A Brief History of The Iraqi Jewish Community

in the United States


Introduction | The Community Organizations | Statistics | The Community at Large
Education & Culture | Public Activities | Support for Israel & Jewish Causes
The Leadership Project | The Genealogy Project | Summary | Notes


By Maurice Shohet

Introduction

Jewish residents from Iraq began to emigrate to the American Continent at the turn of the twentieth century. The first known Iraqi Jewish immigrants to the United States arrived between the years 1900 - 1905. About twenty families immigrated from Baghdad to New York, among them the families of Darzi, Battat, Murad, Rashti, Kattan, Tweig, Haim, Nawi.

World War I (1914-1918), which resulted in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, brought more Jewish immigrants from Iraq, who added to other Jewish communities in the United States during the two decades following the end of the war. Among them were at least sixty young individuals seeking education as well as business people looking for new and better opportunities.

With the eruption of World War II in 1939, more than seventy Babylonian Jewish families immigrated to the United States from Iraq [1].

Other Jewish immigrants of Baghdadian ancestry arrived to Southern California from the Far East in the early 1920’s. They immigrated from India, Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Surabaya - the Netherlands East Indies known today as Indonesia -.

After the turmoil of World War II, a combination of factors compelled Jews from Iraqi extraction living in every major seaport of the Orient to uproot themselves and seek new havens. A rising tide of native chauvinism, a curb on foreign exchange, a restriction on Jewish commercial endeavors, and curtailment of their freedom and cultural autonomy by the new native regimes, caused hundreds of Jewish families from Iraqi origin as well as other Sephardim to immigrate and strike roots in Southern California [2].

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the simultaneous rise of Arab nationalism were the major signals for departure for Iraqi Jewry. During the Israeli War of Independence, the Iraqi army participated in the invasion aimed at the destruction of the newly founded Jewish State. Martial law was declared in Iraq, and this marked the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the Jewish community. Blackmail, threats and arrests became commonplace. The Jewish businessman Shafiq Adas, convicted of selling arms to Israel, was sentenced to death and hanged in Basrah in 1948. A special Bill was introduced in parliament in 1950,  that allowed Jewish citizens to leave the country on condition they renounced their Iraqi citizenship. All this led to the departure of most of Iraq’s prosperous Jewish community; more than 124,000 Jews left the country between 1948 - 1952 [3].

The majority of the immigrants settled in Israel and a small minority left for different countries among them was the United States. Since then, whenever a political upheaval in the Middle East threatened their existence, hundreds and thousands of Iraqi Jews left to Israel and the west as soon as they had the opportunity to do so.

In the United States, the vast majority of the new immigrants were able to manage independently from any organized association geared to help immigrants. But a very small minority were cared by H.I.A.S.(Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which helps new Jewish arrivals, guarantee that they would not become a charge of public funds, and settle them in the United States.

Back to Top

The Community Organizations

  1. NEW YORK
  1. A.A. Society, Inc.
The Iraqi Jewish community in New York State, was organized in 1934, as the "Iraqi Aid Society", a nonprofit organization. It was at the height of the great depression of the 1930's following the stock market collapse in 1929, when many of the community's members suffered from the depression's effect as did many other millions of Americans.

At the time the community was numbering about a few hundred people, most of its members resided in the New York Metropolitan area. The stated aim of the Iraqi Aid Society, was "to promote good will and to cement bonds of friendship among its members", to help its fellow Iraqi Jews who found difficulties in their new country of settlement and to assist in improving the moral and social conditions of the members of the community.

During its existence, the Iraqi Aid Society did not conduct organized religious services for the members of the community. Those among them who wanted to worship, joined existing synagogues, established congregations or attended services at private homes of individual members of the community.

In 1940, the community faced one of its first major crisis. One of its members died and he was not affiliated with any organized religious congregation. His family had difficulties burying him in an established Jewish cemetery. This incident galvanized the community into action, and an Iraqi Aid Society cemetery came into being in 1945. It is owned and operated by the community through elected Officers and Trustees, for the benefits of its members. Since then and with the continuing growth of the community, more and more burial sites have been purchased for future needs.

In 1948, the Iraqi Jewish Community in New York, established The "Nadi" (a club) similar to the Jewish clubs that existed in Iraq prior to the open airborne migration of Iraqi Jews following Israel’s establishment as a state. In the early 1950's, Iraqi Jews who were graduates or former students of the two "Alliance Israelite Universelle" schools in Baghdad, who wanted to preserve the school's name, established an organization called the "American Alliance Society". A few years later, they merged with the original "Iraqi Aid Society". The new name that emerged was the current "American Aid Society" better known as the "A.A. Society, Inc.".

