Nearly 500 local Iranian Jews packed two auditoriums at UCLA’s Fowler Museum on Jan. 28 for an event honoring three prominent Los Angeles-area Jewish nonprofits and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).
The gathering, sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation and the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), marked the first time in more than three decades that the Iranian-Jewish community has publicly thanked HIAS, the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) and Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) for helping community members immigrate, often under duress, from their native Iran and resettle in Los Angeles.
“Today, after 30 years, we can now stop and recognize these incredible four organizations for the kind help they offered us from the moment we left Iran until today,” Younes Nazarian, chair of the foundation, said. “It is now our community’s duty to return the kindness bestowed on us by these groups by not only donating to them, but volunteering our time and serving on their boards.”
Iranian-Jewish community members at the event expressed gratitude for the help extended by the larger Jewish community as these new immigrants dealt with the trauma of fleeing a revolution-torn Iran in the late 1970s and 1980s.
“These Jewish institutions opened their doors graciously and offered their services to us that were culturally sensitive and confidential — this was vital for our community that has a collective culture in which there is a strong pathology of guilt and shame in receiving help,” said Morgan Hakimi, the event’s emcee, who is also a former president of the Beverly Hills-based Nessah Synagogue.
Individual Iranian Jews shared personal stories with the audience about how each nonprofit had aided them. Elnaz Panbechi, a 20-something recent immigrant and pharmaceuticals graduate student, said she was overwhelmed with joy after receiving a no-interest loan from JFLA.
“I started to realize and appreciate the people that were behind these loans,” an emotional Panbechi said. “I became thankful for being in a community and amongst people that were so caring and have their hands to help another person like me build a better life for myself.”
Among the programs offered by JVS is a women’s career mentoring program, called WoMentoring; according to JVS, over the past seven years, one-third of JVS’ scholarship recipients have been high-achieving Iranian-Jewish students with financial difficulties.
At the same time, the larger Iranian community has also benefited from JFS’ Iranian Peer Counseling Helpline, which offers Farsi-speaking counselors to help with family problems. JFS has also provided seminars and programs for Iranians dealing with drug abuse, domestic violence, elder abuse, depression, homelessness, mental illness, poverty and other social problems that are cultural taboos to discuss within the community.
Perhaps the most emotional aspect of the event came in the outpouring of love for HIAS, which since the 1979 Iranian revolution has been instrumental in rescuing and resettling Jews and other religious minorities fleeing Iran, including Christians, Baha’is and Zoroastrians.
“HIAS has played a very important role in influencing elected officials in Congress to keep the doors of immigration open to religious minorities escaping Iran — particularly under the leadership of Jerry Teller, one of HIAS’ past chairmen, who was instrumental during some of the most challenging times,” said Elliot Benjamin, an Iranian-Jewish attorney and member of the Resettlement Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Since 1979, approximately 80,000 Jews have fled Iran and now reside in Israel, Europe or the United States. Today, between 10,000 and 20,000 Jews are believed to be still living in Iran and are gradually leaving the country every year with the help of HIAS.
Shahla Javdan, president of IAJF, said HIAS has helped roughly 47 percent of the Jews who have left since 1979 to resettle in Los Angeles, and the organization has also given nearly 350 scholarships to Iranian immigrants in the United States.
“The immigration experience is unpleasant, and when Iranian Jews or any other refugees are experiencing it, they grumble and complain about it to HIAS just as the Hebrews complained to Moses when they were escaping from Egypt,” Mark Hetfield, the interim president and CEO of HIAS, said. “So it is very moving to see so many Iranian Jews understand today that we at HIAS were trying to help them all to move to a better place.”
Out of fear of repercussions within Iran, HIAS and local leaders have not publicized the group’s efforts in helping religious minorities to flee their country, yet recent political trends in Washington, D.C., have transformed their policy. Specifically, the expiration in September of legislation in Congress known as the Lautenberg Amendment, which allows for religious minorities in Iran to more easily seek asylum in the United States for humanitarian reasons. As a result of the expiration, HIAS has gone public to encourage members of Congress to renew the law.
The evening also marked a growing trend in the often insular and tight-knit local Iranian-Jewish community to connect with the larger Jewish community, as well as a new spirit of volunteerism.
“It is now time for us as a community of Iranian-Americans to get engaged and involved in these community organizations in order to bring about real change,” Sharon Nazarian, president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, said. “We need to be at the table in order to be relevant, to have a say and to be a part of the decision-making process.”
For more information on the Iranian-Jewish community’s night of appreciation, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at www.jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.