Nessah president blazing trail for Iranian women

Dr. Morgan Hakimi has a variety of roles — psychologist, Jewish activist, wife and full-time mother. But it’s her position as president of the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center in Beverly Hills that has captured the attention of the L.A. Persian Jewish community.

In this Persian Orthodox culture, where leadership is traditionally dominated by men, opposition followed Hakimi after she was first elected president in 2004. However, Hakimi’s recent reelection has inspired her to step up her challenge to other women to get involved.

“I have always felt that Nessah could be an incredible bridge for more women to participate in our community, for younger American Jews of Iranian descent to connect with her heritage and for American Jews to become more familiar with us,” she said.

Skepticism from critics has died down since her initiatives have led to a substantial increase in membership within the last two years. People are packing Nessah’s two sanctuaries during Shabbat services, and crowds of previously disenfranchised women — both younger Persian Jews and non-Persian Jews — are participating in greater numbers in center programming Hakimi developed.

She credits outreach to and inclusion of the larger Jewish community for the synagogue’s growth. Hakimi has turned to a more American model of running a synagogue — setting up a membership system, establishing support groups for single parents and adding more events for its younger congregants.

“My greatest asset is having a diverse staff of Iranians, Americans, Hispanics and African Americans that are not afraid to work together,” Hakimi said. “We purposefully chose a new executive director in Michael Sklarewitz and new program director in Robin Federman, who are American, in order to better serve our community and bring us closer to the greater American Jewish community.”

Nessah’s Rabbi David Shofet praised Hakimi’s outreach efforts to younger Iranian Jews and said he has noticed more women at the center since she took office.

“In my eyes, women are more important because they are the mothers of the next generation,” he said. “If they are committed to Judaism and are affiliated, they can hand it on to the next generation. Otherwise there will not be a continuity of Judaism.”

After Hakimi’s election two years ago, participation of women in religious services became a lightning-rod issue on both sides of the mechitza in the Orthodox congregation. Traditionalists sought to keep women out, and more liberated women demanded greater involvement. Hakimi has approached such situations with diplomacy in mind, talking with both sides to find acceptable common ground.

“I am not here to create a revolution. I’m here to bring awareness and understanding about a lot of issues in our community, including those involving women,” Hakimi said. “I was raised in an egalitarian family, so I’m not bitter toward men, and I don’t have an attitude of fighting when I approach the rabbis or men. That’s why they are welcoming of my suggestions to include everyone in our programs.”

Hakimi’s election as president set a precedent at Nessah, which she continues to build on slowly. Eight women now sit on the center’s board of directors, with more women serving in committee and staff positions. At the congregational level, young women are now welcome to celebrate a bat mitzvah by giving a d’var Torah during the daytime Shabbat service.

Nahid Pirnazar, a member of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, said that Nessah could stand to have greater inclusion of women in religious services.

“But Dr. Hakimi has certainly helped [us] take a lot of positive steps toward greater participation of women,” she said.

Pirnazar, a UCLA professor of Judeo-Persian history, said Hakimi is the first from her generation to achieve a leadership role in the local Iranian Jewish community, and that she shares good company with Jewish women in Iran who took leadership positions in the early 20th century.

Hakimi is also encouraging young women to develop their own programs at Nessah and to make their voices heard.”Dr. Hakimi has been an incredible mentor in my life in demonstrating to me the unique qualities women in leadership can bring,” said Rona Ram, a 22-year-old Nessah volunteer. “What we, as young females, have noticed is the overriding respect and appreciation the entire congregation gives her as she speaks.”

Hakimi said that when issues of change come up, she anticipates resistance. But she says her aim is to slowly press for greater involvement of women in community activities.

“The Iranian Jewish woman has a quiet strength that is only now coming to the surface. I’m here to say they can have it all, but it will take time _ it will not happen overnight, and they must show a desire and commitment to taking part in leadership roles,” Hakimi said.

For more information about the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center, visit or call (310) 273-2400.

Community Briefs

Czech President Speaks at Yom HaShoah Service

Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus spoke to about 700 Jewish schoolchildren, diplomats and Holocaust survivors at a Yom HaShoah service at the Museum of Tolerance April 25, at which Gilberto Bosques, a Mexican diplomat who saved thousands of French Jews, was honored.

