RAMAPO, N.Y. — Drive along Pomona Road in Ramapo, and you'll find the new home for followers of one of the world's oldest religions. The gleaming square building with an impressive colonnaded portico is the Dar-e-Mehr Zoroastrian Temple, or DMZT. It is the meeting place and sanctuary for some 1,000 followers of Zoroastrian faith from across the tri-state area. Zoroastrianism is believed to be one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions, dating back some 4,000 years to Persia, modern-day Iran. Before there were Christians and Muslims and Jews, there were Zarathushtis, as its followers are called, after their prophet Zarathustra. Scholars believe the Magi who came to honor the baby Jesus in Bethlehem were Zoroastrian priests from Persia.
The religion's watchwords are "good thoughts, good deeds, good words," and the followers employ fire as a symbol of their belief. The altar holds a huge "kebla" or fire vessel in which wood burns during services. Before entering the prayer room, visitors remove their shoes and cover their heads. Priests cover their faces with cloth to keep the fire pure. This new temple's single roof shelters two branches of Zoroastrians: those from Iran, under the Iranian Zoroastrian Association; and those from India and Pakistan, under the Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York. About 1,400 years ago, when Persia was invaded by Muslims, some Zarathushtis fled to India, where their faith took root. They are called Parsis, while those who stayed in Persia are called Iranian Zoroastrians. Today, there are fewer than 200,000 Zarathushtis worldwide, and their numbers are shrinking, making the shining new temple — which was opened with a ribbon-cutting on March 26, at the start of Nowruz, the Persian new year — a beacon of optimism and hope in the next generation.
The $4.5 million temple and community center was built on the site of the former temple, which had been a synagogue before it was purchased in 2001. "Dar-e-Mehr," sometimes seen as "Darbe-Mehr," translates to “Door of Peace” or "Door of Justice." In a statement, Shirin Khosravi, president of the Iranian Zoroastrian Association, said: “This is a monumental achievement for the Zarathushti communities of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut to be able to see the day that they have been dreaming about, and contributing their time, their work, and their funds towards.” The new building is officially the Arbab Rustam Guiv Dar-e-Mehr. Iranian benefactor Arbab Rustam Guiv purchased the first such temple in North America, in New Rochelle, in 1977. Neither that building, nor the synagogue that was purchased in 2001 and converted to a Dar-e-Mehr, had architectural features that were consistent with Zoroastrianism. Temples are traditionally square, and have lots of natural light, evoking the religion's link to nature. When Zarathushtis pray — to their god, Ahura Mazda — it is often outside, and fire is nearby. Temples are used for special occasions or services of thanksgiving, called "jashan." The March 26 opening was a jashan, presided by a high priest from India, with 30 priests taking part. When she lived in Manhattan, Marzie Jafari used to travel to New Rochelle to be with other Zarathushtis. She moved to New City in 1996 and still made the trip to New Rochelle. The DMZT's 2001 move to Pomona made the drive much easier. As she walked visitors through the building, Jafari said the new temple is a reason to celebrate, and to find more opportunities to gather. "Now that we have a magnificent center, I think there will be more events and more visitors on a regular basis," she said. Jafari, who is on the board of the Iranian Zoroastrian Association, is also one of a half-dozen trustees for the Dar-e-Mehr, helping to oversee its finances and upkeep. "It's always important to have your community center, your temple, in the place where you live," Jafari said. "This is a temple similar to what there is in Iran. It's like having home inside home." Although the Parsi and Iranian cultures and communities may be different, Jafari said, when worshipers come to the Dar-e-Mehr, "it's the same prayers in the same language, the same concept."
The vast meeting room means they won't have to rent out the Greek church for parties anymore, and they can hold more banquet-style events, like the March 26 grand opening, which saw the community's children take to the stage to talk enthusiastically about prominent Zarathushtis, including scholars, thinkers and even Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the band Queen. Architect Dinyar Wadia said he was inspired by ancient Persian and Zoroastrian architecture of the fire temples of India and Iran. His plan was to evoke the architectural style of Persepolis, the ancient Zoroastrian city and heritage site. The building has four classrooms, three meeting rooms, a library, a traditional prayer hall, chef’s kitchen, recreation room and a main hall that can accommodate up to 400 guests. The fire vessel in the prayer room is based on the 250-year-old prototype found at a historic temple in Mumbai, India. Astad J. Clubwala, ZAGNY president, takes the long view of the new temple. “This will be the legacy of our generation," he said, "and can be seen as a gift from the generation that was born in our homelands of India, Iran and Pakistan to the generation of Zoroastrians born in North America.” --- --- ...