Dr. Alex Kharazi has possessed a servant’s heart for as long as he can remember.
Growing up in Tabriz, in northwest Iran, his mother cooked meals for an elderly woman in their neighborhood. Kharazi, just five years old, was responsible for delivering it. He recalls with great detail the way his neighbor’s face would light up with pure joy anytime she saw him coming.
“That smile... it just kind of stayed with me,” Kharazi said. “And so, as I grew up, I continued to find new ways that I could serve the community.”
After getting his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from University of California in Berkeley in 1981, he moved to New Jersey and then to Franklin in 1986.
“I learned a lot about diversity in my college years in Berkeley and one of the main reasons for choosing Franklin was its diversity.” Kharazi said.
Kharazi’s first priority was to find the ways in which he could help his neighbors; He started with education. In addition to being employed as a technology leader at Dow Chemicals - a role which he held for over 30 years before retiring - Kharazi joined the team that eventually won the community’s approval of plans and budgets for what is now Franklin High School. In 2007, Kharazi established Educational Excellence, a tutoring service, and also became an adjunct professor at both Rutgers University and Middlesex County College. Further, he earned his seat on the Board of Trustees of the Franklin Township Dr. Martin Luther King Community Foundation, which has awarded over $200,000 in scholarships to Franklin High School graduates since its conception.
During his time working closely with students, Kharazi noticed the Franklin Township community becoming more and more diverse; it was here that this Hometown Hero transitioned from being just a community servant to being a full-blown purveyor of peace.
Kharazi quickly joined - and completely revitalized - the Franklin Township Interfaith Council, soon becoming the group’s President.
“We have about 70 houses of worship in Franklin,” Kharazi said. “Any faith you want, you can find here. So, I felt that there was a need to bring these faith groups together.”
The group now holds regular meetings in various houses of worship around the community and works to promote dialogue and establish common ground among people of different faiths. Besides religion-based discussions, members participate in educational workshops such as drug prevention and mental health aid training.
Linda Powell, a community activist and Interfaith Council member, remembers the ways in which Kharazi welcomed her into this group unconditionally, even though she is “not a member of any particular faith group”.
“Alex does so much to promote communication, understanding, and unity, which these days is of utmost importance to our peace and survival,” Powell said. “I do not know anyone else who has done so much to promote unity in our diverse town. If more people around the world were like Dr. Kharazi, we would already have World Peace.”
Within his own Islamic faith community, Kharazi serves as the Director and Vice President of Masjid-e-Ali Mosque, the biggest Mosque in Franklin. In this role he has ensured that Masjid-e-Ali’s doors have remained wide open for all. Kharazi describes the religious institution as a “center that not only serves the Muslim community, but more importantly, serves the community at large.” In addition to its prayer services and future academic offerings, the Mosque currently provides a number of other resources to the community including free flu shots, an annual blood drive, regular food drives, and meal preparation for the homeless.
Kharazi recently established Masjid-e-Ali as an official voting place, extending additional voting access to Districts 14, 15, and 16 while simultaneously increasing voter registration in Franklin’s Muslim communities.
“Some of them felt that they didn't have a voice,” Kharazi, who also works closely with the NJ Muslim Voters Project, said. “But they saw that their religious leadership and others were coming forward and asking them to vote because voting is one of the most important responsibilities of any U.S. citizen. They said, ‘Hey, if our Mosque is going to be a polling station, there has got to be some importance about voting. So I'm going to go register and vote.’ ”
While fighting for civil liberties for Franklin’s residents, Kharazi opens pathways for more dialogue and understanding among them. Making the Mosque a polling place has worked to invite those of different faiths into an unfamiliar space, an initiative that Mayor Phil Kramer described as “a brilliant move”.
“People go in once or twice a year or once every four years, depending on their voting habits, and what was once this foreign thing now becomes familiar,” Kramer said. “Half of the problems in the world occur because we don't know our adversaries. If we knew them and were comfortable with them … we grow to like people and the barriers come down. That's what Alex is good at. He breaks down barriers.”
Kramer went on to describe Kharazi with a single word: disarming.
“If someone were to come up to him angry, they would very quickly quiet down to a calmer conversation,” Kramer said. “He just has that way about him … he really looks for the way to be calm and gentle and try to bring people together.”
