SEC halts Ponzi scheme targeting Persian Jews in L.A.


A Ponzi scheme targeting the Persian-Jewish community in Los Angeles was shut down by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC obtained an emergency court order on April 13 to stop the scheme.

According to the SEC, Shervin Neman, also known as Shervin Davatgarzadeh, allegedly raised more than $7.5 million from investors in the Persian-Jewish community, of which he is a member, by posing as a hedge fund manager.

Neman, 30, of Los Angeles, told investors that he had a hedge fund called Neman Financial L.P., which invested in foreclosed residential properties that would be quickly flipped for profit, as well as in Facebook shares and other high-profile initial public offerings, according to the SEC.

Instead he allegedly used the investors’ money to pay off other investors and finance his extravagant lifestyle. Neman spent nearly $1.6 million of investor funds to buy jewelry and high-end cars, as well as to finance his wedding and honeymoon, other vacations and VIP tickets to sporting events, according to the SEC.

Judge Jacqueline Nguyen of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted the SEC’s request for a temporary restraining order and asset freeze against Neman.

“By exploiting investors’ trust in him, Neman was continually able to raise more money to pay back existing investors and finance an extravagant lifestyle,” Michele Wein Layne, associate regional director of the SEC’s Los Angeles office, said in an SEC statement.

For downtown’s Persian Jews, work plus worship equals success


Fast-paced techno dance music blasts through Chikas, a retail clothing store off Santee Street in the heart of downtown Los Angeles’ Fashion District, which many call the Garment District. Robert Mahgerefteh, the store’s owner, helps the dozen or so young women looking for great deals on the latest fashions.

“Many of us from the Iranian-Jewish community working in the Garment District have a very hard work ethic, sometimes working six or seven days a week,” he said. “People like myself grew up seeing our dads and uncles put the time and effort into making their businesses a success, so we’re following in their footsteps.”

Mahgerefteh, 29, is among the more than 300 Iranian Jews who work as retailers, wholesalers or importers of clothing, fabrics and fashion accessories in downtown’s Fashion District. Over the last 30 years, their businesses and Iranian-Jewish investment in downtown real estate have helped transform the district into one of the major business hubs in Southern California.

In addition to improving the area, Iranian-Jewish businessmen have brought their faith and practice with them, establishing synagogues in the area and supporting several downtown kosher restaurants. Rabbis even travel to the Fashion District to teach Torah and other topics during lunch-and-learn sessions.

And while the flood of cheaper clothing and fabrics from China has driven some Iranian Jews out of the business, others have remained downtown, finding their niche in the new marketplace.

Following their immigration to Los Angeles from Iran, hundreds of Iranian Jews flocked to the Fashion District in the late 1970s and early 1980s, either because of their familiarity with the garment trade or because it seemed the easiest way to earn a living.

Iranian-Jewish real estate developer Behrooz Neman, who has owned properties in downtown’s Fashion District since the mid-1980s, said the area was in dire economic conditions when Iranian Jews first arrived.

“It looked like South Central with only old buildings and empty warehouses,” Neman said. “I can honestly say that if the Iranian Jews had never come to Los Angeles, there would be no Garment District as you see it today.”

Those Iranian Jews who first worked the Fashion District didn’t have the higher overhead costs of the larger American fabric companies, said Amir “Aby” Emrani, co-owner of Emday Fabrics.

“And, we also gave ourselves smaller commissions,” he said.

Today, Emday Fabrics and a handful of other Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses are among downtown’s largest and most successful fabrics importers, selling to both a national and international clientele.

“In the early days, we worked very hard and long hours — it was just myself, my brother and my father. … Little by little, the hard work and our ability to give much lower pricing to our customers allowed us to grow,” Emrani said.

Among the businesses that found a niche early was Donna Vinci, a division of Brasseur Inc., which specializes in plus-size women’s suits, among its other high-end women’s clothing.

“It was very successful for us, and we have continued over the years to build on that idea with many different designs and brands for the same customers,” said Danny Golshan, Donna Vinci’s co-owner. “Our focus is on being unique and bringing up-to-date clothing to our customers.”

With Hollywood not too far away, Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses such as the Italian Fashion Group have also supported the needs of costume designers for major television shows and films. The company, run by three Iranian- Jewish siblings, has become a top manufacturer of high-end, custom-made Italian suits that attract entertainment industry designers and celebrities such as Al Pacino, Terrence Howard and James Belushi.

“Our custom line of suits, Di Stefano, has become the pearl of our company,” said Shahrouz Stefano Kalepari, co-owner of the Italian Fashion Group, adding that their suits have appeared on such televisions shows as “The Mentalist,” “Castle,” “Law & Order: Los Angeles” and “The Defenders.”

“Our suits and shirts are 100 percent hand made and the patterns are designed from scratch for each individual order, to create a very personalized and custom fit for our customers. We use the most precious accessories such as horsehair canvas inside our suits, pure silk linings and mother-of-pearl buttons,” Kalepari said.

But with cheaper labor and raw material in China and the Far East flooding the Fashion District, Iranian-Jewish businesses have found it increasingly difficult to compete with Chinese goods.

Businessmen like Kalepari say they have had to be more aggressive in marketing their products and educating their customers about the higher quality of their clothing in order to survive.

“Unfair competition with China, combined with the lack of knowledge from some customers, makes it very frustrating at times,” Kalepari said. “But in the end, a high-quality product speaks for itself, and when a famous designer of top-quality clothes in Beverly Hills uses our company’s line for his own personal use, this gives us the utmost satisfaction that we have done the right thing and can survive in this market.”

Aside from the district’s retail and wholesale businesses, nearly 40 Iranian-Jewish real estate developers have purchased or constructed buildings and other properties over the years to further solidify the community’s influence in the area.

These Iranian-Jewish developers have not only upgraded the appearance of the stores and buildings in the area, but were pivotal in the creation and growth of the widely popular “alley” shopping area within the heart of the district — a nearly three-block stretch along Santee Street that resembles a Middle Eastern-style open bazaar.

“In the early 1980s, there was no alley in existence,” Neman said. “The idea to use the space in the alley area came from mostly Iranian Jewish developers who wanted to get the maximum use of their properties in the area by making these smaller spaces behind their buildings available for retailers.”

Not only have Iranian-Jewish businesses thrived and prospered in the fabrics and clothing industry, but city officials have praised the community’s entrepreneurial efforts during the last three decades of the Fashion District’s revitalization.

“The Persian community has helped to reshape the district by partnering with stakeholders in the area to form business development districts to keep the area safe and clean for business to thrive,” L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel said. “This community has been at the forefront of growth in the Garment District, and I am confident that the future will bring greater prosperity as downtown continues its transformation.”

The financial growth over the last 25 years alone in Southern California’s garment business speaks for itself.

“In 1984, California Mart in downtown’s Garment District did about $50 million in sales annually, which was for all the U.S. sales of garments on the West Coast,” Neman said. “Today the annual sales for the garment business in Southern California alone is $150 billion — and without a doubt it is because of the hard work of Iranian-Jewish- and Korean-owned businesses in downtown.”

Many local Iranian Jews also credit Ezat Delijani, one of the community’s most prominent real estate developers, who died in late August, for having transformed the area by pioneering mixed-use developments in downtown Los Angeles as well as for purchasing and renovating four historic theaters on Broadway near the Fashion District.

“The investment Ezat Delijani made in the historic area of Broadway brought new life to an area that was stricken with graffiti and blight,” said David Rahimian, a former special assistant to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “The Delijani family led a preservation effort that brought the theater back to life, not only making it a jewel on Broadway but a proud site for all Angelenos to enjoy.”

