the number of Jews attending synagogues in the city? No doubt if Iranian Jews were not living in L.A., Temple Beth El in West Hollywood, that was once the “Temple to the Movie Stars” would not even be standing today. The Iranian American Jewish Federation purchased that synagogue in the late 1990’s and renovated the site after its older Ashkenazi members had died or left the area. For that matter perhaps Sinai Temple and many of the other popular Ashkenazi synagogues would be struggling to keep their doors open if local Iranian Jews were not around to purchase temple membership.
Now it should be mentioned for the record that Iranian Jews may not be attending synagogue necessarily because they’re religious or observant. In all honesty, many Iranian Jews come to synagogue to socialize, gossip, meet potential spouses and yes…even to show off! Also membership is a new concept for local Iranian Jews, as the community generally donated money to their synagogues in Iran or bid for aliyot during services in a type of auction. Nevertheless since their arrival in the U.S., Iranian Jews have gradually embraced paying for synagogue membership. Today the Nessah synagogue in Beverly Hills was the first and is currently the only Iranian temple to offer membership.
I have in the last few years come across some older Ashkenazim who have expressed their frustrated with the influx of Iranian Jews “taking over” their synagogues in L.A. Undoubtably the Iranian Jewish community has its own traditions and attitudes that are different from American Jews, but the reality is that Iranian Jews are one of the driving forces that are keeping the doors open in many synangogues in this city.
December 30, 2007 | 3:17 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
This week I was pleased to cover Dara Abaei, an L.A. area Iranian Jewish activist and youth mentor as one of The Jewish Journal’s mensches. Abaei is one of maybe a handful of local Iranian Jews who is actually involved in hands-on efforts to help young people in the community and publicly address other pressing issues in the community. The Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles has many affluent individuals who often try to propel themselves into the limelight by donating large sums of money to Jewish charities. Sadly some of these individuals do nothing to resolve critical issues in the community but merely donate money, throw fundraising parties and pat each other on the back to gain notoriety. Many of the Iranian Jewish organizations in Southern California have by in large not addressed social issues of divorce, drug abuse, inter-religious marriage and poverty. Abaei’s efforts to openly discuss these problems and find solutions for them are remarkable!
During my interview with him, I found Abaei to be a humble man who is only seeking to heal the community. His positive attitude and desire to genuinely help folks—especially younger Iranian Jews, is heartfelt. He initially did not want to be recognized by the Journal for his work, but relented when we informed him of the great example he sets for other Iranian Jews. Abaei is one individual that makes me proud to call myself an Iranian Jew because he does not seek fame or praise for doing good deeds, but aids the community because he seeks to make substantial changes for everyone.
The following is my brief piece about Abaei’s work published this week in the L.A. Jewish Journal:
On a Sunday morning at 2 a.m. earlier this year, a local Iranian Jewish mother was on the phone crying hysterically after her son had been arrested for drug possession and locked up in the L.A. County jail downtown. She didn’t call her relatives, her rabbi, or a lawyer for help—she called Dara Abaei, an Iranian Jewish youth mentor and activist.
Helping this mother at an hour when most people are asleep is just one of the many volunteer activities Abaei performs to support young Iranian Jews and their families. For the last 18 years, Abaei, 39, has dedicated countless hours to tackling serious difficulties that are often considered taboo within the Iranian Jewish community.
Whether the crisis is homelessness, drug addiction, hunger, spousal abuse, gang activity or religious intermarriage, Abaei has worked—often virtually single-handedly—to help find solutions for individuals in need. Abaei responds to as many as 10 to 15 cases per week, and spends many hours per month on his cellphone for this work.
“In my opinion, he may be among just a handful of people who started this crusade to help those with real issues out of pure love of the community,” said Dariush Fakheri, founder of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. “Whoever knows him or has been touched by his presence has benefited from him.”
More than 15 years ago, Abaei formed the Jewish Unity Network (JUN), a nonprofit based in the Pico-Robertson area, to provide activities for the local 10,000 to 15,000 Iranian Jewish youth between the ages of 13 and 26. He handled his volunteer work while juggling a full-time job in construction consulting and trying to feed his family of five. Sensing a greater need for his assistance, members of the community two years ago increased funding for JUN in order to hire Abaei full time as the group’s executive director.
“Yes, I took a pay cut from my last job, but I thought it was necessary to help these kids, because I never had this kind of coaching support from the community when I was young,” Abaei said. “Even if one Jewish youth is helped, it’s like saving the world.”
“The truth is, 90 percent of his community work is done in private and in confidence, so much of it actually goes unnoticed,” said 24-year-old Eman Esmailzadeh, a Brentwood resident. “If it’s flying to Alaska to help convince a community member not to leave Judaism or visiting Jewish prisoners in jail—wherever help is needed, Dara is there.”
Abaei said JUN will continue to collaborate with various other Iranian and Ashkenazi Jewish groups and hopes to raise enough funds to purchase a facility where young Iranian Jews can gather for cultural and religious events.
“Our goal is to inject positive Judaism in our youth and offer them leadership skills,” Abaei said. “Then when they are older, in 20 or 30 years, they will more likely be involved in the Jewish community and issues concerning Israel.”
Those interested in getting involved in JUN should visit: http://lajun.com/