Mojgan “Moji” Pourmoradi, the new director of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, said she hopes to help bridge gaps in education about the atrocities against Jewish people during World War II. She believes that education is key to combating history’s cyclical tendency to tolerate antisemitism.
“I think that one of my jobs in life is to be a connector,” Pourmoradi said. “Teaching people, being part of their educational journey, is beautiful. So many of the volunteers here are children of survivors who honor their stories. For me to be a part of that, it’s an honor.”
The horrors of genocide in World War II aren’t an easy topic to discuss. Entire families and their communities vanished, many were forced to flee their homelands, and others were detained in concentration camps. Pourmoradi knows that as time marches forward, connections to the past fade away, and history often forgets valuable lessons for humanity, unless people advocate for education.
Although she has a career in education with the Great Neck school district and has experience as a community leader for the district’s Parent Teacher Organization, the Iranian-born 55-year-old said she remembers feeling like an outcast as a child, and struggled to balance culture, identify and community. Pourmoradi came to the United States when she was 5 months old, when her parents sensed a rise in antisemitism and the start of political upheaval in Iran. She spent most of her formative years in Brooklyn, and her parents were the sole connection to her cultural identity.
Pourmoradi remembers struggling to connect with her classmates when she was 6 years old. They had trouble pronouncing the combined J and G sound in Mojgan, and it was a constant reminder of their differences.
“It was so unusual to them, and I remember coming home crying and being like, ‘Mommy, I hate my name,’” Pourmoradi recalled. “We went to the principal to change my name, and the principal said, ‘We can call her Marjorie.’”
But Pourmoradi wasn’t fond of that name, either. She experimented with other Americanized names like Debbie. With her mother’s guidance, she decided on Moji.
At 16, her family moved to Great Neck, where there was an influx of Jewish-Iranians emigrating to the U.S. after the Iranian revolution of 1979. It included eight of her father’s siblings, who started new lives in the U.S.
“Until the revolution, I didn’t know that there were other Persian people besides my family,” Pourmoradi said. “Everybody thought that I was with the Persian people, but I didn’t have any Persian friends. I didn’t really connect with them, but I understood that my journey is to bridge both communities together.”
As a teenager, Pourmoradi watched as Jewish-Iranians realized they couldn’t go home. “They didn’t want us back,” she said of Iran. “… It’s a very sobering coming into adulthood, because you realize things can change, and homes aren’t forever.”
After finishing high school in Great Neck, Pourmoradi attended New York University, where she majored in psychology and Middle Eastern studies.
“It was my opportunity to learn about who I was,” she said. “It was more of a rediscovery of my culture, my heritage, and what it means to me.”
She earned a master’s in teaching English as a second language, which led her to schools in Manhattan’s Chinatown and Brooklyn. She eventually settled on teaching Jewish education to teens after school in Great Neck’s part-time while raising a family.
After 25 years, she became the Waxman Hebrew High School and Youth Houseschool’s first Persian PTO president, and then, six months before the pandemic began, she became president of the United Parent Teacher Council. She helped her own children navigate the world of distance learning while also facilitating communication among parents, teachers and school administration during an uncertain period in education.
Pourmoradi retired from the district in 2021, but was ready for a new chapter in her life to further her roles as an advocate for education, especially with the rise in antisemitism. She hopes the Holocaust center will eventually become one of Long Island’s top destinations for families and educators. She is currently working to fund an auditorium on the museum’s property to encourage tourism and guest speakers.
“What we’re watching right now is very frightening,” Pourmoradi said, referring to recent acts of vandalism at the museum. “You feel your stomach going up and down, you feel your heart beating faster. That’s literally what’s happening to the Jewish community: We’re holding our breath while our heart is beating faster, because we know something is coming, partly because we’ve been on roller coasters before.”