October 20, 2018

An Iranian-Jew’s trip to the White House

“What is the difference between a New York City garment district bookkeeper and a Supreme Court Justice? Just one generation.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a daughter of Jewish immigrants, shared these words in 2004 at a celebration of the 350th anniversary of the first migration of Jews to America at Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., the oldest synagogue in America. President George Washington famously sent a letter to Touro’s congregation in 1790, reassuring those who had fled religious tyranny that “the Government of the United States [would give] to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requir[ing] only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

I recalled these words of Ginsburg and Washington as my wife, Leah, and I attended the annual White House Chanukah reception last week. Even as we waited in the Secret Service line in the frigid cold, the excitement amid the crowd was palpable. Several hundred Jewish leaders — from Chabad rabbis to presidents of pro-Israel and social justice organizations to prominent business leaders — kibitzed with Jewish government officials, including David Axelrod and Dennis Ross. Members of the West Point Jewish Chapel Cadet Choir sang Chanukah favorites (like “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” and “Sevivon, Sov, Sov, Sov”) and Hebrew classics (like “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav”). The White House kitchen was even kashered for this event, serving delectable lamb chops, latkes and even sushi. Rabbi Larry Bazer, the Joint Forces Chaplain for the Massachusetts National Guard, lit a special 90-year-old menorah from Temple Israel synagogue in Long Beach, N.Y., which had been badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Last year, Rabbi Bazer was deployed in Afghanistan, spending each night of Chanukah with a different group of American soldiers. 

That the White House kashered its kitchen and served latkes is nice. That U.S. President Barack Obama stood quietly in deference in the White House as Rabbi Bazer recited the Shehecheyanu and the Chanukah prayers next to him is profound. That sight stands in stark contrast to how governments throughout the world treat their minorities. In fact, it reminds me of the powerful story that Rabbi David Shofet of Nessah Synagogue recently shared with a group of 30 Years After members. When asked about the moment he made the decision to leave Iran, Rabbi Shofet recounted his first meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini. When Rabbi Shofet, several community leaders, and his father, Hakham Yedidia Shofet (z”l), the Chief Rabbi of Iran, prepared to meet the new leader of Iran, they were instructed to kneel before him. In fear for their lives, the Jewish leaders reluctantly knelt. Rabbi Shofet told us that it was at that moment that he realized it was time to leave Iran, because even the shah never made Jews kneel before him. 

As Jews in the United States today, we face few closed doors and need not fear letting others know who we are. We have the opportunity to speak up for social justice issues and for the Jewish state, and we have unparalleled access to policy makers in this country. We should never take that for granted. In fact, during my few moments with the president, after shaking off some nerves, I proudly told him that my wife and I represent Iranian-American Jews from Los Angeles. I could sense that the notion of an Iranian-American Jew was foreign to the president. I then thanked him for his support of Israel and his leadership in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. Next to me, Leah embraced first lady Michelle Obama and told her she was a tremendous role model and inspiration.

For our family, this meeting carried special significance. Thirty years ago, with immense difficulty and at great sacrifice, my parents fled Iran for the United States with a 1-year-old child. Tens of thousands of other Iranian Jews experienced that journey, including a 7-year-old girl who was forced to shout “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in her elementary school in Tehran. The fact that, within a single generation, that infant (me) and that young girl (my wife) shook the hand of the president (and, no less special, received a bear hug from the first lady) bears witness that the American dream is still alive and kicking. 

Jews like Justice Ginsburg and her family first achieved the American dream decades ago. While it is the immigrant Jews of today — Iranians, Russians, Israelis and Sephardim for whom the American dream may especially resonate — you need not have been born abroad to believe in the opportunity of America. In fact, during these difficult times, President Obama’s own journey has breathed new life into the American dream. His story reminds each of us, regardless of where our family came from or our current station in life, that in America, the only difference between us and the president is one generation.

Sam Yebri is a co-founder of 30 Years After, an Iranian-American civic action organization.