Posted by Karmel Melamed
Nearly 90 religious and social leaders from Southern Californiaâs Iranian Jewish community have formally and unanimously recognized Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Cultural Center as the communityâs new spiritual head.
While Shofet was not elected, the leadership from leading Iranian Jewish organizations signed a resolution approving him to serve as their primary religious leader. The pronouncement was made at a community gathering Sept. 29 at the Olympic Collection in West Los Angeles.
For more than 25 years, Shofet worked alongside his father, Hacham Yedidia Shofet, the communityâs longtime spiritual leader, who died last summer.
âThe resolution was an expression of confidence that Rav David was the best person to follow in the footsteps of his father, Hacham Yedidia, as our communityâs leading spiritual leader,â said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian Jewish Federation.
The event was hosted by Dr. H. Kermanshachi, past chairman and founder of the Iranian Jewish Federation.
This article was originally published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:
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February 12, 2007 | 12:24 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Jahangir Javaheri lived a full life in Iran as a pharmaceutical retailer, complete with a nice car, large house and the esteem and satisfaction that came with being a leader within the nation’s small but cohesive Jewish community. Yet he wanted something more for his family, especially his children, so he left behind nearly everything for the dream of going to America.
His family’s odyssey took him to Vienna for seven months and finally to Los Angeles, where he, his wife, Mahvash, and their two teenage sons have adjusted to a small, two-bedroom apartment in the Pico-Robertson area. The 56-year-old immigrant and his wife are taking English lessons. And, for the first time, he’s had to rely on the kindness of friends, relations and support organizations to get by.
“It’s not been easy. People like us who have just immigrated to this country must start over with almost nothing,” said Javaheri, speaking in Persian. “We left Iran, because our entire family had left Iran, and we decided there were more opportunities for our sons here.”
For centuries, Iran was home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish populations. However, the downfall of the shah of Iran in 1979 sparked a mass exodus over the next decade. The pace has since declined, and entering the United States has become more difficult due to post-Sept. 11 immigration restrictions.
But Jews such as the Javaheri family continue to flee Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist regime, seeking religious freedom and better economic opportunities. More than 15,000 Jews still live in Iran, compared to an estimated 30,000 Iranian Jews residing in Southern California. About half of these are post-Revolution immigrants.
Last year, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) helped 225 Iranian Jews to resettle in the United States. Of those, 163 reside in Los Angeles.
The path for many led through Vienna, said Leonard Glickman, president of HIAS. His group has helped Iranian Jews obtain transit visas to Austria and complete U.S. immigration applications. The organization also provides educational and social services to Jews while they wait in Vienna for permission to enter the United States. Austria is one of the only countries that currently allows lengthy stopovers by Iranian Jews seeking ultimate haven in America.
“We feel we have been very successful in keeping the Vienna pipeline open for Jews and other Iranian religious minorities through a very challenging period for the U.S. refugee program,” Glickman said.
Still, for many on the journey, Austria proves a difficult layover.
“We were lucky enough to live with friends in Vienna and live off our savings,” said Javaheri’s wife, Mahvash. “Most Iranian Jewish families are living with four to five people in one-bedroom apartments, with little money to live off. Their children can’t go to school, and they can’t work, because of Austrian laws while they’re waiting for their visas.”
Once families reach the United States, various organizations are waiting to help, including the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), Jewish Family Service and other agencies affiliated with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. JVS has aided about 250 immigrants locate suitable work over the last four years, said Elham Yaghoubian, one of the agency’s four Persian language-speaking counselors.
“We refer them to appropriate English as a second language classes and vocational training,” Yaghoubian said. “We also train our clients in job-search techniques and provide job referrals.”
One of his success stories involves two middle-aged women who didn’t speak English. It didn’t help that their husbands did not want them to work. After developing the women’s skills and evolving the husbands’ attitudes, one woman became the manager of a retail store, while the other started a certified nurse assistant training program and works at a Jewish seniors facility.
Local Iranian Jewish groups also have helped out, including the Torat Hayim Center, the Eretz-SIAMAK Center and the Hope Foundation. These groups have collaborated to create the Caring Committee, which will temporarily help with rent, groceries, medical and legal bills, transportation and school tuition.
Sometimes, immigrants also need counseling to get through depression, said Manizheh Yomtoubian, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK Center in Tarzana. One immigrant in her 20s “was so depressed, because she didn’t have anyone here, that she wanted to return back to Iran,” Yomtoubian said.
Adults older than 35 sometimes become overly dependent on their children to communicate, Yomtoubian said, adding that the Caring Committee needs additional help finding housing and work for new arrivals.
“More than money, we need people who can give these new immigrants good-paying jobs or rent a guest house or room to them during a short period,” Yomtoubian said.
Javaheri remains optimistic about the future.