“We must never forget how it started, who did it,” Klaus said during a California visit, in which he also met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “The same fate was being prepared for all the Czechs.”

Bosques’ grandson, Tijuana businessman Gilberto Bosques Tistler, accepted the honor on his late grandfather’s behalf. A museum offical told the story of the Mexican consul serving in Vichy France. The diplomat saved about 40,000 Jews, artists and other refugees by issuing travel visas. The visas allowed thousands of Jews to escape to Mexico.

“I hope someone in Israel will say Kaddish for Gilberto Bosques,” said Ruben Beltran, Mexico’s consul general in Los Angeles. Beltran is a descendant of Spanish “converso” Jews, who were forced to become Catholics during the Spanish Inquisition.

The speech by the Czech president, as well as those by Mexican, Israeli and Austrian diplomats, supported the memorial service’s tribute to survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who recently died in Vienna.

“For many young Austrians, this fragile, stubborn, modest old man has become a hero,” Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss said. “You don’t need many heroes in your life; you just need to choose them carefully.”

YULA High School junior Ariela Gindi, 16, and others noted that they had never heard Bosques’ story before. “You always hear about Schindler, who saved all the Jews, but you never hear of a Mexican consul personally saving Jews,” Gindi said.

After rescuing Nazi victims in World War II, Bosques served as Mexico’s ambassador to Cuba from 1953 to 1964. During that time, he witnessed the Cuban revolution in which strongman Fulgencio Batista was overthrown and communist dictator Fidel Castro rose to power.

Bosques Tistler said his grandfather first protected hunted communist insurgents fighting Batista’s rule, and then, after the 1959 revolution, he hid Batista’s allies fleeing Castro’s regime.

“He arrived into Cuba before the Castro revolution,” Bosques Tistler told The Journal. “Before the revolution, he helped Castro’s people, and he gave asylum at the embassy. Then came the revolution, and he gave asylum to the Batista people.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Iranian Community Honors Memory of Shoah Victims

Nearly 1,000 Iranians of various faiths gathered Sunday, April 23, at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills to honor the memory of the 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

The event, broadcast via satellite to Iran by Persian-language television stations in Southern California, was considered especially important this year in the wake of recent comments by Iran’s president denying the existence of the Holocaust. Keynote speakers included Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Dr. Abbas Milani, professor of Iranian studies at Stanford University.

“Many in the world don’t understand why Jews are so obsessed with commemorating the Shoah,” Hier said. “We must remember because we paid a dear price for allowing the world to be silent when it was going on more than 60 years ago.”

Audience members became emotional several times during the event when special prayers were chanted for those killed in the Shoah and when anti-Semitic programming from Iran’s state-sponsored television stations was shown.

Other officials in attendance at the Nessah gathering were Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch, Beverly Hills City Councilman Jimmy Delshad and Michelle Kleinert, deputy director of community affairs for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. — Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Holocaust Survivors Take Part in Hospital Memorial Event

Toni Green, 82, and her sister, Selma Konitz, 80, both of West Los Angeles and formerly of Auschwitz, Poland, were the only ones of eight siblings to survive the Holocaust. They were sent to separate concentration camps and found each other the day after liberation.

To commemorate Yom HaShoah and remember the 6 million who died, the sisters joined other local survivors in a recent candlelighting ceremony at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Program chair Dr. Joel Geiderman, the hospital’s co-chairman of emergency medicine, as well as vice chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, told the audience that quite a few survivors come to Cedars, and he urged the residents in attendance, who were from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds, to listen to their stories while there’s still an opportunity.

Keynote speaker for the 22nd annual gathering, Dr. Susan Bachrach, curator for the U.S. Holocaust Museum, spoke on “Nazi Medicine and Eugenics.” Her talk mirrored the Holocaust Museum’s current exhibition — the most successful in its history — “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race.”

Through a slide show and video testimonials, Bachrach traced the path of Nazi medicine, stemming from Sir Francis Galton’s philosophy of eugenics, which he defined as the improvement of human hereditary traits through intervention. She noted it was practiced by well-known, respected doctors and moved from forced sterilization and unethical experiments to mass murder to genocide.