With all of their financial success, Iranian- Jewish businessmen in the area have still maintained their strong Jewish bonds in the district, even establishing three synagogues in the area.

Ohr HaShalom, also called the Downtown Synagogue, is perhaps the most popular synagogue in the Fashion District. Located inside a 300-square-foot storefront, it attracts up to 30 Iranian-Jewish businessmen for daily prayers.

“It’s more convenient for businessmen from our community to come to the synagogue that is close to their businesses in the area in order to do their early morning prayers or to say the Kaddish prayers on the anniversary of the deaths of their loved ones,” said Abner Cohen, a fabrics businessman and co-founder of Ohr HaShalom.

The other two synagogues in the area are located within the offices of Iranian-Jewish businesses, housing Torahs as well as other prayer books. Yet the business owners operating these office synagogues would not grant The Jewish Journal entry out of concern that the publicity could attract unwanted security challenges.

In addition to the synagogues, a handful of local rabbis frequent the different Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses in the Fashion District, providing free lunchtime classes on Torah and religious practices.

“We love teaching Judaism, and we offer these businessmen insights on how they could benefit from Torah in their everyday lives to become better fathers, better partners and better community members,” said Rabbi Yosef Shemtov, executive director of the Yachad Outreach Center, which is affiliated with the Pico-Robertson-based Torat Hayim synagogue.

Over the course of each week, Shemtov and two other Iranian Jewish rabbis from his group visit more than 50 Iranian-Jewish businesses in downtown’s fashion and jewelry districts. Their group began the teaching program for Iranian Jews working in downtown Los Angeles eight years ago and, Shemtov said, it has gradually grown in popularity.

Kosher restaurants in recent years have also popped up the Fashion District, including Snack 26 deli, offering sandwiches to Iranian-Jewish businessmen on the run, and Afshan Restaurant, providing customers with kosher chicken and beef kebabs as well as popular Persian stews and rice dishes. Both eateries also deliver to their clients downtown.

With all of the ups and downs in their businesses, Iranian Jews working in the Fashion District said their strong sense of spirituality and Jewish values have enabled them to continue working hard to achieve success in the fashion industry.

Shervin Arastoozad, an Iranian-Jewish designer and owner of Cut n’ Paste Handbags, says the one thing he’s learned about business is that you must build a foundation to get anywhere.

“One very important foundation for me has been Judaism and the morality it brings into [my] business and everyday life,” he said.

For more interviews with Iranian-Jewish businessmen in downtown’s Fashion District, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

IRANIAN ELECTION ANALYSIS: All Iran candidates will bolster Hamas, Hezbollah ties


One winner has already been declared in the Iranian elections: The Internet, used by more than 23 million Iranians, or 34 percent of the population. But that figure alone cannot be used to determine which of the four candidates will win. At the very most, one can assume most Web users will vote for reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi, rather than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Mohsen Rezeai.

Although the presidential race is based mostly on the individual skills of the candidates, their agendas and public record are no less important. The candidates have almost insignificant differences on issues of core interest to the West and Israel. All of the candidates have said they are willing to hold a dialogue with the U.S., but say it would be gradual and depend on U.S. policy. Even Ahmadinejad has expressed his willingness to talk to the U.S. Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.

Roger Cohen’s Dialogue with the Iran Jewish Community


For video footage of the dialogue, click here.

There was no clean knockout when New York Times columnist Roger Cohen faced off against some 400 members of the local Iranian Jewish and Bahai communities last week, but spectators were treated to some vigorous rhetorical sparring and nimble footwork.

Last month, Cohen, a British-born Jewish journalist, returned from a reportorial visit to Iran and wrote a column for the Times headlined “What Iran’s Jews Say.”

In the city of Esfahan, in central Iran, Cohen talked to a handful of Jews, who are among the 25,000 remaining in Iran out of a one-time community of 100,000. Cohen reported that the Jews were “living, working and worshipping in relative tranquility.”

Despite the Holocaust denials and rants by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about wiping Israel off the map, “as a Jew, I have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran,” Cohen wrote.

To some 30,000 Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles who had uprooted themselves from their ancient homeland, Cohen’s evaluation was dangerously naïve at best and a mockery of their own experiences at worst.

They inundated Cohen and the New York Times with letters and e-mails, and the columnist agreed to fly to Los Angeles to address his critics at Sinai Temple, which has a large proportion of Iranian congregants.

What could have been a highly emotional face-off went well, thanks largely to the audience’s restraint during Cohen’s lengthy presentation and Rabbi David Wolpe’s insistence on decorum during the more emotional question-and-answer period.

Cohen started by expanding on the main points of his earlier column:

* Labeling Iran a totalitarian regime ready to destroy Israel and then the West’s infidels is a “grotesque caricature.”
* Iranians are a proud people, but pay little attention to the regime’s propaganda and incitements. To compare the situation in Iran to an impending holocaust “dishonors the memory of six million victims.”
* Iran’s leadership is mainly pragmatic and primarily concerned with assuring its own survival.
* Iran is the most democratic state in the Middle East, outside Israel, and is against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
* An attack on Iran by Israel or the United States would be a global disaster. “Force is the unthinkable option,” Cohen said, and mutually respectful negotiations are the only answer.
* Although he counts himself as “a strong supporter of Israel,” Cohen believes that Israel “overplayed its hand in Lebanon and Gaza” and that Hamas and Hizbollah are “established political forces,” that cannot be eliminated by military means.

The audience politely applauded Cohen at the end of the talk, but when Wolpe opened the dialogue, some sparks – leavened by humor – were ignited.

Wolpe to Cohen: “You draw a distinction between the Iranian people and their rulers, but Iran has a long history of anti-Semitism…the Iranian government has republished the notorious anti-Semitic forgery ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and your New York Times column ran in the Teheran Post.

Cohen: “Then they stole my column.”

Wolpe: “That shows that it was worth stealing.”

Finally, it was the audience’s turn to confront Cohen directly, and the questions ranged from thoughtful to bitter.

“Were you paid by the Iranian government for your trip?” asked one audience member. “No,” said Cohen, though he paid an Iranian “agency” $150 a day for the services of a translator, who acknowledged that he would have to file a report on Cohen’s doings with the authorities.

Wolpe interjected that Cohen had paid for his own trip to speak at Sinai Temple.

Several questioners wondered how Cohen could take the answers of fearful Iranian Jews at face value, especially with a government translator at his side.

Cohen responded that he recognized the possibility of self-censorship by those he talked to, “but that doesn’t mean that nothing they said is of any value.”

Some of the sharpest questions came from the Bahai community, seven of whose leaders in Iran were recently imprisoned as alleged Israeli spies.

Cohen said he had not spoken to the Bahais, but was aware of their plight.

Despite his stout defense, it became obvious that Cohen was affected by the direct or implied criticism of his views by a knowledgeable audience.

“I feel your anger, indignation and pain,” he said. “I think that at some level you retain a love of country [Iran]. But I hope you will give some thought to what I have said.”

A sampling of audience reactions after the talk revealed little indication that Cohen’s request was acceptable.

“He didn’t understand the geopolitical situation, and he doesn’t know what he is talking about,” commented Jasmin Niku, a 22-year old law student.

Two veteran community leaders, who rarely see eye-to-eye but have excellent contacts inside Iran, also expressed strong reservations.

“In Iran, Jews are pawns of the regime, which will go to great lengths to persuade outsiders, like Cohen, who know little about the history of the Jewish community, that everything is just fine,” said George Haroonian.

