January 6, 2008
Iranian Jews are a large part of keeping L.A. synagogues open and vital
Anyone who regularly attends the well known synagogues in Los Angeles for Saturday morning services nowadays will tell you that a substantial number of individuals attending are Iranian Jews. Whether it’s Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, Tiferet Israel Sephardic Temple in West Los Angeles, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, or Stephen S. Wise in Bel Air—Iranian Jews are showing up in droves to pray and participate in temple activities. It’s not only surprising that such larger numbers of Iranian Jews are regularly attending services than American Ashkenazi Jews, but Iranian Jews are opting to become members of Ashkenazi synagogues. Iranian Jews who are Mizrachi by tradition are active and have been involved with Ashkenazi Orthodox, Conservative and Reform temples since their arrival in Southern California nearly 30 years ago. Only within the last 10 to 15 years has the community really solidified and begun operating their own synagogues. As a result local Iranian Jews have turned to American temples for their worshipping and keeping their bonds to the Jewish community. It is a well known fact that a good number of Iranian Jews are highly educated and financially well off. Since they have such strong ties to Judaism and giving back to the Jewish community, Iranian Jews have been able to help keep Jewish life vital in the city.
The influence of Iranian Jews on local Ashkenazi synagogues has already be felt. For example Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad was the first Iranian president of Sinai Temple in 1999 and now Sinai has a sizable number of Iranian Jews on its board of directors and Men’s Club. A few months ago, I attended Saturday morning services at Tiferet Israel Sephardic Temple and was shocked to find 80-percent of those worshipping in the audience were Iranian Jews. Of course any rabbi or Jewish leader would be pleased upon learning that the Iranian Jewish community is active in temple life. Yet the current situation has left me wondering what the fate of many Los Angeles synagogues would be if Iranian Jews had never set up new lives in the city? Where have the American Ashkenazi and other Sephardic communities gone? Has Jewish assimilation with the larger population been that substnatial to reduced the number of Jews attending synagogues in the city? No doubt if Iranian Jews were not living in L.A., Temple Beth El in West Hollywood, that was once the “Temple to the Movie Stars” would not even be standing today. The Iranian American Jewish Federation purchased that synagogue in the late 1990’s and renovated the site after its older Ashkenazi members had died or left the area. For that matter perhaps Sinai Temple and many of the other popular Ashkenazi synagogues would be struggling to keep their doors open if local Iranian Jews were not around to purchase temple membership.
Now it should be mentioned for the record that Iranian Jews may not be attending synagogue necessarily because they’re religious or observant. In all honesty, many Iranian Jews come to synagogue to socialize, gossip, meet potential spouses and yes…even to show off! Also membership is a new concept for local Iranian Jews, as the community generally donated money to their synagogues in Iran or bid for aliyot during services in a type of auction. Nevertheless since their arrival in the U.S., Iranian Jews have gradually embraced paying for synagogue membership. Today the Nessah synagogue in Beverly Hills was the first and is currently the only Iranian temple to offer membership.
I have in the last few years come across some older Ashkenazim who have expressed their frustrated with the influx of Iranian Jews “taking over” their synagogues in L.A. Undoubtably the Iranian Jewish community has its own traditions and attitudes that are different from American Jews, but the reality is that Iranian Jews are one of the driving forces that are keeping the doors open in many synangogues in this city.