Iranian-American Jews in L.A. look to the future
Foreign conflict and human rights abuses were front and center in the minds of Los Angeles’ Iranian-Jewish community leaders who attended the 30 Years After 4th Biennial Civic Action Conference on Nov. 2. Panel discussions touched on tensions between Israel and Hamas, the threat of ISIS, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But it also focused on the heritage and accomplishments of the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, and its engagement with the community at large.
An impressive list of political figures spoke at the conference, which was held at the Skirball Cultural Center, evidence of the community’s growing political and economic power in the region. Yet the event’s theme, “In Praise of Service,” also hinted at the group’s ongoing effort to convince young Iranian Jews here to increase their involvement in philanthropy and civic action.
One of the lead speakers, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin, is a longtime Jewish activist and served as a cantor for 20 years at Temple B'nai Emet; he now oversees the city’s payroll, audits, and financial reports and has worked to increase government transparency by posting all of the city’s purchases online. Galperin said apathy and low voter turnout are among the biggest challenges facing the city. “That is a great concern, because you can only sustain a democracy if people are engaged and involved,” he said.
“There is a great amount of vibrancy and culture that has been brought by the Iranian community,” Galperin added. “I personally am happy to see a lot of parents who are continuing to teach their kids Farsi, and continuing to experience a rich and amazing history and culture.”
Elissa Barrett, who has been serving as interim president and CEO of the nonprofit legal services firm Bet Tzedek said her own efforts on various social justice campaigns, from anti-Apartheid activism in South Africa to anti-racial discrimination legal battles in Detroit, have stemmed from her Jewish identity.
“The number of times in the Torah that it says, ‘help the stranger, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,’ all of these things feel to me like an exhortation, a mandate to do justice,” Barrett said. “To me, there’s nothing more central to Judaism than being actively engaged in the world around us.”
Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Cultural Center, a Beverly Hills synagogue with a large Iranian-Jewish congregation, argued that Iranians can learn from the waves of Syrian and Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who preceeded them. “This community, our community, thank God, Baruch Hashem, in one generation, has succeeded economically, scientifically. Why should we always try to eat on the table of other people? Where are our independent institutions? Where are our schools? Where are our synagogues? Where are our colleges? This is the problem.”
David Siegel, the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles, told the gathering that the Middle East is going through momentous and turbulent changes, and the alliance between Israel and the U.S. needs to be strengthened. “We need to defend ourselves, which we do very well. And we have to be vigilant, and we have to be creative and quick on our feet,” he said. “But more positively, Israel will continue to work with those countries, both above the table and below the table, who are either at peace with us, or are against these Islamic forces that are on the prowl, that are on the march.”
Siegel referred to the “bubble” of Beverly Hills and West L.A., where every home has a mezuzah on the door, and said the Iranian-Jewish community needs to reach out to Latinos and other immigrant communities in Los Angeles and embrace the commandment God gave to Abraham: lekh lekha, or go forth. “That means getting out of our chairs, getting out of the confines of our community and our comfort levels,” he said.
One panel continued the discussion about insularity within the Iranian-Jewish community of L.A., and offered a look toward the future. It’s been nearly 35 years since the Iranian Revolution brought a flood of Iranian Jews to Southern California. Meanwhile, Ashkenazi Jews have been established in L.A. for well over a century. The discussion circled around what lessons the more recent immigrants can learn from older Jewish communities, and whether the collectivist mentality of Iranian Jews is a benefit or a hindrance to its relationship with the outside world.
“There’s a tension between the stickiness of the Persian community to itself, and the Persian community’s integration into the larger community,” said Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, a primary funder of 30 Years After. “I don’t find that’s an unhealthy tension. I find it a great opportunity. It’s a tricky balance between collectively deciding what aspects of American and Persian culture we will take forward.”
“In my experience, Iranian Jews have more in common with Muslim Iranians than they do with Ashkenazi Jews,” said Gina Nahai, a novelist, Jewish Journal columnist and professor of creative writing at the University of Southern California. “We understand each other on many levels. I draw so much pride in my connection to that land and those people. A lot of our values come from our Iranian identity, not just our Jewish identity.”
Simon Etehad, an attorney and board member of Nessah Synagogue, expressed his concerns about assimilation and the discarding of traditions: “When 2050 rolls around, unfortunately for all of us, if we do not change our ways, we’ll neither be Iranian nor Jews. We’ll be Americans.” He lamented seeing more Halloween decorations than Sukkahs in front of the homes of Iranian Jewish families. “Our children need to learn Sukkot more than Halloween,” he said.
Journal contributing reporter and blogger Karmel Melamed sees the truth lying somewhere between optimism and despair. “We’re going to be OK,” he said. But he expressed some fear that financial success has become the primary focus of Iranian Jews in L.A. “We need strong moral leadership with the parents and with our community leaders, to stand up and say ‘this is not right, what’s going on with the business dealings and the financial dealings. This is not kosher. This is not how our community existed in Iran.’”
The event attracted some of the foremost political officials in Southern California, who spoke about the community’s growth and the importance of voicing support for Israel and against Iran’s nuclear efforts and human rights abuses.
“As you can tell, I’m neither Persian nor Jewish. Nobody’s perfect,” joked State Sen. Ted Lieu, the Democratic candidate running to replace Rep. Henry Waxman in the 33rd Congressional District. “Our national security is inextricably linked to the security of Israel. And the greatest threat to Israel is a nuclearized Iran,” Lieu said, to robust applause. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Lieu’s competition in the Congressional race, Republican candidate Elan Carr, also addressed Israel’s security and Iran’s uranium enrichment program. “In these urgent times, we need leaders in Congress who will represent our issues, at a time when it will soon be too late to fix the threats we all face,” he said. “I will be someone who will fight for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
In an interview, Carr said 30 Years After is helping to mobilize a new political force in the region. The group, he said, “fulfills an important role because it engages the Persian-Jewish community in the American civic process. It’s crucial, because the community has not been as engaged to the level it could be. If they were, it’d be a game changer,” Carr said.
The event also paid tribute to outgoing Jewish political leaders, including termed-out L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Waxman, as well as former Rep. Howard Berman (D-Sherman Oaks), who was honored for having helped push sanctions on Iran through Congress.
Dariush Fakheri, past president of the Iranian-Jewish nonprofit Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana, worked closely with Yaroslavsky and Waxman in resettling refugees from Iran in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “I remember planeloads of Jews coming here, and they had nobody,” Fakheri said. “I went to see Zev when he was on the L.A. City Council, and he was remarkably generous in helping us.”
Yaroslavsky is a child of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, and his leadership in the movement for Soviet Jewry is well documented. But he was also pivotal in helping Iranian Jewish refugees escape Iran. Yaroslavsky said he couldn’t help seeing a similarity between the two groups. “My parents left the Soviet Union to flee persecution, but I had plenty of relatives still there, and I couldn’t turn my back on them.”
Likewise, Yaroslavsky said in an interview, young Iranian Jews are motivated by the reasons their parents had for fleeing Iran.
“The first generation was focused on survival, on putting clothes on their kids’ backs. With 30 Years After, you see the second generation, who were either born here or came here at such a young age that they’re culturally American,” he said. “The second generation gets involved, is more successful, they have more stable lives, and they run for office.”
Seven years after 30 Years After was formed, Iranian Jews in L.A. have yet to see the election of one of their own to a national or statewide office. Yet the sheer number of elected officials who came and spoke at the conference, and the recent addition of the Maher Fellowship program, which trains young Iranian Jews in civic leadership, suggests that their political clout will continue to grow.