November 2, 2008
Photo Essay: L.A.‘s Iranian Jews repaying Alliance’s generosity
On October 19, 2008 I was witness to a incredible event in Iranian Jewish history which brought a warm feeling to my heart. After 110 years Iranian Jews (living in Los Angeles) finally and properly showed their appreciation to the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a French Jewish educational organization, that had literally been the salvation of Iran’s Jews during the 20th century and led to their success today. The event was nothing short of beautiful and emotional for those in the local Iranian Jewish community who understand the historical importance and impact the AIU has had their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
Nearly 350 Iranian Jewish members of the newly formed “Friends of Alliance Israelite in Southern California” a non-profit organization, gathered that day at the private residence of Jacqueline and Isaac Moradi in Beverly Hills to raise funds for the AIU’s agricultural school Mikveh Israel in Israel. Between 1898 and 1979, the AIU provided secular and Jewish education to Jews living through out Iran, an effort that indirectly resulted in Iranian Jews gaining wealth and leaving their ghettos. Gity Barkhordar, one of the event’s organizers said ticket sales and fundraising efforts at the event together generated roughly $1 million, which will be donated to Mikveh Israel for their renovation projects. It should be noted that Mikveh Israel was established in 1870 by the AIU on a tract of land southeast of Tel Aviv which he leased from the Sultan of Turkey. Even today, the school is still active in helping new immigrants to Israel to learn Hebrew and about agriculture techniques—interestingly some of these new immigrants are Iranian Jews.
The Friends of Alliance Israelite in Southern California was co-founded by members of the affluent Iranian Jewish Merage family who along with other Iranian American Jews have been enthusiastic about returning the AIU’s generosity toward their community 110 years ago. “There is one simple question; what would have happened to me if my father had not gotten a chance to get at an education at the Alliance?” said David Merage, the event’s co-chair. “I wish I could go back to the founders of Alliance and say thank you”. David Merage said at the event his family’s amazing success story in the U.S. is rooted in the invaluable education his father, Andre received at the AIU’s school in Iran during the last century—the Merages and many other Iranian Jewish families worldwide, in part, credit the AIU for passing onto them the education, values and Jewish ideals that have resulted in their success today. During the past several years members of the Merage family have been active in various Jewish philanthropic efforts in the U.S. as well as development and growth of Israel’s Negev region.
David Merage is one of the many remarkable Iranian American Jews in who through hard work and creativity have achieved the American dream. He was co-founded Chef America Inc., a privately-held national frozen food manufacturer known for inventing and marketing products such as Hot Pockets, Lean Pockets and Croissant Pockets. At the time of its sale in 2002 to Nestlé, the company had reached $750 million in annual sales, employed 1,800 people and was growing at a rate of 15 percent per year, making it one of the fastest growing food companies in the world. Nestlé acquired Chef America for $2.6 billion. Today, David Merage is principal of Consolidated Investment Group (CIG), a Denver-based investment firm, focusing on Wall Street and real estate investments. More importantly, learning from the AIU’s generousity to his family, David Merage is a philanthropist who actively leads two non-profits that focus on early childhood education, the arts and community, Jewish life in America and worldwide. In 2005, David’s brother Paul Merage (also a co-founder of Chef America) donated $30 million to the School of Business at UC Irvine, which was renamed the Paul Merage School of Business in his honor and has also given funds to the Merage Jewish Community Center of Orange County. David’s mother, Katherine Merage has been key in organizing the efforts of The Friends of Alliance Israelite in Southern California as well as donating to a whole host of other philinthropic efforts in L.A.‘s Iranian Jewish community.
Also at hand for the event was French Jewish philanthropist Hubert Leven, whose great-grandfather, Narcisse, helped establish with six other French Jews, AIU schools throughout Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East for Sephardic Jews. I spoke with Leven at the event and he said he was surprised at the positive ripple effect his great-grandfather’s generousity had had on Iran’s Jews. Last year I interviewed Leven about his family’s ties with the AIU and his own Jewish non-profit’s efforts in Israel which can be found here.
What was truly remarkable to me was the breath-taking setting of the fundraising event at the mansion in the heights on Beverly Hills. The location was far different from the rundown ghettos of Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd where Iranian Jews once lived during the last century. The Moradis’ fabulous home was truly a testimate to the important impact the AIU has had on Iranian Jewry and how education can offer any person or community new opportunities to live better lives. The AIU fundraiser event several weeks ago also represented the ideal set by the Torah that teaches that each Jew is responsible for his fellow Jew. No doubt now that Iranian American Jews have benefited from the education their parents and grandparents enjoyed, they too are now returning that favor and giving AIU students in Israel that same gift.
In addition, David Suissa, the Jewish Journal’s columnist was speaking and yes even singing at the AIU fundraiser! A video message of support was also played from Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz who is a prominent Iranian Jewish politician. Those interested in reading more about the efforts of the AIU on behalf of Iran’s Jews during the last century can read my interview here with Elias Eshaghian, an AIU school director in Iran.
The following are some sights from the fundraiser which I captured…