Mr. Shamsian’s Shiviti Gift

Torah ark curtain commemorates JDC’s tenure in Iran

JDC’s work spans globally with offices in numerous countries around the world. For those touched by “the Joint,” the name is not easily forgotten. On occasion, JDC is even presented with tokens of gratitude for its work. Such is the case with a Torah ark covering, inscribed with Jewish emblems and Biblical references, whose epitaph reads “From the young Shmuel Avraham Shamsian, from Tehran…presented to the office of ‘the Joint’ in America 5736 [c. 1975].” This inscription identifies the artist of the textile as a Mr. Shamsian, from Iran. The addition of “the Young” to his name, is a common moniker for Iranian men in their 20s and 30s. Though we do not have more information about Mr. Shamsian’s connection to the Joint, his interactions with the organization no doubt left a strong impression owing to the meaningful gift he bestowed upon the organization.

This item is called a “Shiviti” in Hebrew, due to the psalm inscribed on the canvas. Shiviti is the first word in the Hebrew text of Psalm 16:8 meaning “I have placed.” The complete verse reads “I have placed the Lord always before me.” Additionally Psalm 67 is arranged into a representation of the ancient temple’s seven branched menorah; the colorful lettering flanked by two Jewish Stars in the right and left hand columns. Shiviti amulets, plaques, and textiles have long been made by Jewish communities around the world, and are used for meditation over G-d’s name. Though traditionally a religious relic, the item still resonates with the work of the Joint, as the inscribed psalm conjures up the concept of thinking outside one’s personal sphere. Just as Jews attempt to enter a certain frame of mind while in prayer, the Joint strives to work in 70 countries worldwide, alleviating hunger and hardship, building Jewish life, and providing relief for victims of natural and man-made disasters.

One such country where JDC was active during the last century was Iran. The design of this Shiviti is reminiscent of plaques and amulets from Iran, not surprising, given that Mr. Shamsian hails from the country. Jews inhabited Iran dating back nearly 2,700 years and have a rich artistic history there, Persian ceremonial and ritual objects having been heavily influenced by their surroundings. JDC began work in Iran in the 1950s, opening a large network of kindergartens and underwrote educational and social development programs there, particularly for children from needy families. JDC staff developed extensive training programs to prepare teachers in modern early childhood education methods. View images of JDC’s work with refugees in Iran from 1949-1952, by exploring our photo gallery of photographs taken by Stanley Abramovitch, JDC’s Country Director for Iran during that period.

In the 1970s, JDC also funded social, educational, and medical programs in Iran, enabling 19,000 students to attend Jewish schools in the Alliance Israelite Universelle, Ozar Hatorah, and ORT systems. These schools and kindergartens were also serviced by JDC-funded feeding programs that supported impoverished Jewish students. JDC care also included day care, cash allowances to families, aid to university students, clothing distribution, a training school for nurses attached to the Jewish hospital, a youth center, a school health program, and a Jewish hospital in Tehran that assisted 3,700 individuals each month.

Given that JDC operations ended in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah, this Shiviti marks the decades of service of the Joint in Iran. In Islamic culture, textiles define space, designating time and place. Time can be fleeting, but this tangible tribute to the Joint, by an Iranian artist, means that the Joint’s devoted efforts will not be forgotten.

Discover the other treasures of the JDC Archives Artifacts and Ephemera Collection by browsing our online exhibit showcasing items from the collection.