Sam Kermanian was particularly disappointed, after spending two hours one-on-one with Cohen earlier in the day, trying to explain the real situation in Iran.

Kermanian, who is active in the Center for the Promotion of Democracy, based in Iran, said that the Teheran government is adamantly anti-American, whatever the sentiments of its people.

“If Cohen has come to a different conclusion, after talking to four or five Jews through an interpreter,” added Kermanian, “then he has been deceived.”

Related Stories:
Video from the Dialogue
Roger and Me
Roger Cohen speaks with Iranian Jews at Sinai Temple
Roger Cohen’s Reaction

Who you calling rebbetzin, why you dissing Palin, what college anti-Semitism?


The Rabbi’s Spouse

In her recent story, Danielle Berrin contemplates the role of the clergy’s spouse (“Who You Calling Rebbetzin?” Sept. 12).

It seems that one of the downsides is being misunderstood.  
 
I repeatedly emphasized to Danielle that my voluntary role in our community is one which I gladly fill both at our synagogue and in our children’s school, because these are the communities where our family belongs, and I feel a personal responsibility to help.  Never at any time did I or will I expect any financial compensation for the work I volunteer to do in my community. 

I created the position that I fill because I care about the community and am proud to help build our congregation along with my husband.  

I wish there would have been some way for that positive message to have been better expressed in the article.

Pnina Bouskila
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

We would like to thank Danielle Berrin for her article on the contemporary rebbetzin.

We were subjects in this piece, and we could not be more pleased. Within the Jewish world so many of us seek connection — with God, with community, with mitzvot, and yes — with the rabbi’s family!? Through her article Ms. Berrin gave our community a chance to get to know us a little better, with the hope of strengthening those connections — that is indeed a holy pursuit, a true mitzvah.

As rabbis who are also rebbetzins, we are grateful for Ms. Berrin’s attention to the value of the rabbinic spouse.

Rabbis Deborah and Brian Schuldenfrei
via e-mail

The Iranian Vote

Iranian American Jews are mostly wary and distrustful of the Obama-Biden ticket.
In your Aug. 11 Iranian American Jews blog report on my debate with Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) and Judge Bruce Einhorn on the U.S. presidential elections, you mistakenly mentioned that I had emphasized the issue of Sen. John McCain’s experience.

In fact, my main and repeated emphasis was on the lack of understanding by Sen. Barack Obama of the nature and the threat of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the worldwide jihadist movement, as well as Sen. Joe Biden’s long-time record of encouraging appeasement and giving one-sided concessions to the Iranian theocratic dictatorship.

I mentioned that as a Democrat, I would strongly suggest putting aside our differences and voting for McCain, due to the overwhelming urgency of the worldwide threats facing us all.

I, like most Iranian Jews, fear that the Obama-Biden administration will fail to stand up to this worldwide threat.

Frank Nikbakht
Director
Committee for
Religious Minority Rights in Iran

Post-Palin Depression

I wanted you to know that I ran across your piece as I scoured the Internet looking for my minute-by-minute updates on the election (“Post-Palin Depression” Sept. 12).

I am just an average person that fits the person you describe in “Post-Palin Depression.” I do not have a therapist, but I have been in depression for almost two weeks now.

But your article inspired me to go nearly cold turkey on election news (I didn’t think about limiting to C-SPAN and, of course, I just can’t go without “The Daily Show”). One question, before I go into detox, can I finish out my obsession until I fall asleep tonight?

Thanks for the great piece. I can’t wait for my blood pressure to resume to normal levels.

Catherine Devericks
Via e-mail

Fields of Dreams

I would like to thank David Suissa and The Jewish Journal for the moving article comparing/contrasting Trochenbrod and Camp Ramah (“Fields of Dreams,” Sept. 12).

Filmmaker Jeremy Goldscheider is doing a big mitzvah in producing a film that will preserve a part of European Jewish History, which would otherwise be lost forever.

I would like to support this project and would like more information on how to get involved. I am writing as a representative of the Blitstein family of Trochenbrod.

Paula Verbit
Trochenbrod Descendant
Second Generation

Strange Love

In his recent letter to David Suissa, Jeff Kramer stated “The truth is that they (missionaries) don’t want your soul, what they want is to help you draw closer to God and in so doing, enjoy a fuller and more complete life now and in eternity.”

This statement is written more like a true believer in Jesus than a faithful Jew who understands that the roots of Christianity originate from Roman and Hellenistic paganism and belief in the trinity and bodily incarnation of God is considered idolatrous for Jews? (“Strange Love,” Aug. 22).

This is something all denominations of Judaism agree represents the spiritual destruction of the Jewish soul.

So yes, regardless of their intention, the end result is that missionaries, who seek to convert Jews, want our soul and in doing so perpetuate a long history of anti-Judaism that disrespects and invalidates the spiritual integrity of Jews and Judaism.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz
Founder and Executive Director
JewsForJudaism.org

Sleight of Hand

The directors of Stand With Us have engaged in a bit of sleight of hand (Letters, Sept. 12).

Rather than confront the fact that anti-Semitism is a negligible presence on college campuses today, they engage in name-calling. We are “elitists,” a common epithet in today’s political discourse.

If by characterizing our response as elitist, Roz Rothstein and Roberta Seid mean that we actually know what we are talking about, since we work on various college campuses (not just UCLA), then we plead guilty. Actually knowing what one is talking about is something that is very helpful in political discussions — both this one and larger national ones.

Professor Aryeh Cohen
Rabbi Susan Laemmle
Professor David N. Myers
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller
Professor Roger Waldinger

Sarah Palin

There are issues pertaining to Gov. Sarah Palin’s judgment privately that should be judged publicly (“Sarah Palin and the Jews,” Sept. 5).

First, why is it not immoral to have a baby when you know that the baby has Down syndrome and the baby is your fifth?

Second, why is it not immoral to get pregnant at age 42 with your fifth child when you know or should know that the odds of having a baby with Down syndrome is increased exponentially when a women reaches 40?

According to the March of Dimes Web site, at 25, a woman has about one chance in 1,250 of having a baby with Down syndrome; at age 30, a one in 1,000 chance; at age 35, a one in 400 chance; at age 40, a one in 100 chance; at 45, a one in 30 chance.

Lastly, why is it not immoral to have a fifth baby when given our current world environment. Zero population growth should be a goal for all of us? Why not adopt instead?

The above questions should all be asked of this person, but our media just won’t go there.

Martin H. Kodish
Woodland Hills

Yes, it was nice to know that Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has good relationships with Alaska’s Jewish population, although it was hardly surprising that she is strongly pro-Israel, given that she is an evangelical Christian.

However, to describe her simply as a social conservative is a gross understatement. From all we know of her, insufficient as that is as yet, she is a rabid, right-wing ideologue.

In her acceptance speech at the Republican convention, with its clever one- and two-line zingers written by a group of the best-paid communications professionals in the business and rehearsed by Gov. Palin for at least five hours prior to its presentation, with a mixture of homey references to her family and herself, she likened her small-town roots to those of President Harry S. Truman (a senator from Missouri for 10 years before becoming vice president in January 1945).

It remains the challenge of the media to break through the blockade surrounding their access to her — talk about protectionism run amok — to ask penetrating questions about her positions on policy issues, among them: the kinds of justices she would appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court; whether she believes in multilateral, rather than unilateral, approaches to international affairs; given her opposition to government intervention into our private lives, why a woman should not have the right to make her own reproductive choices without big brother dictating her decisions.

