Long troubled by infighting, the Los Angeles Iranian Jewish community is working toward less conflict as three prominent Iranian Jewish organizations recently merged with the hope of speaking with one voice.
The Iranian-American Jewish Association (SIAMAK), Eretz Cultural Center and the Neria Yomtoubian Foundation came together under the banner of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center on Feb. 21 in Tarzana.
The merger of the three groups signifies a desire within the Iranian Jewish community for greater participation in the larger Jewish community and a desire to attract Jewish youth to its cause. After more than two decades in the Southland, Persian Jews are organizing to present a united front for their community.
"This is actually a historical event. I do not remember anything like this happening before, and I truly believe that this is a bridge to the future of our community," said Manizheh Yomtoubian, founder of the Neria Yomtoubian Foundation.
SIAMAK co-founder Dariush Fakheri said he first approached Yomtoubian and Ruben Dokhanian, co-founder and president of Eretz Cultural Center, after he realized the true growth potential of the three separate organizations. The three leaders said that while they have encountered a variety of challenges from logistics to reorganizing their volunteer base in the merge, their primary desire has been to generate more interest in the Tarzana center.
"We have numerous volunteers who give their time, money and effort for the betterment of the community," said Fakheri. "But we need new members who want to come along with us as we go through this transformation."
Fakheri said it's taken a long time for Iranian Jewish organizations to unite because the community has been trying to adapt since its arrival in Southern California nearly 25 years ago.
"You have to look at our situation from so many angles. We are the survivors of a revolution," Fakheri said. "Our main goal was to survive, so we did whatever we had to do to reach that goal. Now our situation is way different than even a decade ago so we can do more by putting our resources together."
Lisa Daftari, an editorial intern for SIAMAK's monthly magazine, The Iranian Jewish Chronicle ("Chashm Andaaz"), said Yomtoubian is the ideal 21st century Jewish activist since she has preserved the memory of her late husband, Neria, by engaging in various activities that encourage young Jews to embrace their Jewish identities.
"Through the creation of Eretz-SIAMAK Center, Manizheh is now determined and able to fulfill both her dreams and Neria's," Daftari said. "Her commitment and optimism regarding this project is genuine and unmistakable".
Yomtoubian has also been very active over the years in an effort to feed nearly 100 Iranian Jewish families living in poverty in Los Angeles by gathering food for them on a weekly basis, Daftari said.
Fakheri said that in the last decade, Yomtoubian has collaborated with SIAMAK -- the oldest Iranian Jewish group in Los Angeles -- to subsidize food, medical and educational expenses for these needy Iranian Jewish families.
Most notably in 2000, SIAMAK and the Council of Iranian-American Jews were at the forefront of bringing to the world's attention the plight of 13 Iranian Jews who were arrested by Iran's fundamentalist Islamic regime on false charges of treason and were in danger of being executed, Fakheri said.
SIAMAK has also had an international presence, donating $20,000 last year to the Jewish community in Argentina, sending medical aid to earthquake victims in India and Iran, as well as providing humanitarian support to Muslim refugees in war-torn Bosnia during the recent Balkan wars.
Several Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles said they were surprised at the bold move by the three Iranian Jewish groups merging, especially since in-fighting is commonplace among many Iranian Jewish groups.
Fakheri and Yomtoubian said that despite differences of opinion among the diverse local Iranian Jewish groups, the new Eretz-SIAMAK organization will continue to reach out to all Jews in order to be more proactive in community and Israel causes. The group will host a variety of Jewish-oriented programs, including adult and youth Hebrew classes, marriage workshops, yoga classes, singles Shabbatons and cooking classes.
Fakheri said he was particularly looking forwarding to collaborating with as many other local American Jewish groups as possible.
"I would like to see a greater intermingling of Iranian-born Jews and other Jewish communities in the U.S.," Fakheri said. "We can collaborate more with one another and contribute a lot to each other because of our common Jewish bonds."
For more information about Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center, call (310) 843-9846.