Rabbi Yehuda Gerani, the chief rabbi of Iran, told a Northern Virginia audience that life for the Jewish community consists of a mutual understanding where the Jews stay far away from politics, and the government allows them to live an observant life without repercussions.
Gerani spoke Sunday at the Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia in Fairfax. He was visiting this country to attend the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The synagogue invited him to speak to “let Iran know Jews in America support him. That was the only point, and the only mission,” said a spokesperson for the synagogue.
Gerani painted a picture of a revived Jewish community. He spoke in both Persian and Hebrew and his words were then translated to the audience, who feasted on a Persian dinner before the speech.
There are about 15,000 to 20,000 Jews living in Iran, and 99 percent of them live in three main cities, Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan. Virtually no Jews live in small towns, he said.
Until the Iranian Revolution in 1978 and 1979, 100,000 Jews lived in the country. Some 80 percent of them eventually left, he said. When once there were 70 active synagogues, there are now “a dozen.”
During the revolution, Jewish day schools were closed and Jewish life was greatly curtailed. At 35, Gerani, wasn’t alive during the revolution. He grew up in Iran but left to attend yeshivah in Israel and also study in Baltimore.
He returned to Iran, he explained, to help revive Jewish life. “They really needed a leader in Iran to bring back Judaism.” During his d’var Torah, Gerani said, “In order to survive, sometimes you have to do some things to survive.” He added, “When it’s about life, you have to do what you have to do. It’s the right thing if it’s your heritage.”
Without offering specifics, the rabbi made it clear he believes that in order for the Jewish community to survive in Iran, it must not upset the government in any way.
Today, there are Jewish day schools, kosher restaurants and a mikvah. Students are being trained to be rabbis. He is proud of the seven kosher restaurants, and the yeshivah with 50 students in Tehran.
As to why 20,000 Jews choose to remain in Iran, Gerani replied, “Everybody has their own valid reason. The doors are open. Everybody is free to leave now.”
Life for the Jewish community is all about being observant, he said. “We have nothing to hide. This is who we are.”
Young Jews are permitted to attend universities and pursue careers in any field but the military, he said. “In any case, that is not something we are striving to do. It works for both of us,” he said. Also, he said with a smile, “It is only a nuclear engineer, you cannot be.”
Gerani said he has never experienced antisemitism in his homeland but agreed that it exists, just like it exists throughout the world. Before the revolution, people would shout to Jews that they are unpure, he said, adding that he has not seen that in 10 years. The antisemitism that exists is not state organized, he insisted.
Unlike America and many other countries, Iran’s synagogues have no security systems or guards. Also, unlike in other countries, Iranian Jews must always be diplomats, he said. “We are a guest” in the country, he noted.
When asked if the sanctions the world has placed on Iran have hurt its Jews, he answered in the affirmative, saying prices are very high and that the Chabad community must help 200 families in Tehran pay for food and medicine. “Everything costs eight times as much now,” he said.
The Iranian government “locks” some Internet sites. However, he said, most people have virtual private networks that enable them to work around that. Yes, he noted, they can reach Israeli websites.
It is illegal to visit Israel, Gerani noted, adding, “I need to tell the government officials, Israel is the holy land.”
Gerani made news two years ago, following the assassination by the United States of Qasem Soleimani, who was a leader in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Gerani took it upon himself, in what he called an effort to ease tensions, to make a shivah call to Soleimani’s relatives. He told them that Iranian Jews are against killing anybody and do not favor war. He also told the family that what happened was a war between countries, not a war between faiths.
While the condolence call was controversial, Gerani said he is glad he went and that he believes he “appeased a lot of people.”