Diario Judío México - Through an article I read about the history of a Jewish community that begins, decades after the dissolution of all the communities of the Arab countries (Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, among others). This congregation is in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), specifically, in Dubai, the city that is making noise worldwide because of its many facets of wealth, technology, tourism, magnanimity and economic growth.
A place where large companies have arrived, and where branches of the best brands of clothing, cars, jewelry, watches, and other luxury items have been installed. In its streets you can see buildings of great architects, each with a more avant-garde and extravagant design. Therefore, it is a place where businessmen and their families have arrived.
The UAE is a country where 85% of the inhabitants correspond to expatriates and only 15% are Emirati. In this sense, multiple Jews have visited the country to work or vacation. Although, the entry of Israelis is not allowed (at least until the moment I write these lines), in special cases special permits have been granted for them, so there is a certain presence of Israelis in the UAE (many of them with another nationality in addition to the Israeli). And by the way, in 2020 Dubai will host EXPO 2020, and Israel is already a guest country. And in a political context, there have already been some meetings of ministers of both nations.
A few months ago, my uncle, Rabbi Elie Abadie, who lives in New York, told me that he was invited to Dubai by this newly formed Jewish community to bring them a Sefer Torah.
The first question I asked him was if he wasn’t afraid to go. I also asked him how he hid his Jewish identity, what he ate during his stay, if he brought kasher food with him … He told me that it was a sui generis community, that there was no reason to be afraid, that the rite of the community was orthodox, and that services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur had been performed in the so-called “Villa” (I will explain later what the Villa is).
It is worth mentioning that this 2019 has been proclaimed “Year of Tolerance” by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, current President of the UAE. This as an effort to promote the country as a global destination with stability and coexistence. The reaction of the population and the authorities to the issue of religious diversity has been very well received and cared for.
Through my uncle, I got in touch with the President of the Jewish Community of the Emirates, Ross Kriel, with whom I made a good friendship. He answered some questions for a possible trip. Could you get wine, bread and food for Shabbat? Would it be possible to participate in a minián for prayers? Despite my doubts and my natural fears, I was very curious to know the place.
So, finding the place to spend Shabbat in Dubai was the first challenge.
Ross referred me to his wife’s Company (Elli’s Kosher Kitchen), which offers banquet services and prepared kasher food in the UAE. It is worth mentioning that it is the first Jewish company legally constituted in the emirates, launched to offer special services for the Jewish population that lives and / or visits the country.
After processing all the preparations for shabat, we managed to make the trip Jacobo Mizrahi Penhos, our wives and me. While there, I wanted to locate the community headquarter, which fortunately was no more than ten minutes walk from our hotel.
On Friday afternoon, we arrived at the newly assembled synagogue. We were greeted with love by the people who were there, who welcomed us. A few minutes later Ross arrived, my host, impeccably dressed for Shabbat: suit, shirt and a nice hat. While we were talking, the minián got together.
Then came Alex, a Jew from Antwerp, Belgium. Son of Holocaust survivors, Alex studied in a yeshiva of the Hasidic line, and ended up dedicating himself to diamonds, so life led him to live in Dubai. Once there, he was, along with Ross, one of those who started this community.
They told us that the first idea was simple, that even knowing that there were more Jews living in Dubai but that not everyone was identifiable for obvious reasons, what they were going to do was that they were going to meet on Shabbat to pray even if in individual prayer they would pray together and that way they were going to invite travelers or friends who were getting to know each Shabbat to be part of the group in formation.
Once Friday’s Shabbat prayer was over, Ross invited us to dinner at his house with his family and friends. We walked about five minutes to his home, and he and his wife received us incredibly, as if they had known us for a lifetime. We spent an unforgettable night, talked and shared data of the Jewish Community of Mexico. They told us that we were the first Mexican Jews they had seen there.
Ross told us that he was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. I told him that, because of my work at The Shabbos Project, I knew and had a very close relationship with Rabbi Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa and founder of that project. It turns out that Rab. Goldstein had married Ross and his wife, and they had attended the same synagogue when they were still living there.
But the most interesting thing was what Ross told us about how the Jewish community of Dubai was formed, and what it is like to live in the UAE.
