Jewish Journal

Leven has a special bond with the Jews of Iran

by Karmel Melamed

November 29, 2007 | 4:11 pm

If you ask your average Iranian Jew in the U.S., Europe or Iran who Hubert Leven is, they wouldn’t have a clue. However, his family’s generosity to the Jews of Iran more than a century ago significantly transformed the fabric of our once isolated community. At the turn of the 20th century when Iran’s Jews lived in extreme poverty and persecution by the Muslim majority, the
Alliance Israelite Universelle” (AIU), an educational non-profit organization his great-grandfather helped establish schools through out Iran. This valuable education Iranian Jews obtained helped them lift themselves up and out of their ghettos. They were able to reconnect with Judaism, they found hope that they were not alone and there were other Jews in the world who cared about their well being. The ripple effect of the AIU can still be felt today in the Iranian Jewish community in the U.S., which is by far one of the most prosperous and successful Jewish communities in North America.

Fortunately, Leven has been able to reconnect with our community in Los Angeles as his new non-profit organization is seeking to help the less fortunate in Israel. This week my piece in L.A. Jewish Journal gives some insight into his meeting and the following is an excerpt of my interview with Leven:

Can you share with us a little about your great-grandfather and the work of those who helped established the AIU?

My great-grandfather’s Narcisse Leven was part of a group of seven who established the AIU in 1860 and also served as their President. This group of founders were very much influenced by the liberal and humanistic ideals of the 1848 French Revolution one of the achievements of this revolution was the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. Adolphe Cremieux, one of the founding members of AIU served as Minister of Justice and gave French citizenship to all the Jews of Algeria. The AIU also provided a platform for French Ashkenazi Jews to reach out to their Sephardic brothers who did not benefit from the Enlightenment which advanced civilization in general and to the French Jews in particular. The Hebrew name of AIU in Israel is Kol Israel Haverim or “all Jews are friends/brothers”.

Why has your family had such a dedication to Jewish philanthropic work?

Narcisse Leven was not wealthy, he gave his time, competence and dedication to the cause. He also transmitted a sense of responsibility and duty towards to his son Georges and who in turn passed it on to his children. Philanthropy is to a large extent an element of culture, a way of life and if you are immersed in it from an early age, it becomes almost genetic. Gustave Leven, my father’s younger brother made a significant fortune and wholeheartedly believed that it would be put to much better use if invested in the future of the Jewish people rather than in making a few wealthy heirs—a philosophy that I fully share. Because of Gustave’s philosophy our family has been privileged to establish the Rashi Foundation and continued its extensive support to AIU.

Are you aware of the extent to which the AIU’s schools have substantially benefited Iranian Jewry?

Of course I am aware and proud. And especially when you remember what the AIU did in Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, etc. Let alone those in central Europe and Russia by allowing thousands to flee the pogroms for the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina, etc.

The remainder of my interview with Leven can be found at the: Iranian Jewish Chronicle Magazine.

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Karmel Melamed is an internationally-published freelance journalist based in Southern California.

Since 2000, Melamed has specialized in covering the growing influential...

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