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Community torn by tragedy

Bianca Khalili's death divides the Westside's Persian Jewish enclave. Police deem it suicide, but some don't agree.

September 15, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writers

On the evening of May 26, Beverly Hills High senior Bianca Khalili visited Dora Afrahim, another popular daughter of the Westside Persian Jewish community who lived in a glittering Century City high-rise.

About 11 p.m., neighbors heard screaming. They looked down from their windows and saw Bianca's crumpled body at the foot of the building.

In June, investigators ruled Bianca's death a suicide, saying evidence indicated she had jumped off the apartment building's 15th-floor balcony. "We found no evidence, no physical evidence, no witness testimony, nothing to support the fact that this incident was a homicide," said Los Angeles Police Lt. Raymond Lombardo, a department veteran who supervised the investigation.

Nonetheless, today, more than three months after Bianca's death, the events of that night continue to divide local Persian Jews, who are unaccustomed to dealing with violent crime and the taboo of suicide. Indeed, no incident in recent memory has so polarized the wealthy, well-educated and insular emigre community, challenging its commitment to Persian Jewish tradition and American justice.

"An entire Persian community centered around Beverly Hills High School has been rocked by this," Lombardo said. The case, he said, has "divided the community like driving a stake through their heart."

Bianca's family and friends say Dora pushed her and demand that police reopen the investigation.

"I just want to clear her name," said Bianca's mother, Niloofar "Lily" Khalili, who insists her daughter could not have killed herself.

Dora declined interviews and photographs. Her father points to the official finding of suicide. He says his daughter has received threats and that community suspicion may spoil her prospects for getting an education, finding work, marrying and starting a family.

All summer, members of the Persian Jewish community have continued to bombard officials with e-mails and phone calls, write letters to the Jewish Journal, post messages on Facebook, and discuss the case in parks and at Westside temples. They have taken sides, calling on police, rabbis, school officials and community leaders to intervene on behalf of one side or the other.

But nothing can ease the heartache of the two families involved, the relatives of two 17-year-olds who once celebrated holidays and other special occasions together, two friends who exchanged texts, calls and photos, two girls on the verge of adulthood.

Traditionally, Jews view suicide as a sin. In most cases, Jewish law forbids burying suicide victims in a Jewish cemetery, although rabbis are often flexible. In Bianca's case, the official finding of suicide came after her burial at Eden Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery in Mission Hills.

Some in the Persian Jewish community did not trust the police findings in the case. For some of them, the criminal justice system remains relatively unfamiliar. In addition, under Iran's religious leaders, many Jews had been stripped of their civil rights, engendering a distrust of government officials. It was up to the community to police itself; justice was meted out by elders or religious officials. So although the community of Persian Jews on the Westside has largely embraced the American justice system, those who violate taboos against suicide may still be ostracized if they dishonor their family.

Sometimes "your name is more important than what really happened," said Michelle Halimi, a Persian Jewish teacher at Beverly Hills High School who grew up on the Westside.

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Drawn to the L.A. area

Community leaders estimate there are about 50,000 Persian Jews in the Los Angeles area, the largest enclave in the country.

Many left Iran after Shiite Muslim revolutionaries seized control in 1979. They refer to themselves as Persian -- rather than Iranian -- in reference to their cultural heritage and the country's historical name.

The Persian Jews were drawn to Los Angeles by connections -- family, business and academic -- and a climate similar to that of Tehran. They settled on the Westside, especially Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Santa Monica, Westwood and West Los Angeles.

At their temples, community centers and schools, their native Persian language is spoken as often as English. In Beverly Hills, about one-fifth of the roughly 35,000 residents are Persian, many of them Jewish, according to Jimmy Delshad, who is Jewish and last year became the city's first Persian mayor.

Even as the community grew, Delshad said, it remained tight-knit, bound by tradition, language and rituals.

Families still host Friday night Shabbat dinners and dores, social gatherings where guests dine on kebabs and homemade choresht stew, drinking chai tea while playing cards and board games and gossiping about the latest community news.

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