Why are you asking so many questions and wanting to write about our community in the newspaper? Why do people care about Iranian Jews in Los Angeles? Do you really think you’re accomplishing anything by writing about our triumphs and failures in the newspaper?
These and other intense questions were often fired at me by local Iranian Jews, starting about 12 years ago, when I first set out to report on this very special community. It is my community, and traditionally it has been very tight-knit and intentionally private, closed off to outsiders. But it includes an array of individuals with many stories and a very rich background. As a son of this community whose parents fled Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime more than three decades ago, I nevertheless felt called to share the beauty of Southern California’s Iranian-Jewish heritage.
In my opinion, the Iranian-Jewish immigration to the United States represents, perhaps, one of the greatest sociological experiments of the 20th century. It is the story of what happens when you uproot one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, a group that was deeply rooted in Iran for centuries, and then transplant it into the United States — one of the most advanced and dynamic modern societies in the world. Who would have thought that this immigrant community could, in such a short time span, blossom and successfully acculturate as it has in the United States in slightly more than three decades?
I feel tremendously blessed to have had the unique opportunity of sharing some of the local Iranian Jewish community’s incredible accomplishments in business, the arts, philanthropy, literature, politics, education, medicine, real estate and contributions to the betterment of Southern California. For example, if you just venture into downtown Los Angeles’ garment or jewelry districts, you will find that a vast majority of businesses are owned by Iranian Jews. Local elected officials often point to the fact that downtown Los Angeles has gone through a tremendous transformation during the last three decades, with billion-dollar industries thriving in neighborhoods that once were blighted.
This is largely the result of Iranian-American Jewish entrepreneurship. Iranian-Jewish families, such as the Delijanis and others, have invested heavily in downtown’s real estate and the revitalization of the area’s historic Broadway district. And, at the same time, some members of the Nazarian family have shown extraordinary entrepreneurship in the community. The Nazarians are among the major shareholders in the telecommunications giant Qualcomm, and they own major hotels and nightclubs throughout Los Angeles. There’s also the Orange County-based Merage family, which in 2002 sold its privately held corporation, Chef America (maker of the popular Hot Pockets frozen foods), to Nestle for $2.6 billion. These and countless other Iranian-Jewish entrepreneurs have, without doubt, contributed significantly to the economic vitality of Southern California.
Iranian Jews have not been successful only in business; many from the community have also pursued higher education in medicine, architecture, the law, engineering and various sectors of academia. You need only to walk into any of a handful of Los Angeles-area hospitals, including Cedars-Sinai, UCLA, Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center or St. John’s Health Center to encounter Iranian-Jewish physicians in almost any specialty you can imagine. It is no secret that Southern California’s Iranian Jews are perhaps one of the most highly educated immigrant communities because of their families’ strong emphasis on the importance of education.
Area universities also have countless Iranian-Jewish scientists and researchers, among them the prestigious City of Hope medical facility in Duarte, which regularly boasts of having in its ranks Dr. Samuel Rahbar, a leading endocrinologist who is on the brink of finding a cure for some types of diabetes.
In recent years, Iranian-Jewish writers Gina Nahai, Angella M. Nazarian and Roya Hakakian have received international acclaim for their books in English, which often reveal aspects of the community’s personal struggles in moving from the traditions of Iran into the United States. And, yes, even celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is currently a candidate for U.S. Congress in New Jersey, has written countless best-selling books and appeared on television programs, is half Iranian-Jewish.
With Hollywood close by, the community also has entered the entertainment industry, and Iranian-Jewish film producer Bob Yari is one of the success stories. In 2006, Yari’s film “Crash” won the Academy Award for Best Picture. More than a dozen local Iranian-Jewish actors in recent years also have appeared in countless major films and television programs, including the popular suspense drama “24.”
Local Iranian Jews also have ventured into politics and fully embraced American democracy since their exile. Most notable was Jimmy Delshad, a businessman who became the first Iranian Jew elected to public office in the United States when, in 2003, he became a Beverly Hills city councilman. Then, in 2007, he made national news when he became that city’s mayor. Delshad left public office last year, but now Beverly Hills has two Iranian-Jewish city commissioners. Likewise, in 2008, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed Iranian-Jewish attorney H. David Nahai to be the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. For a time, Nahai oversaw one of the largest public utilities in the country.
A new, younger generation of Iranian-American Jews — many of them born in the United States — formed the organization 30 Years After (30YA) nearly five years ago, and it quickly became one of the community’s most successful civic and political nonprofit groups, mobilizing Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and New York to become more engaged in the U.S. political process.
Interestingly enough, the younger generation of Iranian-Jewish professionals in recent years has been at the forefront of sharing their parents’ and grandparents’ countless stories of escape from the persecution of Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime. That narrative has been critical in helping other Americans to better understand the threat that the current Iranian regime poses to the rest of the free world.
In 2009, I remember being given the opportunity to interview family members and close friends of Habib Elghanian, the late leader of the Jewish community in Iran, who was executed by Iran’s Islamic regime in 1979 on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Hearing their bone-chilling stories of the circumstances surrounding Elghanian’s execution made me realize how his murder became a primary catalyst for thousands of Jews to flee Iran after the revolution.
For all of the Iranian-Jewish community’s financial and academic success, local Iranian Jews have, over the last three decades, not forgotten their strong Jewish roots. You cannot walk into any of the major Los Angeles-area synagogues, among them Stephen S. Wise Temple, Sinai Temple, Tifereth Israel Sephardic Temple and Valley Beth Shalom, without encountering local Iranian Jews who make up a substantial portion of these congregations.
