In 1978, as the revolution that overthrew the shah of Iran was beginning, Chabad-Lubavitch Ḥasidim launched Operation Exodus, in which they brought hundreds of Persian Jewish children to their enclave in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Dovid Margolin explains how this came about:
This unlikely story of rescue began the late 1970s, when an Italian-born Chabad yeshiva student named Hertzel Illulian was studying in New York. His parents were successful Persian Jewish immigrants . . . and he had grown up in comfort in Milan. [As a teenager], Illulian became more religious and eventually came to New York to study at the Lubavitch yeshiva there. . . . Illulian dreamed of traveling to his ancestral homeland, Iran, to try to [missionize to the Jewish community there]. Iran was safe; he spoke Farsi—it was a good match. In . . . the summer of 1978, Illulian [met with] Sholem-Ber Hecht, then the rabbi of the Sephardic Jewish Congregation in Queens [and] broached the idea of their going to Iran together. Hecht was intrigued. . . .
The details were then worked out, and both Illulian and Hecht raised the funds needed to cover the trip. “Our original intention was to establish a liaison with the community there, and then to see if it made sense to send an official emissary there,” says Hecht. They landed in Tehran on a calm day in August of 1978. Revolutions and refugees were the last thing on their minds. . . .
While Hecht and Illulian had come to what was still a stable Iran, street demonstrations against the shah had already begun. . . . Hecht recalls sitting in the home of the Tehran rabbi Netanel Ben-Haim after Shabbat had ended and seeing the television screen flash images of street demonstrations turned violent. The sudden violence frightened the Jewish community. Whereas the Chabad rabbis had hoped perhaps to meet a handful of Jewish boys who would be interested in coming to America to study in yeshiva, by the second week of their trip Iranian parents began approaching them about the possibility of sending their children with them. . . . In October, during the intermediary days of the holiday of Sukkot, Illulian returned to Tehran alone, this time armed with I-20 visa applications.
Illulian and the network of Chabad rabbis with whom he was working were soon inundated with requests from worried Jewish parents, as revolutionary violence intensified and the revolutionaries adopted increasingly anti-Semitic rhetoric. The result was that by 1981, some 1,800 young Persian Jews had been settled in the U.S under Chabad auspices. Although when they left their homes they expected to return as soon as the upheaval subsided, it soon became clear that their relocations would be permanent.