At the sight of evidence of local Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hatred, Kharazi responded by expanding his bridge-building work to encompass the entire state. Alongside the President of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, Dr. M. Ali Chaudry, Kharazi co-founded the New Jersey Interfaith Coalition. The Coalition now exists as a network of over 150 houses of worship whose leaders work to “promote houses of worship, non-political organizations and individuals to work together to honor and enrich diverse faiths and ethical practices, oppose intolerance and hate, and foster a climate of positive mutual acceptance and appreciation for all, regardless of their faith, race, or sexual orientation”.
“If you get to know other people of other faiths, first of all, you find that you have so many things in common and also you will reduce or eliminate the discrimination, the hate, and the bigotry,” Kharazi said. “When you know your neighbor and your neighbor knows you, I think that really helps people to talk to each other and respect each other.”
Since its formation, the New Jersey Interfaith Council has been actively engaged in preventing hate from entering Franklin today and into the future. Together, Kharazi and Chaudry introduced the “Stand Up For The Other” pledge to Franklin Township’s leadership, including Dr. John Ravally, Franklin’s Superintendent of Schools.
The pledge, which is a personal commitment to speak up against instances of discrimination, hatred, or bigotry in public or private gatherings, was soon adapted by all 7000 Franklin Township public school students and faculty on Valentine’s Day of 2017; they were the first New Jersey school district to do so.
“The Stand for The Other pledge really calls on all of us to think about the 'other',’ Kramer said. “It forces us to put ourselves in the 'other' shoes and recognize that you have the obligation to protect other people.”
The commitment is now an official part of Franklin Township Public Schools’ anti-bullying program, something that Kramer views as one of Kharazi’s many long-term impacts on our community.
“Our goal all along has been to immunize our community from any acts of terrorism, acts of hate and so forth and to a greater extent, we've been able to promote the mutual respect and unity among our community members,” Kharazi said.
Kharazi is a true example of what this pledge actually looks like in action; he consistently stands up and speaks out when things go wrong.
In recent years, Kharazi has participated in 9/11 Commemorative events where he has spoken about understanding and combating terrorism. Further, he has worked alongside Franklin’s many faith leaders to organize over five community-wide vigils for national and international hate crimes and mass shootings. These vigils - each attended by hundreds of Franklin’s community members - have served as a space for community mourning and condemnation of hatred.
Perhaps most notably, each vigil was hosted by a different house of worship. Following the Charlottesville attacks, a vigil was held at St. Matthias Catholic Church; after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a vigil was held at Masjid-e-Ali, the community’s largest Muslim mosque; and most recently, after the mass shooting at the Christchurch in New Zealand, a vigil was held at Temple Beth El, which serves residents of Jewish faith.
Kharazi explained that the choice to host these vigils in diverse spaces of worship was deliberately done to show that the community cared about each other across religious beliefs.
“We want people to know that our goal is to make Franklin a place that everybody feels safe and comfortable to live in, and that it's a place of choice for anybody who wants to settle here,” he said.
His work in facilitating the peaceful use of sacred spaces and building relationships across differences leaves his acquaintances rather starstruck.
“There are many people from our community who have been really active and done a lot of good things, but Alex just kind of shines because he's just into everything,” Powell said. “I've never really seen him say no to anything. I don't know how he does it all, but he does, and does it well.”
Powell’s statement is far from an exaggeration. In addition to the work mentioned, Kharazi has also been involved with a number of other community groups, including the Franklin Township Homeowners’ Association, the Human Rights Commission, the Franklin Township Planning Board, the Franklin Food Bank, the Raritan Valley Habitat for Humanity, among others. It came as no surprise that Kharazi’s seemingly ubiquitous community presence earned him the honor of being named The Franklin Reporter and Advocate’s 2016 Man of the Year.
“I don’t consider myself to be a Hometown Hero,” Kharazi humbly said upon discovering that he was nominated for this series. “I’m just a servant doing my best to give back to the community that I’ve called home for over 32 years.”
So what’s next for the man who seemingly does it all?
Kharazi hinted at a possible run for Township Council in the coming years, as it would give him “a better chance to impact the lives of many other people”.
“I'm very much interested in impacting the lives of those that are not as well off as some others, and those that maybe their voices usually are not heard,” Kharazi said. “I think if I am one day elected or given the opportunity to serve as a Councilman, I will have additional positive impact in the lives of our community and make a Franklin Township even a better place for our community members.”
But for the time being, Kharazi will continue serving the community and finding common ground with just about everyone in town.
“I love this community,” Kharazi said. “I feel very comfortable to talk to anybody and be a friend with anybody. I strive to be friends with people and I find that people here are receptive to being a friend with you. I feel blessed to be in a place that you can truly feel is your home.”