Also, how she intends to protect the guarantees of our Bill of Rights and their erosion in the name of fighting terror; why, if she is so staunchly pro-life, she does not support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research — using embryos that will be discarded or destroyed — to improve the quality of life of those living with terrible diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, AIDs, etc.; why she opposes sex education in the schools, including teaching even kindergartners — as Barack Obama has proposed — about what they need to know, at the most primary level, in order to protect themselves from sexual predators.

In addition, where she stands on our constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state, in general, and the teaching of creationism, along with the theory of evolution, in particular; regulating gun ownership; outlawing hate crimes; drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and on and on.

With less than two months remaining before Election Day on Nov. 4, it is urgent that the media reveal what the new kid on the political block — who would be a heartbeat away from the presidency — believes about many of the most urgent issues facing our country.

Rachel Galperin
Encino

I am not a supporter of the Republican ticket. However, let’s be fair to Sarah Palin on Jewish issues. First of all, most gentiles are probably not familiar with Pat Buchanan’s views on matters of Jewish concern, particularly people such as Palin, who are not known for their deep knowledge of such things. So her wearing of a Buchanan button does not signify anti-Jewish feelings.

Second, whatever one’s views may be on abortion rights, it is not a Jewish issue. The Orthodox Jewish view on abortion is similar to that of most Christian religious groups. The only pertinent Jewish issue in today’s political world is support for Israel.

Marshall Giller
Winnetka

The disclosure that last month Gov. Sarah Palin’s church hosted the executive director of Jews for Jesus, who told congregants that violence against Israeli Jews is God’s punishment for their failure to accept Jesus, is going to be the next club that Palin’s leftist critics pick up against her.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency quotes Palin’s pastor at Wasilla Bible Church, the Rev. Larry Kroon, as saying that he doesn’t believe Jews for Jesus are deceptive.

“Look at Paul and Peter and the others, they were Jews and believed in Jesus as the messiah,” he told JTA. “There’s gentile believers and there’s Jewish believers that acknowledge Jesus as messiah. There’re Swedish believers.”

Mainstream Judaism today rejects the idea that one can believe in Jesus and still be a practicing Jew. Anyone who maintains that the two beliefs are compatible is a pariah in the Jewish community.

But these columns have been cautioning against the idea that politicians need to be held accountable for every thing that is said from the pulpits of their congregations. In an editorial of March 18, 2008, “Obama’s Moment,” we said that religion by its nature calls forth great passion, and that religious institutions, churches, synagogues, mosques, are places where things are often said that strike the congregation in a way that they might not strike the wider public.

None of this is to excuse the errors of Sen. Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or Kroon. But it is Obama and Palin who are running for office, not the clergymen.

To make a big issue of these kinds of things in respect of the candidates, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, would be to impose a religious test for office of the sort that the framers of the Constitution forbade right in Article VI, when they wrote, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

No, ever, any. They couldn’t have been more emphatic and not even in an amendment but right there in the original body of the Constitution.

Reyna Oro
via e-mail

Exile’s gains and losses


I don’t know what will become of the legacy of Iranian Jews outside of Iran, how history will judge us in the context of the opportunities we had and the extent to which we helped make the world a better place with what we were given.

I don’t know what our kids will think of us 30 years from now; how we’ll define ourselves in retrospect.

When I’m feeling particularly glib, I think that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did us all a favor by causing us to leave the country once and for all. But I also know that I’m being presumptuous and perhaps unfair when I say that exile has been good for our community.

It is true that hardly a day goes by when I don’t thank God and my parents for the good fortune of living in this country. I thank my parents because they had the courage and foresight, years before the Islamic revolution, to up and leave Iran for America when I was 13 years old.

It was the heyday of the shah’s reign; the Jews had never had it so good. Money grew on trees, and you could sleep at night with the doors unlocked.

Yet even then, my parents could see the cracks in the wall, imagine the limits of what was possible in Iran. They forsook home and country, family and friends, 2,000 years of roots and put their faith in the idea of America. I thank God they did, but I realize there’s an immeasurable difference between the path that my parents took — leaving on their own terms — and the road onto which so many other Iranian Jews were forced.

It’s a testament to those Jews’ powers of invention and resilience, their adaptability and courage, that they have managed, in just three decades, to succeed so relatively well in their personal and professional lives here. Still, if you were to ask me what I think Iranian Jews have gained as a result of the Islamic revolution and what I believe we have lost, I could only give the most subjective and personal of answers.

What have I gained and lost, thanks to the “troubles” — that’s what people called the revolution in the beginning — of 30 years ago?

I gained the good fortune of having a community of Iranian Jews being born here overnight, filling the loneliness and alienation I had felt in the first years of my life in Los Angeles, when hardly any Iranians lived here and hardly any Americans gave us a chance at establishing a friendship. They nodded to us politely in passing, then looked away. If they stopped long enough, it was to ask where Iran was on the map and whether people rode camels to the grocery store in Tehran.

I gained the great good fortune of witnessing our community transform for the better with each passing decade, easing up on the misogyny and intolerance that were byproducts of Islamic and Jewish practices (because Persian culture, when freed of the influences of religion, is actually quite progressive and broadminded). I gained the possibility of speaking my mind without fear, questioning tradition without shame, writing what I believe to be the truth.

In exchange for all that, I lost the country of my birth, the places of my childhood, the handprints of my ancestors on the landscape. I lost the kindness of a people who, even in the depths of poverty, opened their homes and offered their food to a stranger; the innocence of a nation that had been closed off to the world for so long that it embraced every new idea, every foreigner wholeheartedly and with faith. I lost the beauty of the land where history began, the glow of a sunlight that was older, more seasoned, more forgiving than what I’ve seen anywhere else.

I lost the colors of the costumes little girls wore to perform ethnic dances, the faces of young boys who sat on rotting rowboats along the Caspian shore, the sound of water crashing against smooth black rocks in the Karaj River, the rosewater scent of the first harvest of apples. I lost the ability to go back and see with my eyes what I can only revisit now in memory.

For me, that’s a great bargain. For some others, especially people of my parents’ generation, it might have been a tough sell.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Briefs: City politicos celebrate launch of NewGround; Iranian Jews


City politicos celebrate launch of NewGround

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa celebrated the launch of NewGround, a joint undertaking of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), at City Hall on March 8. The group will bring together Jews and Muslims in a community-building dialogue on issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to immigration to homelessness.

“This is the city where we come together from every corner of the earth,” Villaraigosa said. “If there is one place in the world where Muslims and Jews should be able to forge common ground, it is here.”

City Council President Eric Garcetti hailed the group as leaders of the future.

“The stakes are high because the face of Los Angeles is the face of the world. The world is watching us,” said Garcetti, who hosted the gathering in the Tom Bradley Tower Room.

“We’re going from old ground in the Middle East, where we’re shackled by fear and bloodshed, to new ground in Los Angeles, where we can develop mutual respect and mutual trust and hopefully this project will blossom forth with the rays of hope from the people in this room,” said Salam Al-Mayarati, MPAC’s executive director.

Preparation for NewGround included a six-month study conducted by two scholars — one Muslim, one Jewish — who examined the failures and successes of interfaith dialogues throughout the country. Interfaith program co-ordinators Malka Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan, who work for PJA and MPAC respectively, will serve as NewGround staffers.

Hasan said that the group has already selected 18 participants — nine Jews and nine Muslims, ranging in age from 27 to 37 — with such diverse backgrounds as attorneys, doctors, teachers, filmmakers, artists and doctoral students.

“It’s not enough to sit and have coffee together. It’s not enough to visit each other’s mosques and synagogues. We actually need to confront the prejudices and stereotypes that we hold about each other, agree to disagree, and then fulfill our traditions’ obligations to build a better community,” PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said.

