Sion Ebrahami: I was taken hostage by the moujahadeen

If you ask retired Iranian Jewish accountant and author Simon “Sion” Ebrahimi about being held hostage for many months in his office in Tehran during the Iranian revolution, he will tell you the circumstances were a sort of a tragic comedy. Ebrahimi’s office was located across the street from the U.S. Embassy.

In November 1979, when the embassy was taken over by armed revolutionary thugs, Ebrahimi and his partners were also held hostage inside their offices by his armed employees. Now 70 and residing in Los Angeles, Ebrahimi is penning a fictional, multigenerational family saga loosely based on his family’s life in Iran. He talked recently about his experiences as a captive.

Jewish Journal: Can you give some background into your accounting firm in Iran and the circumstances that led up to your being taken hostage?

Simon Ebrahimi: Before the revolution, I was a partner of the largest international CPA firm in Iran, where the employees with excellent performance records would qualify to become a partner of the firm. At the time, we had over 500 employees.

Since all partners came from the employees’ pool, we worked in a close, friendly environment. I always had an open-door policy with my staff. The same bonding was there, even if you became a partner.

At the time, I had nine British and American partners and five Iranians of different religions and ethnic backgrounds. They included Muslims, Jews, Assyrians and Armenians.

As clients were both major corporations with international affiliations and also Iranian government institutions, I knew and worked with people at a very high echelon of the private and the government levels.

With the early signs of the revolution in 1978, the staff went on a sitting strike, and as the situation culminated into the takeover of the American Embassy compound and hostage-taking — which I was an eyewitness to. Since our office was facing the embassy, this stimulated our staff more, and soon my partners and I were taken hostage. This situation paralyzed the firm.

With them not going to work, the cash flow started getting messed up. What they were demanding from us was to terminate them all, pay them a termination compensation of $20 million, then re-hire them. Where was the money that we didn’t have going to come from, we asked? ‘Your hidden bank accounts in Israel and America!’ they responded.

JJ: Who were the people that took you hostage?

SE: With the passage of time, we realized that these people were from three factions within the firm, which included the Mojahedeen faction, the communist faction and there were the very fanatic pro-Khomeini faction.

And we had a few people who were still loyal to us and gave us inside information as to how these people were confronting one another. As the unrest escalated and Khomeini ended up coming to Iran, with the hostage situation happening in the embassy, my partners and I were also taken hostage by my employees.

JJ: Typically, people are terrified when they are taken hostage. What did you find humorous about the incident?

SE: The comedy side of this whole thing was more appealing to me than the tragic side, because these were not ordinary factory workers who would put the factory owners in a dark room and threaten to kill them. We had our breakfast, our kebab for lunch and our dinners; they were very polite — it was dead crazy!

But we were not allowed to go home. They assigned each partner a guard, which came from the employee pool. They said, ‘Please don’t go home tonight, because we are thinking of coming up with an answer to your end of the bargain’ — and we knew then that we were hostages.

Then they came to our offices and told us, ‘Please don’t go home.’ They were very nice, polite, civilized — but sons of bitches!

JJ: How did you eventually extricate yourself from this hostage situation?

SE: So here I am in the middle of the hostage-taking, sitting in my office, and one of my clients, a major subsidiary of the French government, calls me. The guy was my connection, and he asked me what was happening with his case.

I thought this was a God-given thing, because they owed us somewhere around $60,000. So I asked my client to come over to Tehran, and he said, ‘Are you crazy? Are you kidding me? Why don’t you come here?’ I said OK, and he agreed to give me the check when I came to France.

By then, my office was being run by a revolutionary committee, which was comprised of my own driver and a few other hoodlums. I called the revolutionary committee into my office and told them my clients have called me to Paris, and I was going to get the $60,000.

Now the office was in a financial mess; no one was paying their salaries, and $60,000 was a ton of money at that time in Iran. My driver — a revolutionary committee member — said, ‘I think he’s going to escape.’

