The chorus of 30 men engaged in their morning prayer rituals filled the bottom floor room at Ohr Hamizrach Congregation Sephardic Center just before 7 a.m. on a Monday. The men, some of whom have been there since 5 a.m. to study Talmud, joined together for the Torah service around 7:30 a.m., when a Torah in an elegant blue and silver case took center stage on the flat bimah.
While many other minyanim were taking place around town, this one was different. Most of the men in this room were Iranian, and while some came to the United States in the late 1960s for education, most left the country just before, during or in the years following the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s. Many fled through Turkey and northwest to Vienna and later, when the Turkish border closed, to Pakistan, going on dangerous journeys — often being smuggled across borders — to leave a country where the future of a Jewish society dating back centuries was uncertain at best.
“Nobody knew what policy the government was going to pursue for the Jews or against the Jews, and people were very much afraid, and that was the cause of the mass exodus,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Hakakian, a teacher at Ner Israel Rabbinical College who left Iran in 1983 and arrived in Baltimore a year later at the age of 18. “You really had to watch out what you say and what you do. … We felt things were tightening up.”
As the government of the country they now call home — the United States — tries to negotiate a nuclear deal with their native country, Baltimore’s Iranian Jews look at the situation with the same skepticism and mistrust that brought them here in the first place.
“They cannot be trusted, and anyone who trusts them lives a life of illusion and delusion,” said Rabbi Emanuel Golfeiz of Congregation Beit Yaakov.
More than 1,000 Iranian young men left their home country to come to Baltimore, where they were taken in by Ner Israel. More than 30 years later, Baltimore is home to hundreds of families, and those who arrived in the’70s and ’80s have businesses and restaurants and children of their own who attend Ner Israel and their own minyanim at Ohr Hamizrach, whose name means “Light of the East.”
For these American-born children of Iran’s fleeing Jews, the nuclear debate is barely on their radar.
“I don’t have a connection to Iran. I have a connection to the Persian Jewry that came from Iran before the revolution,” said Shmuel Moinzadeh, 22, who prays in a minyan for younger congregants at Ohr Hamizrach. “Of course, I would love America to make sure they make the right decisions and not do stupid things against Israel, but just in regards to this whole nuclear stuff, I don’t really pay too much attention to it.”
Ner Israel and the Iranians
To understand how Baltimore became home to a flourishing Iranian Jewish community, one can look to Pikesville’s Ner Israel. It all goes back to Rabbi Herman Naftali Neuberger, for whom the Ohr Hamizrach facility is named.
In the mid- to late 1970s the longtime president of Ner Israel was asked by Rabbi Solomon David Sassoon, scion of a family of Iraqi-Jewish decent involved in the East India Company, to go with him to Tehran to negotiate with the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on behalf of Iran’s Jewish schools. The regime got wind that a revolution was coming and restricted religious instruction.
“[Sassoon] asked if my father would come with him to Tehran to negotiate with the Persian government to make an exception for the Jewish schools, because they were running a dual program,” said Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, who took over as president at Ner Israel after his father passed away in 2005. “In the morning they’d learn Torah, and in the afternoon [they] had secular subjects. The Jewish community at that point in time was very, very friendly with the shah. They had nothing to worry about from those schools even though a revolution was being fomented.”
The negotiations succeeded.
During the same trip, Herman Neuberger visited his cousin, Rabbi Joseph Shuchatowitz, who was working for Ozar Hatorah, which ran schools in Sephardic communities in the Pacific Rim, including Iran. He went to Shiraz, which had a large Jewish community, and where a large majority of the Iranian Jews in Baltimore are from, and saw that the Jewish education beyond upper grade levels was lacking, Sheftel Neuberger said.
“So out of that visit, my father came up with the idea, ‘Why don’t we bring a group of college-level boys from Persia? We will train them as rabbis and as teachers’ and then they would go back and be able to invigorate the educational system and expand it,” he said.