Imam Jihad Turk of the Islamic Center of Southern California and Rabbi Reuven Firestone of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion led the event’s opening and closing prayers.

— Naomi Glauberman, Contributing Writer

Iranian Jews struggle with segregation, presumption and assimilation


A little historical anecdote tells much about the transition of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles over a 25-year span, from strangers to integral — though distinctive — members of the larger Jewish community.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, following Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, the first sizeable wave of Iranian Jews arrived in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.

Many chose the conveniently located Sinai Temple in Westwood, a prominent Conservative synagogue, as their Shabbat gathering place.

Soon their large, extended families, speaking Persian, socialized in the lobby on Friday evenings, ate oneg Shabbat cookies, and attended services the following morning.

Ashkenazi old-timers started grumbling about “free rides” for the newcomers, quite unaware that to the Iranians, paying membership dues to a synagogue was a foreign concept and that it was considered a blessing for guests to take home some cookies and candy after a bar mitzvah or wedding.

Things actually came to the point where a new Sinai Temple president “solved” the cookie problem by canceling oneg Shabbat refreshments after Friday evening services altogether.

Eventually, cooler and more perceptive heads prevailed as both sides came to understand each other’s background and customs.

Today, Sinai Temple is a model of “integration,” with Iranians representing about half of the membership, some 40 percent of the board of directors and even a president emeritus.

There is no demographic study of the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, although its size is generally given as 30,000, including the American-born children of the original immigrants.

This figure is well below the 100,000 in Israel but ahead of New York City’s 12,000 — the only other large concentration in the United States — and bigger than the some 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran itself.

In a thumbnail overview, Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, describes his constituency as economically “extremely successful,” though, despite urban legend, there are poor Iranians, especially in the San Fernando Valley and the Pico-Robertson area.

However, the poor are not publicly visible, mainly because they are generally kept afloat through an extended and extremely tight-knit family structure, one of the hallmarks of the community.

One such family network is the Nazarian clan, in which the accomplishments and wealth of individual brothers, sons, daughters, in-laws, nephews and cousins combine to make the overall family clout and assets bigger than the sum of its parts.

The Journal recently met with the family patriarch, Izak Parviz Nazarian, and his daughter, Dora Kadisha, to listen to an up-to-date version of the Horatio Alger story.

Nazarian was born in Tehran 77 years ago into an impoverished family and went to work at an early age after his father died when Parviz was 5.

In 1948, he arrived in Israel three days after the country declared its independence and immediately joined a tank brigade, was seriously injured in a mine explosion and spent five months in a hospital.

After the war, he bought a truck for construction work, but soon advanced from driver to contractor. Over the next 30 years, he launched a remarkable entrepreneurial career, shuttling between Israel and Iran, and establishing joint enterprises in construction equipment, electronics and sheet metal production.

At the same time, he took an active role in the Tehran Jewish community, campaigned for women’s rights, aided Jewish refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, and helped Israeli diplomats escape the country when the Islamic Revolution broke out.

In June 1979, Nazarian and his wife, Pouran, along with their three daughters and one son left Iran for good and settled in Los Angeles.

“We were attracted by the climate, which is similar to Tehran’s, and we were readily accepted by the Jewish community, which wasn’t the case in other American cities,” Nazarian said.

Arriving in the new country and city, Nazarian hit the ground running.

He took over, expanded and still chairs Stadco, a leading producer of high-precision tooling and parts for the aerospace industry. In 1985, he founded Omninet to develop the first satellite-based data communication system, and when Omninet merged with Qualcomm in San Diego, Nazarian became a major stockholder in the pioneering cellphone company.

Currently, Nazarian chairs Omninet Capital, a diversified investment firm in the fields of private equity, real estate and venture capital.

As a community activist and philanthropist, he helped organize the secret emigration of Soviet Jews through Armenia to Israel. He co-founded the Magbit Foundation, which has provided $6.5 million to more than 5,000 students in Israel. He is a supporter of Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The total wealth of Nazarian and his extended family, which includes his brother, Younes Nazarian, and son-in-law, Neil Kadisha, is estimated at between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

Currently, Nazarian is focusing much of his considerable energy on the Citizen Empowerment Center in Israel, which seeks to educate the country’s citizens toward the goal of adopting a more functional electoral system.

Holidays are celebrated by the entire clan, with Parviz and Pouran Nazarian hosting around 50 family members for Passover seders, and 25 for Shabbat, including 10 grandchildren.

The Nazarian family tends to be very private and, for the most part, has avoided the media spotlight afforded some of this city’s prominent families. Nevertheless, some scrutiny is impossible to forgo.

According to a recent front-page report in the Los Angeles Times, son-in-law Neil Kadisha has been ordered to pay $100 million in damages following a four-year civil trial in which the judge ruled that Kadisha, as a trustee for a young widow, had taken large sums from her account.

Kadisha has asked for a new trial and a spokesperson said he was eager to refute the charges in public as soon as he is legally able to do so.

In their occupations, Iranian Jews are full participants in the business and professional life of this city, and they support the work of established American Jewish organizations.

My December visit with ‘lady’


“Agha isn’t here,” Khanum says as soon as I walk in through the door. “I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

Agha is her husband — dead for 35 years and buried in Iran — but she speaks about him as if he were just out running an errand.

“No point waiting around for him,” she tells me with characteristic bluntness. “Go home and do something useful.”

We’re in her room on the third floor of the Ocean Towers Convalescent Home in Santa Monica. Khanum has lived here for nearly 10 years, ever since she broke her hip and had to have it replaced by a young Iranian doctor who called all his female patients “Khanum” (Lady), because they were old, and he meant to show respect — and because this way, he didn’t have to remember their names.

Depending on whom you ask, Khanum is somewhere between 97 and 104 years old. She has bad eyes and trouble walking — what with the hip replacement and all — and she gets tired easily, but she’s otherwise in fine health.

She needs constant care, which she resents wholeheartedly and refuses often. Her mind is in good shape most of the time, but lately her short-term memory has been lapsing for hours at a time. When this happens, she can tell you about all the people she knew and places she had been to in her 20s and 30s, but she won’t recall when she last ate, or what day it is, or what the person she’s been talking to has just said.

She becomes young again, a new bride in her husband’s house, unwavering in her love and her loyalty to him.

“I’m not here to see Agha,” I tell her. “I’ve come to see you.”

I realize she has confused me with one of the many callers who used to knock at her door day or night in Tehran in the years before her husband died. They never called ahead of time, or asked permission to visit, because they knew they would not be welcome: they were either selling something, asking for money, collecting a bribe or hoping to enlist her husband’s support in some decades’ old feud with a family member.

I kiss her on both cheeks and ask how she’s doing.

“Why do you want to know?” she responds, still suspicious.

To my embarrassment, I feel relieved that Khanum hasn’t recognized me yet, that she doesn’t remember how long it has been since my last visit. So we sit — Khanum in her wheelchair, I on the edge of her hospital bed — for a while without speaking. The small television that hangs from the ceiling is tuned to one of the many Farsi-language satellite stations based in Los Angeles. Persian music blares from someone’s radio next door.

It’s only 6 p.m., but the December sky has been dark for nearly an hour.

“No self-respecting woman would be out on the street so late at night,” Khanum chides me.

Ocean Towers is one of many establishments of its kind in Santa Monica — a gray, seven-story box of a building with cement walls and a flat roof, situated, for practical reasons, within a 10-block radius of St. John’s Hospital.