And then I told my captors, ‘Get the hell out of my office; make up your mind, then come back and tell me if you want me to go and get you $60,000!’ Of course, the latter part of my cry worked.

They returned and asked what guarantees I could give them that I would not escape. I said, ‘My family is here; I have no intention of escaping,’ and they agreed to remove my name from the black list — the list of people who were forbidden to leave the country.

I called my client and asked him for a visa. Fortunately, I had my whole family on one passport, and he arranged for a six-month visa to France. After three days of work in Paris in September of 1980, I returned to Tehran with the check, and these people were celebrating the mighty dollars and distributing it amongst themselves.

I had already packed up a few suitcases. I grabbed my family, jumped on a plane and escaped to France. The fortunate thing was that they had forgotten to blacklist me again. We came to France, we applied for a visa to come to America and eventually made it here.

Soothing Music Memories

When Len Lawrence was sitting shiva for his father 12 years ago, he found himself longing for some Jewish music to help soothe him through that difficult time, but he just couldn’t find the right songs.

Now that Lawrence is general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries, he has remedied the situation for others who might feel the way he did. The result is “Scores of Memory,” a CD of traditional and contemporary compositions produced by Mount Sinai and Craig Taubman.

“What I wanted was music that touches people’s souls and hearts in many different ways in their time of need,” Lawrence said.

The CD includes songs by Taubman, Debbie Friedman and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The latter has special meaning for Rabbi Jerry Cutler of Creative Arts Temple.

“My father was an Orthodox rabbi, so we grew up in a very traditional home where we would hear such music as Carlebach’s all the time,” Cutler recalled. “For someone who has lost someone and their mind is in a state of riot, if they put the Mount Sinai music on, they can start remembering beautiful times from many years ago.”

Lawrence said many people around the country have written to thank him for the CD, which Mount Sinai offers free to both its clients and anyone who requests the music.

In the introduction to “Scores of Memory,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple wrote: “From the depths of our souls, we bring our grief, our joy, our doubts, our hopes, our being in music. From the moment we are born, there is something in us that responds to the cadence and rhythm of the song.”

Cutler views the use of music at a funeral or time of mourning as a very personal decision. “I always say, whatever the heart dictates.”

For more information, visit


Restoration’s Silver Lining

Silversmith David Friedman has the unique ability to trace the origin of almost every antique that comes across his desk. “People ask me all the time, ‘How did you know that? How did you know that goblet was actually made in India?'” Friedman said. “We just know from experience. We see a lot of pieces and a lot of metal.”

The founder of Friedman & Co., an antique repair and restoration service, Friedman has been working with metal since he was 17. Trained in the apprentice style in southeastern Wisconsin, he began making his living repairing musical instruments. But when his clients urged him to expand his business further, Friedman discovered the world of antiques.

“I found this work much more interesting and stimulating,” said Friedman, who runs a store in Beverly Hills and a plating facility in North Hollywood. “Musical instrument work, although it’s very rewarding, can be somewhat repetitive, because once you’ve overhauled a clarinet and you’ve overhauled 1,000 clarinets, a clarinet is still a clarinet.”

Friedman prefers antiques because each one tells a story. He often sees pieces that have been passed down through generations or have sentimental or historical significance.

“I remember repairing a tray once that was buried before or during World War II,” Friedman said. “Jews often buried their possessions so that they would not be confiscated. When the owners dug up the tray after the war there was a pick ax hole through the middle of the tray, which they brought to me all these years later to repair.”

While Friedman often hears such stories because much of his clientele is Jewish, he insists that those who use his services are as diverse as the art itself.

“Silversmithing is an ancient art and there were Jews that were silversmiths. It’s part of Jewish life and Jewish history, but silversmithing covers the entire spectrum of humanity and it’s associated with all religions … our door is open and welcome to anybody to come here. Whoever comes to our counter we treat them with respect and try and help them.”

