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Iranian Jewish Life in Los Angeles: Past and Present

Saba Soomekh, Author

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Stephen S. Wise Temple: Integration of Iranian Jews

At the time Persian Jews started arriving in America in 1979 and started to attend Stephen S. Wise Temple, the leaders of the temple believed deeply in the Jewish value of kol Israel, meaning all of Israel, which drove the inclusive attitude of this congregation then and now. Kol Israel asserts that all Jews came from one tribe, and that it is our duty to accept and take care of one another, just as the Stephen S. Wise Temple absorbed these Persian Jews when they arrived, making them feel welcome despite the fact that they essentially came from a different cultural and linguistic world.
Rabbi Yoshi underlines Persian Jews came to Stephen S. Wise Temple precisely because the synagogue was very welcoming at the time, compared to other synagogues.

The temple has had to evolve to accommodate different customs, such as levels of kashrut or prayer style, which the Persian Jews historically observed differently. Rabbi Yoshi remarks that is inevitable for there to be some friction, when two groups observe Judaism differently, but by and large, the community has been welcoming and accommodating to the Persian Jews. Many of the families have felt very welcomed at Stephen S. Wise Temple, and they feel they were easily absorbed into the community. Rabbi Yoshi feels that the proof of the absorption of Persian Jews is that they have become members and stayed for almost 40 years.

One obstacle to the integration of Persian Jews was the difference in observance between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi-Persian Jews. For some of the Persian families, it was harder to adapt as it was the first time they were ever exposed to Ashkenazi Jewish customs, and many of them had been used to seeing men and women pray separately, with a mechitzah present. At first, they also were not familiar with the Ashkenazi melodies. Another obstacle to the assimilation of the Persian Jews with the other congregants was language. It can be difficult to cultivate a connection with someone when you do not speak the same language. Rabbi Yoshi says that they do not keep track of demographics today and mainly focus on providing a warm and welcoming environment for Jews of all backgrounds as well as non-Jews. Rabbi Yoshi is proud of his temple and concludes, “It’s great to have a diverse community that represents the diversity of the Jewish people.”
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