On August 8, Elias Eshaghian, a pivotal educator and director of many Jewish schools throughout Iran during the last century, passed away at the age of 78. More than 500 local Iranian Jews packed Temple Beth El in West Hollywood for his memorial service. Late last year I had the rare opportunity to meet Eshaghian and chat with him extensively about his life’s work in bringing education and a new sense of self-respect to Iran’s Jews during the last century. At that time he was battling lung cancer but his strong spirit and gold heart somehow kept this very special man alive. I’ve written extensively about Eshaghian in this blog and my lengthy Q&A interview with him can be found: here
After obtaining his high school education in Iran from the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a French Jewish nonprofit education and cultural organization, Eshaghian obtained a college education and teaching credential in France. He returned to Iran in October 1951, working for the AIU served as an assistant director and French language teacher at the AIU school in the city of Esfahan. In subsequent years Eshaghian worked as the director and educator for the AIU schools in the rural Iranian cities of Yazd and Sanandaj. In 1960 he returned to Tehran and became a French language teacher at both the boys and girls’ AIU schools and subsequently worked as the director for the boys school. In 1970, Eshaghian resigned as director of the school and instead worked part-time as a reporter at Journal Du Tehran, a French language newspaper in Tehran. At the same time he taught French at three different universities in Tehran. Later on an opportunity arose where UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization hired Eshaghian as a French language translator for their events.
In 1980 following Iran’s radical Islamic revolution, Eshaghian like many of the country’s Jews fled and resettled in Los Angeles where he sold insurance. Despite battling lung cancer during the past 20 years, Eshaghian continued his volunteer work in the community by serving as Chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, a local umbrella organization comprised of nearly a dozen Iranian Jewish non-profit groups. Eshaghian was also one of the founders of the Tarzana-based Eretz Cultural Center, one of the first local Iranian synagogues established in Los Angeles. On May 20, community members honored Eshaghian for his contributions to advancing education for Jews in Iran during a launch party for his Persian-language memoir, “A Follower of Culture.” The book is a chronicle of the history of Jewish education in Iran during the 20th century, an effort that was supported by the AIU.
Even though I only knew him for about a year, one of the primary reasons why I called Eshaghian my friend was because of his incredible kind heart, modern thinking and openess to new ideas. Likewise Eshaghian and I had plenty in common as he too was a journalist at one time—a profession which not too many Iranian Jews pursue today or did so in Iran years ago. Perhaps my highest admiration for Eshaghian was due to the fact that he was a humble man and one of the very few Iranian Jewish community leaders who weclomed other voices to the table to engage in a dialogue. He was especially open to welcoming the opinions and supporting the efforts of young Iranian Jews, unlike many of the community’s leaders who are now in the age range of 50 to 85 and don’t really give a damn about engaging the younger generation. Unfortunately many of our community leaders believe that just because they’ve made a substantial amount of money, they are all “knowing” and everyone else is unimportant. Eshaghian did not quash voices of opposition in the community nor did he bad-mouth those who were in the minority and may not have agreed with him on certain issues. To the contrary, he was truely a gentleman who made an extra effort to embrace these “outsiders” in the Iranian Jewish community. It pains me to loose such a noble friend but the loss of Eshaghian is most heartbreaking for me because there are very few if any open minded and compassionate leaders amongst Iranian Jews who truely cared about the younger generation as he did. Our community’s leadership today needs to take a lesson from Eshaghian’s style of humble leadership and wake up to the reality that they will not live forever and must now pass the torch of community activism to the young Iranian Jews.