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 person between Iranian Jewry and the new regime.Not long after that, a group of militarized Iranian students belonging to the Muslim Student Followers, who supported the Iranian Revolution, took over the United States embassy in Tehran taking fifty-two people as 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 a Menorah and some candles so as to light the Menorah with the Jewish hostages during the upcoming holiday of Chanukah. Rabbi Hershberg did just that, bringing hope and strength to all!
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 accordance with your faith.”
When I translated this to Rabbi Hershberg, he immediately said: “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 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 be of assistance for the community in more ways.
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 United States. 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 Jewish education, stepped into the picture. With the Rebbe’s encouragement and blessing, and through his contacts in the upper echelons of the American 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 with 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, and continued to be coordinated by Rabbi J.J. Hecht’s relentless dedication.
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. Here I saw the spiritual neglect that prevailed among the young Iranian emigres, 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 forth.
“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.
I told the Rebbe that I had translated the Siddur, the prayer book, for Persian Jews who were not familiar with Hebrew. The Rebbe replied:
“That’s good, but not enough. You also need to translate the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, so that they will know basic Jewish law.”
The Rebbe gave me a blessing and a dollar bill as participation in this holy 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 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 and love for every Jew throughout the world.
Slightly adapted from JEM My Encounter Series issue #480
As told by Rabbi Yedidia Ezrahain
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.
*Rabbi Avrohom Mordecai Hershberg (1916-1985) was a well-known figure in the world of Rabbis and among those who did outreach to strengthen Torah and Judaism. By Divine Providence he was saved from the Holocaust, and left Poland in the early part of the war and after making it to Shanghai, he joined a group of young Lubavitch students and made it to Montreal, Canada. While still in Poland as a young man, he was recognized as one of the outstanding students of the famous Yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin. When he came to the United States and saw the spiritual wasteland which existed, he realized that here he had a most important task to do – to spread Torah and Judaism in the spiritual desert of the New World.
With the encouragement and blessing of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, with whom he merited to have a relationship when he came to America in the early 1940’s, Rabbi Hershberg accepted the post of Rabbi in Chicago and accomplished a lot there for the sake of Torah and Judaism, helping to establish a Yeshiva – Torah school. Afterwards he accepted the position to move to Mexico in order to help bring Jews closer to their Judaism. He became the Rabbi of the Beit Yitzchak Synagogue of Polanco, Mexico, a position he held until his passing in 1985.
Due to of all his efforts on behalf of all Jews, Ashkenazim and Sefardim in Mexico, he became the Chief Rabbi of Mexico. One of the first things he did was to open a Torah school for children, many of whom grew up to become the leaders of the Jewish community. He also established the Union of Latin American Rabbis to unify all the traditional Rabbis in South America and strengthen the work they were doing for the sake of our holy Torah and the perpetuation of Judaism. He worked tirelessly to establish Torah research and educational institutions both in Mexico and around the world, such as ‘Machon Yerushalmi’ and other Torah institutions, some openly and others secretly. He traveled extensively even to totalitarian countries to help his fellow Jews. He felt that G-d had saved him from persecution and if he was in a position to help fellow Jews anywhere in the world who were being persecuted, it was his task to do so.
In all his efforts on behalf of the many, he would consult with the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe and then with the Rebbe. He merited to receive much encouragement, guidance, and blessings. When the advice of other Rabbis, who were colleagues of his, differed from the Rebbe’s advice, he would remark: “Whatever the Rebbe says to do, is what we must do. This is a Rebbe’she inyan and our job is to listen, and the thing will get done.”
Yehudis Metzer, daughter of Rabbi Hershberg relates: “The Rebbe told my father, when he inquired what would be in the future with everything he had built up in Mexico, ‘es vet unterkumen mishpacha..’ (Family will arrive to continue your work). Indeed, today Yehudis’ daughter Tova and her husband Rabbi Yosef Mayzlesh and their family serve their community in Mexico City, Mexico!