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Iran Refugees: Hunt for Jewish Education

February 09, 1988|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

A student who gives his name only as Peyman remembers that it took 27 hours to slip out of Iran on camel back.

"It hurts on your back and it hurts where you sit," he said. "Sometimes soldiers came from Pakistan and from Iran to check on the border. We walked in the night. We could not see anything and did not know what was going to happen. There were mountains all around and big spotlights and helicopters."

Fellow student Eliyahu Cohen-Tov was caught and locked up for a day until the smuggler who led his group of refugees across the border bribed guards to let them out.

In the end, both escaped and came to Los Angeles. Not all were so fortunate. One man's wife fell off a camel and broke her leg in the middle of the desert. She eventually made her way out, but her husband had to carry her for miles.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 11, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
An article and photograph on Jewish education for Iranian refugees, which appeared in Tuesday's editions, incorrectly identified the school attended by Moshe Kohn as Emek Hebrew Academy. Kohn attends Valley Torah High School.

Slipped Down Hillside

Another refugee slipped down an icy hillside and saved himself only by grabbing onto the tail of his foundering horse while his guide pulled the horse up by the reins.

"My friend was shot in the back by Iranian soldiers and sent back to Tehran," said Peyman, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of reprisals against family members remaining in Iran. "Now he will wait and try again."

Peyman, Cohen-Tov and thousands of others are part of a new surge of refugees from Iran, eight years after the establishment of a harsh Muslim regime. Many of them have settled in Los Angeles, home to a thriving community of an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Iranian-born Jews, Bahais, Muslims and Christians.

According to figures from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 5,181 Iranian refugees were approved for entry into the United States last year, almost 2,000 more than the year before. Another 8,738 were refused entry.

About half of the refugees come to the Los Angeles area. Unlike the earlier wave of Iranians, however, the new arrivals are not financially well off. Most had to leave everything behind when they left, and thousands of dollars more went for bribes en route.

Settling mostly on Los Angeles' Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, these immigrants rely on help from relatives and resettlement agencies to find jobs, housing and schools for their children.

For many of the Jewish refugees, education has proved to be perhaps the most perplexing problem. Although Jewish education was drastically cut under the Khomeini regime, they remember the network of Jewish day schools underwritten by the government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the late ruler of Iran.

Many of them want a Jewish education for their children in the United States, but the cost is high. Tuition at the 23 Jewish day schools in the Los Angeles area ranges from $3,000 to $5,200 a year.

"We had no money to send them, but I wanted my children to keep our religion and give it to their children," said one recently arrived immigrant, who asked that her name not be used.

"If there is no knowledge, the next generation will lose it," she said.

A chemist in Tehran, she is making ends meet by working as a Hebrew-language substitute teacher while her physician husband studies to qualify as a doctor.

"We don't have a good life here, but I'm happy for our children because they will have a good life," she said.

Although scholarships are sometimes available, there were virtually none left by the time the recent immigrants applied for admission last summer, said Emil Jacoby, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, an arm of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.

"The problem is not just space, the problem was money," Jacoby said. "They couldn't afford to pay for it."

Division Not the Same

He said 200 would-be students were turned away, but places were found for 117 pupils, largely because of financial guarantees put up by Agudath Israel, an organization of strictly observant Orthodox Jews.

While Judaism has been practiced in Iran for at least 2,000 years, Iranian Jews do not have the same division into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Revisionist branches that is common in the United States.

Many longer-established immigrants in Los Angeles have joined Conservative synagogues such as Sinai Temple in Westwood and Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, but schools that are not affiliated with the Orthodox movement found it financially impossible to provide last-minute scholarships, Jacoby said.

Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin, headmaster of the Sinai Temple's Akiba Academy in Westwood, said that his school has not received a sudden increase in applicants. Officials of several other schools said they were startled at the sudden spurt in interest, however.

"We were surprised and felt very uncomfortable about not being able to accept them," said Sonia Berman, director of the Herzl School, a small, unaffiliated high school in West Hollywood.

Limited Number Accepted

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