A thought-provoking — and exclusive — conversation with Rabbi Yehuda Gerami, Tehran’s American-educated chief rabbi
Photos: Personal archives
"A revered national hero” is how Tehran’s chief rabbi Yehuda Gerami referred to Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani, assassinated in a targeted US Air Force drone strike in January 2020. And amid the turbulence in Tehran surrounding Soleimani’s death, media users saw photos of an unusual condolence call — a black-hatted delegation from Iran’s Jewish community, led by Rabbi Gerami, paying their respects to the family of the slain general who had dedicated his life to wiping out the State of Israel.
The photographs were a stark reminder that despite reports of oppression and modern memories of fleeing masses, a Jewish kehillah still exists in Iran. With a population variously pegged between 8,000 and 15,000, mainly concentrated in the cities of Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan, the community supports a network of government-sanctioned religious services, including shuls, yeshivos, kollelim, shechitah, mikvaos, and training for mohelim.
Rabbi Gerami is just 35, but in recent years his star has risen as the respected leader of this vibrant kehillah of Iranian Jewry. He leads a robust community in the land of the ayatollahs, having restored the institution of the Iranian rabbinate to its golden age. But what does Rabbi Gerami really think? Does he really view Qassem Soleimani as a national hero, while most of the Western world considered him an arch-terrorist?
Soleimani was a major thorn in the side of US and Israel, held responsible for countless terror attacks against Israeli and American targets. After his death at the hands of the Americans under commander-in-chief Trump, Israelis celebrated, Americans cracked open champagne, and many Jews quoted the pasuk “ken yovdu kol oyevecha Hashem (likewise all your enemies shall be eliminated).”
But Rabbi Yehuda Gerami wasn’t smiling. He and the thousands of Jews living in Iran are in that most delicate of positions, caught between their identity as part of the Jewish People, with which the State of Israel is identified, and loyalty to their native land.
So who is Rabbi Yehuda Gerami? An anti-Zionist Jew with strong Iranian loyalties, or just a careful young talmid chacham who’s making sure to stay on the regime’s good side? In order to try and solve the riddle, I made contact with Rabbi Gerami to ask him directly.
The fact that our conversation took place at all — with me in Israel and Rabbi Gerami in the Islamic Republic of Shiite Iran — was a surprise in itself. We videoconferenced while he was at home in one of Tehran’s upper-class neighborhoods, speaking fluent Hebrew with a thick Iranian accent. Of course, we had to stay on “safe” subjects, and odds are that we’ll never be able to meet in person — at least not in the near future, as long as Iran continues its threats to wipe Israel off the map and to build up its nuclear arsenal. But with the wonders of modern technology, we can talk any time, even if we’re both in enemy territory. (While Zoom is blocked in Iran, we’re able to use a WhatsApp video call as an alternative.)
The roots of Persia’s Jewish community — the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel — go back 3,000 years, but the country changed drastically in modern times. In January 1979, six years before Rabbi Gerami was born, the Western-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was forced to flee his kingdom. This was the culmination of a long process of Islamic reaction to the secularist policies of the Shah in a country with a strong Muslim tradition. A regime of ayatollahs replaced the Shah. It was into this new reality, a Shiite nation that enforces its religious laws with an iron fist, that the Geramis — a warm, Torah-observant family with ancient Persian roots — found themselves. Rabbi Gerami’s father, Dr. Shlomo Gerami a”h, was a physician and surgeon who worked in several of Tehran’s medical centers, including the Jewish Sapir Medical Center, which provides service to the general population as well.
While Westerners consider modern Shiite-influenced Iran a hotbed of radical Islam and religious oppression, Rabbi Gerami sees things differently.
“I’ll tell you the truth. I see the Islamic revolution as a blessing for Iranian Jewry. Under the Shah, most Jews became distant from Judaism and didn’t observe the mitzvos, because that’s what was fashionable at that time. The Shah was opposed to religion in general. He was a liberal and a secularist. After the revolution, the Jews returned to their faith. Not a single Jewish store is open here on Shabbat. In the old days, many Jewish stores were open on Shabbat, and many Jews didn’t keep kosher. Now everyone keeps kosher.
