Jewish life thrives in the United Arab Emirates

With hundreds of Jewish residents and hundreds of thousands of international visitors this year, the United Arab Emirates is now home to the “largest small Jewish community in the world.” In the following honeymoon year the agreements of Abraham, this community has rapidly grown from a simple point of curiosity to a new center of gravity for the global Jewish community. Throughout history, whenever Jews have migrated to a new country, we have had to choose between assimilating ourselves into the culture of the host country or separating ourselves from it altogether. In our case, however, there is a third possibility: acculturation.

Acculturation differs from assimilation in that the migrant population retains the elements of its identity while adapting to a new local environment. It creates a dialogue between the host and host cultures, creating a mixture of the “host” heritage with that of the local population. It is a true partner of the host population, and a real trust. Acculturation is never a one-way street since it also implies an adaptation on the part of the host culture. Directing cultural exchange traffic requires careful reading of signs and road signs.

Our story in the United Arab Emirates has been the story of adapting together with the local Emirati people. Since 2008, Jewish families have gathered in a private Dubai villa for Shabbat, holidays, and life cycle events. Following the UAE government’s announcement to name 2019 as the Year of Tolerance, the Jewish community has gone public, taking its place among the many religious communities living in the Emirates. In February of the same year, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, revealed his intention to build a large interfaith complex called “the Abrahamic Family House”, which will include a mosque, church and a synagogue, as a unique symbol of coexistence in the Middle East. The new UAE Ministry of Tolerance has released a book titled “Celebrating Tolerance,” highlighting the diverse landscape of the UAE, including a chapter on the Jewish community. We read the signposts: Religious tolerance is a sine qua non of being an Emirati, a synagogue doesn’t need to be a hidden structure, and Jews don’t need to be invisible.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan pose from the Truman Balcony at the White House after having participated in the signing of the Abrahamic Agreements.

At this point, the process of acculturation is fast at work. It happens through food, where “Kosherati” cuisine is attempted, discussed and examined in the media. This involves professional associations and joint ventures, youth meetings and social networks, Hebrew lessons for Arabs and Arabic lessons for Jews. Once considered a novelty, it is common to see Emiratis at Jewish holidays or cultural events and vice versa, regardless of the orthodoxy of the celebration.

Jewish geography flourished from its original home at the Dubai Villa to regular Shabbat services in the Downtown, Marina, and Palm neighborhoods. Kosher restaurants dot the city, ranging from falafel on the beach to fine dining at 5-star hotels. A secular Jewish preschool has opened. A permanent Holocaust exhibit, the first in the region, is now on display at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum. It tells the stories of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, unknown to many Arabs, and the stories of Arabs who saved Jews, unknown to many Jews.

The acculturation model has influenced not only the landscape of the UAE, but also our practice. In 2019, the year of tolerance, we dedicated a specially designed Torah scroll to His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the United Arab Emirates. We presented this Torah scroll to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the first time that a Torah scroll has been given to an Arab ruler. Other recently completed scrolls bear inscriptions in Arabic and dedications to Emirati friends. When we pray for the welfare of the state, we pray for the success of an Arab army.

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Obviously, much of what is created by acculturation is of intense interest to the Jewish community around the world. Over the past year, members of our community have spoken through Zoom to hundreds of organizations, reaching tens of thousands of their members around the world. Over the next eight months, we coordinate with nearly 40 delegations from the US, UK and Europe. As we speak with them, it is clear that one of their priorities is to understand how Jewish life is prospering in this Arab country.

Looking ahead, three major steps will strengthen our conviction that we are on the right track. First, several exhibits with Jewish content will be shown at the Dubai World Expo in October. Second, the opening of the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, slated for late 2022, will be a powerful symbol for the region and the world. And third, over the next few years, Jewish educational institutions will be founded with programs reflecting our unique historical positioning. These will include an adult learning center and a Jewish primary school.

Building the first new Jewish community to be established in the Arab world in over a century, Jews in the United Arab Emirates carry the hopes of Jews around the world for a historic reconciliation between Muslims and Jews. These aspirations are rooted in our practice, in our prayer, in the local culture and the physical landscape. Of course, we have to keep reading all the signs and traffic signs. For now, the light is green.

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates.

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna is the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates.

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