According to anecdotal counts, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 Jews currently living in Iran. Most live in Tehran, with some active communities in Isfahan and Shiraz. Those in Tehran are mainly associated with the Yusef Abad Center, an Orthodox community with ties to Chabad Lubavitch. For the last 10 weeks, according to family members of Jewish Tehran residents, individuals seeking to leave their houses would be putting their lives gravely at risk. Last week, two young Jewish teenagers, both aged 19, were placed in police custody, prompting Tehillim requests from their families and friends. Their whereabouts are not currently known.
One of the world’s original Jewish diasporas, the Jews of modern Iran—formerly Persia—date back to late biblical times, to the middle of the first millennium. The books of Chronicles (Divrei Hayamim), Isaiah (Yeshayahu), Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and of course Megillat Esther all contain references to the lives and experiences of Jews in Persia, who have lived in the territories of today’s Iran for over 2,700 years. Most Persian Jews in the U.S. and Israel today who escaped from Iran during the 1979 revolution were able to subsequently get their relatives out. However, the people that remain generally are business owners who have experienced relatively long periods of peace and prosperity which have rendered moving local assets and/or aged relatives difficult or impossible. The lack of foreign-language skills has also created a huge barrier for some, and today’s Jews in Iran also generally are fearful of moving to Israel, which they consider is at high risk from attack by the Iranian regime.
The unrest of the last few months was prompted by the death of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, at the hands of Iran’s “morality police” 10 weeks ago. Since then, anti-regime protests have spread throughout the country, spreading from Tehran to 25 of Iran’s 31 provinces. According to media reports, Iranian security forces have killed more than 400 people, among them 51 children and 27 women, according to Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based NGO. In response to the unrest, the regime frequently shuts off internet access in areas experiencing protests.
Amini, 22, died on September 16 after three days in police custody. Amini was arrested for the crime of improperly wearing the compulsory hijab, a Muslim head-covering for women. “She was wearing the hijab and waiting for a train, and it had slipped so that a lock of her hair was showing,” a local Bergen County resident told me, whose frum Jewish family remains in Tehran. “She was arrested and then made to watch a video about modesty, and then was given her punishment: Are you ready for this? 170 lashes. During the lashes, some say the weapon hit her head or she hit her head on the cement floor, and she was knocked unconscious. She subsequently died in the hospital,” of what was called a probable cerebral hemorrhage or stroke.
The Law Enforcement Command of Islamic Republic of Iran, according to reports, stated that before transferring Amani to the hospital, she had a “heart attack at a police station, collapsed, and fell into a coma.” However, eyewitnesses, including women who were detained with Amini, reportedly said she was severely beaten, and that she died as a result of police brutality.
Since the current wave of protests began in Iran, authorities have sought to restrict the spread of information both within the country and from inside the country to the international community. In an article published by Iran International, parliamentarians were described as preparing to ratify laws that would execute citizens who contact foreign news organizations.
The Bergen County resident who contacted us seeks attention and mercy for the Jews of Tehran, noting that these fellow Jews used to davening three times a day with minyanim are largely unable to leave their homes at the moment. She said that HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) has not visibly worked on behalf of Iranian refugees since 2016. My media request message to HIAS on this topic went unanswered. The Satmar community of Vienna had been working on behalf of Iranian Jewry, but they too have stopped operations in recent years. Attempts to reach the Chabad shluchim staff for Iran also were not successful by press time.
As of 2021, Tehran had a yeshiva with more than 50 students, and seven kosher restaurants. Our local resident requests that readers bring attention to their plight with their elected representatives, and that Jewish refugee organizations renew their focus on rescuing these Jews.
The chief rabbi of Iran, Rabbi Yehuda Gerami, is reportedly in America, on a special visit coordinated by Chabad’s Merkos 302, which is dedicated to addressing the personal, communal and global aspects of shlichus and shluchim. Gerami was pictured attending the Conference of Chabad Shluchim in Crown Heights last week and visiting various schools in New York and New Jersey. Attempts to reach him directly have so far been unsuccessful.
By Elizabeth Kratz