By: Yosef Lemel | Features  | 

Escape from Iran: The Story of William Mehrvarz

I first met William Mehrvarz at YU’s Fall 2018 Orientation on Wilf Campus. He is currently studying at YU. We introduced ourselves and I was very surprised to learn that he emigrated from Iran. There is not much news about the Jews in Iran and I had many questions. To what extent are they persecuted? How many of them still live there? What is their lifestyle like? I wanted some answers, and I believed that William would have them. So I set up an interview with him scheduled for Nov. 5.

When we met, William told me that he had a surprise for me. He was not born Jewish. William Mehrvarz was born prematurely to Muslim parents in Tehran on Oct. 18, 1992, a date which coincided with that year’s Shemini Atzeret. William jocularly told me that he was anxious to be born that day in order to celebrate the Torah. He said he has a hunch that he has Jewish ancestry because his maternal great-great grandmother’s name was Tzippora, which is a Jewish name. Many Jews in the area where Tzippora lived were forced to convert during that period in history. Unfortunately, William could not locate Tzippora’s tombstone in order to confirm his suspicion.

As a premature baby, William was very sick. His grandmother prayed for him every day at the Imam Reza shrine, which is the largest mosque in the world. Once William survived, his family named him after Imam Reza. “Reza” in Arabic means contentment. Ironically, William was never content with his life in Iran under an Islamic theocracy.

When he was 13, William met a Christian Armenian at summer-camp in Iran. They struck up a friendship. His Christian friend frequently read his Farsi Bible, which intrigued William. William had never been exposed to any other ideas besides those of Islam. In Iran, it is forbidden for a Muslim to read the Bible. William was not interested in the New Testament because he didn’t find the narrative and characters compelling and he found Christian theology and philosophy incompatible with Islamic thought. However, because Judaism and the Old Testament have ideas pertaining to strict monotheism and rationalism that are similar to Islamic thought, Judaism resonated with William. At the time he didn’t want to have a Jewish life and didn’t yet connect the Old Testament to Judaism. He said that the Torah just spoke to him. William subsequently brought home his new and exciting discovery, but what he faced was a great deal of oppression and backlash from his family because they felt that he had touched something forbidden.

William’s father gave him an English version of the Quran. He thought that since William had a considerable appreciation for the English language, he would read it. However, this was not the case. William wanted to study his discovery. His family made it clear to him that reading the Bible was not acceptable in their society. Apostasy is a major crime in Iran, which would warrant execution under Sharia Law.

In 2009, William was in his senior year of high school and the Iranian government was holding a presidential election. The conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated the more moderate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Many supporters of Mousavi believed that the election was a sham and thought that Ahmadinejad had tampered with the election results. Many citizens took to the streets in protest of the government. William was one of these protesters. This movement was known as the Iranian Green Revolution, during which William himself saw people dying on the streets from the government’s attacks. Once the revolution failed, William fell into depression. It was at this time that he started observing some aspects of Judaism. For example, William became a vegetarian so that he wouldn’t have to eat meat not slaughtered according to halakhic standards. He knew the consequences of his actions. If the wrong people found out about his Jewish observance, he could have been executed the Iranian regime for apostasy.

After the Green Revolution, William moved to Kish Island, which is off the southern coast of Iran. He worked in a shipping company and attended night classes in order to finish high school. Once he graduated from high school, he attended Allameh Tabataba’i University (ATU) in Tehran where he studied French and Linguistics. One of William’s great fascinations is the study of language. He believes that knowledge of various languages widens an individual’s perception of the world. William’s father is a lawyer, his uncle is a lawyer, and his grandfather practiced law. It therefore came as a surprise to his family when William did not choose this career path for himself.

William attended ATU for three years. At ATU he met an Iranian girl whom he fell in love with and married. She came from a deeply religious Muslim family. Like William, she harbored a secret: she was secular. William confessed to her his own secret. She was surprised but very accepting of who William decided to be. They figured that they could marry and create a private bubble for themselves in order to be free to religiously practice what they wanted. She could be secular and William could be Jewish. When they were outside of this atmosphere, they would act according to the Islamic tradition and according to societal norms.

William and his wife soon ran into multiple troubles and challenges: How could they have children? Because of the opposing views on religious lineage between the two religions, a child out of their marriage would be considered a Muslim by the Jewish community and a Jew by the Muslim community. They ended up trying to have a baby despite their concerns, but unfortunately, William’s wife suffered a miscarriage that devastated both of them.  

During their marriage, William became more observant of Judaism. He started lighting Shabbat candles, attending synagogue, visiting Jewish communities --he even spent a Purim in the presumed tomb of Mordechai and Esther, an experience which he described as “spiritually uplifting.” He also finally found a kosher butcher shop in Iran to purchase meat. However, he remained afraid of expressing his religious views in public.

