Meet the L.A. rabbi who found a national stage for her support of the Iranian protests

Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh was a lead organizer of local action in support of the demonstrations, and was recently invited by Lizzo onto the stage of the People's Choice Awards.

When Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh began serving as vice president for Jewish engagement at Los Angeles’s American Jewish University (AJU) on Aug. 15, she had no idea where the rest of the year would take her. 

She never expected to emerge as a national figure for speaking out against the Iranian crackdown on protesters, and never expected to be recognized at the People’s Choice Awards as a leading advocate in support of the uprisings. She was an Iranian American rabbi trying to act on a gut feeling: that she couldn’t sit silent as her people suffered. 

One month after she started the job, she found out about Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old who was detained by Iran’s morality police on Sept. 13 for improperly wearing a hijab, and who died under suspicious circumstances soon afterward

Rabizadeh didn’t see coverage of it on the cable news shows she watched; instead, she learned the way many Iranian Americans did: via social media. She was scrolling through her Instagram when she was overwhelmed with shock. “There’s a video of [Amini] in the detention room,” she recalled. “She’s walking, and suddenly she has to lean against a chair and then she can’t hold on and she just collapses to the floor. And then the next images that we see are of her in a coma in the hospital, and then she’s declared dead three days later… Just for having a piece of hair showing, or some people say it’s because a piece of her ankle was showing. This poor kid.”

Rabizadeh knew that responding to a human rights uprising half a world away wasn’t part of her job description. Her responsibilities at AJU included monitoring the community mikvah and directing the university’s Maas Center for Jewish Journeys, which, according to its website, “champions those too-often relegated to the periphery of Jewish life, guiding them through a suite of interconnected programs that enrich their Jewish journeys,” such as the school’s Introduction to Judaism Program. 

“When you start a new job, you gotta be careful with your first ask,” she said, but she knew she needed to use her platform to help, so she walked into the office of her boss Jeffrey Herbst, the president of AJU, and said, “I think we need to put something together for Iran.” She recalls him answering, “No question. What are you thinking?” 

Since then, Rabizadeh has been active in organizing people in L.A.’s large Iranian Jewish community and beyond to support the protests. On Dec. 4, AJU hosted the Baraye Iran (Farsi for “For Iran”) forum featuring leading Jewish and non-Jewish Iranian advocates, organized by Rabizadeh and 14 other Iranian leaders in L.A. Later in the month, the university hosted a conversation with Iranian-American journalist and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, titled “The Woman Whose Hair Frightens Iran.”

“I don’t label myself as anything,” Rabizadeh said. “You want to call me an advocate, just describe what I’m doing, which is really highlighting and amplifying the plight of these Iranian people that are being killed and raped on the daily and executed in broad daylight?” She added that her activism, “has nothing to do with my job description, except that I’m a Persian rabbi… and someone had to do something.”

When it came to organizing the Dec. 4 event, said Matthew Nouriel, community engagement director at the organization Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, “She’s the one who pulled all of this together. She’s the one who contacted everybody, and was like, ‘Let’s figure something out.’”

Rabizadeh was born in Los Angeles in 1985 to Iranian immigrant parents who had been studying in the United States during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and felt they could not return after Ayatollah Khomeini took power. 

“They left all of their belongings to neighbors, many of whom were Jewish and [had] stayed behind,” Rabizadeh said. “Most of my family assumed they were going to go back. One of my great aunts tells a story of hiding a lot of jewelry and belongings behind a wall [that] they then plastered over. God knows what happened to it.”

Rabizadeh’s surname means “descendant of rabbis,” and since she was a teenager, Rabizadeh knew she wanted to become one. “I’m trying to go back to a kind of Judaism that I was raised with that no longer exists,” she said. “A lot of that has to do with the Persian kind of Judaism that I was raised with — this kind of feeling of opening your heart and talking to God and having it be messy, sitting with your grandmother [in] the synagogue and learning from her what it means to ask God for whatever you want in life.”

Although Rabizadeh is an ordained Reform rabbi, her background blurs denominational lines, and she has fond memories of growing up in the community formed between women in their section of the Orthodox synagogue. She considered Conservative rabbinical school before deciding it wasn’t for her, and appreciates the freedom of choice Reform Judaism offers.

“I grew up in a very insular, Persian Jewish community where, directly or indirectly, people always told me what to do,” she said. “And I just didn’t want that for my Judaism. I wanted to create my own meaning. And it so happens that I am kosher. I don’t consider myself a Reform rabbi. I don’t really care for denominations. I chose one because you always have to choose a box in order to become a rabbi. In fact, my dad calls me a closeted Orthodox Jew. I think on some level, he’s right.”

She added, “Most Persians aren’t Reform, Orthodox. People ask me, ‘Oh, your grandparents were Orthodox?’ They’re not Orthodox. They’re just Jewish. The idea is that you try to follow as many mitzvot and as many Jewish traditions as possible. And that’s it. I remember growing up we would say all the blessings for Shabbat, and the Lakers game would be muted in the background, while my grandpa was singing. So it’s a very peculiar world, the Persian world. We all went to synagogue in the morning and then we went to lunch at a restaurant afterwards. I can’t really explain my people, but I’m very proud of the fact that they don’t conform to a box.”