Between the 1940's and the 1980's, the community's social activities arranged by its organizations, took place at very prominent hotels such as the Waldorf-Astoria, Astor, Ansonia, Essex House, The Plaza and Pierre Hotels, as well as different Jewish Centers and other large catering halls such as Huntington House and Leonard’s. In fact a permanent suite at the Ansonia Hotel was rented for various affairs for the members of the community and for religious services. In addition during the High Holidays in the 1970's and up to the mid 1980's, a large hall was rented in the Esplanade Hotel in Manhattan for religious services, where attendance reached in the hundreds. The whole service gathering revolved around maintenance of age-old religious traditions going back to the time of the Babylonian exile. The community felt the urge to continue these traditions.

Back to Top
  1. Congregation Bene Naharayim
In the 1970's, the Iraqi Jewish community in New York through the A.A. Society, Inc. started to make efforts to establish its own synagogue and Jewish Center. Many new arrivals, did not feel "at home" worshipping in existing synagogues. In the first half of the 1980's, the A.A. Society, Inc. decided to purchase a place of worship. In its fund raising campaign, the community stressed that Jewish learning, education and religious observance are the pillars required to support a renaissance of a Babylonian Jewish culture in the United States. Private and public meetings were held, funds were donated and much enthusiasm was generated. As a result a small synagogue which previously served the Afghani Jewish community was purchased in the Borough of Queens in 1983, and a religious organization was established in 1984. It was incorporated under the name of  Congregation Bene Naharayim - A.A. Society Religious Corporation*  . The synagogue was enlarged and inaugurated in 1986. Since then, the Congregation has been active all year long. The services are being conducted according to the Babylonian Jewish "minhag" (practice); more than 95% of the congregants are Jews who were born in Iraq or from Iraqi descent, and the rest are members who are related by marriage to such persons. A Calcutta Jewish native from Iraqi origin Aaron Abrahams, has been serving as a Religious Advisor to the community since the early 1970’s.

With the establishment of Congregation Bene Naharayim in 1984, the responsibility of the A.A. Society, Inc. has been focusing on the ownership and maintenance of the community’s cemetery, while Congregation Bene Naharayim is concentrating on operating and maintaining the synagogue and arranging social activities for the members of the Iraqi Jewish community in New York.
 

* It was later found that the A.A. Society, Inc., was initially established as a religious corporation. Accordingly the foundation of Congregation Bene Naharayim as a separate organization might have been redundant, since the original plan was that the A.A. Society, Inc. will be responsible for operating the newly established synagogue.

Back to Top
  1. Babylonian Jewish Center
In 1997, members of the Iraqi Jewish community in Long Island-New York, started to promote the idea of establishing a second congregation in Great Neck-Long Island, under the name of  Babylonian Jewish Center. In their mission statement, the initiators stressed "the preservation, promotion, and continuation of the culture, tradition and identity of the Babylonian Jewish Heritage through religious, social and educational means" as the purpose of founding the new congregation [4].
Back to Top
  1. LOS ANGELES
Kahal Joseph Congregation
This synagogue is a Sephardic Congregation established in 1959. Its members are mostly native Jews from Iraqi descent who arrived from India, Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, and Indonesia as well as others who are native Jews of Iraq and Sephardic Jewish immigrants. This synagogue is the only Sephardic Congregation that follows "Nusakh Baghdad" (Baghdad custom and usage) services in the Western United States. It rates among the leading Jewish Congregations in Southern California and is presently one of the most vibrant and active congregations in the Los Angeles area. It serves an ever growing community, and its membership represents one of the most heterogeneous groups originating from no less than twelve countries, all sharing the same customs and heritage.

The congregation provides young and adult Jewish education, Talmud Torah classes, social services, and boasts a very active sisterhood [5].

Back to Top

Statistics

Since most of the Iraqi Jewish immigrants in the United States did not settle in one state, but were scattered all over the country, it is difficult to reliably estimate their number. But from the different mailing lists that currently exist among the few Iraqi Jewish organizations in New York and Los Angeles, which do not cover all members of the community, it is estimated that their total number might exceed 15,000 people.

Apart form California and New York, the largest concentration of Babylonian Jews in the United States is in Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Smaller known groups of Iraqi Jews, but each is too small to run its own synagogue, can also be found in Arizona, Atlanta, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other States.

Back to Top

The Community at Large

Today, the Babylonian Jewish community in the United States is the largest and economically one of the most firmly-established communities of Babylonian Jewry outside Israel. In general, this community is not integrated into upper-class America, though when they arrived to the United States, its members were financially far removed from the poor Jewish immigrants that flocked the country during different times. The community members in general lead a well-balanced life as Jews and as immigrants who are somehow involved with the local communities surrounding them. They managed to achieve a rare synthesis between their own Jewish consciousness and the American Society around them. The community is mostly a self-contained society that maintains the social patterns of Baghdad. It has carefully preserved the customs and social patterns of its origins; and this seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future [6].