I often ask myself what would have happened to many of these local synagogues today if the Iranian Jews had never immigrated to this city? Perhaps Los Angeles’ robust Jewish community would not have been as strong as it is today. For instance, Pico-Robertson and Encino are now among the most vibrant Jewish areas in Los Angeles as a result of a large segment of Iranian Jews living and working there.
And this also has led Iranian Jews living in both West Los Angeles and in the San Fernando Valley to establish more than two dozen synagogues of their own. Both big and small, many of these Iranian synagogues operate from store-front properties all along Ventura Boulevard, while, at the same time, many in the community are still drawn to lavish synagogues, including the Nessah Synagogue in the heart of Beverly Hills.
Over the last 30 years, Southern California’s Iranian Jews also have set up and funded many of their own nonprofit groups, including the Hope Foundation, the Jewish Unity Network (JUN), the SIAMAK organization, and others, to support Iranian-Jewish families struggling financially. In recent years, younger Iranian Jews have been giving back to the larger community in Los Angeles by donating money, time and energy to nonprofits dealing with the homeless and to local law enforcement, such as a the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
In 2005, Iranian-Jewish businessman Paul Merage gifted the University of California, Irvine, business school with a $30 million endowment, the largest in university history. The Merage family also donated $3 million to the Jewish Community Center of Orange County, which bears the family’s name, and supported the Orange County Performing Arts Center as well as the Second Harvest Food Bank in Orange County.
After encountering firsthand the horrors of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Southern California’s Iranian Jewry has made support for Israel a paramount concern over the decades. A large segment of local Iranian Jews has been involved with a host of philanthropic causes related to Israel, through Hadassah, the Jewish National Fund, Israel Bonds, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and the many universities based in Israel.
In the late 1980s, it was a group of Southern California’s Iranian Jews that established the widely successful Magbit Foundation, which has since provided millions of dollars in interest-free loans to cash-strapped college students in Israel. The Iranian-Jewish Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation also has donated extensively to an array of higher-education institutes in Israel, and in the last few years, also funded the establishment of an Israel Policy Center at UCLA. The Iranian-Jewish Merage Foundation over the years has provided endowments to universities in Israel, and, since 2004, has helped fund the Ayalim Association’s program in Israel that is slowly establishing various new settlement blocs in the Negev and Galilee regions of the country. In 2010 the SIAMAK organization launched and funded Project Jacob, a revolutionary new program to nurture and develop innovative medical, high-tech and alternative energy research at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University.
Despite Southern California’s Iranian-Jewish community’s success and generous philanthropy, the community has not been immune to an array of problems. Community activists such as JUN’s Dara Abaei will attest to the difficulties some local young Iranian Jews today face with the sale and use of illegal drugs. I remember reporting on the tragic story of three young Iranian-Jewish men who were killed in a West Hollywood apartment during a drug deal that went bad in August 2010.
There are also families struggling with issues of spousal abuse and alcoholism. There are a number of poverty-stricken Iranian-Jewish families, who, over the last four years, were hit hard by the bad economy. Some are on the verge of homelessness. No doubt the few Ponzi schemes allegedly carried out by Iranian-Jewish businessmen in recent years — against their own community members here in Los Angeles — have wiped out the finances of hundreds of families and destroyed the long-standing trust that many Iranian Jews once had in one another.
Covering these stories of difficulties faced by local Iranian Jews has been personally heart-wrenching for me, and not easy to write about, because the community has a long-standing, albeit unspoken, taboo of not airing its dirty laundry in public. Many feel their reputations in the community will be destroyed, or the “authorities” will come after them for speaking out, as had been the case for them in Iran.
I will never forget two years ago, when I first reported on the community’s businessmen involved in the alleged Ponzi schemes, and I was approached by a 79-year-old Iranian-Jewish grandmother who overheard me interviewing one of the victims. With tears in her eyes, she grabbed my arm and said to me, “They’ve stolen $100,000 of my entire life savings, which I brought out of Iran with great difficulty — I am so ashamed because I have nothing and have to live with my children. Why won’t any of the local rabbis or leaders tell them to at least pay back the money they took from us old people?”
I had no answer for this poor, old woman but I believed it was important to cover this story in order to shed light on the suffering of the victims instead of trying to sweep the issue under the rug, because this community needs to face its demons and find real solutions to help people. The local community also has struggled in recent years with not having a base of strong leaders and serious activists to properly address the continually evolving issues of Jewish immigration from Iran, social problems within families and creating a closer overall cooperation with the larger Jewish community through the Los Angeles Jewish Federation.
My reporting has focused on many of these significant accomplishments and changing elements within the local Iranian-Jewish community, and as a journalist I don’t mean to boast about them. Yet I cannot help but feel a tremendous amount of pride for how this 2,700-year-old community has remained vibrant in this new world, yet held steadfast to its Jewish identity and continued to grow and thrive. Who would have thought that a Jewish community that once lived for centuries as second-class citizens in Iran, and that faced unimaginable persecution, would one day be thriving in a country that represents the greatest democracy on Earth? The story of the Iranian-American Jews continues to amaze me. With its mix of ancient history and rich traditions, and its embrace of a whole new, modern world, it is a community that I truly love and respect.
My only hope is to continue to have the opportunity to share Iranian Jewry’s remarkable story in the coming years.
Learn more about L.A.’s Iranian-Jewish community by visiting Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.
Iranian Jews: The art, culture and history