“My hope is that my children will be able to get a proper college education and have better lives here,” said Javaheri, who frequently took on the role of organizing Jewish youth gatherings in Iran. “I know that I’ll be able to find work soon, but my wish is to be able to take part in volunteer community work here, just as I’d done back in Iran.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:
February 12, 2007 | 12:15 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
The Simon Wiesenthal Center hosted more than two-dozen representatives from local Iranian Muslim news outlets this month to provide them with information about the Holocaust that they can, in turn, use to educate their readers, listeners and viewers.
âWe are looking to introduce the Iranian media to the Wiesenthal Center and to respond to the hatred of Jews in Iran,â Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the centerâs associate dean, said in remarks to the group. âWe want you to expose the lies and hatred coming from the Iranian government.â
Cooper was referring to recent statements by Iranâs new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian leader has implied that the Holocaust is a myth; on another occasion he asserted that Israel should be obliterated and that a homeland for Jews could be located instead in Europe or America.
Ahmadinejadâs comments have recently energized the Southern California-based Persian-language media to support Israel publicly and to speak out against anti-Semetic remarks made by Iranian government officials for the first time in the 26 years since the Islamic revolution. A pro-Israel rally in Westwood drew nearly 2,000 Iranians from various religions last November.
At the weekend gathering, Iranian journalists talked of a duty to learn more about the Holocaust so they could properly relay the full extent of Nazi atrocities to their audiences.
âIt is our responsibility to give people in the Iranian community the correct information about this issue,â said Parviz Kardan, a Persian-language media personality and host of the radio program âA Spoonful of Sugarâ on KIRN 670 AM. âWe must be a window for young Iranians everywhere to show history in the proper light.â
Those in attendance were given an electronic card with the name and photograph of a child who lived during the era of the Holocaust. At the end of the tour, they discovered what happened to that child.
âI was aware of the Holocaust, but not to the extent of what I learned from this visit,â said Assadollah Morovati, owner of Radio Sedaye Iran (KRSI), a Persian-language satellite-radio station based in Beverly Hills that broadcasts news into Iran and worldwide. âIn Iran we have a dictator like Hitler who is behaving like him and speaking like him.â
The journalistsâ tour guide was Holocaust survivor Peter Daniels, who had his own perspective on Ahmadinejad.
âWeâve dealt with Holocaust deniers for years,â Daniels said. âThe president of Iran is not anything new. Itâs a way for them to be heard and get attention. I try not to take it personally.â
In a question-and-answer period following the tour, Cooper noted that Ahmadinejadâs statements may be an attempt to divert attention from Iranâs alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. But he urged the Iranian media representatives to respond to them nevertheless.
âThe average American thinks the president of Iran speaks for all Iranians,â Cooper told them. âThey donât know the region well, so you need to have a core message.â He also urged them to reach out to U.S. elected officials âto voice your concern for the safety of your friends and family in Iran.â
Local Iranian Jewish leaders George Haroonian and Bijan Khalli were involved in setting up the Museum of Tolerance event. They said they felt a responsibility as Jews to inform their non-Jewish Iranian compatriots about the truth of the Holocaust.
âForgetfulness about the Holocaust is like committing a crime,â Haroonian told the crowd of Iranian journalists in Persian. The Iranian government is âtrying to teach hatred for Jews. We hope this tour will be a step to awaken the Iranian people.â
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:
February 12, 2007 | 12:06 am
Posted by Karmel Melamed
When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took office on July 1, he could have handed out thank-yous to groups all over the city for his Election Day drubbing of incumbent Mayor James Hahn.
Jews, in all their local permutations, were a big part of Villaraigosaâs victory: Orthodox Jews, Valley Jews, Westside liberal Jews â and also the politically emerging community of Iranian Jews.
âThe Iranian Jewish community is very much a part of this city,â said David Nahai, a Century City attorney. âWhat happens to Los Angeles happens to us and so we have a deeply vested interest in the outcome of this race.â
Only recently have many prominent Iranian Jews in Southern California become more involved in political races â after realizing the impact elected officials have on their business interests, which for many include substantial real estate holdings.
âThere have been a great number of scandals under Hahnâs administration,â he said. âWe donât want that in our city, especially because, as Iranian Jews, weâve seen what corruption can do to a country. And Antonio has made us feel like our community would have a true place at the table with his administration.â
At the very least, Iranian Jews have made a case for their seat at the table. On April 17, about 80 of them joined Villaraigosa at the Beverly Hills home of Leon Farahnik, an Iranian Jewish businessman, for a campaign fundraiser that collected close to $40,000.
Iranian Jewish support for Villaraigosa extended beyond campaign contributions. Nahai said he personally debated Hahn Chief of Staff Tim McOsker on April 26 at a Santa Monica event attended by both Jewish and non-Jewish Iranians.
Nahai, who also serves as a commissioner on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, is no campaign novice. Last year he served as a co-chair of Jews and Friends for Kerry. In that capacity he appeared on local Persian-language radio stations and spoke at various Iranian synagogues.
