Zoroastrian Community to Open New Temple

The new Zoroastrian temple in Pomona, NY (Photo courtesy of the Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York)

The new Zoroastrian temple in Pomona, New York (Photo courtesy of the Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York’s Facebook page )

A small but ancient community is getting a new New York home.

On March 26 the Zoroastrian community of New York will inaugurate a new temple and community center in Pomona, New York. The temple, which is called a Dar-e-Mehr, will be the first in North America to be built in the traditional Persian style.

“We’ve been in dire need of a bigger space, and we’re getting it,” says community member Shirin Kumaana-Wadia.

The new $4.6 million temple in Pomona is the result of a fundraising campaign launched in 2008.

“It’s finally a reality,” she says.

The date of the inauguration reflects two important dates in the Zoroastrian calendar: the start of the traditional Persian New Year, and the birthday of Zarathustra, the prophet and founder of the faith. Among the visitors will be Zoroastrian priests from India, including high priest Khurshed Dastoor, who will bless the new structure. Zarathushti means Zoroastrian in Persian.

The Pomona Dar-e-Mehr will represent a Zoroastrian institution unique to the diaspora. It is built in the traditional Persian style, and will have a worship room where Zoroastrian priests will light the sacred fire whenever a worship ceremony is being conducted. This is different from historic Dar-e-Mehrs in India and Iran, where a consecrated fire is kept burning at all times.

“The Dar-e-Mehr that’s being built in Pomona is not a consecrated fire. We will have the prayer room exactly as it would be in a fire temple, just that the fire would be lit whenever the priest is there,” explains Arzan Wadia, who is also a member of the building committee of the temple.

The Zoroastrian priesthood is hereditary, passed from father to son. Non-priests cannot light or consecrate fires or conduct sacred rituals, such as Yasna, which is the main form of liturgy, and Navjote, when individuals are formally inducted into the faith.

Kumaana-Wadia and her husband Arzan Wadia, both Brooklyn-based architects, co-run Parsi Khabar, a Parsi clearinghouse dedicated to informing the public of goings-on in the South Asian Zoroastrian world.

The new Dar-e-Mehr will host monthly prayer classes for Zoroastrian youth, accompanied by events for adults on the same days, Persian language classes and outreach events aimed at the wider community. It will also host celebrations on Zoroastrian cultural and religious holidays, like seasonal festivals and Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

The Zoroastrian community in the tri-state area numbers about 1,500. While small, says Wadia, it has an active community life. “In New York we have enough of a critical mass of people that when we get people together and we have events we have enough people to do it with a fair degree of success. The same is not the case in smaller diasporas,” he says.

There are approximately 120,000 Zoroastrians in the world. The majority live in India, where there are two communities – called Parsi and Irani – and in Iran, where the Zoroastrian religion originated 3,500 years ago.

A service at the new Darbe Mehr groundbreaking ceremony in March 2014 (Photo courtesy of the Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York)

A service at the new Dar-e-Mehr groundbreaking ceremony in March 2014 (Photo courtesy of the Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York)

Zoroastrians believe in the existence of one God, Ahura Mazda. It is one of the oldest monotheistic religions on Earth. While not a prescriptive religion, it teaches its followers to practice good words, good thoughts and good deeds. Fire is central to Zoroastrian worship, but is not worshipped directly, but rather consecrated and considered a symbol of Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Persian Empire for centuries, before the Muslim conquest of Persia heralded its decline.

The majority of Zoroastrians now live in India, where Zoroastrian communities began migrating 1,200 years ago, to escape persecution and pursue economic opportunity. Around 25,000 still live in Iran.

The largest North American Zoroastrian communities are in the greater New York and Los Angeles areas. The New York community is prevalently Parsi, while in Los Angeles it is mostly Iranian. Significant communities also exist in Houston, Toronto, Chicago, Washington, the San Francisco Bay Area and British Columbia. Smaller communities can be found in Florida and Ohio.

The tri-state community does not reside in any particular neighborhood, and is largely made up of professionals, including many doctors, lawyers, architects and entrepreneurs.

The Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York (ZAGNY) and the Iranian Zoroastrian Association (IZA) represent the tri-state community. Zoroastrians from South Asia founded ZAGNY in 1973. The IZA was founded a decade later by Zoroastrians from Iran.

ZAGNY and IZA work closely together and have co-run the last two Dar-e-Mehrs. The first New York Dar-e-Mehr, located in New Rochelle, was purchased in 1974 thanks to a donor from Iran and dedicated in 1977. Its successor, established in 2000, shared the same site as the new temple in Pomona, and was housed in a former Jewish community center. All incarnations of the temple, including its newest one, have been named after Arbab Rustam Guiv, a 20th century Zoroastrian community leader from Iran.

IZA president Shirin Kiamanesh explains that her association conducts a variety of religious and cultural events, many aimed at a diverse audience that includes non-Zoroastrian members of the Iranian diaspora.

“All of this has more meaning when celebrated in a venue that reflects a Zarthushti and Persian ambiance and creates a sense of belonging – hence having a Dar-e-Mehr that we could identify with is very significant,” she says.

The world Zoroastrian population is in steep decline. A 2012 study commissioned by Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America found that there are approximately fewer than 122,000 Zoroastrians in the world, about 13 percent fewer than in 2004. In India, where the Parsi community constitutes the world’s largest Zoroastrian population, there has been an estimated 10 percent decline in population every decade since 1940.

In 2012, UNESCO New Delhi established the UNESCO Preservation of Parsi Zoroastrian Heritage project, aimed at “recording and reviving interest in the Parsi Zoroastrian community in India,” and generating “awareness of this minuscule minority.”

Zoroastrians do not normally accept converts or seek them, and the community is divided over whether people of mixed descent can be considered fully Zoroastrian. Some members of the Indian Parsi community believe that only those born of a Zoroastrian father can be considered full members of the faith. This position is not derived from scripture, but represents a more recent development in Parsi history.

“The big, huge debate going on in the Zoroastrian community, in India particularly, is whether our religion will survive or not, in terms of numbers,” says ZAGNY president Astad Clubwala.

“My personal feeling is that it’s this next generation, it’s the youngsters of today, that will really determine that,” says Clubwala, who sees the new Dar-e-Mehr as a gift to the younger generation, which will help them to know their heritage.

Concerns about the inclusion of interfaith Zoroastrian families led ZAGNY to create the Zoroastrian Intermarried Group (ZIG) in 2003. It includes members of ZAGNY and IZA and their families. For some Zoroastrians this approach is about both openness and pragmatism.

“We recognize that when our kids fall in love it’s going to be with whoever that is, not necessarily a Zoroastrian,” says Clubwala.

Speaking of the demographic decline of the global Zoroastrian community, Wadia acknowledges the concern it represents. “People are always addressing it, it is a struggle,” he says.

Wadia says it’s important to distinguish between ethnicity and faith. “The religion itself will survive, and I think probably in the next decade it will thrive, I’m optimistic on that.”

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