Rabizadeh’s career as a Jewish professional began at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she obtained her master’s in Jewish education, followed by rabbinical ordination in 2018. She has worked at The Kitchen, a Jewish congregation in San Francisco; the Milken Community High School; and as director of student life at the University of California, Los Angeles Hillel. She is the first Reform rabbi that AJU, which has ties to the Conservative movement, has hired.   

“Her hiring is a signal that we want to be open to the entire Jewish landscape,” Herbst told eJP. “We think she’s realizing the promise of making sure that we’re as open and as welcoming as possible to the entire Jewish community, the entire increasingly diverse Jewish community.”

Los Angeles is often affectionately referred to as “Tehrangeles,” as the home of the largest Iranian Jewish community in America, with more than 50,000 Persian Jews living there, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, as well as the largest Persian community outside of Iran

“What’s happening in Iran is important to Jews because Jews care about human rights,” Herbst said. “It’s also important because what happens in Iran affects the Jewish community that still live there, as well as the very significant number of Iranian American Jews who have ties to Iran. And, of course, what happens in Iran has a huge effect on what happens in the Middle East. [Rabizadeh] was in the ideal spot to do some very important programming.”

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran had a Jewish community of more than 100,000, but today there are an estimated 9,000 to 20,000 Jews still in the country. Rabizadeh said that in Iran she fears she would be murdered for being a rabbi, and said that visiting Iran under its current regime has never seemed like an option for her. 

“In Judaism, when someone dies, you’re not supposed to look at their face,” she said. “You’re supposed to always remember them alive. And I just never wanted to go see this country the way that it looks.”

Some of her distant relatives remain in Iran, and other Iranians have contacted her, begging for help. She tells them to escape whichever way they can, even if it means leaving their property behind. 

“Find a way to get out,” she tells them. “Just find a way to get out. Mentally prepare yourself. Don’t worry about the money. You don’t have a life. There’s nothing else to worry about.”

With internet shutdowns and bans on foreign press making it difficult for news to get out of Iran, Rabizadeh said she feels that Iranian Americans are “filling a void.” They are telling horror stories they hear from family back home and translating news coming from within Iran. “For the first time in history. I think we are primary resources, just because we’re Persian and [Iranians] trust us,” she said.

Sometimes, she feels as if much of the Jewish community is silent about what’s happening in Iran. For more than a month, few rabbis spoke about it. There weren’t vigils or events held outside of Los Angeles. “Is it racism?” she wondered. She gets frustrated thinking that some Jews may not speak up against the Iranian government because they are afraid they would be called Islamaphobic. 

“You have to be able to call out crime,” she said. “This is not a time to be politically correct. People are dying.” 

Recently, she has seen more Jewish leaders reaching out to her, wanting to help. Jonathan E. Blake, the senior rabbi of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., dedicated each night of Hanukkah to an Iranian who died during the struggle. Rabizadeh has been booked for speaking engagements in New York, L.A. and Georgia. Non-Jewish organizations are reaching out to her, too, hoping for her to speak about what some are calling the new Iranian revolution. Other Iranian organizers have reached out to her about appearing at protests, but she can’t attend because many are held on Shabbat; she  says organizers haven’t been receptive to changing the dates.

And yet, Rabizadeh has managed to appear on one of the largest possible platforms. Two weeks ago, at the People’s Choice Awards, Grammy Award-winner Lizzo brought her up on stage and recognized her as one of the women advocates who “deserve the spotlight.” Lizzo credited Rabizadeh with being “committed to building a bridge between Jewish people of all colors and backgrounds, and as an Iranian-American, she is fighting to amplify the plight of the Iranian people.” 

“She pours a great deal of passion into every project that I’ve seen her take on,” Rabbi Adam Greenwald, a former executive at AJU and the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, Calif., told eJP. “I think by living out her truth and her passion and speaking for her people, that is an invitation for others to feel similarly empowered.”

Rabizadeh said she often asks herself “What would Esther do?” Rabizadeh said that like Esther, who lived in ancient Persia, many Iranian Jews outside of the country “are alone, and I’m alone, and we’re all alone and trying to figure this out. Only history is going to tell, should we have done better, could we have done better in this time. But the fact [is] that [Esther] really thought hard and long about how to twist the head of the king to help save an entire people. It’s a lot of pressure.”

That pressure sometimes turns to guilt, she added.

“I feel like a fraud,” she said, her eyes dampening. “Like, I’m just sitting here from my living room, just posting [online]. What the hell am I doing?” 

She attempted to brush away tears. “It’s a lot,” she said. “It’s really painful. You have to have a Shabbat [away] from it. And at the same time there’s just nothing you could do. All I’m doing is yelling at people to amplify, because I’m hoping that it’ll fall on someone’s desk and someone will know what to do.”