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Iranian-Americans gain political clout in Great Neck peninsula as demographics shift

Standing outside of Great Neck Village Hall is

Standing outside of Great Neck Village Hall is Pedram Bral who is to become Mayor of Great Neck after winning an election on Tuesday, June 18, 2015. Credit: Uli Seit

When Jewish Iranian refugees started arriving on the Great Neck peninsula 36 years ago, community leaders welcomed their new neighbors by holding voter drives and encouraging them to become active in local government.

Tuesday, one of those immigrants, Dr. Pedram Bral, is to be sworn in as the mayor of Great Neck, signaling the political rise of a growing demographic group, experts and community leaders said. Bral won the seat handily over four-term incumbent Mayor Ralph Kreitzman in the June 16 election.

"This is a community that had faced a lot of persecution throughout its 2,700-year history, and now they are showing they're not afraid of the government anymore, and a willingness to take part," said Raymond Iryami, a village planning board member who emigrated from Iran in 1982.

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and put Islamic leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in power, Jews sought political asylum in the United States and elsewhere. About 60,000 Jews fled Iran in the first decade of the Islamic Regime -- about 35,000 of whom settled in the United States. Many of them had held prestigious positions in medicine and academia.

"In a flash, they were in danger," said Jerome K. Davidson, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth-El, the oldest synagogue in Great Neck. "As a result, a lot of them who happened to be wealthy or prosperous enough, who were protected by the government, had to go somewhere else."

They moved to Israel and coastal U.S. areas including Beverly Hills and the outer boroughs of New York City. They achieved success in business and settled into wealthy enclaves such as Long Island's Great Neck Peninsula. Iranian-Americans, who refer to themselves as Persians, now make up 25 percent of the 10,000-resident Village of Great Neck.

Election shows unity

Bral's election represented "a watershed event in the history of this village, and this community," said William Helmreich, a professor of sociology at City College and CUNY Graduate School in Manhattan, and a Great Neck Village resident for 30 years. "All groups that come to this country eventually learn that if they want to have any real power, the ballot box is very important."

Elsewhere on the peninsula of nine villages, Iranian-American candidates are winning seats on village, town and library boards, and taking positions with local fire departments.

The election results "showed the unity of the people of Great Neck," Bral said, citing the "energy and enthusiasm" of the "young and old, black and white, Jews and non-Jews."

Bral, director of Minimally Invasive & Robotic Gynecologic Surgery at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, takes office Monday with the formal swearing-in ceremony Tuesday.

The Town of North Hempstead elected its first Iranian-born council member in 2011, Anna Kaplan, from Kensington Village on the Great Neck Peninsula. She moved to the United States in 1980 from Tehran when she was a teenager.

Growing to feel welcomed

Nassau County's Iranian-American population rose from 5,475 in 1990 to 10,633 in 2013, according to U.S. Census data. In Kings Point, 2,000 people -- 40 percent of the population -- are Iranian-American. A third of the Saddle Rock Village population has Iranian ancestry.

Iryami said that the early voter outreach efforts attracted immigrants who would "learn that exercising their civic duties would not harm them as it might have in their old homeland."

There were early tensions.

Iranians in Great Neck in the 1980s and '90s -- speaking in their native Farsi -- stood out among the area's Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom were already entrenched in the American culture as second-, third- and fourth-generation immigrants.

"They were strangers," Davidson said. "They didn't fit in the way everybody else did, and they spoke Farsi a lot of the time in public."

In addition, there were concerns over the increasing size of homes being built for Iranian residents and many of them removing too many trees from their property.

Efforts to make the new residents feel more welcome were undertaken, officials and residents said, and relations smoothed out over time.

In the Great Neck school district in the 1990s, the Great Neck North High School principal played Persian music over the loudspeaker system, and district officials added new Farsi classes to the curriculum, recalled North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth, a former Great Neck school board president. Temple Beth-El, a Reform synagogue, hosted a Persian congregation while its temple was being built.

The temple in the past few years has honored the Persian new year, called Nowruz, with a table display of fruits and other symbols, including those representative of the spring equinox when the new year begins.

The village election at the century-old Great Neck House ran more than an hour late to accommodate voters. About 100 arrived too late and were turned away.

"It was interesting to see the dynamic, to see people wanting to come out and vote," Kaplan said.

Bral said in an interview that he thought his victory had less to do with ethnicity or religion than his tapping into frustration over plans to sell Village Hall and recent zoning changes to condense the business district and add more apartments, retail stores and town houses to portions of the village.

"I think all the communities came out strong for us," Bral said. "People thought it was time for a change."

Kreitzman, the former mayor, declined an interview request.

Rabbi Tara Feldman, a successor to Davidson at Temple Beth-El, said she hopes the results of the election do not divide Great Neck. She cited concerns that the village is becoming fragmented "with individual groups, keeping to themselves, that there isn't a sense of mutual support."

Feldman's congregation has attracted a small number of Persian families and undertaken outreach to the peninsula's growing Asian population.

On April 16, the end of Yom Hashoah -- the Holocaust Remembrance Day -- 300 Chinese-Americans attended a service at Temple Beth-El. A Chinese translation was broadcast and several youth of Chinese and Jewish heritage kindled six candles in memory of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

"The goal is to not have us lose our distinctiveness, be it Persian, be it Chinese," Feldman said.

Persians on the peninsula

Great Neck: 2,485(25 percent)

Kings Point: 2,018 (40 percent)

Saddle Rock: 360 (34 percent)

Nassau Persian Population

5,475 in 1990

10,633 in 2014

Source: U.S. Census Data

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