Members of the community tend to live in the same neighborhood and move to larger affluent areas as soon as their means allow. Some of them, form closely-knit groups. Several families are organized in small "investment clubs" where they socialize, holiday and invest in the stock market together. There is something very special about the Iraqi Jewish communities worldwide. Wherever they settle, they preserve their traditional way of life and maintain their identity and close community relationship. Not only members of these communities choose to live close to each other, but they also holiday together, and in the United States it is specifically to Florida. Every year during Hanukah time through January, members of the Iraqi Jewish communities from London, Montreal, Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, Boston and other cities in the west get together to "re-cement the bonds of friendship" and meet in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Although they had become somewhat lax in their religious observance, the members of the Iraqi Jewish Community in New York, still maintains a firm ethnocentrism, and mostly marry among themselves [7].

The current small social activities of the community in New York and Los Angeles are taking place at their congregations’ center. Larger gatherings are being held at other Jewish Centers. The community has preserved its own very special identity far longer than the other groups of Jewish immigrants from the Middle East, - except probably for the Syrian community - who merge more readily with each other and with the American Jewish community. Unlike other Jewish immigrants, the Babylonian Jews were for many years not involved in public activities. Their identity was jealously guarded in private social groups and rarely in communal institutions, which they were content to leave to others.

In circumstances where the Iraqi Jewish community in the United States had become a small minority, widely dispersed amongst numerous Jewish groups, its members accept the philosophy that an effective system of Iraqi Jewish tradition is vital to secure continuation of the Babylonian Jewish consciousness [8].

Back to Top

Education and Culture

The members of the community are driven by ambition to succeed in businesses and as professionals, and this urge has been taking precedence over most other aims in life apart from family cohesion and religious observance during the High Holidays. High education is greatly valued, and almost every school graduate enters College after high school where he or she tends to specialize in a profession.

Starting in the early 1990’s, a magazine called "The Periodical Publication of Congregation Bene Naharayim" has been published intermittently in New York. It reaffirmed the pride of the Iraqi Jews in their ancient heritage, by linking it directly to the glorious traditions of the Babylonian Jewry.

Another newsletter for the local Babylonian Jewish community in Los Angeles called "Yosef Haim" began to be published in 1996. It basically reports on what is taking place in the local Iraqi Jewish community.

Back to Top

Public Activities

Although the Iraqi Jewish community in the United States is not active in public life, it always took actions and helped its community members worldwide, whenever it felt the urgency to do so. Two known such activities are:
     
  1. In 1948, and with the instigation of the Iraqi Embassy in Teheran, the Iranian authorities were arranging to have the Iraqi Jews** residing in Iran, be expelled to Iraq and their assets confiscated. At the time, the Shah of Iran was visiting the United States. The Iraqi Aid Society approached several individuals with good contacts to the Iranian leadership, to have the matter brought to the attention of the Shah. The Shah instructed his government to stop promoting the idea of expelling the Iraqi Jews**, and the matter was settled without any harm to the Iraqi Jewish community in Iran [9].
  2. ** N.B. It is very possible that the writer meant the Iraqi Jewish "refugees" residing in Iran at the time, since in 1948, hundreds of Jews arranged to be smuggled across the border to Iran, on their way to Israel. (M.S.).

  1. In 1969, after the Iraqi Government began to abduct, assassinate and execute Jews in Iraq, the Iraqi Jewish community in New York organized rallies and held demonstrations in front of the United Nations headquarters. The "American Committee for Rescue and Resettlement of Iraqi Jews, Inc." was established, to help the Babylonian Jews in Iraq who were suffering from persecution. In 1970, the Committee succeeded in saving the lives of two Jews who had been condemned to death in Iraq, and securing the release of others. In 1971, another successful effort by the Committee, was in tying conditions for signing the "Grain Contract" agreement between Canada and Iraq, with permitting Iraqi Jews legal exit from their country of birth [10].
Since the mid 1970’s, the community had made partial concessions to the cultural climate of the city of New York. In 1976, the Babylonian Jewish community in New York, joined the World Sephardic Federation. It was only comparatively recently that members of the community started to come forward and occasionally have held positions in the American Sephardic Federation.
 
Back to Top

Support for Israel and Jewish Causes

The Iraqi Jewish community in the United States is bonded by its tradition "to promote good will" among its members as well as to support Jewish causes and maintains close ties with Israel. Before the mass immigration of the Babylonian Jewry in 1950 - 1951, the Iraqi Jewish community in New York, had already established strong relationship with the mother community of Baghdad. For the Iraqi Jewish Diaspora the Baghdad community counted as an authority to which questions were referred, and which acted as a source of advice and spiritual support [11].  Several of the community members in the United States, have been generously contributing to their community, Iraqi Jewish organizations in Israel and other Jewish causes. The largest individual donation so far was a bequest from Alisa Hakkak the wife of the former President of the Iraqi Aid Society Meir Hakkak. Her donation totaled to approximately $1,400,000 (in February, 1998 figures). This contribution is being equally distributed between Congregation Bene Naharayim in New York and the Iraqi Jews Educational Development Fund in Israel over a period of ten years.

In the last few years, the A.A. Society Inc. and Congregation Bene Naharayim have been successively sponsoring the "Genealogy" and the "Leadership" projects at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or-Yehuda, Israel. The community in New York began to realize the importance of preserving and perpetuating the cultural heritage of Iraqi Jewry for generations to come.

Back to Top

The Leadership Project

This research covers a period of over 2500 years, beginning with Yekhonia’s (the King of Judah, also known as Yehoyakhin) exile to Babylon in the year 597 BCE, and ending with the renewed leadership of the Babylonian Jewish Community in Israel today.

Within the framework of this project, there will be an expression of the general Babylonian Jewish leadership from the time of the Exilarchate, the Nesi’im, Head of Congregations, the "Executive Committee" of the community to religious leadership including the scribes, the sages, the Amora’im, the Geonim, rabbis, heads of yeshivas, the "Spiritual Committee" of the community among others. To this will be added the leadership of the Jewish Community in Iraq in the twentieth century, including its institutions, presidents, notable people, members of secular and spiritual bodies, the "Management Committee" and members of various boards such as the "Board of Education", "Board of Sanctification" and the "Committee of Mutual Aid" [12].

Back to Top

The Genealogy Project

This project concentrates on the study of ancestry of Iraqi Jewish families. It pertains to the collection of related data on families living in Israel since the 1930’s and up to the end of the open airborne migration in the early 1950’s. Since the information that existed in Baghdad dating back to the mid nineteenth century with records of births, deaths, marriages among other categories are not available, this information must be gathered in the best way possible. The opportunity to do this is short-lived since the vast majority of the people that were raised in Iraq are well advanced in age.

The development of this project includes establishing an information system on the Iraqi Jewish population. The preparatory survey was done to determine the required characterization for the "Iraqi Families" to be used in the appropriate software. The findings of the lines’ tracing of Babylonian Jewish families ancestry could be shown by means of pedigree charts, or genealogical trees. The information gathered will be available to the younger generations, so as to enable them to trace back their roots and find out about their families’ ancestors. The automated records will be a major contribution to Middle Eastern Jewish history.

Back to Top

Summary

Though the ancient Babylonian Jewish community of Iraq has almost completely disappeared from its country of origin, probably for ever (only 76 Jews are known to be currently living in Iraq), those of its former members who emigrated to Israel and to the west have brought original Babylonian Jewish culture to their new settlements. In New York and Los Angeles these members are again taking pride in their heritage and seeking deeper knowledge of their roots. They are making great efforts to hold together the community's social structure, which tries to place a strong emphasis on family values.

We hope that this community will be able to perpetuate its centuries-old tradition for generations to come.
 

3, Nisan, 5758
March 30, 1998

Maurice Shohet, Assistant Vice President at Merrill Lynch, is Vice President of A.A. Society, Inc., and Congregation Bene Naharayim, Two Iraqi Jewish Organizations in New York.

PS  Mrs. Yvette Dabby, President of the Sisterhood of Kahal Joseph Congregation (KJG) - in Los Angeles, provided the writer with the information regarding the history of KJG.
 
                                                                                                                                                                                               Back to Top

Notes:

[1]. The Babylonian Jews In The Diaspora - Hebrew - By Dr. Avraham Ben-Ya’acov.

[2],[5]. Kahal Joseph Shofar - January 1978.

[3],[11]. The Story Of An Exile - A Short History Of The Jews Of Iraq - By Nir Shohet.

[4]. The Newsletter Of The Babylonian Jewish Center, New York (http://www.tiac.com/users/cromasso/BJC/).

[6],[8]. "THE SEPHARDIM" - Their Glorious Tradition From The Babylonian Exile To The Present Day - Lucien Gubbay And Abraham Levy.

[7]. "DIASPORA" - An Inquiry Into The Contemporary Jewish World - By Howard M. Sachar.

[9],[10]. "Dispersion And Liberation" - Album Jewry Of Iraq - By Abraham Tweina.

[12]. Nehardea - Preparations For Establishing A Section For The "Leadership of Babylonian Jewry" At The Museum - Prof. Yitshak Avishur and Dr. Zvi Yehuda - Journal No. 9., December 1996.

Back to Top