Temple Plays Iranian Card to Spur Growth

The desperate son of a woman diagnosed with cancer sought advice from Rabbi Reuben Malekan before accompanying his mother to Mexico for shark-cartilage treatments. When the cure failed, the son again beseeched Malekan for support in claiming his mother’s body.

Emotionally spent and depressed by the experience, Malekan nevertheless went on that same day to perform a joyous wedding service, which typically includes his full-throated a cappella version of "Sunrise, Sunset."

"It’s an art to get out of that sadness," said Malekan, a well-known Iranian-born rabbi from Los Angeles, who is a master at refocusing his mental energy to suit the emotional range requisite of daily clergy life.

That discipline is readily on display when Malekan takes a Shabbat pulpit, summoning energy and charisma that stir a shrinking-violet congregation so that those in attendance "feel it to their bones."

In an innovative attempt to rejuvenate its shrinking congregation, Anaheim’s Temple Beth Emet is turning to Malekan, hoping that his use of Persian traditions will appeal to the county’s small but dispersed population of Iranian Jews.

Of the handful of Iranian American families, who already are members of the Conservative congregation, some believe once-a-month sermons by the visiting rabbi will telegraph a welcoming message that could help the congregation grow.

"It’s a beginning," said Beth Emet board member Michael Younessi of Huntington Beach, who left Iran as a 7-year-old with his parents in 1978. "If they enjoy it, they’ll come."

Such a Persian infusion could well permeate the congregation in unexpected ways.

Rabbi Mordecai Kieffer, Beth Emet’s spiritual leader since 1995, is sharing the pulpit as one of several recent initiatives by the synagogue’s leaders to reverse declining membership. "We are courting the Farsi community that hasn’t found a home in Orange County," Kieffer said.

At its peak three decades ago, the county’s first Conservative congregation had 700 families and enrolled 300 children in religious school. Today, membership is 300 families and 40 children. The figures reflect the county’s population shift as housing development swept south and new synagogues followed.

Beth Emet’s novel effort at émigré outreach comes at an opportune time. Iran’s Jewish population, which mostly fled to Israel and the United States when the shah was ousted in 1979, today is struggling to preserve its cultural identity.

An alienating generation gap over religious issues is widening between immigrant parents and their children. While Iran had a single rabbi and the same religious practices throughout the country, the offspring are encountering the splintered denominations of American Judaism and embracing different practices.

A Persian youth center started 10 years ago in Los Angeles by the Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch Chasidim is a fertile recruiting ground. The center is expanding to larger quarters.

Youth are most at risk of losing their Jewish identity, said Shoshana Pe’er, a Chabad outreach representative to Los Angeles’ Persian Jews, told the Lubavitch News Service in September. Parents, she said, though well-meaning, are often ill-equipped to transmit Jewish tradition to their own children, having grown up with little real Jewish background.

"The reality here is it’s very difficult for new immigrants," said Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center in Santa Monica, the 13th generation in an unbroken line of rabbis. His father, Yedidia Shofet, bore the honorary title of chief rabbi of Tehran.

Rather than adopting institutions typically shaped by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, many Iranian Jews embrace Sephardic congregations that hew closer to the practices of their homeland. Services often include Farsi alongside Hebrew. The liturgy is voiced with a Persian melody, and men and women sit apart. "They are looking to be traditional, to continue their own tradition," Shofet explained.

Intermarriage and Orthodoxy, at the opposite ends of acculturation, though, are pulling at family unity among Iranian Jews. "These are the two greatest issues facing the community," said Homa Sarshar, director of the Beverly Hills-based Center of Iranian Jewish Oral History. She moderated a discussion on the topics that drew 1,200 parents to Beverly Hills High School in October.

"That’s happening here big time," agreed Dr. Morris Abboud of Irvine, who left Iran at 17 in 1982 to attend New York’s Yeshiva University. Except for a few cousins who remain in Iran, his entire family resettled in Irvine.

"Being religious in Iran was a plus. It had respect," Sarshar explained. By comparison, she said, in the United States, "Persian parents are ashamed of saying their kids are Orthodox."

Such an admission deserves pity, she said, and implies parents will be alone on Shabbat, because their observant children won’t drive on the Sabbath or will spurn their parents’ tables as not adequately kosher. Persian parenting is not yet a hot topic at Beth Emet.

