Jewish Journal

Photo essay: Iranian Jews flocking to ‘Read Hebrew America’ program

by Karmel Melamed

November 2, 2007 | 4:01 pm

“I’ll teach you Hebrew if you teach me Persian!” joked Rabbi Hillel Benchimol, who is teaching a 5 week free crash course in Hebrew at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. The educational Hebrew classes, also know as “Read Hebrew America” were created by the National Jewish Outreach Program in New York and offered to nearly 600 synagogues in the North America to promote the Hebrew language. Since its introduction at Nessah on October 15th, the program has been a surprising success in the Iranian American Jewish community in L.A. with more than 300 people attending the last three courses. “I’ll tell you that I was really amazed that so many people from this community (of Iranian Jews) really want to learn Hebrew and reconnect with their heritage,” said Benchimol who has single handedly been directing the classes on Monday nights between 7 pm and 8:30 pm. Ilya Welfeld, a spokesperson for the National Jewish Outreach Program said that while her organization did not know if Nessah had had the largest turnout of people attending their course in the country, but they were quite pleased with the substantial number of Iranian Jews participating. The “Read Hebrew America” program was launched 10 years ago and has thus far educated thousands of American Jews to speak Hebrew.

Earlier this week I stepped into one of the courses at Nessah and was surprised to find the large contingency of Iranian Jews who had packed the banquet hall in order to learn Hebrew. They were mostly older Iranian Jewish women and some teen, but the majority of the students were in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. They were given their Hebrew books and like grade school children repeated out loud the Hebrew words Benchimol announced. They would chant in unisen “AVI—AV—AVIV” or “ABBA—BA—AV” and it was heartwarming to see members of the community showing a serious interested in improve themselves.

I also found the dedication of these older Iranian Jews to learning Hebrew admirable because you don’t typically find individuals in the Jewish community who are advancing in age that want to pursue their Jewish education—especially on a Monday night. I personally think these older Iranian Jews have decided to learn Hebrew because they may not have had the opportunities to do so in Iran due to their business schedules or lack of funds. It is also possible that the chaos of the 1979 Iranian revolution coupled with immigrated to the U.S. and trying to set up new lives for themselves might have made learning Hebrew less of a priority for Iranian Jews.

(Nessah associate Rabbi Benchimol reading Hebrew out loud, photo by Karmel Melamed)

I also found Benchimol, who is not Iranian, to be hilarious with his creative use of Persian words to keep the crowd awake, laughing and interested in learning Hebrew. Since coming on board as a rabbi at Nessah this past June, he has been able to really connect with both Iranian Jewish parents and children—a task which is in no way easy for an outsider to our community. “During Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, I presented this ‘Read Hebrew America’ program as a challenge to them to learn Hebrew and it worked,” said Benchimol.

Those interested in attending the remaining two free Hebrew courses at Nessah should contact: 310-273-2400.

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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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