Neuberger sold the idea to Ner Israel, and the first group came in the late ’70s, before the revolution. There was at least one student already at Ner Israel, a Persian who came to Baltimore in 1974 to enroll in Johns Hopkins University but instead attended the yeshiva, who could help assimilate the boys when they arrived.
That first group would travel to the University of Oklahoma — Persians were there and in Texas, hoping to learn about petroleum engineering and take their skills back home — months after arriving to hold a Passover Seder for their friends. Some of those Seder attendees, including Kosher Bite owner David Cohen, would later move to Baltimore.
Two groups came to Ner Israel on student visas. And then the revolution came.
“The whole situation changes,” Neuberger said. “Those who were here had their status changed from student visas to refugee status.”
Pahlavi was overthrown in 1979 and eventually replaced by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Komeini, who was voted into office in a national referendum that also transformed Iran into the Islamic Republic. With the ayatollah came the rule of conservative Islam as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Western rhetoric.
When war between Iran and Iraq broke out in September 1980, the Jewish community became desperate to leave.
“This young man, Rheuben Khaver,” who was part of the first group who came to Ner Israel, “organized a smuggling operation because they were
taking Jewish kids and drafting them into the army with very little training and using them as cannon fodder.
So the families were very concerned and willing to try to get their kids out,” said Neuberger.
“They would come, and without much training, you would be sent to the frontline,” Hakakian said, “and that’s why the young people felt that it was just too dangerous to stay around.”
Neuberger estimates that his father’s efforts brought around 1,200 young men to Ner Israel over the years.
Coming to America
Ask 10 Iranian Jews how they got to America, and not surprisingly one will get 10 different stories.
Shlomo Moinzadeh, owner of Shlomo’s Kosher Fish and Meat Market and Shmuel Moinzadeh’s father, came to the United States in 1967 to get a better education. He bounced back and forth between Texas and Oklahoma, where he went to school, and got a job in manufacturing in Dallas after college. He came to Baltimore in 1982 upon learning of its growing Persian community.
Golfeiz was among the last group of people to get a visa from the American embassy in Iran before it was taken over by revolutionaries. He left in 1978 when the revolution had just begun.
“There was no future for the Jews,” he said of the country he left. “They didn’t think there would be any future for the kids, and they did not know what would happen tomorrow.”
Herman Neuberger sent Golfeiz to Turkey about 30 to 40 times throughout the ’80s to help boys fleeing Iran. He helped establish a route from Istanbul to Vienna and found a place for them to stay in Vienna as they awaited visas to come to the United States.
Rabbi Rouben Arieh, spiritual leader at Ohr Hamizrach since 1986, came to Baltimore via Israel in 1980. At that time, Israel was giving visas to Iranians.
“That was really the time that everybody left, when the war started,” he said. “Crazy and crazy.”
Hakakian left Iran in 1983, waited 10 months for his visa in Vienna, and got to Baltimore in 1984 at the age of 18. He already had a brother in town.
“I realized the best way to go about my future was to join Ner Israel,” he said. “So I came here as a student. At the same time I pursued a degree of computers in college. Although I finished my studies and have my master’s degree in computer science, I prefer to stay in teaching and the holy work and guiding my fellow students who came from Iran.”
Hakakian works with Sephardic foreign students, giving them supplemental tutoring to catch them up to the yeshiva’s curriculum, and works with Ner Israel to help the boys with other needs, from financial to counseling.
Not all who came to America landed in Baltimore. Daniel Golfeiz, the executive director at Ohr Hamizrach and Emanuel’s cousin, was part of a group of seven who went to Denver’s Yeshiva Toras Chaim in 1979, when Neuberger asked that other yeshivas take in Iranians. He went to Italy to get a student visa, but he said it wasn’t too hard to leave Iran.
“I was only 15, they really didn’t care. I was a student,” he said. “The revolution had started, but the country wasn’t solid yet.”
Golfeiz had two brothers in Baltimore, so he would always visit, but he moved to the city in 1997.
