In the eight years since the revolution in Iran, an estimated one out of five Iranian Jews who have left their country have settled in the San Fernando Valley. Many of them are eagerly awaiting the opening of a large gray building at the corner of Wilbur Avenue and Calvert Street in Tarzana.
The building, called the Iranian Jewish Cultural Center, promises to provide a religious and social haven for an immigrant community often struggling to adapt to a new country, an unfamiliar language and sometimes confusing customs.
"Our purpose is to educate the people who come from outside the United States," said Ruben Dokhanian, president of the group that has built the combination temple and social center. "They don't know how to speak, how to act. We want to teach them and to help build America--not to take advantage of the country but to make it better, as Americans did before us."
450 in Congregation
The $2.5-million building is nearly completed. Some plumbing work and the hanging of several large chandeliers remain.
Dokhanian, 59, of Encino, said the congregation of Iranian Jews hopes to open the center next month. In the meantime, the group conducts its Saturday morning services at nearby Portola Junior High, as it has done for the past three years. Attendance usually numbers about 450, Dokhanian said.
Members of the congregation not only are impatient to worship and hold social events in the new building, he added, but also to show nearby residents that they will not be a nuisance.
Several neighbors opposed the center at a series of city government hearings in 1983. The city eventually granted a conditional use permit with a number of limitations that the congregation hopes to see lifted.
Late last month, vandals apparently used paint-filled balloons to leave two small red stains above the building's front doors. No arrests have been made. Police said they doubted the attack was aimed at Iranian Jews. Nor did they think it was related to several recent incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism in the Valley.
"The feeling among our people is not good," Dokhanian said. "It is not a good welcoming for us."
Both Dokhanian and Solomon Aghai, president of the Iranian Jewish Federation, estimated the number of Iranian Jews in the Valley at close to 10,000. Formed in 1981, the federation is a clearing house for religious groups and social welfare organizations that serve Iranian Jews, who, they say, number from 15,000 to 25,000 in Los Angeles County.
More Jews Leaving Iran
Last year the Israeli government estimated that 80,000 Jews lived in Iran at the time of the 1979 Islamic revolution, and that 30,000 remain. The population of Iran is about 28 million.
The Washington Post reported this month that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime has been letting increasing numbers of Jews leave the country. Israel, which supplies arms to Iran, has denied that the emigration is linked to the arms sales. Whatever the reason, many of the emigrants come eventually to Southern California, and in the last year or two they have often arrived financially strapped.
"I have been very busy with the new people," said Rabbi David Shofet, head of a congregation that meets at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills. "They're battered after eight years" of living under Khomeini, he said. "Many of them are not in a good condition."
Shofet, whose father was chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Tehran, said some of the first Jews to leave revolutionary Iran settled in Southern California because they or their children had been educated here. The influx continued as subsequent emigrants sought to be with family members.
"A stranger in a place looks for his brother," Shofet said. "That is the reason they're coming here."
Dokhanian, an owner of three clothing stores, said about 5% of the Valley's Iranian Jews are poverty-stricken.
"The Iranian people will take care of them," he said, echoing the statements of others that Iranian Jews rarely turn to public agencies for help.
Among the services planned for the cultural center is a first-aid station to be staffed daily by a doctor. Plans also call for a library to be added on the 17,000-square-foot building and a day-home for the elderly to be established in a nearby house, already purchased by the congregation.
Construction of the Iranian Jewish Cultural Center began in July of last year, financed by four years of fund raising and a $1.2-million bank loan. Leaders said costs of the project were kept down by many donations of labor and material, including a large quantity of tile from a kibbutz in Israel. The building has a lobby, five classrooms, a large kitchen and a cavernous main room, where services will take place.