“It is inconceivable how that became accepted behavior,” she told the audience, discussing the campaign to cleanse German society of those deemed “biological threats,” to the Nordic (“ideal”) race.

Bachrach concluded that “no straight path led from eugenics to Nazi medicine to the Holocaust. It was a twisted route, with many steps along the way. The cumulative, step-by-step choices of thousands and tens of thousands of persons, added up to genocide.” — Melissa Maroff, Contributing Writer

Youths Stage Rally Against Genocide in Darfur

Young people in Los Angeles are actively engaged in the fight to save Darfur, as witnessed by a recent Sunday afternoon gathering at the Federal Building in Westwood. The rally, organized by Teens Against Genocide (TAG), attracted about 300 supporters, including some bearing signs urging, “Honk if you’re opposed to genocide.”

“It was cool to see it all come together,” said TAG founder Shira Shane, a New Community Jewish High School senior, who started the group earlier this year. “This was a communitywide effort, not just the Jewish community.”

Shane said the event was a collaboration of students from high schools throughout the Los Angeles area. TAG membership “exploded exponentially,” according to Shane, who said more students signed up at the rally.

“This is a spectacular group of kids and the most successful aspect of our organization,” noted Janice Kamenir-Reznik, executive director and co-founder of Jewish World Watch (JWW), who mentored TAG and co-sponsored the rally.

Participants included area rabbis and ministers, representatives from the offices of Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Dr. Bruce Powell, New Community Jewish High School headmaster.

“Even though it’s a cold day, it can’t penetrate our warm hearts,” the Rev. Cecil Murray told the crowd. “These young people are giving up their time and talents, and with so many pulls, are prioritizing something as huge as genocide.”

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) stopped by to say “thanks” when she noticed tents set up by the organization, Camp Darfur. “It was a pleasant surprise to find teens against genocide,” said Waters, who told the rally that she had recently been to Sudan, and it was more horrible than they could imagine.

“They’re not just talking tikkun olam (heal the world); they’re seeing it, and they’re teaching their parents,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Jewish World Watch co-founder. “These kids crave idealism, which reminds me of the spirit of the ’60s. There’s a difference in learning history and making history. They’re making history.” — MM

Political Activism Inspires Iranians

Iran’s growing nuclear threat has activated members of Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community to participate in this year’s presidential campaigns and make their voices heard.

Political activism is a unique phenomenon for Iranian Jews, who, for 2,500 years in Iran, had been barred from taking part in political activities and had been denied certain civil rights.

"It took a while for us [Iranian Jews] to take care of our immediate needs in the U.S.," said Sam Kermanian, one of the co-vice chairs for the George Bush/Dick Cheney 2004 campaign in California. "This is a community that came here as refugees and had to put its foundations in place — so getting involved in politics in the last few years only became a priority after all these other issues were taken care of."

Kermanian recently stepped down as chair of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles in order to join the Bush campaign full-time. He said many of California’s 30,000-35,000 Iranian Jews support Bush’s re-election bid.

But the main challenge, he said, is not to convince Iranians Jews to vote but "to make sure that a community that traditionally does not have a culture of voting, to actually come out and cast its vote."

Since the beginning of the summer, Kermanian has collaborated with the Iranian Republican Coalition and the Republican Jewish Coalition in order to reach Iranian Jewish voters who favor the president’s strong alliance with Israel and unwavering stance against negotiations with Iran.

In August, Beverly Hills Jewish Republican Voters for Bush, a group consisting primarily of Iranian Jews, placed a one-page ad in Chashm Andaaz, the local Iranian Jewish magazine, asking for Iranian Jewish campaign volunteers. According to the group’s representatives, they have helped register roughly 200 Iranian Jews in the last two months.

"Because of Iraq, the situation in the Middle East and in Israel, a lot of people on an individual basis have expressed interest in getting involved, because they believe there is a lot at stake in that part of the world," said Solomon Meskin, a volunteer for Beverly Hills Jewish Republican Voters for Bush.

While support for President Bush is prevalent among many Iranian Jews, there are still many in the community that are equally engaged in campaigning on behalf of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

"The Iranian American Jewish community is not homogeneous and should not be regarded as a monolithic body with one political mindset," said David Nahai, a volunteer co-chair of Jews and Friends for Kerry who co-chaired a June fundraiser for Kerry in Brentwood featuring the Democratic nominee’s Jewish brother, Cameron Kerry.

