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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

"People don't want to speak up. Even the tolerant ones are afraid to say anything for fear of being attacked," Nahai said.

The insularity, said Soomekh, stems from the treatment received in Iran, where Jews faced persecution and were confined to ghettos.

Wolpe and others said the reaction against same-sex marriage underscores the close-knit, family-oriented world many Persian Jews live in.

Older generations of Iranian Jews in particular have little dealings with outsiders, said Dr. Afshine Emrani, a cardiologist.

"The same truths keep getting echoed, and nothing changes," Emrani said.

Shame around homosexuality is high, and many say men and women have difficulty coming out of the closet.

Homan, an international support group for gay and lesbian Iranians, had an active chapter in L.A. for more than a decade beginning in the early 1990s. But its membership, much of which is Jewish, was 95% closeted, according to the group's founder, a Persian Jew who asked to remain anonymous. He said he became "burned out" running the organization, and after he left, it mostly collapsed.

"A lot of younger people don't need to have an 'Iranian' organization," he said, pointing to the wider availability of resources for LGBT youth — and a generational divide.

But many hope that Wolpe's decision at Sinai Temple is a harbinger of change.

Wolpe said two families have since sought his counsel because of a child who was encouraged to come out.

And an overwhelming majority of the synagogue members — Persian and non-Persian alike — has supported him, he said, with phone calls, emails and letters.

Wolpe recalled a line from one letter in particular: " 'You gave my parents permission to look at me as part of the Jewish people.' "

To Harounian, who now owns a boutique gym in West Hollywood, the message Wolpe is sending can't be overstated: "He's changing lives."

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

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