Los Angeles has a thriving Persian Jewish community, such as at Nessah Synagogue, pictured here. Photo courtesy of Nessah

L.A. hosts first national Persian rabbinical conference

Iranian rabbis from Southern California and across the country gathered in Irvine on June 5-6 for the first national Persian American Rabbinical Conference to discuss issues of intermarriage, the preservation of Iranian-Jewish traditions and efforts to reach out to a younger generation.

The historic conference was hosted by the Los Angeles-based Persian Rabbinical Council (PRC), a loosely organized group set up in recent years of nearly a dozen Orthodox Iranian rabbis who head synagogues and religious schools in the Pico-Robertson area and the San Fernando Valley. The conference culminated in a June 7 banquet dinner at Nessah Synagogue, an Iranian congregation in Beverly Hills, that was attended by more than 30 people.

According to the online registration for the Nessah gala, the goal of this conference was to strengthen and empower the community. “We will focus on fighting assimilation, motivating our youth to participate in the future of our community and solidarity with our brethren in Israel. Our mission is to bring our people together, fostering unity and cooperation amongst the leadership of our community throughout the world,” it states.

Nessah’s chief rabbi, David Shofet, who also is recognized as the primary leader of the Iranian-Jewish community, praised the group’s efforts.

“I believe this conference was very positive because our Jewish community, whether living in Iran or the United States, has always worked hard to maintain our traditions,” he said. “The goal of this conference was for the rabbis to understand the issues we are facing, how to better serve the community’s needs, how to maintain our ancient halachah from Iran and to keep Judaism alive.”

Shofet said the group of Iranian rabbis in attendance also hailed from New York, Atlanta, Baltimore and Dallas, with diverse educational and career backgrounds.

“I was impressed by the rabbis who attended the conference because they were not just religious scholars, but some of them were also physicians, pharmacists and businessmen who have real-world experiences and are aware of the day-to-day challenges the community faces,” he said.

This conference of Iranian rabbis is a first for the community, which hasn’t had any formal organizing for religious customs and traditions since its members’ arrival in the United States more than 40 years ago.

Numbering 80,000 strong before the Islamic Revolution, the Jews of Iran were one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities and adhered to a traditional Sephardic form of Judaism while living in Iran for centuries. After the radical Islamic regime’s execution of Jewish community leader and businessman Habib Elghanian in May 1979, Jews first began fleeing Iran en mass for Israel, the U.S. and Europe.

After their arrival in the United States, many Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and New York joined an array of Ashkenazi synagogues from different denominations of Judaism since the community did not yet have any formal religious organizations established in the U.S.

Today, after nearly 40 years since their arrival in this country, community leaders estimate that roughly 45,000 Iranian Jews live in Los Angeles, 25,000 live in New York and another 2,000 elsewhere in America. Local Iranian-Jewish community leaders estimate that roughly 5,000 to 8,000 Jews still live in Iran and adhere to their ancient Sephardic traditional form of Judaism. 

Nessah Young Professionals party like Paris Hilton; New VP for Masorti women

Nessah Young Professionals Party Like Paris Hilton

Dubbed the “Glamour Summer Night,” the Nessah Young Professionals’ Aug. 26 annual gala drew more than 600 local Iranian Jewish young professionals and college students to the Area nightclub in West Hollywood, where they danced the night away to live music while also raising money on behalf of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF).

Funds generated by the event this year were set aside for the creation of a mobile recreation facility — a place to relax, socialize, exercise and check their e-mail — for Israeli commandos, who aren’t given enough time off from assignments along the Israel-Lebanon border to visit permanent FIDF recreational facilities.

“It is so very meaningful and heartwarming to realize that although we live in Beverly Hills, we are still able to have fun, mingle and raise enough money to build a mobile club for our brothers and sisters who are defending and protecting our homeland in Israel,” said Simon Etehad, head of the young professionals group based out of Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. “Some of those Israeli soldiers have just completed high school and are not even old enough to drink.”

As in years past, the fundraiser’s ultra-hip venue was donated by SBE Entertainment, which is owned by Iranian Jewish hotel and nightclub entrepreneur Sam Nazarian.

Nessah Young Professionals members said the recreational facility in Israel will also be dedicated in memory of Daniel Levian, a local Iranian Jew in his 20s who died last month in an automobile accident. In past years, the young professionals group has raised funds for other FIDF projects, including the LEGACY Program, which provides all-expenses-paid trips to attend summer camp in the United States for bar and bat mitzvah-age children who had a family member killed in action.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Brandes’ ‘Quarrel’ Opens Off-Broadway

Pico-Robertson playwright/producer David Brandes has turned his 1991 film “The Quarrel” into an off-Broadway play.