We’re only 12 blocks away from Third Street Promenade with its trendy shops and overly aggressive street performers, but we might as well be in Tehran: There are three Iranian restaurants within walking distance of this building, three grocery stores, an Iranian kosher butcher shop. There is an Iranian bakery around the corner, two hair salons and an electronics store that promises — in big, bold letters painted on the windows — to crush any competitor’s price anywhere.

On the third floor, all the residents are Iranian. So are some of the doctors and nurses, the nutrition experts and physical therapists. The arrangement seems to be as much by design as by coincidence, but it suits everyone just fine. Most of the residents here know each other from the years in Iran — before the revolution forced them out of the country and sent them to a place where youth and beauty are revered above wisdom and tradition; where children are allowed to disobey their parents, or dishonor them by marrying out of their faith, or divorcing their spouses or entrust the care of their elders to strangers in bright purple uniforms who come and go every eight hours.

The visitors, too, know most of the patients. They come often, and bring Iranian food and magazines and candy. They arrive early and leave late, sometimes staying all day with a spouse or a parent because they can’t bear the guilt of what they have done to their loved ones, because they remember what it was like back in Iran, how the elderly were cared for at home, how they used to look down on people in the West — the way they tossed their parents away when they were of no more use, locked them up in nursing homes and forgot where they had put the key.

Dinner is at 5:30 p.m., and after that the latest hold-outs go home. The nurses’ shift changes, and dusk settles onto the bare hallways and narrow beds with plastic mattresses. Then the ghosts come out.

“Do you miss Agha?” I ask Khanum.

When I first started writing, I sat with Khanum for hours at a time, asking questions. I was 21 and on leave of absence from law school. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, but I knew some stories from Iran, and had begun to write them. They were scattered pieces of people’s lives, bits of conversations I had overheard through the years, rumors that had been whispered too many times and taken on a reality that may or may not have been deserved.

Almost all the stories, however, were about my own family: we were — still are — unusually open, among Iranian Jews, about our past. Others are more guarded, more aware of the consequences of revealing themselves in a society built as much on appearances as on facts, a society where truth will, far from setting you free, most likely close a thousand doors and come back to haunt you for good.

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum takes national leadership position; Survival of Jews in Iran is a paradox, pan


Rabbi Gary Greenebaum takes national leadership position

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, a key figure in Los Angeles civic and ecumenical relations for the last 16 years, has been appointed national director for interreligious affairs by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

As director of AJC’s Los Angeles chapter and Western region since 1990, Greenebaum has worked closely with leaders of the city’s varied ethnic and religious communities to further mutual respect and understanding.

He plans to project the same skills and goals on the national scene in his new post, succeeding David Elcott, who has joined the Israel Policy Forum as executive director.

“I realize now more than ever how strongly religion affects American society,” Greenebaum said.

Greenebaum played another crucial role when Mayor Richard Riordan appointed him president of the Los Angeles Police Commission in 1993, in the wake of the previous year’s riots, sparked by the acquittal of police officers involved in the Rodney King beating.

“I think that my appointment to the Police Commission and my work there helped alleviate a sense among African Americans that Jews didn’t care any longer about their community,” he said. “I also believe that we have established a tremendous relationship with the Latino community over the years.”

In a different arena, Greenebaum and his chapter have spearheaded Jewish communal relations with some 45 countries represented by consulates in Los Angeles. In recognition of this work, he was recently awarded the National Order of Merit by the French government.

Greenebaum, 57, will retain his family residence in Los Angeles and expects to spend one week each month in New York.

Among highlights of his California tenure, Greenebaum recalled taking several delegations of Protestant and Catholic leaders to Israel and the 2003 AJC mission to Salt Lake City to meet with top Mormon leaders.

“Gary is a wonderful judge of people,” said Sherry A. Weinman, president of the Los Angeles AJC chapter. “He knows exactly when to lead with his rabbinical side and when with his statesman side.”

Debbie Smith Saidoff, who serves on the national AJC board of governors, praised Greenebaum’s sensitivity in dealing with representatives of other faiths.

“Gary is a multidimensional leader of great insight, but he is never afraid to speak truth to power,” she said.

In his new position, Greenebaum will work closely with Jerusalem-based Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s international director of interreligious affairs.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Survival of Jews in Iran is a paradox, panel shows

On Oct. 20, the Women of Vision chapter of the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, presented a panel discussion on “The Jews of Iran: Will This 2,700-Year-Old Community Survive?” to a standing-room-only crowd at the Museum of Tolerance.

At present, 25,000 Jews live in Iran, 15,000 of them in Tehran, making Iran’s Jewish population the second largest in the Middle East, outside of Israel. In the years following the 1979 revolution, approximately 75 percent of the Iranian Jewish population fled the country, some to New York but many more to Los Angeles, which now boasts the largest Iranian Jewish population in the world.

Speakers at the conference included Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, as well as Hamid Sabi, former chairman of the Iranian Jewish Centre in London. They were joined by Tel Aviv University professors Meir Litvak, an expert in Shi’ii and radical Islamic movements, and David Menashri, director of the Tel Aviv University’s Center for Iranian Studies; television producer and poet Roya Hakakian, author of “Journey From the Land of No” (Crown), about growing up as a Jewish teenager in post-revolutionary Iran; Shirin Taleh, a relatively recent immigrant to Los Angeles from Tehran, where she was a Jewish preschool and kindergarten schoolteacher; and Israel Radio personality Menashe Amir, who hosts a regular program listened to by Iranians the world over. The panel was moderated by Sharon Baradaran, a professor in UCLA’s Israel studies department.

The conference presented a complex look at the recent history of Jews in Iran. Amir made clear that over the last century, the condition of Jews in Iran had gone from bad to better (under the shah) to worse, prompting Baradaran to ask whether the better times under the shah were more of an aberration than had been thought.

Hakakian and Sabi both spoke of the role of Jews in the revolution and post-revolutionary period, time of great intellectual ferment and hope. Hakakian, in particular, still hopes a democracy will emerge in Iran, and she is encouraged by reports that average Iranians are losing interest in Iranian government-produced Palestinian propaganda and are showing interest in Israel.

By contrast, Litvak was vocal in pointing out that Iran only tolerates Jews living under Muslim rule — not as people living in an independent state. Iran has become the world leader in Holocaust denial, Litvak explained, as part of a political strategy to undermine support for Israel’s existence.

The panelists agreed that today’s Iran presents a paradox. In many ways, as Hakakian, Sabi and Taleh made clear, life for Jews in some ways has never been better. They are a “protected minority,” allowed to drink wine for their rituals, while Muslims are not allowed alcohol; Jews may allow men and women to mix, while Muslims cannot.Nonetheless, Jews are barred from government jobs, and under Muslim laws, their rights in criminal and civil courts are not equal to other Iranian citizens.

Iranian Muslims consider Jews “filthy” and impure. Yet Jews in Iran have the right to passports and to travel abroad and could leave if they choose.

Litvak suggested that Iran’s Jews have little future living as a minority in Iran and will not likely be able to improve their place in society. Kermanian recommended that the remaining Jews of Iran leave as soon as possible, in case conditions should change.

Menashri suggested that all Iranian Jews should move to Israel, while Hakakian argued that Iran’s Jews should remain and will flourish under a future regime. Taleh believes that there always will be a Jewish Iran, as long as parents teach their children about Judaism.

— Tom Teicholz, Contributing Writer

Local community refuses to forget 12 missing Persian Jews


12 missing Persian Jews: not forgotten

Nearly 300 members of the Iranian Jewish community and local Persian-language media gathered at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills on Sept. 27 for an event sponsored by the Council of Iranian Jews to discuss the fate of 12 Persian Jews who were kidnapped by the Iranian secret police between 1994 and 1997 and have not been heard from since. Family members of the missing 12 Jews were on hand to express their frustration with lack of cooperation from the Iranian regime.

