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L.A.'s Persian Jews struggle with the issue of gay marriage

Opponents see such unions as a threat to faith traditions. At the center of the conflict is a rabbi who announced he will conduct gay marriages.

August 16, 2013|By Matt Hamilton
  • Persian Jews Joseph Harounian, right, and a friend, Shervin Khorramian, are out of the closet. It took years for Harounian's family to accept who he is.
Persian Jews Joseph Harounian, right, and a friend, Shervin Khorramian,… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

When Joseph Harounian came out of the closet to his Persian Jewish family, relatives told him to march right back in.

Some worried he'd turn his cousins gay. Others feared for the family's reputation. They began excluding him from family events. It was only after his grandmother intervened that he was gradually welcomed back into the fold.

Now, years later, Harounian says his family has come to terms with who he is. But he knows that the fear of ostracism still keeps other gay Persian Jews from coming out.

Support for gay rights and same-sex unions has never been higher, according to numerous polls. But in many religious communities, acceptance has been much slower.

In the month since gay marriages resumed in California, Los Angeles' large Persian Jewish community has become a flash point in the debate about how much a religious tradition should be modified to include gay and lesbian members.

At the center of the conflict is Rabbi David Wolpe, the leader of Sinai Temple in Westwood.

This summer, Wolpe announced he would celebrate same-sex marriages at the synagogue. Most congregants cheer his decision. But a vocal group of Persian Jews — many of whom are not members of the synagogue — opposed Wolpe.

Some say Wolpe is simply violating Jewish tradition. But to many, the charismatic rabbi is attacking the very institution that has ensured continuity — and longevity — among Persian Jews: marriage.

"At the end of the day, everything is about marriage," said Dr. Saba Soomekh, a history professor and lifelong member of Sinai Temple. "You could be a doctor who cures cancer, but you're not anything in the community if you are not married."

Played out in the courtyards of Westside synagogues, over Shabbat dinners and, increasingly, on Internet comment threads, the debate has given rise to some soul-searching about how gays and lesbians are treated in this affluent, tightknit community.

The L.A. area is home to an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Persian Jews, the largest such community in the world.

What set off the controversy was an open letter addressed to Iranian Jews that called for an exodus out of Sinai Temple and a revival of "genuine" Judaism.

"We have compromised many of our Iranian Jewish customs, beliefs, and traditions," said the letter, written by M. Michael Naim. "... however, the latest official announcement by Rabbi David Wolpe to conduct same sex-marriage ceremonies is the last straw."

More than 10 families in a congregation of more than 2,000 vowed to leave the synagogue, and news coverage cast Naim as the unofficial spokesman for the anti-Wolpe set.

An architect and a father of three, Naim said his letter reflects the sentiments of those at a dinner party he attended. It was never meant to be public, but he emailed the letter around for revisions and it went "haywire," he said.

The "main issue is the loss of these precious Jews," whether due to marrying outside the faith or belonging to less orthodox denominations of Judaism, Naim said.

In his view, homosexuality is one of many "tendencies" that must be "overcome," such as a desire to cheat on a spouse.

"To come and tell someone to live and enjoy life to the fullest is not something that's digestible," said Naim.

It's a position that the L.A.-based Persian Rabbinical Council has mostly ratified in a letter released a few weeks after Naim's.

The council statement derided the Conservative movement of Judaism, to which Sinai Temple belongs, as "bankrupt." The council also offered a thinly veiled critique of Wolpe, linking his endorsement of same-sex marriage with his controversial 2001 sermon that questioned the accuracy of the Exodus story.

The council, whose executive committee includes Rabbi David Shofet — arguably the most influential Iranian rabbi, whose late father was the chief rabbi of Iran — gave a clear message: Adhering to Wolpe is tantamount to blasphemy.

"How could a rabbi claim that marriage between two members of the same sex is a holy union and not contradictory to Torah when Torah has explicitly prohibited a homosexual act?"

Still, the rabbinical council urged Iranian Jews to "act with abundance of compassion and concern" toward homosexuals.

The council's stance isn't a surprise to many in the community. Persian Jews are considered more tradition-bound than other Jewish groups, and they tend to shun Reform temples in favor of Conservative and Orthodox ones.

But the criticism of Wolpe has galvanized many Persian Jews to stand up and urge more tolerance and acceptance for gays at the temple and in the community at large.

"The backlash is from a few who happen to be loud," said Sam Yebri, a 32-year-old attorney and member of the civil service commission for the city of Los Angeles.

Author Gina Nahai attributed the opposition to a small minority that "in the name of conservatism and traditionalism is trying to control everyone else's way of life."

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