Both Hahn and Villaraigosa understood the potential importance of the Iranian Jewish vote. In the weeks leading up to the May election, both spoke at Saturday morning services at Sephardic Temple Tiferth Israel and Sinai Temple, both of which count large numbers of Iranian Jews among their congregants.
Political activism is a fairly new phenomenon for Persian Jewish immigrants who, for more than 2,000 years in Iran, were generally denied voting rights and the right to partake in political activities.
âIt took a while for us [Iranian Jews] to take care of our immediate needs in the U.S.,â said Sam Kermanian, secretary general for the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles. âThis is a community that came here as refugees and had to put its foundations in place â so getting involved in politics only became a priority after all these other issues were taken care of.â
Kermanian, who served as a vice chair for the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign in California, said his main challenge was âto make sure that a community that traditionally did not have a culture of voting, actually comes out and casts its vote.â
Kermanian estimates that approximately 80 percent of Californiaâs 30,000 to 35,000 Iranian Jews are U.S. citizens and about 70 percent are of voting age.
These new Americans want to have their views heard by local, state and federal government policymakers, said Beverly Hills Councilman Jimmy Delshad, who in 2003 became the first Iranian Jew elected to public office in the United States.
âOne of the reasons I ran was to get Iranians involved and now I think one of my dreams is coming true,â Delshad said. âI see quite a few Iranian Jews are getting involvedâ in lobbying for Israel through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and traveling to Washington.â
In Beverly Hills this past March, for the first time in American history, Iranian Jews were able to cast ballots containing Persian language directions, with the help of poll volunteers who also spoke Persian.
Iranian Jewish businessman Michael Hakim was unsuccessful in his City Council bid. Other Iranian Jews are expected to compete in upcoming elections for the governing board of the Beverly Hills Unified School District, Delshad said.
âIâve always said that greater political participation was bound to happen and I think weâre seeing that evolution and development happen right now in our community,â Nahai said.
Karmel Melamed is an internationally published freelance journalist based in Southern California.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:
February 11, 2007 | 11:52 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
It is not often a young person from our community appears in a major motion picture and regularly in a popular national network television series, but 16-year-old Jonathan Ahdout has achieved these unique feats and more. Three years ago Ahdout, a Brentwood resident, made his acting debut playing a young Iranian man opposite Oscar winning actors Sir Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly in the acclaimed film âHouse of Sand and Fogâ. His genuine performance in the film caught the attention of producers of the hit Fox television series â24â who soon cast him to play the controversial young Iranian character of âBehrooz Arazâ on the program last season.
Ahdout is one of only a handful of young people in our community that have recently achieved substantial success working in the entertainment industry in the last few years. Even though he is still in high school, Jonathanâs acting ability has recently earned him a place in the soon to be released film âAmerican Gunâ, playing along side actor Forrest Whittaker. Recently I had a chance to chat with Jonathan and was impressed to discover that this well-spoken young man is also musically talented and possesses a true love of Judaism.
Can you share with us some background on yourself and where you grew up?
Well Iâm 16 years old and parents came to America in 1982 from Iran. I was born in 1989 and I grew up in the area around Beverly Glen. I went to Sinai Akiba and for seventh grade I switched schools to Harvard Westlake. Iâve always been very interested in music and the arts, thatâs something Iâve been involved with since I was very little. I started piano lessons with Sheila Hekmat when I was in first grade and Iâm still doing that. Sheâs definitely been a big influence in my life, helped me out. Iâve done a lot of compositions with piano, won some contests which is great, and just recently wrote the score for my school play this Fall. I really love writing music and I got into acting when I was around 13 when I was in âHouse of Sand and Fogâ.
How did you land your first role in the film House of Sand and Fog?
I was never interested in acting when I was younger. I did a few school plays with my friends. When I was 13 one of my momâs friends got a fax from DreamWorks that said they needed a Persian boy to play the son of Ben Kingsley in âHouse of Sand and Fogâ and it was just an open audition. So I went in thinking it would be cool to audition for a movie, I didnât have any high hopes or anything. Even the fact that I got a call back was surprising to me and I didnât hear back from them for three weeks until one day I had messages at home and on my cell phone that I had to go in and audition that night. So I went in with a whole bunch of kids, we all auditioned. The next day was my first rehearsal and two weeks later was the first day of shooting.
What motivated you to enter the acting profession? Is it going to be your career in the future?
Iâm not making too many decisions right now about the rest of my life, I think Iâm way too young to be deciding what is best and right. As of now what I can do is to take advantage of everything is in front of me. Doing the movie obviously opened a lot of doors for me and I really enjoyed acting. I think it would make for a great career right now. Itâs not necessarily a sustainable career or something practical because the entertainment industry is very very shaky, especially for actors because you never know if youâre going to be with a job or out of a job. Itâs not like being a businessman or owning a business were you know youâre going to have a steady income or salary. My plans as of now are to go to college, Iâm hoping to double major in something in film industry and business. Hopefully one day start my own business, look into producing, look into directing—definitely continue acting. Eventually if I have the time for it, film scoring is something Iâve always been interested in and would definitely love to pursue.
