It was a cold day in the spring of 1979 when 13-year-old Anna Monahemi arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. She came with a group of 40 Jewish girls—all of them from Iran, each of them alone. Her parents, like those of the other girls, had quietly bought her a ticket to Rome and sent her off, not knowing when they would see her next. There, the girls were greeted, processed and issued U.S. I-20 student visas. Five days later, they were safely in America.
From JFK, Anna and the girls were brought directly to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and placed with host families—members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community. This was not the only group of Iranian Jewish children in Crown Heights. Since the end of 1978, planeloads of Jewish refugee children had followed the same path to safety, intensifying after the January 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran and the return from exile two weeks later of the Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. By Passover of 1979, there were 1,000 Iranian Jewish children staying in Crown Heights with families, living in dorms, and studying in schools and classes established especially for them in the neighborhood.
A group of young Jews registering on arrival in the US in 1979
Jews had lived in what was long known as Persia for 2,500 years, and at the time of the revolution, 100,000 of them called it home. They were well-established and successful. But then came the Islamic revolution, followed swiftly, 40 years ago this month, by the Islamist seizure of power. Violence roiled the streets. Threats against Jews were followed by the arrest and murder of leaders in the Jewish community. As the ground shifted under their feet, Persian Jews desperately sought avenues of escape, especially for their children.
Operation Exodus was by far the largest organized effort to rescue the embattled Jews of Iran, and by the time it wrapped up in 1981 had brought 1,800 children to the United States. While Hecht was promised financial assistance from mainstream Jewish organizations, much of it never materialized, leaving him to cover the expenses alone. When Hecht passed away a decade later, his organization was still millions of dollars in debt. Yet he never for a second regretted it; there were Jewish children to be rescued, and he had gotten it done.
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