“I am sure my son is not lost; he’s alive and being held by the Iranian government and that regime must answer to where they are holding our youngsters!” said Elana Tehrani, whose 17-year-old son, Babak, was arrested by Iranian secret police when trying to flee Iran into Pakistan in 1994.

Those in attendance cried when photos of the missing 12 Jews were held up for the audience with their names and dates of abduction announced. An emotional recorded telephone message to the community from Orit Ravizadeh, one of the missing Jews’ wives living in Israel, was also played for the audience.

Speakers at the event included Nessah’s Rabbi David Shofet and the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper. Persian Jewish activists George Haroonian, Bijan Khailli, Frank Nikbakht and Pooya Dayamin who spoke at the event said they have been active in trying to resolve the case of the missing 12 for the last six years.

Earlier this month, the kidnapped victim’s families filed suit against Iran’s former President Mohammad Khatami for implementing a policy of abduction and imprisonment of their loved ones.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Smile, darn ya!

Operation Smile, a leading humanitarian and medical services organization dedicated to helping improve the health and lives of children and young adults worldwide, honored humanitarians Vanessa and Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump family; L.A. Clippers of present (Elton Brand) and past (Norm Nixon); and Abbott, the global health care company, at its fifth annual Operation Smile Gala Sept. 21 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Among the prominent civic leaders in attendance were Milt Hinsch, Jerry and Vicki Moyers, Joe and Sue Kainz, Dennis Seider and dental innovator Dr. Bill Dorfmann, author of “Billion Dollar Smile, a Complete Guide to Your Smile Makeover.”

The evening, whose honorary chairs were Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his wife, Cindy, began with a VIP party, complete with goodies and piano accompaniment and culminated in a dinner and awards ceremony emceed by “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush. Guests were royally entertained by multi-Grammy Award-winner Christopher Cross and Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy.

Lladro, the renowned Spanish House of Porcelain, donated $150,000 to the cause and the evening included a surprise visit from Madelein Cordova Dubon, a 2-year-old girl from Honduras who was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. Event co-chairs Roma Downey and Mark Burnett had recently participated in an Operation Smile medical mission in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where they met and bonded with Madelein.

Operation Smile was founded in 1982 by Dr. William P. Magee, a plastic surgeon, and his wife, Kathleen, a nurse and clinical social worker. It has provided free reconstructive surgery to more than 100,000 children and young adults with cleft lips, cleft palates, tumors and other birth defects in 32 countries around the world.

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Dr. Sarah Weddington, renowned winning attorney in one of the most famous cases in U.S. history, Roe v. Wade, spoke at the annual fundraiser for the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project (WRRAP) recently. Opening her speech, she immediately expressed her deep sadness about learning of the death of her dear friend, colleague and fellow Texan, Ann Richards, former governor of the state of Texas.

“I had the privilege of knowing Ann since the early ’70s,” she told the large group of supporters who turned out for the event. “When it came to running for a political office, Ann was a guru and pioneer in the art of running for political office and winning. Her inspiration, courage and quick wit were element of her savvy personality. Ann Richards was a friend, mentor and role model for women.”

WRRAP raises money for low-income women of all ages, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds who are unable to pay for either emergency contraception or a safe and legal abortion. The event featured sumptuous hors d’oeuvres and a wine reception. Following Weddington’s speech and comments on the upcoming Proposition 85, which would prohibit abortions for California teens until 48 hours after their parents have been notified, there was a Q-and-A session.

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It’s mayor meets mayor at Temple of the Arts; Women of vision see Jews’ future in Iran


It’s mayor meets mayor at Temple of the Arts
 
Mayor Yona Yahov of Haifa received a standing ovation after his Kol Nidre address at Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills Sunday night. A few minutes earlier, by way of introducing Yahov, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke candidly about the feeling of disorientation his famously frenetic schedule tends to induce.
 
“It’s almost like not knowing where I am at any given moment,” Villaraigosa confessed.
 
Luckily, the sound of Hebrew prayers and his recollection of a Yom Kippur appointment at a temple in Northridge earlier in the evening helped Villaraigosa get his bearings. During his brief remarks he praised his counterpart from Haifa as a man of peace.
 
In his sermon on the seed of resiliency, Rabbi David Barron spoke more pointedly about Yahov’s aptness as a speaker at Sunday’s service. Citing Yahov’s ongoing efforts to create understanding between Arabs and Jews, Barron called Yahov “a man who is practicing forgiveness, which we are here to reflect on.”
 
“This has been an awkward, unprecedented war,” Yahov said at the beginning of his speech. “It has not been soldiers against soldiers or ships against ships.”Yahov said that when a rocket struck the Carmelite monastery above Haifa at the onset of the conflict, a local investigator at the scene was puzzled to find tiny ball-bearings scattered about the area.
 
“We learned these are often packed into the belts of suicide bombers,” Yahov said, “to widen the effect of the blast.”
 
When it become clear that civilians were to be the targets of Hezbollah’s missile campaign, Yahov said one of his first concerns was to keep life as normal as possible for Haifa’s children, even under the city’s constant curfew.Soft laughter rippled through the audience when Yahov, a big silver-haired bear of a man, asked, “Can you imagine what to do with your kids if they were stuck in your house for a month?”
 
Yahov’s solution was to place his city’s youngest citizens in a very familiar environment. Each day of the conflict, from early morning until late afternoon, thousands of Haifa’s children were sheltered on the lower levels of underground parking garages at the city’s shopping malls.
 
“No enemy can destroy our life,” Yahov said.
 
After he thanked the congregation for its support, he concluded his remarks by saying, “We showed the whole world that the Jewish people are one people.”
 
— Nick Street, Contributing Writer

Women of vision see Jews’ future in Iran
 
Amidst growing tensions between Iran and the United States in recent months, the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization (IJWO) in Los Angeles is planning a seminar at the Museum of Tolerance focusing on the future security of Jews living in Iran today.
 
The event, scheduled for Oct. 10 and organized by the Women of Vision chapter of IJWO, will include prominent Persian Jewish activists, leaders and intellectuals from Europe and Israel, as well as Los Angeles, and aims to shed light on the political, social, and psychological challenges faced by the approximately 20,000 Jews in Iran.
 
“We didn’t really select this seminar or its topic because we wanted to make a statement about ourselves as women, rather because it is an important topic that has not been addressed by the Iranian Jewish community nor the larger American Jewish community,” said Sharon Baradaran, one of the volunteer organizers of the IJWO seminar.
 
Baradaran said the seminar is particularly significant for opening new dialogue between the various factions within the Persian Jewish community that for years have often been at odds with one another on how to best address the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric of Iran’s fundamentalist regime without jeopardizing the lives of Jews still living in Iran.
 
“While every panel member has been very sensitive to safeguarding the best interest of the Jewish community, to address difficult questions about the future of the community in Iran is critical and if that means certain disagreements, then they should be discussed,” Baradaran said.
 
Local Persian Jews have expressed concern for the security of Iran’s Jews in recent months, following false media reports in May that the Iranian government had approved legislation requiring Jews to wear yellow bands on their clothing.In July, Iranian state-run television aired a pro-Hezbollah rally held by Jews living in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, in what many local Persian Jewish activists believe was a propaganda stunt organized by the regime to show national solidarity for Hezbollah.
 
