At YULA High School last Thursday night, Rabbis David and Yedidia Shofet were invited to speak about Iranian Jewish history for the school’s “Initiative for Sephardi Jewish Heritage.”
The event, entitled “Between Purim and Pesach: Insights from the Iranian Jewish Experience for Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” comes as part of a larger program known as “YULA’s Sephardi Heritage Initiative.” Its purpose is to expose the LA Jewish community to the diversity of Jewish experience, traditions and wisdom cultivated over the centuries of our exile throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The initiative seeks to accomplish this through special lectures on Jewish thought and history, cooking and musical events, and film screenings for YULA students, families, and the broader community.
“YULA’s Sephardi Heritage Initiative is a unique effort to bring the four corners of our community together and explore the richness that contributes to Jewish life here today,” said Zvi Smith, who founded and spearheads the initiative. “We are immigrants to this land, and the better we understand where we come from, the better we can address the challenges we face today and appreciate our unique role in the world.”
Rabbi David Shofet, founder and chief rabbi of Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills, delivered an overview of Iranian-Jewish history, highlighting his and his father’s experiences in Iran as well as the current state of his community in Los Angeles. His son, Rabbi Yedida, then spoke about the unity of Sephardim and Ashkenazim.
In a harrowing tale, Rabbi David Shofet told of Iran under the Shahs, who modernized Iran and cut back the power of the clergy. “In every positive thing you have also the negative. The Jews in the Ghetto, they had their own Talmud Torah, their own schools…” but when they emerged from the ghetto, they began to assimilate, he explained. He then recounted the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the radical cleric, who seized power in a violent coup. Hacham Yedidia Shofet, Rabbi David’s father and the chief rabbi of Iran, was forced to face the menace of a fanatical government. “My father stood up in Beit Kenesset… he said, ‘something is going to happen in this country. Please leave.'”
As Rabbi David then described, “We had to take a position… [Khomeini] promised he would not do anything to Jews…My father said, for the the sake of the community, I am willing to sacrifice myself.” The Jews were then forced to accept the new regime. However, after the killing of Habib Elghanian, a prominent Jewish businessman and philanthropist, most Jews needed no more prompting and began to flee. Rabbi David Shofet had been working with the Israeli Shin Bet to get the Iranian Jews to Israel and he continued to do so.
The Sephardi Heritage Initiative began in early March with a lecture by YULA Girls principal Rabbi Abraham Lieberman entitled “The Impact of Arabic Language in Jewish Thought and Society.” (Click here for the full event.)
The event drew a crowd of 25, not a bad start to show the community’s interest in hearing from influential speakers such as the ones that were featured here. “Rabbi Shofet’s speech was fascinating,” said YULA alumnus Adoram Lalezari. “I will definitely tell people about the event.” As word of the initiative spreads, more community members are expected to show support with their continued presence at events such as these.