As I mentioned, the community began as an informal group of acquaintances, Jews who for one reason or another were living and working there. They began to gather together to pray on Shabbat, until they managed to set up a physical space for a small synagogue.
As for the political aspects of living in the UAE, they explained that in themselves, the land of the seven emirates that make up the country is governed by ruling families (under the scheme of a constitutional monarchy).
On the other hand, since Islam is the official religion, the law that prevails in the UAE (together with civil law) is sharia (Islamic law). This means that any matter concerning issues of religion other than Islamic, should be addressed with great attention, both in logistical terms, as well as operational and security (coupled with the high degree of control that exists in the UAE with respect to security).
The newly formed community was able to occupy a property which they called the “Villa”, and the consent to operate as representatives of the Jewish religion in Dubai. Several years ago they obtained authorization to import a Sefer Torah and to perform Jewish rites in the city. Now their community is accepted and warmly supported among many communities within the framework of the “Year of Tolerance” mentioned above.
Regarding the internal functioning of the community, its leaders, with great intelligence, reached a series of agreements to give rise to Jews of different origins and degrees of religiosity, creating an environment in which everyone can live together and feel comfortable. I mention some of them:
Prayers are done in an orthodox way, with a separation between men and women. The rite itself is a mixture of customs, combining the Ashkenazi and Sephardic order (and always aloud as we do the Sephardic people). Alex prepares the perashá reading each week (which reads Ashkenazi style). Typically Ross will say some words of Torah followed by a shabbat lunch.
All food is made kasher. Thanks to the professional knowledge of a woman from the community called Tina, she is an expert in operations, so she began to analyze the issue of kasher food, looking at the restrictions and supplies necessary for the preparation of kasher food. Everything is done right there, fresh. They do import products from other countries (particularly wine and meat), but given the logistical complications of importation, they do so only for special occasions. In general terms, their diet has been resolved by returning to the basics, so to speak, solving the root problem.
The Villa is divided into several spaces: the synagogue, the dining room, and a family living space. In the upper part they have bedrooms for visitors who are staying away from the Villa, and who need to be nearby during Shabbat or parties. (Although in reality these are hardly used, since being the Villa in the Jumeirah hotel zone, there are enough rooms to accommodate crowds.)
Everyone actively participates, thereby reinforcing the spirit of community. The security of the Villa is handled discreetly, for obvious reasons. Normally the Villa’s data is shared by word of mouth between contacts and privately.
Recently they have hired a Chief Rabbi who is based in New York (Rabbi Yehuda Sarna). He will be officially in charge of Jewish representation in the UAE. Other Jewish groups have had initiatives to settle in Dubai (such as Chabad), but the Jewish Community of the Emirates is the only group that the authorities have recognized as representing the Jewish religion in the country.
This Villa allows Jews from all over the world who live in Dubai, or who visit the city, to live together in a Jewish environment in this Arab country. In fact, one of the guests at Ross’s dinner is an Israeli lawyer who has visited Dubai for about twenty years; He told us that until recently, he had not been able to spend a Shabbat in the place. Today there are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Orthodox, secular, South African, French, English, American, etc. Jews who have found a formula of coexistence with tolerance and respect, to revive a Judaism that is carried in the blood but not until recently You could live in that place.
Today, on a typical Shabbat in Dubai there may be at least thirty people praying. There is also a minián on the days that the Sefer Torah is read and on the holidays. In fact, in the last Major Festivities prayers were held with about 180 people. The population is mostly of young families.
We live a unique Shabbat. I can say that the most beautiful thing was to see the brotherhood that is lived among Jews who, even being in a distant and remote country, without knowing each other embrace. The feeling of feeling like family, finding people in common, the concern and friendship that is established with people who receive you at home without even knowing you …
It is one more reason to be proud of the great honor and privilege of being Jewish. I invite all people to, when traveling to any city in the world, seek to live a Shabbat with local communities.
Thus, fraternity ties are achieved, living unique experiences, proudly demonstrating our creed and origin, confirming Tehilim’s phrase that says: “Hine ma tov u ma naím, shebet ajim gam yajad”… “How good and how pleasant it is see the brothers sitting together. ”
Autumn Magazine 2019 / Monte Sinai