From Iran To New York

I was born in the city of Sanandaj, Iran, to a line of rabbis that originally come from Safed, Israel, nine generations ago.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution broke out, I was
appointed as the head of the local rabbinic court, as well
as the head of the community council, making me the
lead man between Iranian Jewry and the new regime. Not
long after that, a group of students seized the American
embassy in Tehran, along with fifty-two hostages. At one
point during this crisis, the UN negotiated a clerical visit
and, after some pressure from Jewish organizations, agreed
to also send a rabbi for the three Jewish hostages. The
Iranians didn’t want any Americans or Israelis, and so the
rabbi of Mexico was chosen for the task — Rabbi Avraham
Mordechai Hershberg.

Some tried to dissuade him from traveling to Iran at such a
sensitive moment, so he decided to consult with the Rebbe.
About a week before leaving, he appraised the Rebbe of his
travel plans and his concerns. The Rebbe urged him to
make the trip and reminded him to also bring some candles
so as to light the menorah with the Jewish hostages for the
upcoming holiday of Chanukah. Rabbi Hershberg did just
that.

The day after their visit, the clergymen were invited to the
mass Friday prayers in the main mosque of Tehran with
the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini in attendance.
At one point, the congregation all knelt and then bowed
down in prayer — except for Rabbi Hershberg and myself.
Afterwards, an overbearing cleric came over to us. “Why
didn’t you show us respect?” he demanded angrily. “Why
didn’t you bow down like the priests did?”

“Those priests come from Syria and Lebanon and
know Arabic,” Rabbi Hershberg explained. “But I don’t
understand what is being said. Our Torah commands us,
‘do not prostrate yourselves,’ so how can I bow if I don’t
know what I’m bowing for?”

The mullah walked off, but shortly thereafter, he returned.

“The Ayatollah has requested your audience.”
Taken aback, I offered a silent prayer, and accepted my fate.
Then we went to Khomeini.
“Give the other rabbi my thanks,” said Khomeini, to my
surprise, “for not trying to ingratiate yourselves. I respect
that you acted in accord with your faith.”

When I translated this to Rabbi Hershberg, he shot back:
“This is a golden opportunity! Ask him for a few minutes to
talk about the needs of Iranian Jews.”

When I relayed this request back to Khomeini, he asked his
son Ahmed to set up a meeting that Sunday in the
city of Qom, where he lived.

Indeed, we managed to bring up several pressing issues
for the Jewish community. For example, members of the
Revolutionary Guard had been confiscating any religious
article bearing the Star of David, but when we explained
that this was a religious symbol that predated the Israeli
flag, we were promised that no Jews would be harassed
over such items anymore. We secured permission to
use wine for ritual purposes, in spite of their religious
prohibitions against the consumption of alcohol, as well as
an allowance to attend our synagogue for the early morning
Selichot prayers, in spite of the curfew that was in effect at
the time.

With time, I even developed a close relationship with
Ahmed, which enabled me to do other good things for the
community.

Now, I had already read about the Rebbe in some of the
newspapers we’d get from Israel, and about a year before
the revolution, he had also sent two young Chabad Chassidim
to Iran. As the country became ever more unstable, people
began asking about getting their children out of danger,
and I asked those young men whether they could help
bring those children to the US. Later, when the Iran-Iraq
war broke out, and boys as young as sixteen began to be
drafted, we understood the urgency with which we had to
move our youth out.

This was when Rabbi J.J. Hecht, a dynamic Chabad activist
in the field of American Jewish education, stepped into the
picture. With the Rebbe’s encouragement, and through
his contacts in the upper echelons of the government, he
managed to secure visas for hundreds of children. Alongside
that, arrangements were made to absorb these youth in the
United States, both physically and spiritually, and there was
even a schooling program established for them.

For the first year, there were still regular flights out of Iran,
but when the authorities made things more difficult, we had
to spirit them over the border through Pakistan, and then onto
Turkey or Europe, from where the children could continue
to Israel, or get an American visa. Israel’s Mossad and
the American Joint both became involved in this complex
operation, which managed to evacuate almost all of Iran’s
Jewish youth over two years, but it all began with the
Rebbe’s* approval and encouragement.

Fearing the regime’s reaction to all this, some in the
community opposed this operation, and in time somebody
denounced me as an agent of the Mossad and the CIA.
In 1982, I was forced to flee, leaving behind a beautiful
collection of Torah books and rare manuscripts that had
been in my family for generations.

At first, I lived in Israel, but soon I followed my son and
daughter to America. Once I saw the spiritual neglect
that prevailed among the young Iranian emigres there, I
realized that they were now in danger of assimilation, and
committed to returning them to the fold.

In New York, I visited Rabbi Hecht, and had the great
privilege of meeting the Rebbe. After a brief introduction
by Rabbi Hecht in the synagogue, the Rebbe invited me for
a private audience.

Upon entering his office, I was impressed by the modesty
of the room. When I saw the Rebbe in that more private
setting, I could sense the holiness emanating from him,
and found myself unable to stem the flood of tears that
suddenly burst out.

“Why are you crying?” asked the Rebbe. “We are told to
serve G-d with joy!”
“They are tears of joy,” I replied.

The Rebbe asked me a string of questions about the state
and welfare of Iranian Jewry. After answering them, I asked
him to pray — both for those who were still there and in
physical danger, and for those who had left and were in
spiritual danger.


When I told him how I had translated the siddur (prayer book)
for Persian Jews who did not know Hebrew, the Rebbe replied,

“That’s good, but not enough. You also need to translate the Kitzur
Shulchan Aruch, so that they will know basic Jewish law.” He
gave me a blessing and a dollar bill as participation in this
work and, indeed, I managed to translate the
Code of Jewish Law into Farsi, in less than a year, and went
on to translate several other classics.


I maintained a close connection with the Rebbe’s court,
and came back many times after that. Every time I saw the
Rebbe, I would simply become overwhelmed with emotion.
I could scarcely look at his face, it was so radiant. I have
personally witnessed his greatness, and I thank G-d that his
emissaries are following in his footsteps and spreading his
teachings throughout the world.

 –

From JEM My Encounter Series issue #480

Rabbi Yedidia Ezrahian was a leading rabbi and activist in Iran who
continued to serve the Jewish Iranian community in New York until
his retirement in 2007. He was interviewed in his home in December
of 2011 by JEM – Jewish Educational Media.

For more first-hand Rebbe stories from JEM please visit: mystory@jemedia.org

*The first group of Iranian children came to New York shortly before Passover. The Rebbe instructed that a special Passover seder be arranged for them which would include Passover foods familiar and permitted to them (in the Sephardik tradition rice is used on Passover) and led by a young Chabad student who was also Sephardik and thus familiar with their language and customs. The Rebbe’s sensitivity to the physical and spiritual needs of these children was immeasurable.

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