What has the experience of working on a popular TV show like â24â been like for you?
Itâs surreal for me. I donât think Iâm at that point where itâs hit me that Iâm on millions of TV sets and millions of people around the entire world are watching me. I was in Edinburgh, Scotland in August with my school for three weeks, we were performing a bunch of different plays. There was a stand-up comedy routine there called â26â, it was about this guy who was 26 years old and making fun of his life. As soon as I found about that I told my friends that we should go see it. Right at the middle of his routine, he called me up, he had me sign his whole DVD set and thereâs an action card with my face on it that he had me sign. So the whole thing is so unreal to me and the fact that I was recognized there was amazing. I just got a call the other day from someone in Brazil about a fan club I have in Brazil. Working on â24â was such a solid experience, from the second I walked on people welcomed with open arms. No matter how big or small my role was I could tell that everyone there was working together on such a great project. I felt like I was a part of such a great team of people who were so professional, knew what they were doing and had such great personalities. It was definitely a more versatile experience for me, I learned how to deal with more people and be more professional in the entertainment industry.
Youâve played young Middle Eastern men on TV and film, are you afraid of being type-cast in these roles? Do you want to continue playing these roles or do you want something different?
My biggest fear is becoming type-cast as the Muslim Middle Easterner because I think society today has their sights set on the Middle East and itâs become a much bigger part of American culture. I donât want to necessarily fuel anytime of stereotype that could be created. My roles on â24â and âHouse of Sand and Fogâ were very character driven, character specific roles, there was not that much stereotype involved which is why I took the roles. I wanted to make sure it wasnât anything too general and something that people could get the wrong idea from. Apparently people did get the wrong idea for it. I know there was a lot of hate coming from the Muslim community towards me and Shohreh Agadashloo and to Fox as well for portraying Middle Easterners as terrorists on â24â. But at the same time youâre dealing with â24â which is a show that has portrayed Germans, Russians, even Americans as terrorists. I have had to turn down roles that I thought were way too stereotypical and that I thought would negatively affect my career. I donât want to close off any opportunities for myself by taking these roles. Iâve actually filmed another independent film called âAmerican Gunâ where I just played a normal American kid named Ike. It was a smaller role but it was such a great task and opportunity for me, but more importantly I have it on my resume that Iâve played non-Middle Eastern roles.
Iranian Jewish parents seem to want their children to join professional occupations, what was your familyâs reaction when you told them you wanted to act?
We come from a very conservative culture where people like things that are practical and reasonable. Becoming an actor at the age of 13 is definitely not practical or reasonable. People just feel safe in our community sticking to stability. My parents from the start came to this country to give us a better life and give us opportunities and education. Their biggest concern for me was that I have to stay in school, I have to keep my head in school, and not go into this industry for money. It was about me pursuing something I loved, something I that I was good at, something that could be a good opportunity for me. I was actually one of the more hesitant people in my family about taking this role, it wasnât necessarily just my decision it was basically between me, my parents, and my older sister. So went for it, my parents supported me every step of the way, my mom came with me to work every single day and made sure that I was on top of my work and school. So many Persian people and young people in our community havenât gone toward acting, itâs completely understandable for parents to have the same reaction as I had and think that this is crazy.
What type of response or feedback have you received from the Iranian Jewish community since youâve achieved success in landing roles on â24â and âHouse of San and Fogâ?
Iâve gotten a lot of admiration. When I go to Sinai for temple, or Nessah for temple, or go to extended family dinners, or weddings where people that Iâve never met know me and really appreciate what Iâm doing. Itâs so fulfilling. I think Iâm showing them and itâs ok not to be so uptight and to be more relaxed and embrace what this country has to offer. The fact that they are admiring me to begin with is an honor for me and to have my community behind me. I definitely feel that itâs not just the Muslims that are against me, I hate to say that, they have admired me as well just because of the fact that I am Persian. Iâve gotten a lot negative reaction all across the board from all religions and all Middle Easterners. When I was doing my interview on K.I.R.N. and I also had an interview on the Iranian satellite radio channel, I was getting phone calls from these mothers and fathers ranting so angry that they couldnât believe that I could portray a terrorist on TV. There was this one guy that told me his son was named âBehroozâ and how he was going to school and everyone would call him âBehrooz terroristâ. I knew going into this that I would get a lot of negative reactions and I even expected more that I got. Itâs about the acting and itâs the craftâ¦Iâm not a terrorist. My job was to act and that is what I did.
How important is Judaism in your life now and how are you involved in the Jewish community?
