Karmel Melamed reports in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal (11/15/19) how a rabbi saved a ghetto of Jews in Tehran from a potential pogrom. It is a wonderful real life story, but it would be even better if he had also disclosed that the rabbi was a Reform rabbi; and the ghetto Jews were almost all Orthodox; because in today’s world of narrow minded, extremist, religious and political Jewish leaders, Jews need to have positive examples to offset the negative ones we so often hear about. I retell his story as I, a Reform rabbi, think it should be retold.
Rabbi Joseph Saul Kornfeld was selected to become the American ambassador to Persia in 1921. He was the first rabbi in the history of the United States to serve at a foreign post on a diplomatic mission. During his time in Iran, Rabbi Kornfeld had frequent contacts with Iranian Jewry and helped fight antisemitism in several cases.
The most dramatic of them started on September 4, 1922, when a servant of a Tehran mullah was riding his donkey past a Jewish school in the Jewish ghetto and the school’s custodian stopped the donkey to prevent it from colliding with a group of children as they were exiting the school.
The servant returned home and told his master that his donkey was held up for a group of Jewish children. The Islamic cleric demanded retribution against the uppity Jews, and called for a general strike in the city. Local thugs and hoodlums armed with sticks and clubs randomly beat up Jews in the street.
The following day many hundreds of armed rioters surrounded Tehran’s Jewish ghetto seeking vengeance. The Orthodox Jews of Tehran turned for help to Reform Rabbi Joseph Saul Kornfeld, who went to the minister of war, Reza Khan Pahlavi. The minister dispatched cavalry to the Jewish ghetto to break up the riot; and calm was restored with no Jews being killed.
In 1924 Reform Rabbi Joseph Saul Kornfeld finished his diplomatic mission and returned to United States. In 1925 he became the rabbi of the Reform Collingwood Avenue Temple in Toledo, Ohio.
In 1925, Reza Khan took power and became the new Shah of Persia. Both he and his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi were supportive of Jews, offering them protection from physical attacks and harassment. Iranian Jews lived in relative peace and prosperity until the 1979 Iranian revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the Shah.