Professional-Lay Relations Need Examining

When people query me as to who our clients are, if the person is Jewish, I often answer, “Half our clients are Jewish organizations. And the other half are people who treat us really nicely.”

Almost always people laugh at the response. Once, however, at a Jewish event in San Francisco, someone told me I was anti-Semitic. My answer to her? “Being realistic about our organizational issues doesn’t make me an anti-Semite.”

Jewish organizations have many issues. But after having worked with more than 100 of them, in the United States, Israel and around the world, I have come to the conclusion that among the top priority issues is how we interact with one another. In the process of pursuing tikun olam (repairing the world), I have seen more Jewish organizations destroy the Jewish spirit of the individuals involved. While they are busy saving the people “out there” they are chopping up the ones close to them.

This is no secret. Any of us who has been involved in organized Jewish life has witnessed this reality, if not personally been subjected to it. Yet, it is like the elephant in the living room that sits heavily in the midst of everything, and everyone wants to tiptoe around it, ignoring its presence. No one wants to publicly speak of the obvious.

I do.

And it is time the rest of us do, too. We must put the issue of inter-personal relations within organized Jewish life on the public agenda. I realized this on Yom Kippur. At one point in the service, our astute young rabbi opened up a public discussion from the bimah about business ethics in view of Enron, Tyco and Global Crossing. After a few minutes of discussion, I raised my hand and said, “We have an issue of business ethics in the Jewish organizational business — the ethics of how we treat one another.” For the rest of the day, people, many of them prominent in the community, continued to approach me, commenting on how correct I was, or asking me to explain further what I believed the issues were. I realized there is a great collective need in our community to explore this matter.

With all the exposure I have had to this issue and all the trans-continental and international airline seats I have occupied after meeting with my clients, I have given this a great deal of thought and weary reflection.

Where does it begin? At the core of Jewish organizational structure is a very particular professional-lay relationship. Notice I have turned its common parlance around and have not called it the “lay-professional relationship.” Describing it as the lay-professional relationship basically states the problem.

In Jewish institutions, as opposed to my non-Jewish clients, the lay people have a lot more hands-on day-to-day involvement with the organization. In many cases this is extraordinary and bespeaks a very heartfelt level of commitment. We would not be the community we are today without this level of lay involvement. Yet, it is not without its problems. And we cannot be afraid or intimidated to approach those problems.

Lay-professional means the lay people are primary. Primary over those who devote their studies, professions and career goals to Jewish life. It says that who gives the money or sits on a committee is more important than who builds a lifetime of service, giving 18 professional hours a day, weekends and holidays (yes, even Jewish ones) servicing what that money actually does.

People will say I am splitting hairs, that it is an equal relationship. But in most cases, we know this is simply not true. The question this begs is: Who really holds control?

When we work with a Jewish organization, there are four words that we most often hear from the professionals throughout the working relationship, as we approach the decision-making process. “But the lay people….” It is a constant mantra. The professionals shake with fear and uncertainty when they say these words. I have come to realize that these four words stifle their creativity, their leadership, their thinking, their self-confidence and their professionalism. I cannot count how many meetings I have sat in where the professionals, who possess the most knowledge, sit silently while their lay counterparts “run” the meeting. This fear and absence of control by the professionals inhibits the Jewish enterprise from being all it can be. There must be important decisions which professionals are allowed to guide, and in some cases are left alone to make.

This issue rarely arises in non-Jewish organizations.

These thoughts are in no way to discount the importance of lay people in Jewish organizational life. It is a partnership. Lay people fund the existence of this enterprise. Good lay people understand the issues, are committed, knowledgeable and integral to the vision, flourishing and survival of the enterprise. However, like in any partnership, roles must be clearly defined. If one partner is shorn of his or her decision-making responsibilities, particularly when he or she understands the issue or situation at hand better than anyone in the room, the partnership is not healthy.

