Nessah reaches out to young Iranian professionals

Like other Jews in Los Angeles, Iranian Jews have a wide range of Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues of different denominations to choose from for High Holy Days services. This year, Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills hopes to attract a sizeable portion of the Iranian Jewish community who value the traditional form of Judaism practiced in Iran.

In particular, Nessah’s leadership is aiming for the many professional Iranian Jews in their 20s and 30s by offering English-language services conducted by Rabbi Hillel Benchimol, who was recently hired as a full-time associate rabbi.

“This synagogue is not Ashkenazi or black hat Chasidic, but with Sephardic roots that are much deeper,” Benchimol said. “We are trying to offer a genuine rebirth of Iranian Judaism that has been watered down in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles over the years.”

Benchimol, while not Iranian, was raised with a Sephardic background in the British territory of Gibraltar. For six years he was the head rabbi at Kahal Joseph, a West L.A. Iraqi shul. Benchimol left Kahal Joseph and spent two years in Europe before he returned to Los Angeles in June to begin working at Nessah.

Nessah board members said young Iranian Jewish professionals who are not necessarily religious have increasingly begun attending the synagogue’s separate English-language Shabbat services because of Benchimol. They find they can relate to the rabbi because he understands the secular world; in fact, he left Judaism for a while as a young man.

“What they love about Rabbi Benchimol is that he relates to them on a one-on one-basis and engages them in an interactive dialogue during services, rather than preaching to them through a sermon,” Nessah board member Simon Etehad said.

Since Nessah’s 2002 move to its Beverly Hills location, the synagogue has designated a separate banquet hall for worship services for young members who are more Americanized than their parents. During the last several years, Nessah has increasingly turned its focus and funds toward the younger generation, including many who had joined Ashkenazi synagogues or even lost interest in Judaism altogether because they do not understand Persian-language services or old-world customs.

Nessah also will target younger people through a lecture series during High Holy Day services. This year the lineup of “hip” Jewish scholars includes Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, host of The Learning Channel’s “Shalom in the Home,” and Rabbi Benjamin Blech, author of the popular “Idiot’s Guide” books on Judaism.

“All of our energies will and need to, go to the younger generation, because they are our future asset,” Nessah President, Morgan Hakimi said.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for the younger generation have long been important to the Iranian Jews, as the religious gatherings are ideal for singles to meet one another and find their spouses.

Nessah made history five years ago when it became the first Iranian synagogue in the world to embrace congregational membership. For centuries, Iranian Jews have followed the tradition of raising funds for religious activities by auctioning off the privilege of participating in aliyot and other rituals during Shabbat and holiday services. Today, that practice has been phased out at Nessah, and congregants now call in their donations beforehand to receive aliyot and participate in services.

“The beauty of Nessah is that we are trying to transfer 2,500 years of our true tradition and at the same time trying to create a sense of belonging in the community for the new generation through membership,” Hakimi said.

The decision to end bidding on aliyot at Nessah was also based on the new reality that successful young Iranian Jewish professionals do not wish to publicly announce their donations, Hakimi said, whereas in Iran such open announcements were once a source of pride for donors.

“It [the question of bidding on aliyot] has made a lot of people in the older generation uncomfortable because it was a part of our long tradition,” Hakimi said. “But at Nessah we are keeping parts of our traditions that are important and inherent, while letting the others go.”

Even though over the years some local Iranian Jews have accused Nessah of catering only to the wealthy in the community, young professionals are finding the synagogue’s membership fees fairly reasonable. Annual dues are $100 for singles between the ages of 18 and 35 and include the separate English-language High Holy Days services. Couples between the ages of 18 and 35 must pay $200 for their annual membership and High Holy Day services.

Despite Nessah’s membership program, a substantial number of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles remain resistant to paying membership at any synagogue, instead choosing to pay one-time flat fees to attend traditional Persian-language services held at various hotels and movie theatres for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.