Nahai, a Century City attorney and board member of The Jewish Federation, said he is trying to educate many Iranian Jews who are not yet fully aware of Kerry’s long-standing pro-Israel voting record.

"I believe that our community is now coming to recognize John Kerry’s rock-solid, 20-year, proven pro-Israel record which dwarfs that of George W. Bush in comparison," Nahai said. "I believe that as Iranian-American Jews learn more about Sen. Kerry, his support in the community can only grow."

Aside from Kerry’s pro-Israel voting record, Nahai said Iranian Jews are just discovering that Kerry has also expressed resolve against Iran’s nuclear program.

"Clearly Sen. Kerry is no dove where Iran is concerned and he has stated unequivocally that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable," Nahai said. "Sen. Kerry supports bringing the matter of Iran’s nuclear program before the U.N. Security Council if Iran does not verifiably foreswear its nuclear ambitions."

Nahai said some younger Iranian Jews he has spoken with have also expressed their backing for Kerry and other Democratic candidates in the upcoming election.

"I believe that younger Iranians are more likely to lean toward the Democrats," Nahai said. "The Republican leadership’s ultra-Christian, neo-conservative, big business ethos is backward-looking and simply does not resonate with the young who are looking for a more hopeful… and progressive vision."

Other Kerry supporters in the Iranian Jewish community said they were backing Kerry because of his domestic policies, including proposals to boost the economy.

"I support Kerry because I think his ideas are different from Bush’s as far as being better for our society, from the economy, environment and other areas," said Zhila Ross, an Iranian Jew who lives Brentwood.

In addition to acquiring volunteers, Kermanian said he has also helped start grass-roots campaigns with other Iranian religious and ethnic groups, namely Armenian Christians, Zoroastrians, Caledonians, Muslims and Bahais in California to support Bush.

"There has been absolute harmony among the Iranian groups behind the president," said Kermanian, who has spoken on Persian language radio and TV programs, as well as at many community events.

According to Kermanian’s election demographic records, approximately 80 percent of Iranian Jews in the state are U.S. citizens and 70 percent are of voting age.

Likewise, Nahai said he has also tried to stir up support for Kerry among local Iranians by appearing on KIRN 670 AM, a popular local Persian-language radio station, as well as on the Voice of America television program.

This past July, both Kermanian and Nahai spoke to an Iranian Jewish congregation at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana during Shabbat morning services, said Shohreh Nowfar, the volunteer chair for the center’s events committee.

More recently, Kermanian and Nahai said they have been approached by the leadership of the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills to engage in an open debate about both presidential candidates, but no time has been set for the event.

As the election intensifies, so do emotions for many Iranian Americans — regardless of their religion. Many say they still harbor a deep dislike for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Iranian Americans in general continue to blame Carter for not supporting the regime of the late shah of Iran during the Islamic revolution in the late 1970s that ultimately forced thousands of Iranians, including Iranian Jews, to flee their former homeland and lose their livelihoods.

"Most Iranian Americans of all religions believe Carter had a policy that didn’t support the Pahlavi dynasty and his administration convinced military officials in Iran to step aside while the revolution took over the country," said Dr. Shirzad Abrams, co-founder of the Graduate Society Foundation, a local organization promoting the continuity of Iranian Jewish history and Judaism among young Jews.

Abrams and other Iranian Jewish leaders said that despite the resentment some in the community have for Carter, Iranian Jews by in large still continued to support Democratic candidates and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (Sherman Oaks).

Others in the Iranian Jewish leadership said that while the Democratic and Republican parties have reached out to Iranian Jews for fundraising purposes, the parties have overlooked the true political potential of the community.

"Iranian Jews have a great authority to mobilize the Iranian American community, which numbers around 1 million people," said Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee. "In the years ahead, they need to become involved in non-Israel and non-Iranian causes to become fully integrated in the fabric of the American Jewish community".

For more information on the Bush campaign, call Sam Kermanian at (310) 854-1199. For more information on the Kerry campaign, call (310) 556-9172