Community torn by tragedy
On the evening of May 26, Beverly Hills High senior Bianca Khalili visited Dora Afrahim, another popular daughter of the Westside Persian Jewish community who lived in a glittering Century City high-rise.
About 11 p.m., neighbors heard screaming. They looked down from their windows and saw Bianca’s crumpled body at the foot of the building.
In June, investigators ruled Bianca’s death a suicide, saying evidence indicated she had jumped off the apartment building’s 15th-floor balcony. “We found no evidence, no physical evidence, no witness testimony, nothing to support the fact that this incident was a homicide,” said Los Angeles Police Lt. Raymond Lombardo, a department veteran who supervised the investigation.
Nonetheless, today, more than three months after Bianca’s death, the events of that night continue to divide local Persian Jews, who are unaccustomed to dealing with violent crime and the taboo of suicide. Indeed, no incident in recent memory has so polarized the wealthy, well-educated and insular emigre community, challenging its commitment to Persian Jewish tradition and American justice.
“An entire Persian community centered around Beverly Hills High School has been rocked by this,” Lombardo said. The case, he said, has “divided the community like driving a stake through their heart.”
Bianca’s family and friends say Dora pushed her and demand that police reopen the investigation.
“I just want to clear her name,” said Bianca’s mother, Niloofar “Lily” Khalili, who insists her daughter could not have killed herself.
Dora declined interviews and photographs. Her father points to the official finding of suicide. He says his daughter has received threats and that community suspicion may spoil her prospects for getting an education, finding work, marrying and starting a family.
All summer, members of the Persian Jewish community have continued to bombard officials with e-mails and phone calls, write letters to the Jewish Journal, post messages on Facebook, and discuss the case in parks and at Westside temples. They have taken sides, calling on police, rabbis, school officials and community leaders to intervene on behalf of one side or the other.
But nothing can ease the heartache of the two families involved, the relatives of two 17-year-olds who once celebrated holidays and other special occasions together, two friends who exchanged texts, calls and photos, two girls on the verge of adulthood.
Traditionally, Jews view suicide as a sin. In most cases, Jewish law forbids burying suicide victims in a Jewish cemetery, although rabbis are often flexible. In Bianca’s case, the official finding of suicide came after her burial at Eden Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery in Mission Hills.
Some in the Persian Jewish community did not trust the police findings in the case. For some of them, the criminal justice system remains relatively unfamiliar. In addition, under Iran’s religious leaders, many Jews had been stripped of their civil rights, engendering a distrust of government officials. It was up to the community to police itself; justice was meted out by elders or religious officials. So although the community of Persian Jews on the Westside has largely embraced the American justice system, those who violate taboos against suicide may still be ostracized if they dishonor their family.
Sometimes “your name is more important than what really happened,” said Michelle Halimi, a Persian Jewish teacher at Beverly Hills High School who grew up on the Westside.
Drawn to the L.A. area
Community leaders estimate there are about 50,000 Persian Jews in the Los Angeles area, the largest enclave in the country.
Many left Iran after Shiite Muslim revolutionaries seized control in 1979. They refer to themselves as Persian -- rather than Iranian -- in reference to their cultural heritage and the country’s historical name.
The Persian Jews were drawn to Los Angeles by connections -- family, business and academic -- and a climate similar to that of Tehran. They settled on the Westside, especially Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Santa Monica, Westwood and West Los Angeles.
At their temples, community centers and schools, their native Persian language is spoken as often as English. In Beverly Hills, about one-fifth of the roughly 35,000 residents are Persian, many of them Jewish, according to Jimmy Delshad, who is Jewish and last year became the city’s first Persian mayor.
Even as the community grew, Delshad said, it remained tight-knit, bound by tradition, language and rituals.
Families still host Friday night Shabbat dinners and dores, social gatherings where guests dine on kebabs and homemade choresht stew, drinking chai tea while playing cards and board games and gossiping about the latest community news.
Children like Dora and Bianca grow up speaking or at least hearing the Persian language. At religious schools and Beverly Hills High, where about a third of the student body is Persian, they develop networks of Persian friends with a foot in both cultures. After they graduate, many are pressured by their parents to stay nearby, attend Santa Monica College, marry or do business with other Persian Jews.