Judaism is a very very big part of my life and identity. Itâs one of the reasons why I am so close to my family and there is such a good relationship between us. Every Friday night Iâm excited to go to my grandmaâs house and see my 20 cousins. Itâs such a great thing. Being Jewish has brought a lot of goodness to my life and I think itâs very important for someone to have a strong religion and relationship with G-d to hold onto. Iâm not the most religious or Orthodox, but in my opinion one of the biggest components of the Jewish religion is the idea of family and in my opinion that is why we have Shabbat to be with your family.
What projects do you have coming up? Are you going to continue acting?
Right now itâs a pretty tough year in school. I just missed out on a good amount of time, I kept up but I definitely think this is the time I can get a lot out of being in school. Iâm not trying to stop my career but Iâm not making any decisions for the future. Iâm not going to say Iâm not going to act tomorrow when I donât have an offer. Iâm still auditioning, if something comes up thatâs when Iâm going to make the decision of whether I should take the role or stay in school. Right now my top priority is school and it always will be. If anything, that is what will take me farthest in life.
What advice do you have for other young Iranian Jews looking to enter the entertainment industry as an actor?
First comes first, donât get your hopes up because if you do youâre destined to fail. There are no guarantees in this business, just because you go on a couple of auditions doesnât mean youâre going to be a movie star the next day. You might not get a job for a couple of years. After âHouse of Sand and Fogâ I didnât audition for a year and then I auditioned for a year until I got the next two roles. Donât rush into things, donât get your hopes too high, and donât ever ever give up because if itâs something you enjoy and love, you have every right to pursue it.
This article was originally published by the Iranian Jewish Chronicle Magazine:
February 11, 2007 | 10:23 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
More than 2,000 mourners packed the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills this summer to bid farewell to Hacham Yedidia Shofet. During the funeral, the powerful sound of the shofar blended with the recorded voice of Shofet, who at his own request, led a prayer at his funeral. His seeming presence made it seem all the more difficult to believe that he was gone â after being the anchor of the community for so long.
This High Holiday season marks a milestone for the Iranian Jewish community in Southern California, which numbers nearly 30,000. For the first time since Iranian Jews began to settle here in large numbers, Shofet will not be present as either their actual or symbolic leader. Shofet had been a spiritual force for more than seven decades â most of that time in Iran, where heâd played a powerful political role, as well.
Shofet died early this summer at 96, after several years of declining health. His passing leaves behind a community in transition, one that revered him, but also one that relied less and less on his influence and direction. Itâs a community that had begun to see him more with a sense of nostalgia than as a leader.
However, he always commanded respect, and when he called for unity in the community, the Iranian Jewish diaspora took the injunction seriously. With his passing, tensions and factionalism that had been roiling behind the scenes could become more open and intense.
âSo long as Hacham Yedidia Shofet was alive, the deep respect and feeling of reverence that the community held for him prevented the younger rabbis from wandering too far from the mainstream on either side,â said Sam Kermanian, secretary general for the Iranian American Jewish Federation, a community umbrella organization.
Now the mantle of spiritual leadership falls to Rabbi David Shofet, the middle-age son of the late leader. Like his father, he practices an Iranian style of Judaism, developed over more than 2,500 years, that balances elements of Conservative and Orthodox traditions.
However, heâs inherited a restive flock. The offspring of the immigrant generation is pulling in different directions. Some are shedding much or all of their religious practice or even exploring other religions; many others are turning to Orthodoxy.
None of this internal disintegration seemed possible in Iran, where Jews struggled against frequent oppression to hold onto their religion and culture. In many ways, they succeeded spectacularly. For more than 2,500 years, Iranian Jews lived in relative isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, but they remained Jews, held together by leaders such as Shofet.
The community understands the debt they owe to Shofet and his predecessors.
Following the funeral services, a motorcade and five rented buses were necessary to transport all those who wanted to attend the burial at Groman Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills. Even that wasnât enough of a goodbye for the 96-year-old patriarch. Approximately 5,000 mourners attended a later memorial.
Shofet served in a quasi-political capacity as representative of the nearly 100,000 Jews in Iran. He spoke for Jews and protected their interests during the reign of the shah, and also for two years under the Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini that followed.
He immigrated to Southern California in 1981, where he tended to religious and social issues within the Iranian Jewish community here. The issues in the United States were not as immediately perilous as those in Iran, but Shofet soon found he had to deal with fractiousness and assimilation that threatened to erase an Iranian Jewish identity thousands of years in the making.
While many Iranian Jews have been saddened by the loss of Shofet, theyâve had to shift their focus to the future. Community feuding, which had been kept in check out of respect for Shofet and by Shofetâs delicate diplomacy and voice of moderation, are likely to re-emerge.
A serious rift became apparent nearly 10 years ago between those practicing traditional Iranian Judaism and Iranian Jews who adopted a more religiously observant Eastern European form of Orthodox Judaism. Young Iranian Jews have been drawn to more than two dozen Orthodox synagogues in the Pico-Robertson area and along Ventura Boulevard in Encino.
