January 18, 2020

Toto, We’re Not in Tehran Anymore

Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills (Wikimedia Commons)

The terrible acts of vandalism against Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills on Dec. 14 struck a raw nerve with the local Iranian American Jewish community.

“Tabby, don’t show me these [pictures]. I don’t want to relive that horror,” my father said when I showed him images posted by Nessah leaders of torn Torah scrolls and tallitot strewn all over the floor. He belongs to a traumatized generation that still remembers the anti-Semitic turmoil of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

My generation, on the other hand, experiences trauma by proxy.

“I feel robbed,” said a friend who was born in Beverly Hills but whose family escaped Iran and attends Nessah. “I feel like we’ve been hit twice — first in Iran and now here.”

On Dec. 15, the day after the vandalism, I spoke at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue as part of a concert commemorating the 40th anniversary of my community’s presence in Los Angeles. Most of the 200 attendees seemed shaken. All they wanted to talk about was Nessah.

“Never. Never did I think I’d live this over again,” said a woman named Pari, who declined to give her last name.

Yes, we’re anxious, but here’s a bigger perspective on the attack:

Hours after it happened, members of the Beverly Hills City Council stood on Rexford Drive and expressed unequivocal support for Nessah — the largest Persian synagogue in the world.

Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch called it “an attack on all of us,” adding, “The entire city stands in solidarity behind Nessah, its members and congregants.” Try hearing the same thoughts from the mayor of Tehran the next time a synagogue is ransacked.

To our beautiful community at Nessah, may you emerge stronger and undaunted.

Councilmember and former Mayor Lili Bosse was there, as well. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she supports Israel and the Jewish community with the kind of compassionate moral clarity that makes you believe in the goodness of people.

Next to her stood Beverly Hills councilmember and former Mayor Julian Gold. Watching the press conference on YouTube, I felt awe and gratitude.

Mayor Eric Garcetti, the first Jewish mayor of Los Angeles, tweeted that he was  “shocked and outraged by the vandalism at Nessah” and promised, “We will stand together and speak out strongly against any act of hate and intolerance in our community.”

And then there was the Beverly Hills Police Department (BHPD), whose officers bravely entered Nessah after the suspect had spent three hours inside. Think about that for a minute. The vandal could have left bombs in all crevices of the synagogue, but BHPD was relentless in its safety measures and support.

How good it still is to live in America.

And in an incredible act of solidarity, Princess Yasmine Pahlavi, daughter of the former Shah of Iran, sent a letter to Rabbi David Shofet, founder of Nessah, and to all Persian Jewry, saying, “You are an integral and inseparable part of the Iranian nation and family, and as such the thoughts and prayers of our family are with you and the entire community.”

In December 2017, three synagogues in the southern city of Shiraz in Iran were heavily vandalized. Torah scrolls were torn and more than 100 prayer books were destroyed — some were even thrown into toilets. Outside the synagogues, there were no local elected officials. There was little the local Jewish community could do or say.

The regime, though, did have something symbolic to declare that same week: the Iranian parliament voted unanimously to recognize Jerusalem as the “permanent capital of Palestine.”

In this, my last column of 2019, I offer gratitude to the leaders, law enforcement and institutions, including local Jewish groups, of this remarkable city, for the blessing of their support. And to our beautiful community at Nessah, whose name means “eternal,” may you emerge stronger and undaunted, driven passionately by Jewish values and unity that’s as unbreakable as it is eternal.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.