Co-authored by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “The Quarrel” tells the story of two estranged friends — a pious rabbi and a secular writer — who reconnect in an accidental meeting after years of being separated by betrayal and war. What ensues is “a fierce battle of wits and a raw test of friendship, faith and tolerance,” according to publicity materials.

The play opened last week at the DR2 Theatre in New York, where it will run through Sept. 28.

New Veep for Women’s Masorti Movement

ALTTEXTTobie Rosenberg is in line to become vice president of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. Among her many leadership positions in the Jewish community, Rosenberg has served on the board of directors of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Valley Beth Shalom, as well as on the International Board and Torah Fund Cabinet of the Women’s League.

Rosenberg will be installed at the 2008 biennial convention on Nov. 9 in Dearborn, Mich.

Founded in 1918, the Women’s League is the umbrella organization overseeing 600 affiliated women’s groups in Conservative/Masorti synagogues in the country.

ADL Reunion Brings Together Scattered Graduates

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reunited 100 graduates from its Glass Leadership Institute, a program established 10 years ago that grooms young professionals for leadership in the ADL. The purpose of the event was to reconnect graduates with the ADL, some of who have gone on to leadership positions within the organization and others who have become lay leaders in other areas of the Jewish community.

Each year, 20 to 25 young professionals in their late 20s to early 40s are nominated to the 10-month institute (formerly known as the Salvin Leadership Institute), which provides education on hate crimes, terrorism, Holocaust education and Israel advocacy. The institute has become a significant talent pool for the ADL, giving rise to new generations of lay leaders.

Current ADL regional board chair Nicole Muchnik is a graduate of the program, along with board officer Seth Gerber and former regional chair Murray Levin.

The ADL is currently accepting nominations for next year’s class. For more information, call (310) 446-4243 or visit http://www.adl.org.

The hip Jewish museum by the Bay, Nagler new JFS chief

The Hip Jewish Museum by the Bay

The new Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is a hip amalgam of modern art. Daniel Liebeskind’s peculiar architectural dazzle looks like a giant Rubik’s Cube in metallic steel, standing on its tip beneath the city’s downtown skyscrapers. Beside it is the Jessie Street Power Substation, a brick and terra cotta structure in the classical revival style, a landmark building first erected in 1881 that Liebeskind adapted to the project.

The juxtaposition of the historic with the cutting-edge is an odd sight, but it does represent a spectrum of Jewish experience as a kind of past-future metaphor. The architecture — and the art — are a way of linking tradition with what is current. But once you enter the museum’s whitewashed asymmetrical orbit, the image of Judaism projected feels — well, not very Jewish.

Not that the current exhibitions aren’t provocative, interactive or innovative. Inside the new building is “John Zorn Presents the Alef-Bet Sound Project,” where various musicians and composers have written music based on the kabbalistic meaning of Hebrew letters. The result plays to great atmospheric effect inside the angular room with 36 diamond-shaped skylights that positively glow.

“In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis” is the most comprehensive exhibit, featuring a combination of historical art (Chagall, Rodin, etc.) and newly commissioned installations, where artists meditated on the modern relevance of the Genesis story. These creations are edgy, experiential and even abstruse.

Alan Berliner’s experimental film plays across separate horizontal screens that randomly flash words from Genesis in English. At the touch of a button, the word roll stops and somehow always forms a perfect (and poetic) sentence. If “God” comes up, thunder strikes and a montage of dramatic images from Jewish history play in montage (think: Holocaust).

While the offerings are stimulating and sometimes strange (check out Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “In the Beginning There Was the End, in the End There Was the Beginning,” about half-human, half-plant creatures attacked by jealous half-siblings who are then swallowed by the earth and become “Vegans”) the Jewish content is sparse.

Where is Jewish history? No destruction of the Temple? No Babylonian exile? Not even Ellis Island? No, there’s only William Steig, The New Yorker cartoonist who created “Shrek.” And don’t expect a Zionist ode to Israel. In this museum’s version of Judaism, Israel might as well not exist. And as far as any instructive on Jewish religious observance — that’s pretty much limited to some audible Torah chanting as you roam around and a couple of Torah books sitting on a table for your reading pleasure (that is, if you’re fluent in Hebrew).

Here, the closest you’ll get to Shabbat is a pair of candlesticks in the museum gift shop.

Jeff Nagler Assumes JFS Presidency

Jeff Nagler is bringing his movie business mojo to Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). The Warner Bros. Studios vice president was recently installed as JFS’s new president, an office that will surely benefit from Nagler’s experience managing operations of both Warner Bros. television and features departments.

