By COLlive reporter
As turmoil continues in Iran over alleged electoral fraud in the 2009 Iranian presidential election, a secret mission from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, involving the country’s Ayatollah, comes to light.
Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution which saw the overthrowing of Iran’s monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and its replacement with an Islamic republic, the Rebbe was involved in saving Iranian Jewish children.
One of the confidants in this secret operation was Rabbi Avraham Hershberg, Chief Rabbi of Mexico and one of the elite students of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva in Poland, who held close ties to the Rebbe and his father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, of blessed memory.
Iran’s Jewish Community watched in fear as Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini became the country’s Supreme Leader — a position created in their constitution as the highest ranking authority of the nation — making “Islamic fundamentalism a political force … from Morocco to Malaysia.”
The world was up in arms when American Embassy officials were taken hostage on November 4, 1979. Iran’s provisional government fell shortly after and the U.N. appealed to allow a group of religious leaders to visit the hostages. The Rebbe arranged for Rabbi Hershberg to be included.
“Before we left, I came to the Rebbe to receive guidance and his blessing,” Hershberg, who passed away some 20 years ago, later recalled in an interview to an Israeli publication. “I very much needed a blessing because I was warned that it is easy to get in to Iran, but not at all smooth when one wishes to leave.”
As he remembered, the Rebbe negated his concern and instructed him a few things and then added: “Surely you won’t forget to light Chanukah candles with the embassy people.”
Hershberg was puzzled as it was not known whether there were Jews among the hostages and because Chanuka was more than two months away.
For various reasons, the departure was delayed until two days before Chanukah.
The tour in the embassy building was scheduled for Xmas Day, which in that year coincided with Chanukkah. Hershberg was told that there were, indeed, Jewish hostages.
To his surprise, the Iranians permitted Hershberg to bring a Chanukah Menorah to the embassy and light the candles. “The Christians will light their candles and you can light yours,” he was told.
“It was a very uncommon scene,” Hershberg said. “I found there six Jews. It’s hard to describe their excitement when they saw that a rabbi came to visit them. After lighting the candles, we sang and danced together – in middle of Tehran – and they were full of joy.”
Later, the religious delegation was invited to attend a mass prayer in a central square in the Iranian capital, with close to one million people.
“I stood on the same stage with Ayatollah Khomeini and watched the massive crowd,” Hershberg said. “At a certain point the masses kneeled and bowed to the ground. Everyone, except myself.
“Following the prayer, I was called to Khomeini and asked to give an explanation for my conduct. I said that I’m a Jew and not knowing the language of their prayers and to whom they are bowing to, I could not join. He was surprised from the thinking, but also seemed pleased from its sincerity.”
During their short conversation, Hershberg asked for a private audience. The Ayatollah agreed and they met in his home in the holy city of Qom, southwest of Tehran. The rabbi pleaded with the Islamic leader “to put a stop to the scheming against the Jews.” Khomeini agreed.
“Sharing the stage with Khomeini made a very large impression on Iranian Jews and strengthened their morale. Thousands came to the central synagogue in Tehran, where I prayed that Shabbos. I spoke to them about faith and conviction in G-d. These were very moving moments.”
Hershberg says Khomeini kept his word. “When a curfew was announced in Tehran during the month of Elul, the government notified that Jews who carried a Talis and Tefillin will be allowed to leave their home from 4 a.m. so they can say Selichos in the synagogue.”
“Only on my flight back I started to grasp what I had just experienced and understand the Rebbe’s far-reaching vision,” Hershberg adds.
“I was not so surprised by his knowing I would be there on Chanukah, as I was of his sense of responsibility and love for Jews he had never met and his courage to send me there. We are blessed to have such a leader.”