In a changing world, where the Jewish enterprise is threatened on many levels, it is time that the partnership be examined, restructured and publicly addressed. There needs to be respect for the professional’s professionalism, insight, knowledge and vision. The schools training the professionals must meet the challenge of professionals trained to actually lead, not just follow and serve.

From this partnership flows the nature and culture of Jewish organizations. If we begin tikun olam at this level, then we can begin to repair what else needs to be fixed.

Torah values of how we treat one another must be integrated into this restructuring process. There needs to be a code of conduct. Professionals need to be trained in this code as to how to treat fellow professionals, employees and lay counterparts. Lay people need to be trained in this code as to how to treat the professionals as well as each other, including those lay people who are not major funders. In some cases, we actually need to civilize and Judaize our organizational behavior.

We need to call for a conference to address the issue.

Papers must be published in both professional and general Jewish publications which begin to create a new organizational culture. We must open the discussion for robust and healthy debate. Respectfully.

We must create manuals and codes. We have to establish training sessions. How we treat one another is as important as how we save one another.

I am certain someone will ask why, if I find this relationship so distasteful, do I continue to pursue Jewish organizations as clients? I am them. And they are me. I am bound at the hip to the Jewish enterprise. From our perch as marketers, delving deeply into their souls and operations I see Jewish organizations as nothing short of extraordinary, paving the path for daily miracles. I am proud of these organizations and to be playing such an integral role.

I just want to see us be all we can be.

Gary Wexler is an advertising executive and consultant to Jewish agencies.

Fit After 50

Looking to get in shape, clients of all ages, shapes and sizes come to youthful fitness trainer Betsy Mendel. Mendel, who operates a business called No Excuses, has developed special insights into the training needs of her middle-aged clients. After arriving in Los Angeles from Atlanta five years ago, she fell in love with the sunny climate and found it the perfect place to indulge her fanatic workout habits in the great outdoors. Since 1999, she has been training full time, offering workouts suited to L.A. beaches, canyons and other outdoor spaces.

Mike Levy: Can you describe your average client?

Betsy Mendel: I’ll train with anyone, but a lot of my clients are women over 50. What I try to do is make it easy, convenient and fun for them.

ML: How do you begin a fitness routine?

BM: We fill out a medical history, make sure they don’t have any medical problems where they’d need a doctor’s supervision. Then, we just talk about what their fitness goals are. Most people just want to get back in shape; they want to start feeling better and doing something a few times a week.

ML: You’ve said that many of your clients are women over 50. Do you have specific workouts for them?

BM: Let me give you an example. I have a client — she quit smoking a year ago — [who] feels like she’s put on weight. We do a warm-up where we stretch, then a 40-minute power walk around her neighborhood with light weights for the arms, and then we do a cool-down. She’s really into burning fat and working her cardiovascular, so we have a program emphasizing those things.

Another woman I work with, she’s 69. I set up a step. We use exercise bands, which are like giant rubber bands, and body bars, which are padded and weighted. We start off with a warm-up, and then we do stretching, because she’s very concerned about flexibility. A lot of the warm-up is done on the steps, or jogging in place. Then we’ll work with the bands, which provide resistance for upper-body strength.

ML: So, more generally, what do women need to be focusing on in their fitness training?

BM: As you get older, maintaining your flexibility becomes more of a challenge, but also more important. It gets very easy to break your bones, for your body to get more brittle, if you don’t stay active.

ML: And what is the most important part of the fitness routine for your older clients?

BM: For most of my clients, for women over 50 as well as the younger women, the most important thing is just getting out and doing something. That’s going to make them feel better about themselves, and when you feel better, you take better care of yourself; you eat better. It all comes together.

With an older woman, you just start out slower, you use a bit more precaution. And the results are going to be different as well: obviously, you don’t get as much muscle tone when you’re older. But you can still feel great, which is really what it’s about.