A graduate of UCLA Law, Nagler has a history of nonprofit work both in the arts and public policy. Along with Nagler, nine new board members were installed at the June 16 event at JFS headquarters; they include Colette Ament, Ira Cohen, Vicki Gold, Bryan Moeller, Steven Paul, Marvin Perer, Lisa Ribner, Toni M. Schulman and Meridith Weiss.

Nessah Celebration for Israel Has ‘Soul’

(From left) Bruce Hakimi, Consul General of Azerbaijan Elin Suleymanov, Joe Shooshani, Beverly Hills City Councilmember Jimmy Delshad, fashion designer Bijan. Photo by Karmel Melamed

With modern dance performances and live Israeli music, as well as shofars blasting and lights flashing, nearly 700 local Iranian Jewish members of Nessah Synagogue celebrated Israel’s 60th anniversary through their sponsored gala concert, “One People, One Soul,” on July 1 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. In addition to video presentations interspersed with the live performances, the event featured popular Israeli singer David D’Or, who performed Jewish prayers, Israeli folk songs and even an Italian operatic ballad.

Notable guests at the concert included Beverly Hills City Councilman Jimmy Delshad, DWP General Manager H. David Nahai, talk radio host Dennis Prager, Iranian fashion designer Bijan and Azerbaijan Consul General Elin Suleymanov.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Iranian Jewish kids fill care packages for troops, JFS honors goodness of Goldstines

Iranian Jews Fill Care Packages for Troops

More than 50 local Iranian and other L.A.-area Jewish volunteers of various ages gathered at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills on May 25 to celebrate Memorial Day and prepare more than 300 care packages for U.S. troops based in Afghanistan and Iraq. Volunteers included parents and children, as well as mentors and mentees from the Los Angeles Jewish Big Brothers Big Sister’s organization, who stopped by waiting stations to fill their boxes with magazines, coffee, pocket fans, toiletries, sun block, nuts, beef jerky and new socks that had been requested by U.S. troops fighting overseas.

“As much as we are Iranian Jews living here in U.S., we are Americans who love this country,” said Jacob Hanaie, the event’s coordinator and a Nessah Synagogue volunteer. “We wanted to not only show our wonderful soldiers our appreciation for their efforts but to also show our immediate community that it’s very important to say thank you to our wonderful soldiers for their efforts and for their sacrifices to help keep us safe here.”

A few local non-Jewish Iranian Americans also participated in the gathering after hearing about it in on local Persian-language radio programs.
Volunteers on hand also drew pictures and wrote letters of appreciation to U.S. soldiers, which were included in the care packages.

Nessah board members said they were encouraged to organize the event again after the success of a similar 2006 event that resulted in an influx of thank-you letters from American troops stationed in the Middle East.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

JFS Honors Goodness of Goldstines

When Roz and Abner Goldstine see a void, they fill it. Noticing that the aging Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles lacked adequate care, the Goldstines established the Abner D. and Roslyn Goldstine Fund for Holocaust Survivor Services through Jewish Family Service (JFS), which provides essential care to survivors and helps them live with dignity and comfort.

For their commitment, the couple were honored with the Spirit of Humanity Award at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ 15th annual gala on May 22, where 650 guests filled the ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and raised $767,000 (an agency record) to provide vital services to L.A. residents, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Rabbi David Wolpe introduced and praised the couple, who are members of Sinai Temple and also serve on its board.

Another compassionate couple, Susan and Jonathan Brandler, were also honored at the dinner with the Anita and Stanley Hirsh Award for their tireless commitment to JFS.

Rabbi Joel H. Myers Receives Acheivement Award

American Jewish University’s (AJU) Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies presented Rabbi Joel H. Myers with the Simon Greenberg Award for outstanding achievement in the rabbinate. Myers, who is executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and serves on the boards of major communal and professional organizations, was bestowed with the honor during AJU’s ordination ceremony held at Sinai Temple on May 19. With this honor, Myers joins the company of previous recipients, including Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Jacob Pressman and Harold Schulweis.

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 www.nessah.org or call (310) 273-2400.

Rabbi David Shofet to Serve as Iranians’ Spiritual Leader

Nearly 90 religious and social leaders from Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community have formally and unanimously recognized Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Cultural Center as the community’s new spiritual head.

While Shofet was not elected, the leadership from leading Iranian Jewish organizations signed a resolution approving him to serve as their primary religious leader. The pronouncement was made at a community gathering Sept. 29 at the Olympic Collection in West Los Angeles.

For more than 25 years, Shofet worked alongside his father, Hacham Yedidia Shofet, the community’s longtime spiritual leader, who died last summer.

“The resolution was an expression of confidence that Rav David was the best person to follow in the footsteps of his father, Hacham Yedidia, as our community’s leading spiritual leader,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian Jewish Federation.

The event was hosted by Dr. H. Kermanshachi, past chairman and founder of the Iranian Jewish Federation.