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'This was 100% the UAE'

Abu Dhabi ruler went out of his way to ensure kosher food for Lapid delegation

Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed’s office insisted on preparing freshly made food for Israeli group’s visit, with delivery even getting a royal escort

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

The Kosher buffet provided by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed's office to the Israeli delegation in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
The Kosher buffet provided by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed's office to the Israeli delegation in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

When religious members of the Israeli delegation accompanying Foreign Minister Yair Lapid went to lunch in their Abu Dhabi hotel on Tuesday, they expected the same type of fare they usually receive at similar events.

It often consists of meals wrapped in plastic packaging that are far less appetizing than what their secular colleagues are enjoying.

But during Lapid’s historic two-day visit to the UAE, there was an extensive buffet of kosher salads, fish, chicken, meat, and desserts, all provided by an unlikely source — Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Mohamed bin Zayed, also known as MBZ.

According to UAE Rabbi Levi Duchman, the UAE’s Armed Forces Officers Club reached out to him at the direction of the Crown Prince’s office. They told the US-born Chabad rabbi that there was an Israeli delegation coming and they needed to prepare kosher food for it.

Duchman sent one of his mashgichim, or kashrut supervisors, to open the kitchen in the military club and to supervise the preparation of the food.

“This was 100% UAE who wanted to make sure that if there’s people that keep kosher on the trip, they should have the best standard of kosher food,” Duchman told The Times of Israel.

Most of the kosher food was locally sourced. The chickens were ritually slaughtered by Duchman’s brother Mendel, a shochet in the inland Emirati city Al-Ain.

The kosher buffet provided by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed’s office to the Israeli delegation in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021 (Lazar Berman/ Times of Israel)

Bin Zayed’s staff was so intent on providing the kosher fare that the truck transporting the food from the officers club to the hotel was accompanied by a convoy of jeeps, plus a mashgiach, from the Crown Prince’s office. They drove directly behind the truck, making sure no one tampered with the food.

This episode is typical of the way Emirati authorities approach Jewish ritual, said Duchman.

An Israeli tourist recently passed away in his sleep in a downtown Dubai hotel room. Police did not touch the body until Duchman and the Jewish burial society arrived, and authorities went out of their way to get the body back to Israel within 48 hours.

“The government showed tremendous respect to everyone involved in the ritual,” Duchman emphasized.

Rabbi Levi Duchman (R), Chabad rabbi in the UAE, and Zvi Kogan (L), who supervises kosher kitchens in the UAE, June 29, 2021 (Lazar Berman/ Times of Israel)

In addition, weddings performed by rabbis are automatically registered by UAE authorities as valid civil marriages as well.

One of the kitchens in the Armed Forces Officers Club, certified by Duchman’s Emirates Agency for Kosher Certification, became kosher right after the Abraham Accords in September 2020.

Days ahead of the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, local authorities in Abu Dhabi instructed all hotels in the city to prepare kosher food options.

In a written message sent to the managers of all hotels in the Emirati capital, its Department of Culture and Tourism cited its commitment to serve “all visitors and tourists in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.” Therefore, “all hotel establishments are advised to include kosher food options on room service menus and at all food and beverage outlets in their establishments.”

All hotels are asked to “seek kosher certification for handling kosher meals;” to “designate an area in all kitchens for kosher food preparation;” and to “label kosher menu items with a clear and visible label/reference with a recognizable symbol that denotes ‘kosher,’ as per acquired certification.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Chabad rabbi Levi Duchman install a mezuzah during the inauguration of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

The city has about 160 hotels and apartment hotels.

“Some hotels will build their own kitchen, while others will just use the training and use third-party caterers,” said Duchman, who runs sessions explaining the laws of Kashrut and how to handle kosher events.

Elli Kriel, who owns the UAE’s first kosher catering business, hailed Abu Dhabi’s decision.

“The UAE is already known for its excellent service and standards for food production and this will ensure that it is extended to kosher travelers,” she said.

Elli’s Kosher Kitchen, her Dubai-based business, was responsible for food served to Israeli journalists and some members of a joint US-Israel delegation to Abu Dhabi in 2020.

There are more than a dozen Emirati hotels with kosher kitchens, including famous five-star hotels like the Emirates Palace and St. Regis Saadiyat Island.

“They want to make sure that if a Jew comes and needs a special diet, it should be properly prepared in the best way possible,” said Duchman.

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