A haredi rabbi’s journey into the lion’s den

Israel Meir Gabbai ventures into Iran to make sure its Jewish holy sites are preserved.

RABBI ISRAEL Meir Gabbai in Iran 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Ohalei Tzadikim)
RABBI ISRAEL Meir Gabbai in Iran 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Ohalei Tzadikim)
This is the story of a haredi Jew who braved Iran last month to gain firsthand knowledge of its ancient Jewish holy sites and cemeteries, as part of his ongoing global quest to raise awareness of Jewish sites and preserve what can still be salvaged.
Rabbi Israel Meir Gabbai returned to Israel last Tuesday after over a week in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where he visited and prayed at the sites believed to be the burial places of biblical figures such as prophets Daniel and Habakkuk, Daniel’s contemporaries Hanania, Mishael and Azaria, and local Jewish heroes Mordechai and Esther.
Gabbai’s quest into this contemporary lion’s den began in Paris, where he applied as a Frenchman through the Iranian consulate to get a visa into President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s domain. Although he had given up his Israeli passport years ago to enable such endeavors, Gabbai had not changed his distinctive haredi garb and beard, and was initially refused. However, after an official request by members of the Iranian Jewish community with whom he was in contact, the Iranian authorities allowed Gabbai to enter the country as the community’s guest.
This was not Gabbai’s first journey into hostile lands with rich Jewish history and holy sites. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, he established the Israel-based Ohalei Tzadikim organization “with the goal of locating, restoring and preserving Jewish cemeteries and kivrei tzadikim [burial sites of righteous people] throughout Eastern Europe” that were largely “desecrated, vandalized and hidden during the Communist regime,” according to the organization’s website.
While the bulk of Gabbai’s efforts has been in those parts, in recent years he has ventured into Syria, where he was an official visitor of the regime; Yemen, where the open hostility of the locals was more than worrying; and northern Iraq, which he fled after getting too close to a war zone.
Upon landing in Teheran, Gabbai met up with his local Jewish contact.
The next day, the host was called in for questioning at the local internal intelligence agency – the first time he had ever been summoned.
Though Gabbai was naturally apprehensive before arriving in Iran, it was mainly after the questioning – in which the details of his itinerary were shared with the security forces – that he began to feel fear, he told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Nonetheless, Gabbai took off from the capital to the southwestern city of Susa, where tradition says Daniel is buried. Islam accepts the Jewish prophets, and their burial sites are considered holy to Muslims.
Daniel’s burial site serves as a place of worship for local Muslims, and Gabbai described a beautifully preserved place of prayer. Out of respect for him, the local guard allowed Gabbai special proximity to the grave marker.
From there, Gabbai headed to Hamadan, where Mordechai and Esther are buried. Muslim students had threatened to damage that gravesite late last year, but no harm has been inflicted upon it.
“The gravesite is one of the most ancient sites in all of Iran, and it is preserved by the local authorities with the dignity and sanctity it’s due,” said Gabbai.
The nearby city of Toyserkan was where Gabbai prayed at the gravesite of the prophet Habakkuk.
He eventually returned to Teheran, traveling from there to the gravesites of Hanania, Mishael and Azaria in Qazvin. Gabbai described the Qazvin complex as rare in its exquisite beauty and immaculate preservation, as one would expect of a site holy to Muslims as well as Jews.
It was not only the watchful eyes of the regime that followed Gabbai on his journey. Ohalei Tzadikim director Levi-Yitzchak Gvirtz told the Post on Thursday that in one instance, locals began asking Gabbai for blessings after the word spread that his prayers were answered.
“In Hamadan, a gentile Kurd approached him and asked that Gabbai pray for the benefit of his sick mother. Gabbai agreed, and said a few phrases from Psalms,” Gvirtz said.
“A short while later, the same man rushed up to Gabbai and excitedly told him that his mother had just called to say she was feeling better,” he related. “The exhilarated man started telling the locals that Gabbai possessed special powers.
Word spread quickly, and wherever Gabbai went, he encountered Muslims asking the rabbi’s blessing.”
Although it was one of the motives for his visit, it is not the fate of the burial sites of Mordechai and Esther that has Gabbai concerned.
“Those are famous; people on the street pointed the way there, they appear in the local hotel’s prospects,” he said of the Purim heroes’ gravesites, and similar sites holy to Muslims.
“The problem is the regular Jewish cemeteries,” he said, such as those in the cities of Yazed and Isfahan, some of which are in ruins or have completely vanished since buildings were constructed over them.
“[The Iranian authorities] must know that people are following the fate of the cemeteries,” he said. “They must realize that they can’t just build buildings on top of such sites. They must mark and preserve such places.”