The bond between the Jewish and Iranian communities dates back centuries. That tie was reinforced when Shay Khatiri, an Iranian master’s student at Johns Hopkins University, set up a GoFundMe page for Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 Jews were murdered on Oct. 27.
After Khatiri woke to reports of one of the deadliest attacks on the Jewish community in U.S. history, he sought to help his Jewish friends find solace.
“Part of the reason I set up the page is because I thought it would serve as a coping mechanism for people who are feeling really bad and just want to do something. Because in such moments of tragedy things can get difficult and you can’t really do anything,” Khatiri said in a recent phone interview.
Khatiri set up the GoFundMe page thinking he would raise no more than $50,000, but after CNN journalist Jake Tapper retweeted the story, the page raised more than $1,100,000 in donations. “It was very exciting and I was very happy and I remember that my friend Sarah and I were obsessively refreshing the page along with thousands of our other friends,” Khatiri said.
Profits from the GoFundMe page will go directly to the Tree of Life synagogue, which will determine how to spend the money. Khatiri said he has not been in contact with the synagogue but said he is confident the donations will be used to address the victims’ needs and their losses.
American Jews and Iranians were the primary donors to the campaign, with the majority of the donations coming from non-Jewish Iranians. Khatiri believes that, despite the politics between Iran and Israel, Iranians have a close relationship with the Jewish community and it’s something they really cherish and appreciate.
Yet after launching the page, Khatiri also received a number of negative responses from non-Jewish Iranian-Americans, through different forms of correspondence, who wanted to know why the proceeds could not be used for disasters in Iran instead of the Jewish community.
In contrast, a vast majority of Jewish-American and Iranian donors as well as non-Jewish Iranian Americans have reacted very positively to the page and continue to send Khatiri messages through social media.
“A lot of Iranians fear that the government is a direct representation of the people, which is why they think the page may have a positive impact on that image,” Khatiri said.
Khatiri left Iran in December 2011; before he arrived in Washington, D.C., he lived in Budapest for two-and-a-half years and obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree from Arizona State University. Prior to his enrollment in Johns Hopkins University, Khatiri served as a part-time foreign policy consultant.
“I hope that the page serves as a reminder to both Iranians and Jews as well as the rest of the world that this connection exists and exists despite the current geopolitics,” said Khatiri.
By Sarah Moosazadeh
Sarah Moosazadeh writes for several Greater Washington area publications. She is a former staff writer for the Atlanta Jewish Times, now partnered with the Times of Israel.