Beth Emet is also trying to grow by dropping dues for new families that enroll in religious school. Another appeal to younger families is hiring Craig Taubman, a guitar-picking crooner popular on the spiritual renewal circuit. In October, he enlivened the first of four Shabbat morning appearances scheduled at Beth Emet this year.

"He had the whole temple swinging," said Marvin Marsh, 76, of Anaheim, who compared the mood to the fervor evoked by the Christian evangelist Billy Graham. "But everybody loved it," Marsh added, noting that Taubman drew a High Holiday-size crowd.

In an informal arrangement, Malekan will season the second Saturday service of each month with Persian tradition. Beth Emet’s after-service wine blessing and celebration will also get a fresh twist by featuring Persian-style delicacies.

"We hope it’s permanent," said Doris Jacobson, congregation president. "We hope it will attract more Persians." The board will evaluate the results in a few months, she said.

"The service I do is very personal, happy and warm," said Malekan, who mixes Farsi with Hebrew, as well as involving participants in a high-energy, finger-snapping renditions of traditional music.

"I try to share the spirit in me," he said. "You try to elevate the soul of those people who give you an hour of their time."

The visiting rabbi’s distinctive tone and style is doubly appreciated by Kieffer. "The way he speaks and reaches out is more participatory and responsive," he said. "For the Farsi community, it’s a treat that their synagogue has done this for them."

Attendance has increased during previous visits by Malekan. "That indicates there is interest," Kieffer said.

Malekan is well-known within the Iranian Jewish community for his joyous wedding services. He is gratified that Beth Emet sees him as a tool to solidify the local Persian population.

"If they don’t become part of a community, they will assimilate," Malekan warned.

Abboud, a member of Congregation Beth Jacob, an Orthodox synagogue in Irvine, was delighted to hear about Malekan’s peripatetic services. "If I’m not on call, I’d come," he said.

To woo the county’s Iranian Jews, Abboud said, the synagogue needs to publicize its new tack in the communities where expatriates reside: Anaheim Hills, Newport Beach and Irvine.

However, awareness isn’t enough to dissuade some to shift synagogue loyalties. Parvin Rafii of Orange left Iran 32 years ago to join her husband, Max, in the United States. Rafii is devoted to Chabad of Yorba Linda, because the shul "captured the heart of many Jews that haven’t been involved in religion," she said. "You don’t need the Persian that you had in your childhood."

The couple consciously distanced themselves from Los Angeles’ growing Iranian community as they were raising their young children, who attended Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom. "We wanted the kids to be part of society right here," Rafii said.

Beth Emet isn’t the first synagogue to intentionally shift its character to suit a new population. Five years ago, Hollywood Temple Beth El faced a similar membership drought and started marketing to the Iranian Jewish community, said Elliott Benjamin, a board member of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles. He commended Kieffer for reaching out to a group adrift.

In Great Neck, N.Y., another U.S. haven for Iranians, most Iranian Jews attend local Sephardic synagogues. Traditional Sephardic practice hews closely to Orthodoxy, separating the sexes during services and schooling, shunning the use of musical instruments on the Sabbath and excluding women from the clergy.

However, another 200 Iranian families comprise 20 percent of Great Neck’s Temple Israel, like Beth Emet, a Conservative synagogue.

"A large number have chosen to join our synagogue," said Steven Markowitz, the congregation’s president, explaining that "one of the most important [reasons] is men and women want to sit together." Other factors, he said, are that the temple provides girls with the same Jewish education as boys and permits bat mitzvah.

The Persian influx in the largely Ashkenazi congregation is its own unique culture clash, sowing both enmity and respect.

Sometimes a Torah reader will use a Persian trope or a Shabbat dinner menu will get a Persian makeover, Markowitz said, but the synagogue has avoided any direct appeal to the larger Iranian community. "Many are adamant it not become Persian," he said.

The flip side is that a synagogue-produced magazine that included an article about a gay couple and the recent hiring of a female rabbi offended some Iranian members. "They’ve had a tough time adjusting," Markowitz said. "Some have left because it’s too liberal."

Yet, at a typical Temple Israel service, Iranian congregants predominantly fill the sanctuary seats, Markowitz said. "They put the rest of us to shame."

The level of observance by Beth Emet’s Iranian congregants plays a role in the synagogue’s willingness to adopt a Persian countenance. "You have to do what you can for the people who show up," said Kieffer.

"Their presence is a blessing," he said.