Critics of the new Orthodoxy say that it has broken up families, because the young adult proselytes frequently reject their parentsâ generation for not being religious enough.
âItâs just ridiculous, [Orthodox rabbis] have used religious issues of the bedroom and food as weapons that [have] been given to our children to be used against us,â said Pouran Mogahvem Cohen, a West Los Angeles resident.
She organized a support group for families in conflict because of religious differences between the older and younger generations.
âEveryone involved in our group has the main goal of bringing unity in the community by not creating divisions in families or brainwashing our children to drop their university studies and careers, only to go off to some yeshiva across the country,â she said.
A different perspective comes from leaders of the Orthodox shuls. They insist they are addressing the communityâs true spiritual needs, which were suppressed in Iran but can achieve full expression given the religious freedom of the United States.
âIn Los Angeles, there are hundreds and hundreds of fully observant Persian families, and this past Passover, just through me, we had 1,000 families that sold their chametz, which shows that definitely a good portion of our community is becoming more observant,â said Rabbi David Zargari of the Torat Hayim Center in the Pico-Robertson area.
To reduce the tensions of these religious differences, Cohenâs group in late 2003 organized three question-and-answer seminars held at the Nessah Center, Beverly Hills High School and the Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana, respectively. She said each seminar was attended by nearly 2,000 Iranian Jews. Also attending were various social and religious leaders, including those from Orthodox synagogues, whose leaders participated as panelists. It was the sort of unity-building exercise that Shofet approved of â except that nothing was settled, Cohen said.
âTheir rabbis had no answers for us, and there was nothing resolved,â Cohen said. âOur main achievement was in making people in the community more aware of this problem to protect their children from this type of fanaticism.â
But efforts at peacemaking continue. Last year, the Iranian American Jewish Federation passed a resolution calling on all religious factions in the Iranian Jewish community to accept each other and respect the rights of community members to practice Judaism as they wish.
The intervention was âmeant to calm everyone down and to promote the social unity of the community,â Kermanian said. âIn essence, what it meant was that any attempt by any single faction to dictate religious policy to the entire community was unacceptable, and the only solution was for all to be free to pursue their own ways of practice.â
This goal doesnât get any easier in the absence of Shofet.
âThe community was his family, and he believed in the well-being of all people, not just Jews,â said David Shofet of his father. âHe loved every Jew no matter who he was unconditionally, and his tremendous spirituality is why old and young people were drawn to him.â
Which means that David Shofet, who looks to be in his mid- to late 50s, has big shoes to fill, though he, too, is well regarded after working alongside his father for more than 25 years.
The community is never likely to have another figure as revered and influential in the United States as the elder Shofet was in Iran.
According to Shofetâs 2001 memoirs, written in Persian by Manucher Cohan, he was born in the central Iranian city of Kashan into a family with 12 generations of rabbis. Over the years, Shofet gradually gained prominence among Iranâs Jews and non-Jews for his eloquent speeches and his ability to connect easily with all who approached him for help. Ultimately, he became a liaison and spokesperson for Iranian Jews before the shah, government officials and even Islamic clerics. Thereâs no such equivalent position for an Iranian Jewish leader in the United States.
However, in Iran, Shofet commanded enough respect to intervene when Jews were in dire trouble, for example, with the Iranian government. He was instrumental in persuading the shah and other government officials in the early 1950s to allow Iraqi Jews, who had illegally left Iraq, to find temporary refuge in Iran before eventually immigrating to Israel, said Ebrahim Yahid, a close colleague of Shofet.
âWe had many rabbis, teachers and hachamim in Iran, but he was the most open minded and most beloved of them all,â Yahid said. âHe was even respected by the most fanatic Islamic clerics in Iran who did not have friendships with Jews â all because of his gentleness and humility.â
Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, Shofet, along with thousands of other Iranian Jews, eventually immigrated to Southern California. While no longer working as a liaison for Iranian Jews, he continued to serve as a symbolic religious figure, urging Iranian Jewish families to preserve their Jewish traditions. In the United States, Shofet, with his son and other community leaders, helped establish the Nessah Center, first in Santa Monica and then in Beverly Hills.
Over the last five years, Shofet was gradually forced to retire from community work due to failing health. His son took over day-to-day leadership duties.
âReplacing Hacham Yedidia is impossible. The closest we can come to him is his very able son, Rav David Shofet, who has dedicated his life to Iranian Jewry like his father did,â said Andy Abrishami, a Nessah board member and the elder Shofetâs son-in-law. âItâs hard to be a rabbi under any circumstances, especially when youâre a rabbi for Iranian Jews, because their expectations are much higher, but he [David Shofet], with his humility and dedication, has captured the Iranian Jewsâ favor.â
If David Shofet canât bring the often-divided community together, it isnât clear who can.