“The Islamic conservatism is good for Jewish observance,” Iran’s chief rabbi continues. “It’s a total antithesis to the West’s permissiveness. We have no problem with that. About tzniyut, for example, some people may think that women here have to wear a burka and a mask over their face. But women don’t wear masks over the face. That’s Afghanistan, not Iran. Here they wear a scarf over the hair, which is required also under halachah.”
They Respect Us
Yehuda Gerami grew up in Tehran. As a teenager, he never imagined that one day he would become the spiritual shepherd of the entire flock of Iranian Jewry. He attended a local elementary school and had limudei kodesh lessons after school hours, in addition to his own independent study.
“I would take sifrei kodesh and study them with the help of a Hebrew-Farsi dictionary, and learned independently that way,” he remembers.
But the turning point in his life came when he was 15 and managed to study for a year in Jerusalem, enrolling in Yeshivas Ateres Yisrael, under Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi.
“I came through a third country, Turkey,” he says. “Back then it was easier. Today it’s no longer possible.”
After a year at Ateres, Yehuda returned to Iran, and the following year he left for the United States to study at Yeshivas Ner Israel in Baltimore, which has a government-sanctioned arrangement with Iran.
At age 25, with semichah from the yeshivah and from Rav Moshe Heinemann, he returned to Iran, where he and his Iranian-born new wife set up their bayis neeman in Tehran. Soon he was giving shiurim, and, as the religious offices related to kashrus, beis din and mikveh were vacant, Rabbi Gerami gradually assumed one role after another until he was acknowledged as the chief rabbi of Tehran.
The appointment is made by the larger Iranian Jewish community, which is centered mostly in Tehran as well as in the cities of Shiraz and Isfahan, while the official recognition comes from the Iranian regime, which invites him to inter-faith religious meetings. According to Rabbi Gerami, the Iranian regime helps him with everything he needs as chief rabbi.
As the Geramis are parents of several young children, chinuch is naturally a central issue for them, but so far, Rabbi Gerami is happy with the available infrastructure. There are two Jewish primary schools for boys in Tehran, and another for girls with over 100 students. There is also a yeshivah, although Rabbi Gerami explains that it’s not an official institution.
“After school hours, in the evening, they go to learn in the shul,” he says. “Also, those who have finished high school and university come and learn in the kollel in Tehran. After finishing their studies, they get all kinds of certifications — semichah, safrus, shechitah, and so on.”
When I ask Rabbi Gerami about the kashrus system, I can see on the screen how he seems to glow with enthusiasm. It turns out that kashrus is his personal mission.
“People might be surprised to hear, but Iran has an organized kashrus system,” he says. “We have a lot of mashgichim who work at the Jewish restaurants and supervise the shechitah and the butcher shops. I’m the one who gives the kashrus certification, and I can guarantee that the Jews of Iran are eating kosher.”
How many kosher restaurants are there in Iran?
“In Tehran we have five kosher restaurants. There’s also a kosher one in Shiraz, and in Isfahan.”
Do you have mohalim and shochtim?
“I myself am a mohel, and there are others as well. There are also a lot of shochtim, for when we do a large shechitah of animals. I myself am not a shochet, but I’ve given semichah to shochtim in all the cities — Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Kermanshah, and Yazd. A lot of our students learn safrut too. In our kollel, we’ve just finished the entire Yoreh Dei’ah section of Shulchan Aruch, in a shiur that I deliver to talmidim all across Iran. Now we’ve started Choshen Mishpat in a track for dayanut.”
Rabbi Gerami even presided over a halachic chalitzah ceremony last year. His beis din generally deals with gittin, and the halachic chalitzah ceremony was highly unusual.
Do you get help from batei din outside Iran?
“For the complicated cases, I consult with gedolei Yisrael from the United States.”
How do families get necessary Judaica items?
“Some things come from outside Iran. But there’s also a lot of local production. For example, we write mezusos and tefillin in Iran. But it’s not enough. Most of our sifrei Torah are ancient, written in Baghdad. Our sofrim edit and repair them as needed, and my talmidim write mezuzos and tefillin.”
How’s your relationship with the regime?
“We have a very good relationship, there are no problems, and the government helps us out when necessary.”
How, for instance?
