November 15, 2019

Manijeh Nehorai: Shattering a Stigma

Nearly two decades ago, many Iranian Jewish families in Southern California would not have dared to publicly acknowledge having children with mental disabilities, let alone bring those children out of their homes. A community-wide social stigma existed, and parents whose children had special needs feared they would be looked down upon and that their other healthy children would not be able to find spouses within the community. Then, 15 years ago, Manijeh N. Nehorai, an Iranian Jewish social worker, quietly became the first person in the community to begin chipping away at this taboo through her volunteer efforts.

“There was a great injustice being carried out against these incredible children and their families, who could not have normal lives — I just could not stand it anymore,” said Nehorai, who is employed as a social worker for the nonprofit Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. “I made it my mission in life to educate our parents and the community that, yes, these children have Down syndrome, or autism, or a learning disability — but they, too, are human beings who deserve our respect, love and acceptance as equals.”

As a volunteer for the Los Angeles-based Etta Israel Center, a nonprofit that helps people with learning and developmental disabilities achieve full integration in the Jewish community, Nehorai went on a one-woman mission, spending every free hour speaking to local Iranian Jews at synagogues and elsewhere to educate them about special needs children and the help available to them. She set up parent support groups, hosted regular parlor meetings at private homes with genetics experts and counselors for parents and even helped recruit a small army of volunteers to help with fundraising efforts for programs geared toward Iranian Jewish special needs children. Today Nehorai’s efforts have blossomed into Etta Israel’s Iranian-American Community Services division, which hosts regular events for families in the community as well as an annual fundraising gala.

Parents with special needs children within the Iranian Jewish community sing her praises, particularly for her courage in challenging the community’s established attitudes.

“The taboo of acknowledging you have a child with special needs still exists in some parts of our community,” said Haleh Banayan,  who has a 21-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. “But I can say without a doubt that Mrs. Nehorai has been instrumental in changing the hearts and minds in our community about this particular issue — nothing would have changed among us if she hadn’t done something about it.”

In person, Nehorai, who in her native country once headed the Empress of Iran’s office of Social Services, is extremely modest about her work in the special needs community and refuses to take credit for the transformation of the local Iranian Jewish community’s attitudes.

“The real heroes are Mrs. Afsaneh Levi, who heads the group of our 22 volunteers, and our volunteers that work tirelessly, often into the late hours of the night, on behalf of the Iranian-American division of Etta Israel,” Nehorai said.

You can be a mensch too! Join the cause