Iranian Jews are still mourning the death of their previous religious leader, Rabbi Youssef Hamedani-cohen. Rabbi Youssef passed away this Saturday at the age of 98. His death left me with a deep sadness; not because he was an extraordinary rabbi or because I am religious; it made me sad because he was the last surviving member of the circle of Iranian Jewish spiritual leaders who had lived during three different eras.
Deceased rabbi Youssef, was Iranian Jews’ spiritual leader for almost fifteen years. He was promoted to this position in 1994, after the rest of the circle had left Iran. It was during his service that the Islamic republic convicted thirteen Iranian Jews of espionage and imprisoned them. The Islamic republic’s judicial system also accused the 80-year-old rabbi Yitzhak Baalhaness of orchestrating it and asked the Interpol to track down and arrest this elderly rabbi who had already left Iran for the US.
If you are among those Israelis who think that there is not any Jew left in Iran, or you think that the number of Iranian Jews living there is too small, you may ask the necessity of having several rabbis there. But in fact, despite all the problems, Iran still houses the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel. And this Jewish community ranks the second of its kind in the Muslim world, just after Turkey.
According to the latest census, there are around 9,000 Jews living in Iran. But since hundreds of thousands of people prefer not to tell their religious views, experts estimate that the Jewish population of Iran is something about 15,000; and the leaders of the community claim that the number of Jews living in Iran is 25,000 to 35,000.
Iranian Jews have been through many different eras; from Cyrus the Great of Achaemenids to king Bahram ii of the Sassanid dynasty when Judaism was considered as a devilish thought; from the early Islamic period when Jews prospered to the Safavid empire when they were forced to convert to Islam; and from the early Qajar era when Jews were executed in some cities to the early Pahlavi era when they were freed by Reza shah.
In 1979, just before the Islamic revolution in Iran, 0.2% of the Iranian population was Jewish. But in spite of this small percentage, two of the eighteen members of the Iranian academy of science were Jewish (11 percent). Jewish doctors formed six percent of Iranian physicians, and two percent of university lecturers.
However, after the revolution, the large exodus of Iranian Jews started. It is estimated that 200,000 to 250,000 of Israelis are from Iranian families while 47,000 of them were born in Iran. The number of Iranian Jews living in the US is estimated at around 80,000.
The Iranian Jewish community currently is much more religious than it used to be before the Islamic revolution, and Rabbi Youssef Hamedani-cohen was the oldest spiritual leader for this community. He was not only a spiritual leader, but also an influential community leader. Now that he is gone, other leaders of this community have a lot to do in order to compensate this lost.