“We have total freedom of religion. The Iranian government respects the Jewish religion as an official state religion. We have active batei medrash, mikvaos, and the kashrus, which I supervise. There are kivrei tzaddikim, such as the tomb of Mordechai and Esther, and the shrine of Daniel Hanavi and Habakkuk Hanavi. We have kosher slaughterhouses and kosher restaurants. Everything that a Jew needs, we have here in Iran, and the government helps us with all those things. Because Iran recognizes Judaism as an official religion, we’re allowed to practice Torah and mitzvos undisturbed.”
How many active shuls are there in Tehran?
“Throughout Iran there are over 60 shuls. Some are open also on weekdays and some only on Shabbat. I personally daven at the Yusef Abad beit knesset. That’s the central shul in Iran, with over 800 seats. Now, during corona, the shul is partially closed, and a couple dozen people daven at a time in accordance with the guidelines. There’s also the Abrishami shul on Palestine Street. A lot of Jews live nearby.”
It’s estimated that there are up to 15,000 Jews in Iran. How many of them are Torah observant?
“Most of the Jews in Iran are observant. They’re not talmidei chachamim, but they greatly respect their traditions. Many of them aren’t very well versed in the finer points of halachah, because there was no one to teach them. But now, we’re experiencing a Torah revolution: Many of the young people are learning and mastering halachah. As for the adults, they weren’t taught very much, but they have a sense of their tradition and they greatly respect it.”
How did that revolution happen?
“I spend a lot of energy investing in the youth — instilling knowledge and educating them. It’s one of my most passionate responsibilities. Today’s young Jewish generation in Iran is very well educated, baruch Hashem. There are many talmidei chachamim among them. I remember when I was growing up 20 years ago — no one here knew anything about Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, Mishnayos, nothing. Now many of the youngsters are learning Mishnayos, Shulchan Aruch, and at a very high level. Today there are many talmidei chachamim who give shiurim around Iran, and there are also rabbanim outside Iran who deliver shiurim through the Internet.”
What other learning is available?
“I don’t teach mussar or chassidut, but many people listen to a Tanya shiur given by a rav from California who delivers a shiur on chassidus in Farsi through the Internet.”
Kevod Harav, what you’re describing is very surprising…
“We don’t live under oppression. We’re free to practice every aspect of our religion — there’s total freedom of religion here. Baruch Hashem, our Iranian Muslim brothers respect us.”
Religion Isn’t Politics
During our conversation, I muster the courage to ask about the highly publicized condolence visit to the family of the terrorist commander Soleimani.
“Soleimani’s family showed me a lot of respect,” says Rabbi Gerami. “The family members heard my message and it struck a chord with them.”
You realize that Jews across the world raised their eyebrows, yes?
“It had to be done. I had to do it — in order to show that religion is in no way connected to politics. The Christian religious leaders were also there. We wanted to emphasize that we were very unhappy with what happened, and that this is no religious war chas v’shalom. It’s a political affair, not something that’s related to religion. This isn’t like the old wars between the Muslims and the Christians — which centered around religion. What the Americans did has nothing to do with religion.”
Did you receive criticism for that visit?
“What do you think?”
I think most people understood the position you were in…
“Do you think that Yochanan ben Zakkai wanted to go to Vespasian and greet him with ‘Peace be with you, Caesar?’ What do you think? What he wanted was ‘Ten li Yavneh v’chachameha.’ It isn’t something he did because of his own ideas. It was something that had to be done.”
How are you treated among the Iranian population?
“The Iranian populace is very tolerant of different peoples. I know that outside Iran, in Israel and America, people don’t think that. But it’s the truth. Jews have lived in Iran ever since the Assyrian exile. That wasn’t today’s Iran — Iran was much bigger back then, encompassing the entire Persian empire. But the Iranian people has always accepted different views, different religions. Peaceful coexistence is something that’s deeply ingrained in Persian culture.”
Did you ever meet the supreme leader?
“No. There were no attempts to set up such a meeting.”
And with the political leadership?
“Absolutely. We take part in conferences attended by the heads of government. Conferences relating to the Iranian people. We, too, as Jews, participate with respect.”
How do you explain the complicated relationship between Judaism and Zionism to the Iranian people?
“The Jews in Iran have always emphasized the difference between politics and religion. This isn’t some novelty of mine. It’s something the Jews here have pointed out as long as they’ve lived here. Judaism is the religion of Moshe Rabbeinu, of the Torah. It has no connection to politics or diplomacy. We don’t like to get involved in politics.”
You aren’t suspected of secret loyalties to the State of Israel?
“Absolutely not. Why would we be? We have no connection to the State of Israel. All the Jews want is to live normal lives and practice their religion in peace. We don’t talk about politics. I myself don’t like to talk about politics. Sometimes I have to go on the local news networks and give interviews. I do it only in order to make this point for the good of the Jews. But I myself don’t like politics. I’m not a political figure, I’m a man of religion.”
What events are we talking about?
“During corona there haven’t been many events. But I participate in political and civil ceremonies.”
Do you feel comfortable at those ceremonies?
“Honestly? I would rather sit and learn. But it’s part of the job, so I do it to fulfill my role. This past January I was at a commemoration ceremony on the anniversary of General Soleimani’s death, and also at a memorial event for the leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. I even gave a speech.”
What did you say?
“We always talk about the unity between religions. I said that the Torah teaches us that all of humanity is descended from one father — Adam Harishon — and that we’re all created in G-d’s image. I finished with the words of the mishnah in Sanhedrin (4:5) where it says, ‘l’fichach nivrah ha’adam yechidi — mipnei shalom habrios, shelo yomar adam l’chavreio aba gadol m’avich (this is why Adam was created singly, to keep peace among the creation, that one man should not say to another, my grandfather was greater than yours).’ I told them, ‘We all have the same father. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Muslim or from any other religion. We have to respect one another’s viewpoints.’ ”
A few weeks after our first interview, I made contact with Rav Gerami again. It was the beginning of Nissan, and I complimented him for a video that had gone around showing him and his kehillah members saying Bircas Ha’ilanos in an enchanting Persian accent.
“We said the brachah next to a peach tree growing in my backyard,” he noted. “It was important for us to do it right away on Rosh Chodesh, because zerizim makdimim l’mitzvot.” I told him that that sight — of Jews elevating the holy sparks of the fruit trees in the heart of Tehran surely moved anyone who saw it.
Are you allowed to visit Israel?
And how does it make you feel, knowing that you won’t be able to come back until the arrival of Mashiach?
“For now it isn’t possible. We do what needs to be done.”
What’s the economy like in Iran?
“It’s hard. Because of the West’s sanctions, the economic situation here is very bad.”
It’s leading to an uprising. We heard of a wave of protests that swept over Iran last year. Are Jews involved in that?
“Of course not! We don’t get involved in such issues. It’s none of our business.”
Rabbi Gerami tells me about the communal support system in Iran: “We have tzedakah organizations that distribute money to needy families on a monthly basis. Our organizations even help non-Jews.”
How can someone donate?
“We don’t accept donations from abroad. All the money is collected from local Jews.”
When tensions between Israel and Iran rise, does that affect you?
“It affects public sentiment, and it’s not something we like.”
Do you suffer as a result of it?
“We’ve learned a long time ago to separate ourselves from this political issue and not to get involved.”
Is there anti-Semitism in Iran?
“There’s no institutional anti-Semitism. Everywhere in the world you’ll find people who hate Jews, but here in Iran there’s no organized assault on Jews. You can encounter anti-Semitism in Europe and America, as well. The vast majority of the Iranian people aren’t anti-Semitic at all.”
What do you wear when you walk through the streets of Tehran?
“I don’t wear a black hat, but a kippah, certainly. And I don’t get any hate.”
The conflict with Israel must be a big headache for you.
“Yes, a headache and a big challenge. But in terms of freedom of religion, Iran is even more open than many European countries. In Scandinavian countries, for instance, you can’t perform kosher shechitah anymore. Here there’s nothing like that. Everything required by halachah can be done freely, without limitations. In Europe, which claims to be a model of religious freedom, there’s active anti-religious legislation. Of course, they claim to do it in the name of humanity, but in my view the source of such laws is pure anti-Semitism. In Iran there are no restrictions on religion.”
Does the fact that Iran is a devoutly religious country help you?
