Persian Shul Adopts Membership System

For many Jews, the High Holidays and membership drives go together like apples and honey. But for communities newer to America, the thought of paying an annual fee to "belong" to a house of worship is a foreign concept.

For centuries, Persian Jews have traditionally raised funds for religious activities by auctioning off or bidding on aliyot, the bringing out of the Torah and other rituals during Shabbat and holiday services. But after 25 years in Los Angeles, Persian Jews are beginning to embrace the concept of membership.

At the forefront of this push has been the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills, which became the first Persian synagogue in California to offer a membership program last year.

"The torch at Nessah has been passed to a new generation of younger people on our board of directors who decided that we needed membership in order to create a sense of belonging in the community," said Dr. Morgan Hakimi, Nessah’s newly elected president.

Isaac Eshaghan, chairman of Nessah’s membership committee, said Nessah’s approximate 1,400 members have primarily been drawn to join Nessah because of the synagogue’s English and Persian services.

"Last year, three weeks before Rosh Hashana, we were sold out because we offered membership according to the number of seats we had," Eshaghan said. "Our membership is in an affordable range and on average costs less than $1,000 per family."

According to Nessah membership records, membership dues for married couples between the ages of 18 and 30 are $500, with $650 for couples 31 to 64 and $500 for couples over 65. Likewise, singles 18 to 30 are $150, singles 31 to 64 pay $350 and singles over 65 pay $250. Children under 7 are free, while it is $50 for children 8 to 11 and $125 for children 13 to 17 years old.

Nessah’s membership program is gaining acceptance due to the community’s familiarity with membership requirements at local Ashkenazi synagogues such as Stephen S. Wise and Sinai Temple, Eshaghan said.

"Joint membership with American temples is common with our members because their children go to day schools at these temples and membership is required there," he said.

Nessah’s leadership will gradually phase out the traditional auction method of fund raising in the coming years.

"Everybody [on the board of directors] was in favor of not announcing the large sums of money donated during services because it takes a lot of time and is annoying to people who hear the shouting when they’ve come to temple to pray," said David Pourbaba, chairman of Nessah’s ritual committee.

Rather than bidding on them during temple services, Pourbaba said Nessah congregants have agreed to call in their donations beforehand in order to receive aliyot and participation in other rituals.

"We’ve gotten some resistance from the older generation," said Pourbaba, who added that the change has impacted the synagogue’s income, "but in the long run this is the best direction to go."

Hakimi, who earlier this month became the first female president of any Persian synagogue in the United States, said additional funds available from membership dues collected have enabled Nessah to offer new programs and workshops to its members.

"Nessah is proud to welcome all groups from different levels of religiosity and income," she said. "We will be offering support groups, a new teen center, book club, self-help classes, yoga classes and a business networking group."

Just as Nessah has drawn a large following of Persian Jews, so has Sinai Temple with nearly 700 to 800 Persian Jewish families among its members, said Sinai’s Rabbi David Wolpe.

"As a rabbi, I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to come to the temple at a time when Iranian Jews have settled in our community because it enriches Sinai Temple beyond belief," Wolpe said.

Michael Nazarian, Sinai’s vice president of membership, said Iranian Jews have flocked to Sinai because of the synagogue’s school and the warm reception they’ve received from Sinai’s leadership over the years.

Sinai Temple has also developed the ATID program to draw in teenagers and young adults with lectures, workshops and other events. Also, the temple is courting Jews between the ages of 23 and 35 by offering them memberships for as low as $180.

"The atmosphere we have at Sinai is very friendly between Ashkenazim and Iranians," said Nazarian, who is also on Sinai’s executive board of directors. "We have a number of Iranians on our board of directors, in our committees, and of course our past president Jimmy Delshad was also Iranian."

However, Wolpe and Persian members of Sinai Temple acknowledged that some Persians have not renewed their memberships with the synagogue after their children complete the b’nai mitzvah program.

"It is a problem in general with synagogue membership with many Jews across the country. What we try to do is educate them that there are benefits to keeping their connection with the temple," Wolpe said.

A Minyan of Our Own

Sitting behind a crocheted curtain, I desperately tried to peer through the tiny holes to get a glimpse of the action on the men’s side.

Finally, I gave up, and pushed the curtain aside, and saw our chazan auctioning off portions of the services.

"$101 — going once. $101 — going twice. $101 — going three times. Sold to the man in the black suit!"

And so the High Holiday services began, with our beloved cantor speaking "Heb-lish" in a very thick Middle Eastern accent.

Every year since I can remember, my father formed a minyan with friends — and anybody else who wasn’t satisfied with the High Holiday services in their regular synagogue. The minyan was held in a little room with a makeshift mechitzah (partition) that we had to hold up from time to time because it had this tendency to fall over.

We faced the ark with the men on one side and women on the other — traditional Orthodox style. There was no president, no treasurer, no politics; just a gathering of Sephardic Jews from different parts of the eastern world getting together to pray to God at the holiest time of the year.

The synagogues in the Hancock Park area lent us their Torahs and places of worship. Like other synagogues, we held an auction, but all of the money we raised was sent to needy families in Israel instead of to the shul.

Our minyan hosted a gathering of Egyptians, Iraqis, Afghans, Israelis, Bucharians, Turks and Yemenites, each offering their families’ traditions and tunes, making them feel that much closer to home. It was a place of older men and women, most of them from the old country who remember how their fathers recited the prayers from their corner of the world. Here in America with their American children, they would sing their age-old tunes with joy, instilling their children with their culture and heritage.

When I was a child, when I didn’t have the patience to sit through the services, I would hang around with the other kids and make trouble in the background. But as I grew older, the songs beckoned me, and I wanted to participate in the prayers.

If I close my eyes, I can still recall the sound of my father’s voice as he sang the "Anenu": The whole room became silent to the lilt of the Sephardic tune as he held it for long beats, his words touching the souls of the people who came from all over the world to our little minyan. This is how we shared our holidays — not from a pew in the back, straining to hear the chazan’s voice; not as bystanders humming the tune under our breaths, but loudly, each of us participating.

Every year I looked forward to hearing our chazan lead us in prayers. But two years ago, he moved to New York. He was the glue that kept us together, and when he left, I think he took the heart of our minyan with him.

As we approach the High Holidays, my family and I are nostalgic about the minyan — we know that our annual tradition will never be the same without our chazan.

But we are eager to forge new bonds and make new holiday memories. We have since relocated and many new people have joined with us.

And perhaps, as we pray for redemption, our collective spirit will return to us as it once was. And maybe, as we say in the last prayer, next year we shall all rejoice in Jerusalem.