In 2016, William’s wife wanted to get a divorce. William begged her to wait until after her sister’s wedding. One day before William’s sister-in-law’s wedding, the couple was at her mother’s apartment to help with the wedding preparations. William and his wife struck up an argument with each other. Suddenly, his mother-in-law and sister-in-law came into the room to see what was going on and William’s wife blurted out his secret. She told those that were in the room that he was a Jew. William’s sister-in-law started calling him a “filthy Jew,” among other insults. His sister-in-law had long wondered why William had been posting verses from Psalms on his social media and expressed that her suspicions were finally confirmed.

“I was very glad at that point that someone finally recognized my Judaism,” said Mehrvarz, “but then the fear kicked in… the [fear of the] consequences of this secret being revealed to others, especially to my family, who are connected to the government and are religiously conservative. And there was the fear of execution. I would not lie to anyone, I would have stood on my beliefs and said that I have done this because I believe in it, and never apologize.”

When William’s Jewish identity was revealed to his wife’s family, they locked the door and called his parents. Once his parents arrived, William took the opportunity to escape. He pushed aside his parents, ran out the door, got into his car and drove to his apartment. He quickly packed all of his most important belongings, which included a menorah, kiddush cup, kippah, some books, warm clothing and $200. William ran to the bus station where he took the bus to Yerevan, Armenia. From there he traveled to Georgia, where he hopped on a plane to the United States. The plane ticket was paid for by a friend of William’s who lives in the US.

William arrived in the US on Nov. 9, 2016, a few hours after the conclusion of an extremely divisive and historic American presidential election. Once he arrived in the US, he was finally able to change his name from Reza to William as he had wanted. Under Sharia Law in Iran, a Muslim cannot change his legal name to a secular name. He set his Hebrew name as Liam; his grandfather always called him “the William Shakespeare of the family” due to his fluency in the English language, and so William seemed to be a befitting name.

William is currently seeking asylum in the US based on religious and political persecution. His case is still pending. In the US, William underwent a Conservative conversion to Judaism which took two years to complete. He is currently working on his Orthodox conversion through the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). William works remotely for the Center for Near East Policy Research based in Jerusalem as a translator and researcher in order to pay off rent and bills.

William says it has been extremely challenging for him to pay his rent, but that he is a persistent and hardworking man. There are also religious communities who are lending a helping hand to William. William specifically praised the Jewish community of the Lower East Side of Manhattan for the emotional, financial, and social support he has received from them. In addition, he has been warmly received by the Persian Jewish community in Great Neck and the Jewish community in Linden, NJ. He hopes to establish a connection with the Persian Jewish community based in California when he makes a trip there in January 2019.

When he arrived in New York, William attended Columbia University for one semester and majored in human rights. Columbia was the only college in NYC that he knew of, due to Ahmadinejad’s controversial visit there in 2007. Columbia ended up being too expensive for William so he had to transfer to another college for the following semester. Fortunately, Rabbi Zvi Romm from the RCA got him in contact with the Yeshiva University administration. They sat down with him and he told them his story. The administration was fascinated and gave him a substantial scholarship to YU.

“I am very thankful for the generosity and support that I have received through Yeshiva University,” Mehrvarz stated. “This is a dream come true because without them I would never have received a formal Jewish education. I would love to give back to the community.”

“The rabbis compare Torah to water. For me, once I was thrown into the sea of Torah I was so happy and content that I could swim into this vast ocean in order to learn and grow and love. And I want to learn gemara and Torah so I can grow and serve Hashem in order to give back to the world that has given me a lot.”

When asked about the state of the Jewish community in Iran, William stated that they are given a certain amount of religious freedom. Jews are allowed to attend synagogues, eat kosher food, and observe Shabbat. The children are not forced to attend school on Shabbat. However, Zionism is strictly prohibited by the Iranian government. Jews are not allowed to express any support for the Jewish state. William said that the Iranian government actively seeks the destruction of Israel and display doomsday clocks in anticipation of Israel’s destruction.

William plans on eventually making aliyah, though he also is taking into consideration his financial situation. When asked what policy the United States should pursue when dealing with Iran, William answered, “The United States needs to protect the State of Israel. It is my concern that Iran is conducting certain activities in order to harm the Jewish state. Therefore, I am for any policy that reduces the chances of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon or to harm to the state of Israel in any capacity.”

William said that he holds the First Amendment of the Constitution in high regard. “I am a true believer in religious freedom,” he said. “I am a speaker for the Jewish National Fund (JNF). I speak on human rights issues and religious freedom. So that is a value for me and I would love to see everyone in this country expressing themselves peacefully, as long as it's not contradicting someone else’s rights. Freedom of speech is not tolerated in Iran. All media is controlled by the government and there is no opposition. Everything that people hear is in praise of the Ayatollah and the current regime.”

William is currently majoring in Political Science with the hopes of attending law school in the future. It seems that he will continue his family’s background in law after all. He is still deciding on what type of law he wishes to practice.

After speaking to William, I started wondering if I would have made the same decisions had I been put in his situation. He was prepared to die in Iran al kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of God’s name, and was prepared to go the extra mile in order to observe his religion. Fortunately, we are able to learn many lessons from his life story.

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Photo caption: William Mehrvarz at Fall Orientation on Wilf Campus, August 2018.

Photo credit: Yeshiva University