“Absolutely. That’s the reason that the Iranians respect the Jewish faith. On any issue relating to kiddushin, gittin, inheritance and so on, the local courts ask us how to proceed in cases involving Jews. We enjoy an official legal standing.”
When you hear about incitement against Torah-observant Jews in Israel, does that bother you?
“Of course. But I think that sometimes the chareidim are also to blame. It’s not that the chareidim are perfect and the problem is just with the secular. I myself am a chareidi, I learned in yeshivos, it’s my life. But I think sometimes things aren’t done very wisely.”
Does the Iranian press cover Israeli politics?
“Yes. Absolutely, and in a very negative light.”
I ask Rav Gerami about his own rather frequent criticisms of Israel, and he wants to clarify something.
“I say at every opportunity that the Zionists don’t represent religion. And I’m not being forced into that statement. I’m not a big fan of Neturei Karta — just so you know. But Zionism is a political movement, not a religion. Look at the High Court. It rules that you can bring chometz into hospitals on Pesach — is that appropriate for a Jewish State? When it rules that you can sell pork — is that appropriate for a Jewish state? When it rules that stores can open on Shabbos, is that what a Jew does? When Reform conversions are recognized by the state, is that Judaism?
“I might sound harsh, but I just want to emphasize that I love every Jew, regardless of his views or how he’s religiously aligned. Even heretics who wage war against religion — I daven that they should be chozer b’teshuvah.”
A few years ago, when a delegation of Neturei Karta from Antwerp and New York came to Tehran to hug Ahmadinejad, how did that make you feel?
“I don’t know what they think. I don’t want to judge anyone, and I don’t want anyone to judge me.”
I’m sure you know that here in Israel, Iran is seen as an example of extreme theocracy.
“I hear that claim, and my reply is that those who make it can no longer claim that they represent Judaism and the Jewish People. The Zionists represent democracy, a political ideology. But that’s not Judaism. A year ago, I said that the Zionists don’t represent Judaism, and a lot of people questioned that statement. But I was speaking truth.”
But on the other hand, do you think the Iranian model is correct? That the state should interfere in the religious life of its citizens so aggressively — to the point that people are hanged in the streets if they transgress the laws of their religion?
“I don’t think that the Jewish state should behave like Iran. But there are certain things that are symbolic. Symbols of Judaism. A Jewish state shouldn’t make war against those. There are also things in Iran that we have our own opinions about, but we know that dina d’malchuta dina. We, the Jews, respect the laws of whatever country we’re in. That’s the verdict of the Talmud.”
A number of your relatives live in Israel, but you’ve explained that you rarely talk “because of the situation.” When you say v’techezenah einenu b’shuvcha l’Tzion during davening, what goes through your mind?
“The same thing that goes through every Jew’s mind. Galut is still galut. Most of the Jewish People are in galut. Some are in galut abroad, but even in Israel the Jews are not at peace. It’s a galut of the Shechinah.”
Do you envy Jews who are allowed to live in Israel?
“Every Jew yearns for the holiness of Eretz Yisrael. But my shelichut is right here in the place where I am now. It would have been easier for me to live in America, to learn in kollel or be the rav of a shul on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I hold American citizenship and I could easily have secured a comfortable salary. But Hashem wanted me to serve as chief rabbi of Iran. So I try to do what I can.
“I have a community spread out across the country, which needs a rav to attend to Jewish matters. To oversee kashrus, to supervise mikvaot — we have mikvaot that are mehudar mid’Oraita — that’s my task, and it’s one that will have consequences for generations ahead. Sure, it would be easier to live in a city like Los Angeles or Baltimore and be the rav of a shul of Iranian emigres. My sons would learn in yeshivos, kashrus wouldn’t be a problem, and everything would be easy. But I can’t just leave in the middle.”
It’s amazing, I tell Rabbi Gerami. We’re speaking from two countries that are sworn enemies of each other, but when two Jews connect, none of that matters.
“Jewish hearts always beat to the same rhythm,” Rabbi Gerami says. “When a Jew anywhere in the world is in pain, all Jews are in pain. When a Jew in Iran is in pain, the Jews around the world are also in pain. We feel it. All these political complications aside, all the barriers that prevent us from being physically close, can’t separate Jewish hearts that are all beating to the same rhythm.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)
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