Last night, more than 500 affluent Iranian American Jews from the Los Angeles area gathered for a night of festivities at the elegant Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills for fundraising on behalf of the Etta Israel organization. This was not just another glamorous fundraising event for local Iranian Jews, but a historical night for the community at large which for centuries had considered publicly displaying children with mental and learning disabilities as taboo.
Etta Israel is local community based non-profit organization dedicated to helping children with special needs including those with Autism, Down’s syndrome, Dyslexia and other forms of mental retardation. In 1997, local Iranian Jewish social worker and volunteer Manijeh Nehorai introduced Etta Israel and the need for support to children with special needs to the local Iranian Jewish community. At a time when many families in the community with mentally disabled children would hide their special needs children away from the public, Nehorai was brave enough to tackle this taboo and educate these families that there was help available for their children. “Many in our community unfortunately kept these children in the closet because they were afraid of people judging them,” she said. “But today as we can see, when these children come into the community they can have better lives”. The taboo of not exposing their mentally disabled children in public also stems from the fact that a substantial number of Iranian Jewish families feared that they would jepoardize their other children’s chances of finding spouses from within the community.
While the taboo has not totally been lifted, the fact that such a large contingency of Iranian Jews in the Southern California area came out to support this cause speaks volumes about how the community’s views about these special needs children has transformed in recent years. Moreover, Nehorai said the contributions from the Iranian Jewish community to Etta Israel has enabled the group to provide homes and Jewish activities for local young adults with special needs. Those interested in becoming involved with Etta Israel are asked to visit: www.etta.org
The following are just some of the sights from the evening I captured: