More than 2,000 mourners packed the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills this summer to bid farewell to Hacham Yedidia Shofet. During the funeral, the powerful sound of the shofar blended with the recorded voice of Shofet, who at his own request, led a prayer at his funeral. His seeming presence made it seem all the more difficult to believe that he was gone — after being the anchor of the community for so long.
This High Holiday season marks a milestone for the Iranian Jewish community in Southern California, which numbers nearly 30,000. For the first time since Iranian Jews began to settle here in large numbers, Shofet will not be present as either their actual or symbolic leader. Shofet had been a spiritual force for more than seven decades — most of that time in Iran, where he’d played a powerful political role, as well.
Shofet died early this summer at 96, after several years of declining health. His passing leaves behind a community in transition, one that revered him, but also one that relied less and less on his influence and direction. It’s a community that had begun to see him more with a sense of nostalgia than as a leader.
However, he always commanded respect, and when he called for unity in the community, the Iranian Jewish diaspora took the injunction seriously. With his passing, tensions and factionalism that had been roiling behind the scenes could become more open and intense.
“So long as Hacham Yedidia Shofet was alive, the deep respect and feeling of reverence that the community held for him prevented the younger rabbis from wandering too far from the mainstream on either side,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general for the Iranian American Jewish Federation, a community umbrella organization.
Now the mantle of spiritual leadership falls to Rabbi David Shofet, the middle-age son of the late leader. Like his father, he practices an Iranian style of Judaism, developed over more than 2,500 years, that balances elements of Conservative and Orthodox traditions.
However, he’s inherited a restive flock. The offspring of the immigrant generation is pulling in different directions. Some are shedding much or all of their religious practice or even exploring other religions; many others are turning to Orthodoxy.
None of this internal disintegration seemed possible in Iran, where Jews struggled against frequent oppression to hold onto their religion and culture. In many ways, they succeeded spectacularly. For more than 2,500 years, Iranian Jews lived in relative isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, but they remained Jews, held together by leaders such as Shofet.
The community understands the debt they owe to Shofet and his predecessors.
Following the funeral services, a motorcade and five rented buses were necessary to transport all those who wanted to attend the burial at Groman Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills. Even that wasn’t enough of a goodbye for the 96-year-old patriarch. Approximately 5,000 mourners attended a later memorial.
Shofet served in a quasi-political capacity as representative of the nearly 100,000 Jews in Iran. He spoke for Jews and protected their interests during the reign of the shah, and also for two years under the Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini that followed.
He immigrated to Southern California in 1981, where he tended to religious and social issues within the Iranian Jewish community here. The issues in the United States were not as immediately perilous as those in Iran, but Shofet soon found he had to deal with fractiousness and assimilation that threatened to erase an Iranian Jewish identity thousands of years in the making.
While many Iranian Jews have been saddened by the loss of Shofet, they’ve had to shift their focus to the future. Community feuding, which had been kept in check out of respect for Shofet and by Shofet’s delicate diplomacy and voice of moderation, are likely to re-emerge.
A serious rift became apparent nearly 10 years ago between those practicing traditional Iranian Judaism and Iranian Jews who adopted a more religiously observant Eastern European form of Orthodox Judaism. Young Iranian Jews have been drawn to more than two dozen Orthodox synagogues in the Pico-Robertson area and along Ventura Boulevard in Encino.
Critics of the new Orthodoxy say that it has broken up families, because the young adult proselytes frequently reject their parents’ generation for not being religious enough.
“It’s just ridiculous, [Orthodox rabbis] have used religious issues of the bedroom and food as weapons that [have] been given to our children to be used against us,” said Pouran Mogahvem Cohen, a West Los Angeles resident.
She organized a support group for families in conflict because of religious differences between the older and younger generations.
“Everyone involved in our group has the main goal of bringing unity in the community by not creating divisions in families or brainwashing our children to drop their university studies and careers, only to go off to some yeshiva across the country,” she said.
A different perspective comes from leaders of the Orthodox shuls. They insist they are addressing the community’s true spiritual needs, which were suppressed in Iran but can achieve full expression given the religious freedom of the United States.
“In Los Angeles, there are hundreds and hundreds of fully observant Persian families, and this past Passover, just through me, we had 1,000 families that sold their chametz, which shows that definitely a good portion of our community is becoming more observant,” said Rabbi David Zargari of the Torat Hayim Center in the Pico-Robertson area.
To reduce the tensions of these religious differences, Cohen’s group in late 2003 organized three question-and-answer seminars held at the Nessah Center, Beverly Hills High School and the Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana, respectively. She said each seminar was attended by nearly 2,000 Iranian Jews. Also attending were various social and religious leaders, including those from Orthodox synagogues, whose leaders participated as panelists. It was the sort of unity-building exercise that Shofet approved of — except that nothing was settled, Cohen said.
“Their rabbis had no answers for us, and there was nothing resolved,” Cohen said. “Our main achievement was in making people in the community more aware of this problem to protect their children from this type of fanaticism.”
But efforts at peacemaking continue. Last year, the Iranian American Jewish Federation passed a resolution calling on all religious factions in the Iranian Jewish community to accept each other and respect the rights of community members to practice Judaism as they wish.
The intervention was “meant to calm everyone down and to promote the social unity of the community,” Kermanian said. “In essence, what it meant was that any attempt by any single faction to dictate religious policy to the entire community was unacceptable, and the only solution was for all to be free to pursue their own ways of practice.”
This goal doesn’t get any easier in the absence of Shofet.
“The community was his family, and he believed in the well-being of all people, not just Jews,” said David Shofet of his father. “He loved every Jew no matter who he was unconditionally, and his tremendous spirituality is why old and young people were drawn to him.”
Which means that David Shofet, who looks to be in his mid- to late 50s, has big shoes to fill, though he, too, is well regarded after working alongside his father for more than 25 years.
The community is never likely to have another figure as revered and influential in the United States as the elder Shofet was in Iran.
According to Shofet’s 2001 memoirs, written in Persian by Manucher Cohan, he was born in the central Iranian city of Kashan into a family with 12 generations of rabbis. Over the years, Shofet gradually gained prominence among Iran’s Jews and non-Jews for his eloquent speeches and his ability to connect easily with all who approached him for help. Ultimately, he became a liaison and spokesperson for Iranian Jews before the shah, government officials and even Islamic clerics. There’s no such equivalent position for an Iranian Jewish leader in the United States.
However, in Iran, Shofet commanded enough respect to intervene when Jews were in dire trouble, for example, with the Iranian government. He was instrumental in persuading the shah and other government officials in the early 1950s to allow Iraqi Jews, who had illegally left Iraq, to find temporary refuge in Iran before eventually immigrating to Israel, said Ebrahim Yahid, a close colleague of Shofet.
“We had many rabbis, teachers and hachamim in Iran, but he was the most open minded and most beloved of them all,” Yahid said. “He was even respected by the most fanatic Islamic clerics in Iran who did not have friendships with Jews — all because of his gentleness and humility.”
Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, Shofet, along with thousands of other Iranian Jews, eventually immigrated to Southern California. While no longer working as a liaison for Iranian Jews, he continued to serve as a symbolic religious figure, urging Iranian Jewish families to preserve their Jewish traditions. In the United States, Shofet, with his son and other community leaders, helped establish the Nessah Center, first in Santa Monica and then in Beverly Hills.
Over the last five years, Shofet was gradually forced to retire from community work due to failing health. His son took over day-to-day leadership duties.
“Replacing Hacham Yedidia is impossible. The closest we can come to him is his very able son, Rav David Shofet, who has dedicated his life to Iranian Jewry like his father did,” said Andy Abrishami, a Nessah board member and the elder Shofet’s son-in-law. “It’s hard to be a rabbi under any circumstances, especially when you’re a rabbi for Iranian Jews, because their expectations are much higher, but he [David Shofet], with his humility and dedication, has captured the Iranian Jews’ favor.”
If David Shofet can’t bring the often-divided community together, it isn’t clear who can.
“The crucial test for our community now is whether it can hold the center together,” Kermanian said. “At this point, this seems like an extremely tall order, which only Rabbi David Shofet, Hacham Yedidia’s son and our community’s preeminent rabbi, has the chance to fulfill.”
Cohen, the critic of the new Orthodoxy, expressed similar hopes, saying, “We have no expectations from [Orthodox rabbi] Zargari or the others, but we are looking to David Shofet for real, true leadership. This community wants him to truly be a father figure to us. [And] we want him to be as open-minded as his father was.”
Zargari, for one, said he’s open to dialogue with Jews who don’t practice his Orthodoxy: “They are my brothers and sisters. I don’t look down on them or think that I’m better than them in anyway. And it must be mutual. We have to learn to be tolerant and respect each other.”
There’s hope for the future in such sentiments, said Dr. Shirzad Abrams, co-founder of the Graduate Society Foundation, a local organization that promotes the continuity of Iranian Jewish history and Judaism among young Jews.
“The fact that there is contact between [different factions] is positive,” he said. “I’d be very afraid and totally frustrated if they stopped talking to each other.”