Iranian rabbis from Southern California and across the country gathered in Irvine on June 5-6 for the first national Persian American Rabbinical Conference to discuss issues of intermarriage, the preservation of Iranian-Jewish traditions and efforts to reach out to a younger generation.
The historic conference was hosted by the Los Angeles-based Persian Rabbinical Council (PRC), a loosely organized group set up in recent years of nearly a dozen Orthodox Iranian rabbis who head synagogues and religious schools in the Pico-Robertson area and the San Fernando Valley. The conference culminated in a June 7 banquet dinner at Nessah Synagogue, an Iranian congregation in Beverly Hills, that was attended by more than 30 people.
According to the online registration for the Nessah gala, the goal of this conference was to strengthen and empower the community. “We will focus on fighting assimilation, motivating our youth to participate in the future of our community and solidarity with our brethren in Israel. Our mission is to bring our people together, fostering unity and cooperation amongst the leadership of our community throughout the world,” it states.
Nessah’s chief rabbi, David Shofet, who also is recognized as the primary leader of the Iranian-Jewish community, praised the group’s efforts.
“I believe this conference was very positive because our Jewish community, whether living in Iran or the United States, has always worked hard to maintain our traditions,” he said. “The goal of this conference was for the rabbis to understand the issues we are facing, how to better serve the community’s needs, how to maintain our ancient halachah from Iran and to keep Judaism alive.”
Shofet said the group of Iranian rabbis in attendance also hailed from New York, Atlanta, Baltimore and Dallas, with diverse educational and career backgrounds.
“I was impressed by the rabbis who attended the conference because they were not just religious scholars, but some of them were also physicians, pharmacists and businessmen who have real-world experiences and are aware of the day-to-day challenges the community faces,” he said.
This conference of Iranian rabbis is a first for the community, which hasn’t had any formal organizing for religious customs and traditions since its members’ arrival in the United States more than 40 years ago.
Numbering 80,000 strong before the Islamic Revolution, the Jews of Iran were one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities and adhered to a traditional Sephardic form of Judaism while living in Iran for centuries. After the radical Islamic regime’s execution of Jewish community leader and businessman Habib Elghanian in May 1979, Jews first began fleeing Iran en mass for Israel, the U.S. and Europe.
After their arrival in the United States, many Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and New York joined an array of Ashkenazi synagogues from different denominations of Judaism since the community did not yet have any formal religious organizations established in the U.S.
Today, after nearly 40 years since their arrival in this country, community leaders estimate that roughly 45,000 Iranian Jews live in Los Angeles, 25,000 live in New York and another 2,000 elsewhere in America. Local Iranian-Jewish community leaders estimate that roughly 5,000 to 8,000 Jews still live in Iran and adhere to their ancient Sephardic traditional form of Judaism.