When Joseph Harounian came out of the closet to his Persian Jewish family, relatives told him to march right back in.
Some worried he’d turn his cousins gay. Others feared for the family’s reputation. They began excluding him from family events. It was only after his grandmother intervened that he was gradually welcomed back into the fold.
Now, years later, Harounian says his family has come to terms with who he is. But he knows that the fear of ostracism still keeps other gay Persian Jews from coming out.
Support for gay rights and same-sex unions has never been higher, according to numerous polls. But in many religious communities, acceptance has been much slower.
In the month since gay marriages resumed in California, Los Angeles’ large Persian Jewish community has become a flash point in the debate about how much a religious tradition should be modified to include gay and lesbian members.
At the center of the conflict is Rabbi David Wolpe, the leader of Sinai Temple in Westwood.
This summer, Wolpe announced he would celebrate same-sex marriages at the synagogue. Most congregants cheer his decision. But a vocal group of Persian Jews — many of whom are not members of the synagogue — opposed Wolpe.
Some say Wolpe is simply violating Jewish tradition. But to many, the charismatic rabbi is attacking the very institution that has ensured continuity — and longevity — among Persian Jews: marriage.
“At the end of the day, everything is about marriage,” said Dr. Saba Soomekh, a history professor and lifelong member of Sinai Temple. “You could be a doctor who cures cancer, but you’re not anything in the community if you are not married.”
Played out in the courtyards of Westside synagogues, over Shabbat dinners and, increasingly, on Internet comment threads, the debate has given rise to some soul-searching about how gays and lesbians are treated in this affluent, tightknit community.
The L.A. area is home to an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Persian Jews, the largest such community in the world.
What set off the controversy was an open letter addressed to Iranian Jews that called for an exodus out of Sinai Temple and a revival of “genuine” Judaism.
“We have compromised many of our Iranian Jewish customs, beliefs, and traditions,” said the letter, written by M. Michael Naim. "... however, the latest official announcement by Rabbi David Wolpe to conduct same sex-marriage ceremonies is the last straw.”
More than 10 families in a congregation of more than 2,000 vowed to leave the synagogue, and news coverage cast Naim as the unofficial spokesman for the anti-Wolpe set.
An architect and a father of three, Naim said his letter reflects the sentiments of those at a dinner party he attended. It was never meant to be public, but he emailed the letter around for revisions and it went “haywire,” he said.
The “main issue is the loss of these precious Jews,” whether due to marrying outside the faith or belonging to less orthodox denominations of Judaism, Naim said.
In his view, homosexuality is one of many “tendencies” that must be “overcome,” such as a desire to cheat on a spouse.
“To come and tell someone to live and enjoy life to the fullest is not something that’s digestible,” said Naim.
It’s a position that the L.A.-based Persian Rabbinical Council has mostly ratified in a letter released a few weeks after Naim’s.
The council statement derided the Conservative movement of Judaism, to which Sinai Temple belongs, as “bankrupt.” The council also offered a thinly veiled critique of Wolpe, linking his endorsement of same-sex marriage with his controversial 2001 sermon that questioned the accuracy of the Exodus story.
The council, whose executive committee includes Rabbi David Shofet — arguably the most influential Iranian rabbi, whose late father was the chief rabbi of Iran — gave a clear message: Adhering to Wolpe is tantamount to blasphemy.
“How could a rabbi claim that marriage between two members of the same sex is a holy union and not contradictory to Torah when Torah has explicitly prohibited a homosexual act?”
Still, the rabbinical council urged Iranian Jews to “act with abundance of compassion and concern” toward homosexuals.
The council’s stance isn’t a surprise to many in the community. Persian Jews are considered more tradition-bound than other Jewish groups, and they tend to shun Reform temples in favor of Conservative and Orthodox ones.
But the criticism of Wolpe has galvanized many Persian Jews to stand up and urge more tolerance and acceptance for gays at the temple and in the community at large.
“The backlash is from a few who happen to be loud,” said Sam Yebri, a 32-year-old attorney and member of the civil service commission for the city of Los Angeles.
Author Gina Nahai attributed the opposition to a small minority that “in the name of conservatism and traditionalism is trying to control everyone else’s way of life.”
“People don’t want to speak up. Even the tolerant ones are afraid to say anything for fear of being attacked,” Nahai said.
The insularity, said Soomekh, stems from the treatment received in Iran, where Jews faced persecution and were confined to ghettos.
Wolpe and others said the reaction against same-sex marriage underscores the close-knit, family-oriented world many Persian Jews live in.
Older generations of Iranian Jews in particular have little dealings with outsiders, said Dr. Afshine Emrani, a cardiologist.
“The same truths keep getting echoed, and nothing changes,” Emrani said.
Shame around homosexuality is high, and many say men and women have difficulty coming out of the closet.
Homan, an international support group for gay and lesbian Iranians, had an active chapter in L.A. for more than a decade beginning in the early 1990s. But its membership, much of which is Jewish, was 95% closeted, according to the group’s founder, a Persian Jew who asked to remain anonymous. He said he became “burned out” running the organization, and after he left, it mostly collapsed.
“A lot of younger people don’t need to have an ‘Iranian’ organization,” he said, pointing to the wider availability of resources for LGBT youth — and a generational divide.
But many hope that Wolpe’s decision at Sinai Temple is a harbinger of change.
Wolpe said two families have since sought his counsel because of a child who was encouraged to come out.
And an overwhelming majority of the synagogue members — Persian and non-Persian alike — has supported him, he said, with phone calls, emails and letters.
Wolpe recalled a line from one letter in particular: “ ‘You gave my parents permission to look at me as part of the Jewish people.’ ”
To Harounian, who now owns a boutique gym in West Hollywood, the message Wolpe is sending can’t be overstated: “He’s changing lives.”