That network led many to feel involved in Bianca’s death, experts say. Said Homa Sarshar, a New York-based Persian journalist and historian who co-founded the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History in Los Angeles more than a decade ago, “All of a sudden, everybody becomes Matlock.”
After investigators concluded that Bianca’s death was a suicide, the community found itself confronting deeper, more painful issues.
A friendship goes sour
Bianca and Dora met in high school. They celebrated Jewish holidays together and texted and socialized regularly, friends and family said. Photographs and videos show the two brunets clowning and embracing.
But the relationship soured sometime before Bianca’s death, as the two girls vied for the same prom date, police and relatives say. Each girl’s family says their daughter broke off the friendship.
The night Bianca died, the girls exchanged text messages, and soon after Bianca arrived at Dora’s father’s apartment, they began shouting, police said. At one point, authorities say, Dora locked Bianca out, and Lily Khalili said her daughter called her, frantic, then the phone went dead.
As Dora called a mutual male friend to resolve the dispute, Bianca dashed down a hall and through an open door, pulled herself over the chest-high balcony railing and jumped, said Lombardo, the LAPD lieutenant.
Dora called 911, shrieking to the operator that her friend had jumped. Investigators found a stool propped against the railing and no evidence of a struggle. They interviewed the boy Dora had called, who corroborated her story, Lombardo said.
Still, the rumors spread.
Accusations flew on Facebook and other social networking websites. Some defended Dora; others threatened her.
Dora’s family kept their distance from Bianca’s relatives during their mourning period, or shiva, and did not attend Bianca’s funeral or the memorials that followed, hoping to quell the rumors and respect the family’s privacy. Dora stopped going out.
The rumors flourished at Beverly Hills High, where students on May 28 held a memorial for Bianca on the front lawn, under a leafy shade tree that has been dubbed “The Persian Tree” because so many Persian students regularly gather there.
On June 6, Principal Joseph Guidetti scheduled a meeting with about a dozen students to discuss Bianca’s death and the investigation. Instead, about 75 students gathered at his office, and some accused him of participating in a police coverup.
“It was a nightmare,” Guidetti said.
A week later, Guidetti arranged for Dora to visit the school. She sat in front of a group of about two dozen classmates, answering questions about the night Bianca died. Eventually, she wept.
“Put yourself in my shoes,” she said, reminding them that she had watched her friend die.
As the students got up to leave, one approached Dora and gave her a hug, Guidetti said.
But the rumors persisted.
Dora, whose family was worried about her safety, did not attend her June 20 graduation.
By then, authorities had become convinced that outsiders could not prove Dora’s innocence to the Persian Jewish community. Instead, said Sarshar, the journalist and historian, “they went to the only source that is capable of shutting the gossip mill down.”
Lombardo went to meet a group of rabbis at Nessah Temple, a Beverly Hills synagogue popular among Persian Jews. After the meeting, a spokesman for the rabbis sent an e-mail to their congregations that explained the LAPD’s findings and urged those with questions to contact police, which some did.
Rabbi David Wolpe, one of the city’s most prominent rabbis, whose congregation at Sinai Temple includes a large number of Persian Jews, was so disturbed by gossip surrounding the case that he spoke about it in a sermon.
Wolpe told community members not to spread rumors about Bianca’s suicide or Dora’s involvement, since such rumors are lashon hara, Hebrew for “evil tongue.”
On July 19, rabbis at Nessah held a meeting to urge the community to stop gossiping. They told parents to take responsibility for their children’s spirituality and Persian youths to practice more self-control.
Some work is already being done. Sinai Temple offered a class last week for parents and young adults “reflecting on recent tragic events in our community and how we can help our children adjust to life growing up in Los Angeles.” They hope to eventually open a parenting center.
Meanwhile, Dora has postponed plans to attend Santa Monica College. She is afraid to venture out to popular hangouts such as the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or Urth Caffe on Beverly Drive.
Instead, she spends her days inside a relative’s gated apartment complex, within sight of the tower where her friend died.