Maurice Motamed, the Jewish representative to the Iranian parliament, had been slated as a panelist for the seminar but withdrew, saying he will not be arriving in Los Angeles until after the seminar, Baradaran said. Some local Persian Jewish activists have expressed concern over public comments from Motamed during the past year, including his praise for Iran’s uranium enrichment program and his opposition to Israeli military actions against Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and Hezbollah terrorists in Southern Lebanon.
 
In January, Parviz Yeshaya, the former national chairman of the Jewish Council in Iran, issued a rare public statement questioning the logic of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who had called the Holocaust a “myth”.
 
The Iranian Jewish Women’s organization was originally set up in 1947 in Iran and later re-established in 1976 in Los Angeles with the objective of recognizing the impact of Iranian Jewish women in the community. In 2002, the Women of Vision chapter and other chapters were added to the organization in an effort to reach out to younger generations of Iranian Jewish women.
 
The IWJO seminar will be held at the Museum of Tolerance on Oct. 10 at 6 p.m. For ticket information contact the IWJO at (818) 929-5936 or visit www.ijwo.org.
 
— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer
 
Captured soldier’s brother addresses students
 
Gadi Goldwasser — brother of Ehud Goldwasser, one of two Israeli soldiers captured on July 12 and still held by Hezbollah — spoke recently to students at UCLA and USC during a brief visit to Los Angeles. He addressed the business and law schools at USC, as well as Hillel and Chabad student groups during their Shabbat dinners.

Iranians Facing Up to Drug Abuse Taboo


Three years ago, Raymond P., a 28-year-old Iranian Jew, was a full-fledged member of a notorious Los Angeles street gang. He sold drugs and suggests that he may have participated in violent crimes. He doesn’t want to talk about specifics but explains by saying he was desperate to pay for his drug habit.

Raymond P., who asked that his real name be withheld, is among an uncertain but significant and possibly growing number of Southern California Iranian Jews who have been using and selling illegal drugs. It’s the sort of problem you wouldn’t typically hear about within the Iranian Diaspora community, because the topic embodies cultural shame for family members. Experts say that silence has aided and abetted the problem.

However, now there are efforts under way both to end the silence and help these families.

“I came from a very good family, but I didn’t care who I was hurting, as long as I was getting high,” said Raymond P., who is now in recovery.

He told his story to nearly 200 Iranian Jews gathered recently at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. The gathering late last year was the first of its kind for the community.

Since their arrival in great numbers in the United States more than 25 years ago, Iranian Jews — numbering an estimated 30,000 in Southern California — have become one of the more educated and financially successful Jewish communities. But this has not made them immune from a side effect of the American dream: drug abuse, especially among the young.

Leaders of the Eretz-SIAMAK center have decided it’s time to shatter the long-standing taboo of not publicly discussing the drug abuse plaguing Iranian Jews. It began an open dialogue on the issue late last year by gathering a panel of experts to educate families about drug abuse.

“For years, we’ve been quietly helping addicts in the community to [recover from] their drug use,” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. “But we finally decided to go public and try to fix this problem when we noticed it has really become widespread among our young people.”

The Eretz-SIAMAK leadership has made a mission of taking on serious and sometimes discomfiting issues within the Iranian Jewish community, including poverty, premarital sex and new Jewish immigration from Iran. It went forward with the drug-abuse awareness event after an anonymous donor provided funding. More seminars and other events are planned this summer after the same anonymous donor recently contributed $5,000 to Eretz-SIAMAK.

There’s no official or reliable data on illegal drug use among Iranian Jews, but psychologist Iraj Shamsian, who specializes in treating addicts of Iranian heritage, said that nearly half of his Iranian patients are Iranian Jews. He and other specialists say they are convinced that, based on their own practices and anecdotal evidence, the problem is growing.

Yet some families are hesitant even to seek help.

“Our culture is the type that wants to keep everything secret and not talk about it, because it’s embarrassing, and people put a label on you,” said Dara Abai, a longtime youth mentor and community volunteer who helps Iranian Jewish drug addicts. “In Iran, I remember that if someone told you to go to a psychologist, they thought you were crazy and had a serious mental problem.”

Cultural attitudes toward alcohol haven’t helped either, he added.

“In our community, we have a lot of alcohol use,” Abai said. “I go to parties and see married people half drunk. Their kids see this, and they think it’s fun. So they try alcohol at a young age, and sometimes that leads them to try drugs.”

Experts said, too, that young Iranian Jews, just like many other young people, experiment with different drugs out of peer pressure or to fit in with friends.

In working with young addicts, psychologist Shamsian draws on his own experience as an addict from 1983 to 1993.

“During those years, I never said no to any drugs I saw,” Shamsian said. “I shot heroin. I used cocaine. I used different downers and uppers — even tried acid and mushrooms.”

Shamsian said his addiction was so intense that he wasted away his savings, as well as family funds brought over from Iran, ultimately ending up on the streets of downtown before finally seeking help.

After becoming drug free, Shamsian obtained professional credentials. Besides his private practice, he works as program coordinator for Creative Care, a respected drug treatment facility in Malibu. He also hosts “Ayeneh,” a Persian-language television program, available on satellite systems, on which he seeks to educate Iranians about the dangers of drug use.

“We answer phone calls from Iranians around the world — even in Iran,” Shamsian said.

Three years ago, Shamsian, along with non-Jewish Iranians, helped found the Iranian Recovery Center (IRC) located in Westwood. The nonprofit offers seminars and education about substance abuse, as well as referrals to those seeking treatment.

“The services of the IRC are totally free and open to the public,” Shamsian said. “We help Iranians of all different religions.”

Other community resources include the Chabad Residential Treatment Center, a treatment facility run by the Chabad organization in the Miracle Mile area, where many Iranian Jews seek help for their addictions. It emphasizes Jewish values and spirituality.

However, the drug problem is not only among the young. Shamsian noted that a significant number of older Iranian Jewish men are using opium on a regular basis, because of their past use and familiarity with the drug from Iran.

Drug use frequently leads to legal difficulties, as well as financial, health and emotional problems, said Dariush Sameyah, an Iranian Jew and Los Angeles Police Department sergeant.

“I was in court recently with this person from a very prominent Iranian Jewish family, and she was heavily involved in credit card fraud to support her narcotics habit,” said Sameyah, who works in internal affairs. “This issue is prevalent in our community. If you look at the court records every day and see the cases coming up, you will see Jewish Iranian names quite frequently.”

“They get a very very rude awakening once the handcuffs go on,” Sameyah said. “Back in the day if a very well-respected Iranian person got arrested in Iran, they wouldn’t get handcuffed or strip searched the way they do here. It’s such an insult and slap in the face for an Iranian person when they are told to bend over for a cavity search, but that’s the law and public policy in the United States.”

Sameyah said a joint investigation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Los Angeles police resulted in the arrests last summer of nearly a dozen Iranians in Southern California — many of whom were Jews — for allegedly selling and importing opium, as well as laundering money generated from the sale of opium.

Besides opium and marijuana, heroin has recently made a comeback, said Sameyah.

He added that it’s almost never too soon for parents to begin discussing the drug issue with their children.

“If you want to start talking about narcotics to a 15-, 16- or 17-year-old, you’re about 10 years behind the curve,” Sameyah said. “Because that kid has spent the last 10 years in school with God knows who having glorified narcotics use for them. Education about narcotics starts at the age of 3 and 4.”

He said parents should talk about “what drugs can do to you and what they look like.”

But when children do stumble, make bad decisions and have problems, the taboos must be discarded to leave the path clear for recovery.

“We have to try not to judge people with drug addictions,” said Shamsian. “We have to look at drug abuse as a disease and not from a moral point of view.”