Izak Parviz Nazarian, an Iranian-Jewish community leader, industrialist and self-made billionaire philanthropist, died Aug. 23 in Los Angeles. He was 88.
Local Iranian-Jewish community members remembered Nazarian as a tireless pro-Israel advocate who gave generously to organizations in Israel and started nonprofit groups that benefited the Jewish state in various ways.
“When it comes to true and pure Zionism, he was a lover of Israel and our people. I have lost a teacher and our people have lost their favorite son,” said Dariush Fakheri, the former head of the SIAMAK organization, a nonprofit Iranian-Jewish group based in Los Angeles.
Nazarian was born in 1929 in Tehran’s Jewish ghetto, according to his 2016 Farsi language biography, “My Walk Toward the Horizon.” His parents were David and Golbahar Nazarian, children of Georgian survivors of pogroms and immigrants to the northwestern Iranian town of Urmia.
Following his father’s death in 1935, Nazarian and his younger brother, Younes, grew up in poverty as their mother worked as a tailor. Starting his own business at age 7, Nazarian began selling matches and cigarettes on the streets in order to earn bus money to visit his mother and brother across town while living with other relatives.
Later, Nazarian left his Jewish school before graduation and, with his brother, joined the fast-growing Iranian Railroad Organization trade school and earned a technical electrical degree.
Sam Kermanian, Nazarian’s first cousin and an adviser to the West Hollywood-based Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), praised Nazarian for his hard work and drive.
“Since early childhood when [Nazarian] lost his own father, he dedicated his life first to elevating his family through his tireless and ever-optimistic pursuit of innovative and progressive business ventures,” Kermanian said.
Nazarian became an ardent Zionist, leaving Iran in 1947 and joining the Haganah’s fledgling 7th Armored Brigade to help the fight for Israel’s survival in the 1948 War of Independence. During the war, he was severely injured during a patrol near Gaza when his military vehicle encountered a land mine.
“My jeep was completely destroyed and my leg was badly injured, but due to a miracle of God, I survived,” Nazarian told the Journal in a 2007 interview. “I felt it was my duty as a Jew to fight for my homeland of Israel after encountering horrible anti-Semitism while living in Iran.”
After leaving the army in 1949, Nazarian briefly worked as a driver for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and among those he chauffeured was a future prime minister, Golda Meir. Later, he began a road construction business with other young Iranian immigrants, according to his memoirs.
Nazarian moved back to Iran in 1957 and married Pouran Toufer. Along with his brother, he started a construction business that began by paving new roads in undeveloped Iranian towns and provinces and subsequently obtained major road, bridge and civil construction contracts. Later, the two also formed Techno-Is (an abbreviation for Technology of Israel), which imported and distributed throughout Iran various construction machinery and parts from Europe, America and Israel. The company also manufactured construction equipment in its own plant located just outside of Tehran, which employed about 100 people.
Following the turmoil of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Nazarian and his family fled Iran and settled in Los Angeles. Teaming again with his brother, he invested in various real estate and industrial ventures, including the acquisition of Stadco, an aerospace manufacturing company in downtown L.A. In 1984, they co-founded the technology company Omninet, which joined forces with Qualcomm in 1988 to develop a satellite-messaging system for the long-haul trucking industry.
“He was also a big risk-taker in business during his life and he took on some major challenges that many average people would never had taken. In the end, those calculated risks paid off,” said Shokrollah Baravarian, a longtime friend of Nazarian.
Nazarian used his wealth to become a constant supporter of Israel through countless philanthropic projects. In 1990, Nazarian became one of the founders of the L.A.-based Magbit Foundation, a nonprofit that over the decades has provided nearly $1 million in interest-free loans to thousands of Israeli college students.
Former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, who once headed the Magbit Foundation, praised Nazarian’s unceasing philanthropic efforts on behalf of the foundation.
“One of my fondest memories of him was walking with him to downtown Persian-Jewish businesses to introduce me as the new president of Magbit Foundation and asking for donations for our cause,” Delshad said. “He never accepted no as an answer and that confirmed my belief that … ‘no’ means ‘not now.’ ”
Nazarian gave to numerous other causes, including Sinai Temple, where the first floor of the Westwood campus is named for him and his wife, and Nessah Educational and Cultural Center, a Beverly Hills synagogue that serves the Persian-Jewish community. Tel Aviv University, which houses the Pouran and Izak Parviz Nazarian Building, also has been a recipient of his support.
“His legacy will be as a shaper of the Persian-Jewish community here and as a major pillar of the Diaspora support of the State of Israel,” Sinai Temple Max Webb Senior Rabbi David Wolpe said.
In 2003, Nazarian founded the Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI), a nonprofit organization that promotes election reform.
Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg said Nazarian dedicated much of his life to the betterment of other Jews, especially Israelis.
“His devotion to the State of Israel and his pro-Israel philanthropic contributions helped improve the lives of Israeli citizens and gave students the opportunity to achieve a higher education,” Grundwerg said in a prepared statement to the Journal.
Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian-Jewish activist and editor of Nazarian’s memoirs, said his friend’s rags-to-riches story should be inspirational to all.
“Nazarian’s life story was one of misfortune, hope, persecution, courage, uprooting, migration, falling, standing up, taking risks, flying high and shining,” he said. “This is the essence of Jewish life throughout the centuries.”
Nazarian’s survivors include his wife, Pouran Toufer; four children, Dora Nazarian Kadisha, Dalia Nazarian Sassouni, Daphna Nazarian Salimpour and Benjamin Nazarian; brother Younes (Soraya); 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
— Staff Writer Ryan Torok contributed to this report.