âThe crucial test for our community now is whether it can hold the center together,â Kermanian said. âAt this point, this seems like an extremely tall order, which only Rabbi David Shofet, Hacham Yedidiaâs son and our communityâs preeminent rabbi, has the chance to fulfill.â
Cohen, the critic of the new Orthodoxy, expressed similar hopes, saying, âWe have no expectations from [Orthodox rabbi] Zargari or the others, but we are looking to David Shofet for real, true leadership. This community wants him to truly be a father figure to us. [And] we want him to be as open-minded as his father was.â
Zargari, for one, said heâs open to dialogue with Jews who donât practice his Orthodoxy: âThey are my brothers and sisters. I donât look down on them or think that Iâm better than them in anyway. And it must be mutual. We have to learn to be tolerant and respect each other.â
Thereâs hope for the future in such sentiments, said Dr. Shirzad Abrams, co-founder of the Graduate Society Foundation, a local organization that promotes the continuity of Iranian Jewish history and Judaism among young Jews.
âThe fact that there is contact between [different factions] is positive,â he said. âIâd be very afraid and totally frustrated if they stopped talking to each other.â
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:
February 11, 2007 | 10:12 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
More than 2,000 Southern California Iranians from various religious backgrounds gathered in Westwood last weekend to demonstrate against calls for Israelâs destruction by Iranâs new president. Participants held high the flags of Iran, Israel and the United States as they marched along Wilshire Boulevard near the Federal Building.
Speakers as well as marchers denounced comments made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, during a televised state-run anti-Zionism rally in Tehran on Oct. 26, referred to Israel as that âdisgraceful blotâ that should be âwiped off the map.â
Leaders around the world condemned Ahmadinejadâs statement, but the Iranian expatriate community in Los Angeles decided to send its own unambiguous message.
âThe beauty of whatâs happening is that it has been initiated by the Iranian community â the non-Jewish Iranian community,â said Ali-Reza Morovati, general manager of KRSI âRadio Sedaye Iran,â a Persian-language satellite and Internet radio station based in Beverly Hills that broadcasts around the world.
Representatives of eight Southern California-based Persian language media outlets â two newspapers, four television programs and two radio stations, all owned by Iranian Muslims â have condemned the Iranian president. Each of the outlets published or broadcast a joint letter decrying the statements against Israel. The letter was especially significant because it marked the first time that the local Iranian Muslim media displayed public support for Israel. These media organizations had never, in the past, openly criticized similar anti-Israel rhetoric coming from Iranian government officials.
Nearly 20 Iranian Muslim journalists and political activists signed the letter that characterized the criticisms of Israel as the âmad hallucinations of Ahmadinejad,â whose view âdoes not reflect the true sentiments of the people of Iran. Ahmadinejad does not speak for Iranians!â
âWe wanted to show the world that we are against such comments made by Mr. Ahmadinejad and that his comments are not representative of the Iranian people,â said Assadollah Morovati, the owner of KRSI. The 80-year-old Morovati started the station 18 years ago with the specific goal of bringing down Iranâs Islamic regime. He said listeners inside Iran and elsewhere around the world have frequently called to voice their strong dissent for Ahmadinejadâs anti-Israel comments.
âThe Iranian people and Jews have shared a history of 2,500 years from the time of Cyrus the Great, who gave them freedom,â said Morovati, whoâd served in Iranâs parliament prior to the countryâs 1979 Islamic revolution. âIranians are not the type to want the destruction of another people. We respect the Jewish people and only wish success for the State of Israel.â
Before the revolution, Iran was one of Israelâs closest allies in the Middle East; the regime of the late Shah of Iran enjoyed strong political and trade relations with Israel.
The rallyâs participants evoked a strong affection for the late and deposed Shah of Iran, whom many Ã©migrÃ©s said protected Iranâs Jewish community. The flag of the Shahâs regime was held aloft by many as the true flag of Iran. Under the present government, Iranian Jews face constant intimidation â as do nontraditional Muslim women and those criticize the government.
Some local Iranian Muslim media personalities said they signed the letter to take a stance against Iranâs totalitarian government â and not because of any specific affinity for Israel.
âWe are not necessarily defending Israel â their government is more than capable of doing that on its own â but we wanted to point out the absurdity of comments made by those in Iranâs current government,â said Homayoon Hooshiarnejad, owner of Asre Emrooz, a daily Persian-language newspaper based in the San Fernando Valley.
The reaction to Ahmadinejadâs comments from Southern Californiaâs Iranian Jewish community leaders has been cautious â their comments in the past have been used by Iranian government officials as an excuse to seek reprisals against the nearly 15,000 Jews still living in Iran.
âAt a time when Iran is under suspicion for pursuit of nuclear weapons, it is extremely difficult to find any wisdom in Mr. Ahmadinejadâs threats against another country which is perceived to be a nuclear power,â said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:
February 11, 2007 | 9:53 pm
Posted by Karmel Melamed
Following a career as Israelâs ambassador to the United States in the 1980s and as Israeli defense minister in three separate governments, Moshe Arens left politics to serve as the chairman of the board of governors at the âCollege of Judea and Samaria,â located in the West Bank city of Ariel. Arens belongs to the shrinking group of Israeli leaders who helped shape the landscape of Israeli politics from the nationâs inception. Arens, long a stalwart in the Likud party, shared his views about the recent elections, Israelâs future security and his current work at the college.