Golfeiz joined Ohr Hamizrach when he arrived in Baltimore, but the congregation’s roots go back to 1981, when the growing Iranian Jewish population began congregating in a room at Agudath Israel of Baltimore. One room became two, and two rooms became three.
“They thought we were going to take over the whole building,” Golfeiz said. In 1993, they bought the house on the corner of Park Heights Avenue and Fallstaff Road. In 2002, they bought the house next door on Fallstaff. Both were later demolished, and on March 15, 2009, the nearly $4 million synagogue opened with its pointy arches on the exterior, stone floors inside and sanctuary with a wrap-around balcony for women just like those in Iran.
“We wanted the building to be Middle Eastern looking. This was our first impression on American soil in Baltimore,” Golfeiz said. “We wanted to feel that we brought the 2,700 years of history in Iran.”
The Jewish population of Iran dates back to before the destruction of the first Temple in 587 B.C.E.
Centuries later, the ancient traditions remain in places such as Ohr Hamizrach, which has around 120 families.
“We want that to go to our kids,” Golfeiz said of the Persian customs and traditions. “We want to transfer that to our kids because we just can’t leave it. It’s 2,700 years, and we’re just not going to let it go.”
Disconnection with Iran
Although Ohr Hamizrach and other synagogues have helped keep the Iranian Jews’ deep tradition alive in America, the community has very little connection to its native country. Most left decades ago, their family and friends are out, and it’s difficult to communicate with friends who are still there. But word from Iran’s Jewish community, which numbered more than 100,000 before the revolution and is now estimated at 20,000 to 25,000, still travels to Baltimore.
“They’re comfortable. They’re working, and they’re making money,” Arieh said, “but they have to be careful what they say and what they’re doing.”
While there are synagogues, Iranian Jews in Baltimore report that there are no longer Jewish schools in Iran, and children turn to synagogues for their Jewish education.
“That’s always bothersome, and you hear a halachic question from Iran and you know how they dealt with it, and it shows they didn’t know how to deal with it,” Hakakian said. “That’s the pain.”
Coupled with that pain — as Baltimore’s Iranian community sees the government they fled negotiate with the United States — is feelings of doubt and uncertainty.
“It’s very hard because you never know what’s behind the curtain,” Daniel Golfeiz said. “It’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen.”
Arieh added he doesn’t believe in the negotiations and that the American government doesn’t know “that these Iranian people are people not to be trusted,” he said.
Hakakian said Iranians get mixed feelings when their native country comes up in the news.
“Deep down, people yearn and they hope that maybe things would neutralize without a danger to Israel … and it could bring back the good old days. That nostalgia feeling settles in sometimes,” he said. “On the other hand, when you want to look at it reality, knowing the culture of the government right now, it’s very far-fetched to believe that they mean what they’re telling the Americans in their dealings.”
“To see what [those who fled Iran] were able to do and what they did with opening many business here and opening up a fantastic shul and stuff like that is something that you want to make sure continues to grow,” Shmuel Moinzadeh said, adding that not all of his peers feel the same way. “I definitely feel a certain responsibility. It’s not a burden, it’s more of a cherished responsibility that I feel I must keep, and I definitely want to hold onto it as long as I can.”
To further serve the new generation of Iranian Jews, Hakakian now leads Ahavat Shalom, which he said consists of members of the new generation who have grown up here and now have jobs and families.
At Ohr Hamizrach, Daniel Golfeiz sees hope for the future in the younger members of the community.
“I know from my own kids that they feel like they want to be here for the High Holidays because it feels different, and they know it. All the kids here today, they know,” he said. “They feel this is part of their DNA.”
While the synagogue has three Shabbat minyanim, four classrooms, a room for toddlers to play and all the makings of a Persian synagogue, there is something more Golfeiz would like.
“We are hoping — I mean this is a dream right now — to hopefully open a Sephardic school here in Baltimore,” he said. “As I said, this is a dream, you know, but on the other hand, the building was also a dream and it came to reality.”