U.S. economic woes spark rift in Iranian community

The U.S. economic problems over the past several months have resulted in rising conflicts among some Southern California Iranian Jewish community groups.

The most recent example occurred in late September, when Washington Mutual appeared to be on the verge of collapse. The L.A.-based nonprofit, International Judea Foundation (SIAMAK), had more than $300,000 deposited in the financial institution, well over the amount insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC).

“I was sitting at home watching the business news one night, and there was a report that Washington Mutual may go belly up,” said Dariush Fakheri, a current caretaker member of SIAMAK. “At the time, only $100,000 of our organization’s money, which was all from the community’s contributions, was insured by the U.S. government, and I was very scared the rest of the money would be lost if the bank went belly up.”

Fakheri knew that to transfer all of SIAMAK’s funds from Washington Mutual into a new bank would require several weeks — an option his group was unwilling to wait for, as the clock was ticking on Washington Mutual’s solvency. Relying on old traditions and friendships from Iran, where Jews quickly helped one another in times of need, Fakheri said his group turned for assistance to the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), a local umbrella group consisting of nearly two dozen Iranian Jewish organizations.

“I asked an adviser to Mr. Manoucher Nazarian, president of the Iranian Federation, to see if they could take SIAMAK’s money in the form of a loan and place it in their account until it was safe to take the money back, once our bank was stable,” said Fakheri, whose group is not affiliated with the IAJF. “Their center immediately took the money, helped us, and I am very grateful to them — I could not think of any other organization that we could have done this with.”

However, IAJF leadership’s action sparked a controversy when IAJF’s chairman, Daryoush Dayan, discovered documents related to the transaction. In a formal letter dated Oct. 3, Dayan demanded that Nazarian immediately return the funds to SIAMAK.

He claimed that proper protocol had not been followed, because the IAJF’s board was not advised of the transfer. His letter also said that the IAJF board had not approved the transfer, but that nevertheless, each board member was individually liable for the debt obligation created by acceptance of the money.

Nazarian said that Dayan had no jurisdiction over the transaction, because SIAMAK gave its funds as a loan to the Iranian American Jewish Center, a separate entity with separate tax identification numbers than the IAJF’s and, therefore, did not require IAJF board approval.

Nazarian is president of the Iranian American Jewish Center located in West Hollywood and also known as Hollywood Temple Beth El.

“This issue with SIAMAK happened in such a quick way, within two days, that I would have for sure informed the [IAJF’s] board, even though I did not have to, since the center which was involved is a totally separate organization,” Nazarian said in an interview. “But we had to act fast because of what was happening with Washington Mutual. Unfortunately, he [Dayan] never asked me for any explanation.”

Dayan resigned as IAJF chairman when his demands were not implemented, and the IAJF’s board elected the organization’s former president, Solomon Rastegar, as interim chair.

According to IAJF bylaws, the organization’s president has the exclusive powers of a chief executive officer to oversee the organization’s day-to-day business. While the bylaws do not identify powers of the board chairman, Rastegar said the position is ceremonial and can only recommend the overall direction he or she would like the organization to pursue.

Rifts of this nature within the Iranian Jewish community are not new. For nearly 30 years since their arrival in Southern California from Iran, groups have often been plagued with infighting over financial, religious and leadership issues.

In many instances, factions have developed over differences between older- and younger-generation members on how to address the community’s needs. Fakheri said this has been particularly true for SIAMAK during the past 16 months, as the organization has been in the process of formally separating from the Eretz Center in Tarzana and the Neria Yomtoubian Foundation, both community organizations that provide religious and social events for local Iranian Jews.

The three groups had originally merged in 2004 in hopes of unifying the community in the San Fernando Valley under one umbrella organization.

After Washington Mutual was taken over by JP Morgan Chase Bank, Fakheri said the center quickly returned SIAMAK’s funds.

However, Dayan’s departure also prompted three additional IAJF board members to resign and some community members to accuse IAJF’s leadership of wrongdoing, Rastegar said.

In an Oct. 23 letter to IAJF board members, Nessah Syangogue Rabbi David Shofet, whom many local Iranian Jews consider the community’s spiritual leader, suspended his membership in the organization.

“With great sorrow and regret, I must say that the federation has forgotten its real responsibility and function,” Shofet wrote in the Persian-language letter. “Instead of attending to and dealing with issues surrounding our society’s young people and establishing long- and short-term plans, the members’ time and energy are being wasted on useless discussions.”

The rabbi’s letter indicated his desire that the IAJF be reformed with new objectives and new blood, reflecting changes within the community over the past 30 years.

The IAJF had been established primarily to help Jews still living in Iran, but now, as the community in Iran has mostly left, Shofet is among those who believe the organization should move its focus to better serve the needs of the Los Angeles community.

Dayan, a well-known businessman and philanthropist in the Iranian Jewish community, was first elected IAJF board chairman last summer. He declined to be interviewed for this article but issued a statement saying, “Rabbi David Shofet’s letter to the Iranian American Jewish Federation clearly articulates my position and those of other directors who recently resigned from the board of Iranian American Jewish Federation.”

Shofet, who could not be reached for comment, issued a second letter Oct. 31 encouraging IAJF members to enter into a serious dialogue — without attacking one another — in order to bring about reform in the organization.

Although some in Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community remain critical of the IAJF’s action in this matter, the organization’s leaders remain unapologetic, continuing to believe they made the correct decision.

“Although SIAMAK is not a member of our organization, we, as responsible Jews, acted immediately to help them for the sake of mitzvah, because the money that was at risk belonged to community,” Rastegar said. “This was all done legally. We did not receive any interest in safekeeping it for them; we did not charge them an interest for the safekeeping, and the money was promptly returned to them.”

Current IAJF leadership members said that despite the resignations from their ranks, the group will continue to represent the interests of the Iranian communities in the United States and Iran as one of the primary official voices for both.

“This is a free country, and everyone has the freedom to make his own decisions — if some do not want to continue with us, that is their choice,” Rastegar said. “I am sure members of our community here will be standing with us as they have been for the last three decades, because they know we will be protecting our community — especially those in our community still living in Iran.”

Local Iranian Jewish activists said the recent IAJF controversy is just the latest manifestation of growing pains within the community after three decades in America.

“We need to begin an open and ongoing dialogue among the different groups in our community to resolve our issues,” Fakheri said. “Maybe some of the leaders from the American Jewish community could help us accomplish this.”