What surprised you about the recent electionâs outcome?
I guess everyone was surprised by the Pensioners [party] who during the beginning of the campaign were not given a chance of passing the threshold. They finally succeeded in getting seven members of the Knesset elected. Other than that I think most people were disappointed with the results.
The Likud party that you helped create, along with former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, came in fourth with only 12 seats. Why do you think the party lost the confidence of voters after so many years of prominence?
The major reason was because the man who was the chairman of the party, Ariel Sharon, turned his back on the party and on the principles that the party stood for. He formed a rival party, took with him quite a number of leading people in the Likud. So any party that would be able survive that kind of catastrophe I think would be the exception not the rule.
How does the reality of winning the campaign differ from the reality of resolving issues with the Palestinians?
Ehud Olmert is going to be the man who leads the new government. Before the elections he declared that he intended to forcibly evacuate about 100,000 [settlers] from Judea and Samaria and turn the area over to the [Palestinian Authority]. Whether heâs actually going to do that or not, whether heâll be able to do it, or wants to do it, that is a part of the question mark. This was announced at the start of the election campaign and at the time some of the polls said he might get close to 40 seats in the Knesset, which would give him the strength to carry out that kind of program. But with 29 seats [for Olmertâs Kadima party], itâs not really likely.
What do you see as the future of the settlement cities like Ariel, which includes the College of Judea and Samaria, for which you chair the board of governors?
I can only quote what was said by Olmert during the election campaign. He insisted that he foresaw a number of settlements, including Ariel, as being a part and parcel of the State of Israel. He visited the city of Ariel during the election campaign, met with the people here and he assured them that the area would be part and parcel of the State of Israel in the years to come.
Prominent Iranian Jewish leader Parviz Nazarian and his organization âCitizensâ Empowerment Center in Israelâ have begun a campaign in Israel to bring about a national referendum to change Israelâs government from a parliamentary system to one that is more American style. What are your views on this effort?
I think the chances of changing the structure of the Israeli government are very small. I donât think itâs a good idea. The United States basically has a federal structure where the power is decentralized from the states, municipalities and counties. Israel is a tiny country. It canât really have that kind of decentralization, and it is no accident that the parliamentary system of government that we have is the one of most common amongst democracies in the world. Itâs functioned very well. Weâve gone through 58 years of war, economic crises and massive immigration, and weâve come through it quite well.
To what extent do you think unilateral withdrawal has helped or harmed Israel?
It certainly hasnât been helpful. The fact is that 8,000 people have been left homeless, left their livelihoods. [And thereâs] a steady rain of Palestinian rockets hitting down on the outskirts of Ashkelon â one of the largest cities, which is all something weâve never had before. Weâve just moved terror closer to Israelâs population centers.
Iran seems to be at the top of the list for the United States, European countries, and Israel as far as the most serious threat to the region, with its pursuit of nuclear capability? Is the ultimate solution a military one?
As you pointed out, most of the rest of the of the world, lead by the United States realizes that nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranians would be a danger to the world. So this is not just a specific problem for the State of Israel, itâs a problem for the entire world. Whether the United States eventually decides to take military action or whether diplomacy can do the trick remains to be seen.
You served off and on in the Knesset and in the government for more than 30 years. What prompted you to leave politics for the realm of education?
What I am doing now is not only in the line of education. Iâm also involved in business and some research. I felt my tenure of service to the State of Israel had come to an end and I wanted to give the younger people a chance.
You had taught aeronautical engineering at Technion University in Hafia. Why did you choose this leadership role at the College of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank?
First of all, it is an important educational institution in Israel. It is very likely to be the next major university in Israel, so there is a potential for very significant achievement here. The location of course is very important in Ariel; itâs an anchor for the city and for Israeli presence in the area. So for all of these reasons I felt it was important to be here.
Your college seems to have substantial numbers of Ethiopians and Sephardim as students. Can you tell us about their role in Israelâs future?
Our president was born in Iran, our defense minister was born in Iran, our commander of the army comes from an Iranian background. This does not indicate that the Iranians are now running Israel, but it does indicate that people who came here in various waves of immigration have emerged in Israel over the past 50 or 60 years. Theyâve taken their place in Israelâs society, in all aspects of life not only in politics, but also in business, hospitals, and academic life. Wherever you go you find descendents of immigrants or immigrants themselvesâ¦ The same is true for the Ethiopians, who are the most recent group to arrive here.
Individuals interested in the College of Judea & Samaria in Ariel, Israel can contact the collegeâs offices in Southern California at (760) 634-8458 or visit www.yosh.ac.il
This interview was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: