‘Life Mission’ to Iran

A couple’s Jewish and Zionist upbringing and unwavering faith in tradition and the lives they affected as Israeli emissaries.

A couple’s Jewish and Zionist upbringing and unwavering faith in tradition and the lives they affected as Israeli emissaries (photo credit: COURTESY BEN-ELIYAHU FAMILY)
A couple’s Jewish and Zionist upbringing and unwavering faith in tradition and the lives they affected as Israeli emissaries
Rabbi Netanel and Rachel Ben-Haim were an inspiration for Israeli emissaries, actively taking on and succeeding in their mission of educating Jewish students throughout the Diaspora.
It is worthwhile to remember them now, recently marking a month since Rachel’s death (her husband died in 2005).
Starting out on a one-year mission that extended to nearly three decades, the Ben-Haims educated thousands of Jewish children in Iran from the early 1950s through 1980, when they returned to Israel at the onset of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. Many of their students – in Israel and the Diaspora – owe their Jewish and Zionist upbringing to the couple’s unwavering faith in Jewish tradition.
The memoir about the couple, Shlihut Haim (“Life Mission”), was compiled by Rachel’s nephew Rabbi Shlomo Ben-Eliyahu, rabbi for the Mateh Asher Regional Council in the Western Galilee, and was printed during the shiva mourning period for Rachel.
RABBI NETANEL Ben-Haim was born in 1914 in Hamadan, Persia, believed to be Shushan, the capital city of King Ahasuerus’s kingdom.
The city has two tombstones where, according to tradition, Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai are buried.
Ben-Eliyahu writes of a community with 7,000 Jews: “A special miracle occurred at the tombs.... The room over the tombstones was very small, but on Purim, crowds of Jews would come.... There was room for everyone in this little room.... In Shushan Habira [Shushan, then capital of the Persian empire], we read Megilat Esther on both days of Purim with a blessing.”
Ben-Haim grew up in a Torah-observant home, excelled in school and eventually mastered five languages, studying mathematics, history and geography. His parents’ home attracted many guests in need of kosher food. One guest, Rabbi Philosof from Bukhara, convinced the young Netanel of the importance of being a proud Jew both at home and in public – and that the place to do so was the Land of Israel.
So, in the 1930s, Netanel and three friends set out on horseback to reach this destination. After a difficult journey, they arrived in Jerusalem and rented a small apartment in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood. Netanel studied in the Porat Yosef Yeshiva; his study partner was Rabbi Naim Eliyahu, whose sister was Rachel.
Rabbi Naim Eliyahu, 90, the rabbi of the Bukharan Quarter, died on Monday.
Rachel was born in 1922 in Jerusalem’s Old City to Rabbi Salman Eliyahu, a kabbalist of Iraqi descent, and Rabbanit Mazal, a relative of Rabbi Yosef Haim, commonly known as the Ben Ish Hai, a leading Sephardi authority on Halacha. The third of seven children, Rachel was the only daughter in a home of hessed, giving to others.
“My grandfather, Rav Salman, passed away when Rachel was 18,” says Rabbi Shlomo Ben-Eliyahu, his namesake. “My grandmother supported the family – by cleaning houses during the day and sewing at night – to enable her children to learn and grow in Torah. Without being asked, Rachel worked in sewing. She also helped raise her two younger brothers.”
The older of them was the late Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the former Sephardi chief rabbi. Shimon, the father of Rabbi Shlomo, still fondly remembers Rachel’s devotion to him.
During the British Mandate, the surname Eliyahu was changed to Ben-Eliyahu in order to keep a low profile among the British, as some of Rachel’s brothers were Irgun members. After the War of Independence some kept this name, while others reverted to Eliyahu. Irgun member Efraim, Rachel’s older brother, was imprisoned and exiled to Eritrea in 1944. Another brother, Menashe, served in the British Army, was held captive by the Germans and was miraculously released.
After Netanel married Rachel in 1944, he opened a laundry in Rehavia, while Rachel continued sewing. Both assisted Jerusalemites during the siege. After independence in 1948, the Ben-Haims, through the Bat Ami organization, encouraged immigrants to send their children to religious schools – stressing that one can integrate into Israeli society while observing Torah and preserving their traditional customs.
They worked together with Rachel’s brother Rabbi Naim, and their uncle Rabbi Yehuda Tzadka (also the couple’s matchmaker).
“My aunt and uncle succeeded in peacefully persuading parents to follow this path. Rachel had a way of influencing people,” recalls Ben-Eliyahu.
In 1952, the couple was asked by Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levi to travel to Iran to educate Jewish children. Levi headed the Iranian division of Ozar Hatorah, an organization founded in 1945 by a philanthropist of Syrian origin, Isaac Shalom of New York, together with Joseph Shamah of Jerusalem. Their concern about the Jewish spiritual decline of children in Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, led them to found the organization, providing quality schooling and in some countries, food and medical care.
Ozar Hatorah’s schools combined Torah with secular studies in North Africa, Syria, France and Iran, with educational activities funded by the Joint Distribution Committee. In Iran, there were 40 Ozar Hatorah schools. As an alternative to the Alliance schools, the Ozar Hatorah institutions were more focused on Torah.
“Leaving Israel was a tough decision,” says Ben-Eliyahu. “They were involved in helping immigrant children in Israel, but they also realized the importance of educating Iranian Jews.”
Netanel had grown up in Iran, while Rachel had interpersonal and administrative skills.
Tzadka gave his blessing to the couple to go on their mission.
According to Tzadka, the couple’s purpose was to rescue Jewish children from spiritual doom by teaching them Torah and mitzvot; he added a blessing for Rachel to master the Persian language.
THEIR FIRST destination was Shiraz, where they persuaded parents to send their children to their Jewish school, for which Rachel had obtained permits from the Iranian authorities.
During their nine years in Shiraz, Netanel supervised purchase and/or construction of other Ozar Hatorah schools in the country.
Meanwhile, the school in Shiraz put the city on the national map, winning a prize from the Iranian government for fighting illiteracy – part of Rachel’s responsibilities. The award was presented by senior officials representing the father of the shah, who prioritized the battle against illiteracy; the school was on the itinerary of former US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1964 it was time to move on to Tehran, where they founded two schools, among them the Rahe-Danesh School in the Yousef Abad neighborhood; Rachel was principal of this school for girls. Children attended from other parts of the city, and three first-grade classes were opened. Netanel opened another Ozar Hatorah school in the Gorgan neighborhood, becoming the Education Ministry’s mathematics supervisor in the city.
Netanel established a synagogue in the Rahe-Danesh School, which became the spiritual center of the community.
“On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the schoolyard was flowing with thousands of Jews,” recalls Yehuda Simhayoff, a Jewish Agency emissary to Tehran in the 1970s who taught at the school. “The Ben- Haims were like family to us. Together with them, we hosted shlihim of the JDC and Jewish Agency, and helped visiting Israelis. The Ben-Haims greatly influenced many Jewish students, bringing them closer to Judaism.”
Torah and Zionism were part of the schools’ curriculums. Rachel and the dedicated teachers directed plays based on the Bible; she conducted Tu Bishvat seders with fruit brought back from Israel.
The Ben-Haims were active in a teachers’ seminary with Israeli teachers.
Anticipating difficult times before Khomeini’s rise in 1979, Netanel planned ahead. The Khomeini revolution indeed reached the schools, with many teachers fired. Parents stopped sending their children to Ozar Hatorah institutions in Tehran. The Ben-Haims and the staff decided to close the schools; the couple consulted with her brothers, who advised them to leave the country to save their lives.
Rachel left in 1980, and Netanel in 1981.
In 1982, they were asked to go to Vienna, where the Jewish Agency and JDC operated centers for Iranian Jewish youth whose parents remained temporarily in Iran to handle their assets. The youngsters were housed in hotels until they received visas for other countries; without parents and a framework, they needed spiritual leadership.
“My uncle called and asked me to send siddurim [prayerbooks], tefillin and kippot from Israel, so a day wouldn’t go by without tefillin for the Jewish boys,” says Ben-Eliyahu.
David, an Iranian youth in Vienna, remembers, “Rav Netanel, only you gave me back faith in myself; only you connected me through your fascinating stories to our Torah and tradition. Only due to your personal example during prayer do I continue to pray.”
Beloved by her many nephews and nieces, Rachel left this world on the first day of Av, the date on which Aaron the High Priest died. The Ben Haims, who were not blessed with children of their own, educated thousands of students for whom they were role models.
Another nephew, Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, mentioned this at the funeral, saying a quote by Hillel as a most fitting tribute to Rachel: “Be like the students of Aaron. Love peace, and pursue peace. Love humanity, and bring them close to Torah.”