Jewish-American Reporter Gets an Inside Look at Iran's Jewish Community

The Forward's Larry Cohler-Esses is the first journalist from a Jewish, pro-Israel publication to be granted a journalist's visa to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.

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An Iranian Jewish man prays at the Molla Agha Baba Synagogue, in the city of Yazd, 676 kilometers south of capital Tehran, Iran, Nov. 20, 2014.Credit: AP

The Jewish reporter for the The Forward who was granted a visa to Iran has filed his second story on the Islamic Republic, which looks at how what life is like for Iran's Jewish community.

Larry Cohler-Esses, assistant managing editor at The Forward, is the first journalist from a Jewish, pro-Israel publication to be granted such a visa since the 1979 revolution. His seven-day trip was the result of a two-year effort to secure the visa, which was bolstered by a letter written on his behalf by a prominent figure in Iran's Jewish community.

Cohler-Esses attended Shabbat services in Tehran with the dwindling Iranian Jewish community, which has shrunk from the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Jews when the Shah was overthrown in 1979, to today's community, for which the estimates vary from only 9,000 Jews to possibly 20,000.

“Compared to Europe,” boasted Dr. Siamak Moreh Sedgh, the Jewish community’s elected representative in Iran’s parliament, “synagogues here are one of the safest places,” according to The Forward report. “We have a high rate of people following Halacha,” or traditional Jewish law, “and a low rate of assimilation. The rate of intermarriage among Iranian Jews is less than 1 percent,” the report cited him as saying.

"Jewish life in Iran can be rich. In Tehran alone there are 13 active synagogues, five Jewish schools, two kindergartens and a 100-bed Jewish hospital, where Moreh Sedgh serves as director. There are active communities in several other cities, including Shiraz, Isfahan and Kermanshah, with institutions of their own," Cohler-Esses writes.

"But living as protected second-class citizens under a Shi'ite Islamist regime is complicated."

The report quotes Homayoun Sameyah Najafabadi, the current chairman of the Tehran Jewish Committee, Iranian Jewry’s central body: “There is no oppression. But there are limitations.”

Cohler-Esses says this also means Iranian Jews must take care not to be seen as interested or involved in Israel, though it is an open secret that many have family there, and that many have even visited Israel themselves via third countries.

The New York Times suggested that the visa, which was granted on July 20, was part of an effort to influence U.S. Jews' opinion on the nuclear deal with Iran. 

Cohler-Esses had to work with a government fixer and translator, but was free to decide whom to interview and about what. Many of the questions he posed focused on Israel.

This wasn't Cohler-Esses' first trip to Iran; he had lived there for almost two years in the late 1970s, just before the revolution, teaching English.