It was 8:15 on Saturday morning, and Rabbis Shmuel Fuerst and Moshe Unger of Chicago were dressed in their Sabbath best: beaver-pelt shtreimels, or Polish-style hats on their heads; long black silk caftans draping their bodies; and thin white socks over their black knickers.
But last Saturday morning, these two bearded, ultra-traditional Orthodox Jews were not walking to synagogue on the city’s heavily white North Side; they were riding in a car driven by a non-Jewish friend to meet the Rev. Jesse Jackson on the city’s mostly black South Side.
"Yes, we’re Orthodox Jews, but it was a question of 13 lives that are in terrible danger," said Rabbi Fuerst, referring to the obligation to violate the Sabbath in a life-or-death situation.
It has been 11 days since the government of Iran officially disclosed that it was holding 13 Jews on suspicion of "espionage for the Zionist regime and world arrogance": its code words for Israel and the United States. Since then, from Washington to the capitals of Europe, and even from the Dalai Lama of Tibet, support has poured in for these 13 Jews: most of them reportedly religious leaders from the cities of Isfahan in the center of the country and Shiraz in the south.
Jewish communal leaders, who have known about the jailed Jews for months, have launched an effort to recruit anyone, anywhere who might be able to influence Tehran not to go down the path likely to lead to their execution. Human rights activists feared they could be brought before Iran’s special Revolutionary Court system, where the rights of defendants are often ignored.
But perhaps no one act said more about the high stakes involved than these two Jews’ Sabbath pilgrimage to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition/Operation PUSH headquarters on East 55th Street and Drexel, in the heart of urban Chicago.
Jackson had actually been recruited to the prisoners’ cause two days earlier, after meeting with some of their family members in Los Angeles. But Rabbi Fuerst and Rabbi Unger are affiliated with Agudath Israel, an ultra-traditionalist Orthodox umbrella group which has reportedly had close contacts for years with the communities from which many of the 13 arrestees come. Agudah officials wanted to impress personally on Jackson the urgency of the situation.
Showing up without an appointment, the two drew startled stares from neighborhood residents, who see few whites, much less chasidic or Orthodox Jews in their streets. Some asked if they could take photographs. The two rabbis amiably complied.
As for Jackson himself, "We knew him as someone who hates Jews," said Rabbi Unger, who is dean of Yeshiva Shearith Israel in Chicago. "But he treated us royally."
More important, Jackson assured them he "wanted to do all he could" to help free the Iranian Jews in prison, said Rabbi Fuerst. Jackson then had them stand by his side at a press conference he had scheduled that morning to publicize humanitarian aid to Kosovo and Sierra Leone. With the reporters present, he raised the plight of the Iranian Jews.
That episode was just part of the drama that unfolded this week and last as Jewish leaders, flanked by Jackson, other prominent black clergy, and Catholic and Protestant religious leaders, went public, ending months of quiet diplomatic efforts to free the imprisoned Jews.
According to leaders of the Iranian Jewish community in the United States, those efforts began when the first batch of five Jews was arrested last January. Eight others were imprisoned last March, just before Passover. None of the Jewish prisoners has been allowed visits from family or friends, say Iranian Jewish activists here in touch with their families. And though most are strictly observant, their access to kosher food has been spotty, at best, they add.
Within the Iranian Jewish community here, some called for public protests. But no announcement of the jailings or any charges were made public. This led many to hope the situation could still be resolved quietly through private appeals to government officials in Tehran. Leaders of national American Jewish organizations, working under the umbrella of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, assisted in the effort.
But that strategy ended with a June 7 report on Tehran Radio that the 13 were now charged with espionage: a capital crime.
"Once they made that decision, we had no choice," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. "Otherwise, it would be like we accepted the charges."
It was Foxman who reached out first to Jackson the very next day, after consultation with other Presidents Conference members.
"He returned my call within five minutes," Foxman recalled.
Jackson has faced condemnation from the Jewish establishment in the past for referring to New York as "Hymietown" and criticizing Israel. But this week leaders praised the Jesse Jackson who protested President Reagan’s honoring of German war dead at the Bitburg cemetery, marched against the Nazis in Skokie, Ill., and advocated for Soviet Jews to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
By Thursday, June 9, Jackson, joined by Foxman, was meeting with relatives in Los Angeles of the imprisoned Jews. And by Sunday, he was in New York, where he spoke at a prayer vigil for the 13 at Park East Synagogue.
"The charges are not valid," Jackson told those gathered there. "There is no evidence they were not honorable toward their state. There is no evidence they were engaged in troubling religious activities. These are religious teachers of faith, not political or military people."
On Monday, flanked by a bevy of black clergy, other Protestant and Catholic ministers, and several rabbis, Jackson appealed from the Isaiah Wall across street from the United Nations.
Following the pattern of previous successes by Jackson in gaining freedom for prisoners in Serbia, Iraq and Syria, the ecumencial appeals were couched in purely humanitarian terms. Even Jewish leaders, who have long sought to isolate Iran on account of its activities against Israel and its alleged drive to develop nuclear weapons, carefully eschewed any hint of attack or political criticism of the Islamic state.
"We’ve observed in Iran a new leadership, and a desire to reassume its rightful place in the world," said Jackson. "We honor that." In this context, he said, freeing the 13 "would be a major step toward peace and reconciliation."
But in a statement released by Iran’s UN mission Monday, the Islamic government said, "To call for the release of arrested suspects, out of good intention or otherwise, before they are even tried, only because some of them happen to be Jewish, is absurd and irresponsible."
Jackson declared his readiness to go to Iran to meet with the prisoners, and with Iranian religious and political leaders to appeal for their release.
Iran’s UN Mission spokesman, Amir Zamaninia, told The Jewish Week, "If he applies for a visa, his request will be considered thoroughly."
But Iran UN Mission officials rejected Jackson’s request to meet with them.Undeterred, Jackson told the press conference Monday, "This appeal will no doubt take time."
In the meantime, say Jewish leaders, efforts continue on the diplomatic track as well. According to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Presidents Conference, diplomats from France, Germany, Britain and Russia are among those that have been "very forceful" in making clear to Iranian officials that their efforts to improve Iran’s often troubled diplomatic ties will be damaged if any harm comes to the jailed Jews.
Jewish leaders, meanwhile, announced plans this Saturday for a Sabbath dedicated to the release of the 13 prisoners.
"Thousands of synagogues from all streams of Judaism will add special prayers [and] rabbis will devote their sermons to the plight of these Jewish leaders," the Presidents Conference said in a statement Tuesday.